Mission Memorial Day 2016: Josh Jespersen summits Denali to remember fallen vets

In April, we caught up with Navy SEAL Joshua Jespersen to talk about Mission Memorial Day (MMD), is his initiative to bring meaning back to the holiday through an annual trip to Denali. There he and his team travel with flags adorned with the names of fallen soldiers to commemorate their service and bravery.

In 2015, he successfully celebrated those who served and lost their lives, but did not make it to Denali’s summit due to weather and health complications within his team. This past May, however, he and his teammate and MMD co-founder Margaux Mange summited with flags in hand.

We caught up with Jespersen to talk about his 2016 ascent, his successes on the mountain and how MMD is growing in strength and numbers across the U.S. Here is what Jespersen had to say.

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Jespersen and Mange on the summit of Denali. [Photo] Courtesy Josh Jespersen

Backcountry Magazine: How did Mission Memorial Day 2016 go?

Josh Jespersen: The trip was unbelievable. It went off without a hitch. Last year, we were up there for 20 days and we only got to 18,000 feet. This year, we summited in 13 days. We hit perfect weather windows and there were no health issues. You get up there early and it is all blue ice around 14 camp, and while we were doing our summit push it was snowing. So the big line that I was trying to ski—the Orient—it got a ton of snow. It never got in prime shape to go to the top of the line—there were wind slabs all over it—but I got to ski two thirds of it, which was great. The Orient is skiable something like two days a year, a very small window, so it was wonderful to be able to do that.

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Jespersen jumps off a serac above 14 Camp. [Photo] Courtesy Josh Jespersen

BCM: Did you have anyone new on your trip or was it the same group as last year?

JJ: There were actually fewer people. Just Margaux Mange and I were able to go. But we had six subsidiary climbs happen, which was incredible. We had a guy climb Mt. Whitney and bring a flag with names with him. A guy climbed Kings Peak in Utah, a guy climbed Guadalupe Peak in Texas, there were a group of guys who climbed Mt. Diablo in California. Another guy climbed and skied Granite Peak in Montana. It was awesome. People were like, “Wow, we really love what you guys are doing and I want to help out.”

I already have a bunch of people reaching out, saying, “Hey, next year, I would really like to plan to climb and ski a peak in the Wind Rivers.” It’s wonderful to see that support growing.

Josh Jespersen journals about his experiences climbing Denali for MMD.

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While en route, Jespersen journaled about his daily mountain experiences.

BCM: So what was it like being up on Denali again?

JJ: I love going up there. All the legwork we do, all the logistics, planning, food buying, gear prep, that’s the hard part. For me, once you get on the mountain, that’s the fun part. You just climb and ski and haul big loads, wait out storms and play cards, eat good food and drink whiskey.

BCM: What are your expectations for the growth of Mission Memorial Day in years to come?

JJ: I absolutely do think it is going to grow. Last year, it was me, Margaux Mange, Brian McPherson and Nick Colgin saying, “Hey, let’s climb Denali.” We were able to pull it together in a couple of months and collect a ton of names. Through the summer we work other jobs; we work with wounded vets and so we didn’t have time to work on it during this past summer. Planning was a fall/winter thing. We were able to raise enough money again to pay for the expedition; we were able to get a bunch more names for the flags.

There is one flag that has Navy SEALs on it who have died since 9/11 and we are hoping to get it into an auction at a Navy SEAL Foundation event, especially because we were able to get the flags to the top of Denali this year. So, hopefully that will raise some money for us and raise awareness.

A ridge view on Denali with the MMD team.

A ridge view on Denali with the MMD team. [Photo] Courtesy Josh Jespersen

BCM: What did the support for your mission look like among other climbers on Denali?

JJ: Last year, there were a few people that had heard about us and sought us out at camp to submit names. This year, there were a ton of people who were like, “Hey! We were hoping to run into you guys.” We collected about 50 names while we were on the mountain.

Also, among the broader outdoor industry, we have seen some interest as well. Weston Snowboards gave me a 10th Mountain Division tribute snowboard to take with me on the mountain. It helped tie together both aspects of my trip: the main goal of taking back Memorial Day by giving me a board that was made to remember the 10th Mountain Division legacy in Colorado, and also a rocket ship of a snowboard to help me obtain my own objectives.

Jespersen and Mange unfurl the flags.

To find out more about Mission Memorial Day, visit www.missionmemorialday.com.

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