THE GRIND: North Forsyth's Chad Bureau
WEST FORSYTH -- A West Forsyth High School graduate has set himself up with a packed schedule for the next couple of years.
Graduate from West Point — he checked that box Saturday. Get married — that will happen in June. Begin his service in the U.S. Army. Be the first active Army soldier to climb Mount Everest.
Harold Earls isn’t just climbing to the top of the world to say he’s done so. His April 2016 expedition is an effort to raise awareness of and funds for soldiers struggling with mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder.
“We created U.S. Expeditions and Explorations as a nonprofit, and we’re just doing the first expedition,” said the 2011 West Forsyth graduate. “The goal is to use small teams of soldiers and allow them to go on these expeditions to get back that sense of commodore and help them deal with their struggles and continue to serve their country, because these expeditions are focused around furthering American exploration and causes.”
Earls, who played baseball for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before graduating and being commissioned as a second lieutenant Saturday, said when he came up with the idea seven months ago, he did not receive a lot of support.
“I asked my professors what they thought of it, and most of them probably thought I was crazy. No one gave me a shot in the world,” he said.
That didn’t stop him.
Nor did the fact that he describes himself as a novice climber.
“I’ve hiked all of Georgia and North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail with my father,” he said.
So he accumulated a four-person team of active or veteran Army soldiers, including climbing experts, and is hoping to recruit a woman for the fifth climbing spot.
“I’ve never really been scared of failure, so I figured I’ve give it a shot,” Earls said. “The whole team feels the same way, and it feels amazing to be doing this with them.”
Earls co-founded the nonprofit, nicknamed USX, with Capt. Matt Hickey, who will serve as the expedition team leader. Hickey, who graduated from West Point in 2009 and is an artillery officer by trade, recently led a team of soldiers to the top of Mount McKinley in Alaska, North America’s tallest peak.
Earls also recruited Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett, a retired combat engineer who served for 29 years, including seven combat deployments. He mentored Earls throughout his college career at West Point, Earls said.
The fourth member is Chad Jukes. In 2006, while serving as the lead gun truck commander on a supply convoy in northern Iraq, his vehicle struck an IED. His right leg was amputated below the knee.
Since then, Jukes has become an avid adventurer who lives in Colorado and has climbed tall peaks throughout the world.
“They’ve all had their own struggles, so it makes [the expedition] more meaningful,” Earls said. “It makes it real.”
The team will practice for Mount Everest (29,029 feet) in August by climbing Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) in Washington. That will happen shortly after Earls marries his fiancé Rachel.
“She’s a champ,” he said. “We’ll be together six months out of this next year.”
After the big climb is over, they’ll relocate to Fort Stewart, where Earls has been stationed.
Though all climbers are either active soldiers or veterans, they are not officially sponsored by the U.S. Army.
They hope to raise $300,000 for the trek, which would give them enough left over to jumpstart USX – they’re accepting donations at usx.vet.
And the nonprofit is what the climb is really about — helping others.
The recent earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000 people in April and triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed at least 19 people has only reinforced that effort.
“We would like to help some people in Nepal while we’re out there. Maybe rebuild a home or help some families,” Earls said. “At the end of the day, it’s so what that I’m climbing Everest? So what that this is the first time active duty Army soldiers have?
“What’s important is why. I’m going to get the most happiness not from climbing it. Yeah, it will feel amazing. But the idea that, wow, we actually had an impact on our soldiers and hopefully can make a small difference.”