Remembering the fallen atop Gold Star Peak

Elizabeth Howe
August 27, 2018 - 4:32 pm

Photo courtesy of Gold Star Peak, Inc.

The story of Gold Star Peak, Inc. begins with Kirk Alkire’s love of Alaskan mountains.

“I was in the Army for just about 23 years, and I spent a significant amount of my career in Alaska with the airborne unit that’s stationed just near Anchorage,” said Alkire, founder of Gold Star Peak, Inc. “We’re surrounded on one side by the Chugach Mountains — it’s a fabulous place to getaway within just minutes and be completely disconnected but be connected with the outdoors.”

One such Alaskan mountain frequented by Alkire was Mount POW/MIA just north of Anchorage.

“It honors our prisoners of war that are missing in action — our hundreds of thousands that still have that status,” Alkire said. “I found myself climbing there frequently. It’s not an easy climb, but it’s very rewarding when you think about the reason why we do climb it.”

During his last deployment in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, that reason became much more poignant. Using stolen uniforms and vehicles, enemy insurgents were able to access a facility in Karbala, Iraq that was being guarded by Alkire’s soldiers.

“When they got inside, they instantly killed one of my soldiers. They took another four hostage and fled. We began to search for them, and at some point they realized we were closing in. They took my soldiers out of the vehicle and executed each of them before taking off the stolen uniforms and disappearing for good,” Alkire said.

Returning to Alaska, Alkire continued to climb the Alaskan mountains, but found himself spending more and more time atop Mount POW/MIA.

“Coming back to Alaska, that mountain that I had loved to climb for so many years had a completely different meaning for me. It was now very personal for the soldiers I had lost,” Alkire said.

During one of these many climbs, Alkire had the idea to name a nearby peak for the Gold Star families left behind by not only the soldiers he knew personally, but so many others as well. Peaks near Mount POW/MIA stood unnamed, and Alkire believed the close proximity would allow the two peaks to be connected just as the two statuses — POW/MIA and Gold Star — are.

“My thoughts were that Gold Stars and POWs are connected,” Alkire explained. “I wanted the two peaks to be near each other because they are so very connected in meaning. I found a peak right next to Mount POW/MIA and I began the process to name Gold Star Peak.”

That process is not a simple one, but this past February, Alkire flew from Alaska to D.C. to witness the final vote at the Department of the Interior that officially named Gold Star Peak.

Soon after successfully naming the peak, Alkire found that others wanted to join him on his climbs.

“People started asking if they could come,” Alkire said. “They wanted to take part in it, but they needed help getting there. I started taking veterans and Gold Star families, and it turned into so much more than just the process of naming it, which was a challenging process all on its own.”

What it turned into was Gold Star Peaks, Inc. Founded in May, the nonprofit has now taken more than 100 veterans and Gold Star family members on 20 different climbs. All together, those climbs are equivalent to 80,000 vertical feet of climbing.

Photo courtesy of Gold Star Peak, Inc.

The climb itself is certainly not an easy stroll. Categorized as a moderate to difficult climb, in the short approximate 1.75 mile distance, the terrain gains 3,000 feet of elevation. That’s a 33 percent elevation grade. With the wide range of individuals that join Gold Star Peaks, Inc. for the climb, it can take anywhere from four hours to 12. Additionally, Alkire explained that the individuals he takes on these climbs are carrying a lot of extra weight.

“It’s incredible because every Gold Star survivor we’ve taken up that mount is carrying a rucksack overflowing with emotion, grief for maybe one lost loved one or maybe multiple lost soldiers.”

Even with the weight of such tremendous loss, every veteran and Gold Star family member that has started the climb with Gold Star Peak, Inc. has reached the summit. Alkire and his team have helped climbers as young as seven and as old as 70 complete the challenge and achieve more than just a difficult climb.

“Our overall mission is to bring veterans and survivors together in nature to remember and honor the fallen and bring healing to all,” Alkire said. “It’s tough to explain what happens up there. We’re by no means doctors or medically qualified people or therapists, but we don’t need any of that. Taking our field experience along with enormous amounts of loss that we have all shared, we’ve become a really good outlet for the survivors that we’ve taken on these trips up the mountain.”

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