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West Valley City Journal

Veteran honored with climbing and awareness event

Jun 29, 2018 03:58PM ● By Keyra Kristoffersen

Matt McFarland, local Army veteran, was an avid climber and outdoorsman who wanted to help others suffering when they returned home from service. (Kelly Otteson)

By Keyra Kristoffersen | [email protected] 

Many soldiers who return home have found help and healing through physical activity. To that end, Michael Cumming started Operation Climb On. On June 2, the group held a climbing event at Petzl (2929 Decker Lake Drive) in West Valley City to honor Matt McFarland, a local veteran who lost his battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2016. 

“I found that climbing with a couple other vets helped ground me and helped me get through everything,” said Cumming who spent four years in the Marine Corps and 11 in the Army doing tours all over the United States and twice in Iraq. “I thought maybe if it works for me, it would work for others.” 

Cumming’s own trouble with PTSD when he returned was a dark time. As he worked on his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, he decided to focus his work on helping other veterans with reintegration and finding camaraderie outside of the military through his nonprofit. In 2013, with Micah Van Wagoner and Nick Musso, the group began their first climb with 12 participants. 

With donations from Petzl, Black Diamond and Liberty Mountain, Operation Climb On has been able to take out dozens of veterans for short climbing trips along the Wasatch Front and a once a year adventure to southern Utah for a few days. 

“It’s just get them outdoors with other veterans and get their minds off everything else in the world,” said Cumming. 

In November 2016, 26-year-old Matt McFarland who had served in the Army for five years in Germany and Afghanistan, took his own life after struggling with depression and PTSD. McFarland had been actively involved in sports through high school and when he came home, got involved in rock climbing. 

“It brought him a lot of peace,” said Kelly Otteson, McFarland’s sister. “He was really excited being outside and climbing with some of his friends, and he was really enjoying it right before he died.” 

After McFarland’s death, his family sought organizations to help and make donations in his honor. After some searching, they found Operation Climb On, an experience that Otteson said gave her goosebumps because it seemed like the perfect pairing. 

“It felt really like something that Matt would have supported wholeheartedly,” said Otteson. “I wish he would have known about the program; it would have helped Matt in a lot of ways.” 

Otteson believes part of the problem for many veterans is that mental health isn’t discussed enough, particularly after traumatic events such as the one McFarland went through with a suicide bomber. If he’d had more of a group of friends around him who understood, it would have helped a lot. With that in mind, Cumming organized the climbing event not just as a fun, free activity open to the public but gathered many different veteran service organizations. He hoped to ensure that those who came, whether veterans or those who know them, could gain access to health services, state and federal benefits and learn about other groups such Team River Runner, which take veterans on whitewater rafting trips, and Team Rubicon, which assists in disaster relief. 

“They can get all that information right here at this event,” Cumming said. “It's a one-stop-shop for local resources.” 

Climbing gear and the indoor climbing wall were provided by Petzl, and more than 100 people came out to try climbing and meet other veterans and their families. 

“We want to make contact, get in touch with people who might not have otherwise,” Cumming said. “If climbing is not their interest maybe they'll find another group that connects with them. This is strictly because we don't want to lose other vet.” 

Otteson said she and her family will continue to support the group, believing that had McFarland known about it, he would have found a place where he belonged and could help others just like him. 

“We want to see them succeed,” said Otteson. “Even if we find one guy that needs it, that's going to make all the difference for us.” 

For more information on Operation Climb On, visit: