Mission Memorial Day: Taking remembrance to the mountains

In early March, Associate Editor Lucy Higgins spent four days touring and skiing in the Beartooth Mountains with the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program for an upcoming story. Also on the trip was Josh Jespersen, a splitboarder and Navy SEAL and, now, one of the founders of Mission Memorial Day (MMD).

Jespersen’s project works to restore meaning to Memorial Day through annual trips to Denali, where mountaineers and veterans carry flags inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers, in honor of those who have served and lost their lives,. For veterans, Jespersen hopes that this offers an active and healthy form of remembrance, and for the broader population, he hopes that it will give Memorial Day definition beyond mattress sales and barbecues.

The idea for MMD stemmed from Jespersen’s deeply personal experiences. “It was time to rewrite the script on how my boys would be remembered,” says Jespersen. “Instead of drowning my sorrows, I started going outdoors on these days and crushing myself. On an anniversary when 17 brothers from my very small tribe were killed, I hiked 17 miles roundtrip with my snowboard on my back to shred a glacier with 2,000 feet of 45 degree pitch. On another anniversary of my best friend getting killed, I hiked 19 miles round trip to free solo an 11 pitch 5.7 climb up an incredibly aesthetic peak. Those days morphed from dingy bar rooms and bad whiskey, to the salt from dried sweat and doing something rad to remember.”

From there, and with co-founders Margaux Mange, Brian McPherson and Nick Colgin, Mission Memorial Day began.

We caught up with Jespersen from his current location in the Persian Gulf en route to Dubai to talk splitboarding, mountaineering and his upcoming plans for Denali.

The goal of Mission Memorial Day is to honor the fallen, serve the community and help remember.

The goal of Mission Memorial Day is to honor the fallen, serve the community and help remember.

BCM: Why did you all start Mission Memorial Day?

JJ: There is something so unbelievably surreal about a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. I have attended too many of these, and every time they make your soul shudder. All the teammates wearing dress uniforms, the firing party, the folded flag being handed off to the spouse, the green grass manicured to perfection, the radiant warmth of the sun hitting your skin and the realization that the person being buried did not die peacefully. All of us that started MMD are combat vets, and every one of us shipped overseas with friends who didn’t come back.

Memorial Day has become a deluge of what to buy, what to wear, where to get it on sale. We wondered, “What is this day even about anymore?”

We have collectively forgotten the point. It’s strictly about the names that adorn war monuments. Our brothers and sisters who can’t enjoy these luxuries we can get for sale on May 31. That is why we started it, because we had to take the day back to its true meaning. We wanted to know that the boxes we saw lowered into the ground at Arlington were not empty.


Josh Jesperson and Brian McPherson at their high point on Denali last year. They stopped before heading back down to take one last picture with the flags.

BCM: What is the importance of Denali in this event?

JJ: To us, it has to be big, burly and audacious. Not just to fulfill our own pursuits, but to honor these heroes in an epic fashion. Denali is the top of North America, the apex of our continent. To truly do the names on our flag justice, and to show them their sacrifice will never be in vain, we have to push ourselves to the limit and get those flags to a point that is far from easy to attain. If we don’t set our sights high and have our actions speak loudly, it will be hard for people to tune out the mattress sales, spring fashion shows and so on. To really get recognition for what we want to achieve, we have to make a big statement, and Denali is our soapbox.

BCM: What is your background as a snowboarder and a climber?

JJ: It’s kind of a typical “Ice Coast” come up. I started skiing when I was three, and I have this vivid memory from my first lesson at Tussey Mountain, outside of State College. The instructor had us lined up, and I accidentally drifted off and totally center punched it [the slope] with no idea how to stop. I was going so fast that I shot across the base area and crashed into a bunch of bushes. I thought it was the coolest thing and never stopped trying to go as fast as I could, like Ricky Bobby, which carried over when I started snowboarding 14 years ago.

[During] my last deployment to Afghanistan, I was surrounded by dream lines that had me drooling, and I resolved that when I got back [to the U.S.] I was moving to Colorado. My first full season there I worked as a snowmaker, so I could score free passes and managed to hit 15 out of the 25 or so resorts. I was livin’ the dream. I rode 24 months in a row, seeking out some glaciers for desperation turns in August and September.

Climbing though, I didn’t start until I was living in San Diego 10 years ago. My first outdoor experience was at the greasy cliffs near Mission Valley, and then I really got a taste for it in Joshua Tree. We took training trips all over the country while I was in the military, and I always had a rope and rack with me, trying to drag my buds along. Over time, rock climbing turned into alpine climbing, and your forays get really special when you’re able to combine snowboarding and climbing.

