High Ground is a gripping portrayal of 11 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who join an expedition to climb the 20,000-foot Himalayan Mount Lobuche.
With blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer and a team of Everest summiters as their guides, they set out on an emotional and gripping climb to reach the top in an attempt to heal the emotional and physical wounds of the longest war in U.S. history.
Representing nearly every branch of the military, the veterans, and the Gold Star Mother who joins their trek, bring humor and deep emotion to this hero’s journey all captured with breathtaking, vertigo-inducing cinematography by three-time Emmy winner, director Michael Brown.
Their poignant story unfolds in unexpected ways as the team makes their way high into the Himalayan Mountains, through the villages of Nepal, over raging rivers and up terrifying steep terrain risking everything for a chance at the summit.
The film allows veterans to tell their stories in their own way and in their own words, revealing the emotional and mental scars sustained by those who have survived the horrors of war. The mountain itself is a metaphor for one of the basic concepts to military action – the high ground is the safest, most defensible place with the greatest perspective.
The film chronicles a showcase expedition called “Soldiers to the Summit” bringing together war veterans with world recognized mountain climbers to demonstrate what could be achieved by climbing a Himalayan giant – an unexpected step towards healing.
In October 2010, 10 years after Weihenmayer made his historic ascent of Everest, the same team of mountain guides who assisted him reunited to lead a group of warriors on a climb that was all about shattering barriers and misperceptions. With the help of World T.E.A.M. Sports, a veterans support organization, they created an expedition to Nepal for 11 combat veterans suffering from physical and emotional injuries sustained during service in Iraq and Afghanistan. These soldiers, representing all four branches of the military, set out to climb the 20,075 peak of Lobuche East, just 8.7 miles from Mount Everest. The expedition, known as “Soldiers to the Summit” proved yet again that returning vets can overcome any challenge.
Emmy winning director Michael Brown, who filmed Weihenmayer’s historic summit 10 years earlier, joined the group to film this daunting climb. What followed was a year of interviews and editing that revealed the true story of the soldiers. difficult road to recovery as they faced a return to civilian life.
After days of trekking in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, the climbing route started from Lobuche High Camp with steep rock, and transitioned to snow and ice for the final 2,000 feet.
To ensure they summited in the best conditions, the team started climbing shortly after midnight and on Oct. 14, 2010, the team reached the summit of Lobuche. The physical and emotional issues of war proved too much for some of the team. However, in an astonishing finish, some of the most challenged soldiers summoned incredible courage to reach the summit. The resulting story and footage was an unimaginable climax to the top.
Cold and altitude were the two environmental factors that presented the biggest challenges.
Filmmakers charged batteries at teahouses along the trek, which was an expensive process that required cash only payments in Nepalese currency to pay for electricity. Having had experience on previous expeditions for the IMAX films Return to Everest, and The Alps, director Brown and his crew understood that fascinating story lines often formulate from base camp. More than 75 hours of footage returned to the editing room in Boulder, Colo., where editor Scott McElroy began assembling bits of story. In early 2011, Brown and producer Don Hahn met for non-stop days to assemble the storyline.
“Over those two days, we established the structure of the film and the journey of the climbers from their homes in America to the exotic and dangerous slopes of the Himalaya,” said Brown.
“The concept that emerged was to reveal the characters in the film like peeling back layers of an onion,” added producer Don Hahn. “By the time they reached base camp on Lobuche, we would understand their plight as returning vets, and then watch their healing process as they set out to summit.”
Composer Chris Bacon joined the project in the summer of 2011. His scores for films like Source Code inspired Don and Michael to ask him to join the project. “We wanted the music to underline the journey, and asked Chris to start with very conventional American guitars and instrumentation,” said Don, “and then as the journey progressed, let the music become more exotic and spiritual to reflect the inward journey of the soldiers.”
“Sometimes in the process of composing for a film I see the individual scenes so many times that writing the music can become a technical exercise, with the repetition numbing a film’s emotional effect on me,” shared Bacon. “Upon viewing the finished version of High Ground, however, I was stunned at its emotional impact, and the tremendous pride I felt towards the men and women featured in the film and what they have sacrificed and accomplished.”
The featured veterans are:
Spec. Steve Baskis, U.S. Army, of Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Cpl. Chad Butrick, U.S. Army, of Arvada, Colo.
Spec. Ashley Crandall, Army National Guard, of Glen Burnie, Md.
Capt. Aaron “Ike” Isaacson, Army National Guard, of Topeka, Kansas, and Yerevan, Armenia
SSgt. Chad Jukes, U.S. Army, of Ridgway, Colo.
PO2 Nicolette “Nico” Maroulis, U.S. Navy, of Austin, Texas
SSgt. Cody Miranda, U.S. Marine Corps, of Lorton, Va.
SSgt. Justin Moore, Army National Guard, of Modesto, Calif.
SFC Mitt Nyman, U.S. Army, of Denver, Colo.
SSgt. Katherine “Rizzo” Ragazzino, U.S. Marine Corps, of San Diego, Calif.
SSgt. Dan Sidles, U.S. Marine Corps, of Boulder, Colo.
Lona Parten, Gold and Blue Star Mother of 1st Lt. Tyler E. Parten, U.S. Army, of Jonesboro, Ark.