The others [In MMD] did not grow up with ski booties, however, and that made for a scene coming down the mountain. Skiing with a 60-pound pack and a loaded sled is no easy task, and even though I tried to teach Nick and Brian how to ski, they got pretty sick of eating it. So they ended up riding their sleds down instead of skiing, which was actually a ton of fun, too. Margaux just laughed at all of us, since she had no sled.

BCM: As a backcountry skier, what routes do you hope to explore?

JJ: I have dreamed of riding the Orient Express [a Denali backcountry descent] for a couple years. I was drooling sitting at 14K camp looking up at it, but I was the expedition leader and the only one interested in doing anything like that. I would have been skiing these massive lines by myself.

This year, if the conditions are right, I will be on top looking down. The line is 5,000 feet and starts at an elevation of 19,200 feet. When the face hasn’t seen snow in a while, it shapes up more like a moderate ice climb and has some crevasses and a bergshrund to keep you totally honest at the bottom.

Another big line is the Messner Couloir, the classic Denali ski descent. Not really a couloir, but a narrow ski run with rocky outcrops lining the sides and an hourglass choke. Like the Orient, the Messner is also a massive 5,000-foot descent. But even if these two lines aren’t possible, there is heaps of fun to be had sliding on snow. There is never any shortage of down time waiting out weather windows on Denali at places like 11K camp, so I will probably be building a banked slalom this year.


The MMD crew heads up “Ski Hill” with Denali in the background and the West Buttress trending left from the summit.

BCM: What has been your experience as the expedition leader for MMD on Denali?

JJ: First off, I was so humbled when my teammates wholly entrusted me with their well being by allowing me to be their expedition leader. They put their faith in my logistical capabilities, my decision-making in adverse terrain and conditions, and ultimately, my ability to tip our scale for success. Yes, there are rangers and hundreds of people on Denali, but there is no mercy. You need to be self sufficient, and ill-prepared attempts are doomed.

If you get into a situation with bad weather, no one is coming for you. While there is an uncanny amount of similarities between mountaineering and the military—like being hyper aware of your surroundings, living with minimal amenities and following certain people into uncertain outcomes—I was still cutting my teeth as an expedition leader. We didn’t get things wrong, though.

Brian and I made a quick video at our highpoint last year, which ended up being aired on CNN, but it expressed the deep emotions I had leaving Denali last year. I was overwhelmed by how far our message spread and threw my entire being at getting our flags to the summit…but the mountain and circumstance told us no.

It was our last chance for a summit bid, as one of our teammate’s condition was deteriorating quickly. But our descent back down to 14K camp was so peaceful, as if everything was right. After we got all the way back to basecamp to get our teammate off the mountain, I reflected and thought about my decisions. I felt no regret and looked at my team, safe and sound. I knew all my mentors in the mountains and the military would be proud in that moment. Our message touched thousands, and we didn’t add our names to the flag.

Mission Memorial Day from Backcountry Magazine on Vimeo.

BCM: What do you hope participants will get out of this experience?

JJ: There are a few ways that we want to engage people to participate. One way is to log on to our website and submit a name or encourage other people to submit names—almost every American knows somebody that didn’t make it home, and by people submitting those names for us to put on our flags we are able to make a strong emotional connection. We also are trying to motivate people to reject what Memorial Day has become. Americans have July 4th and the rest of summer for BBQs and amusement parks. We also challenge people to mimic our form of tribute. Get a flag, or get a picture of a loved one, and on Memorial Day carry it, but carry it far, and/or carry it high. Make it count, make yourself sweat, reflect, and make it truly mean something.


14K camp looking towards “Windy Corner.”

BCM: What are you looking forward to this year?

JJ: I am frothing for this year. The days cannot possibly go any slower in my anticipation of stepping foot back on the Kahiltna. The main objective is to summit with our flags, but this year we do have some secondary objectives. We want to get the flags up the mountain, but we also want to up the ante and carry them up a more challenging route. Acclimatizing, and, hopefully, summiting on the West Buttress will be first, then we are going to descend to 7,800 feet and head up the Northeast Fork of the Kahilta. This is a complex and broken-up glacier that will lead us up an exposed, narrow gorge to the base of the West Rib. This route goes up Denali’s south face and is much more challenging than the Butt. It’s a beautiful 9,000 foot climb up a ridge that’s rated Alaska Grade IV and much more committing. Climbing this thing alpine style will be a huge accomplishment for us, and icing on the cake. Lastly, I have a couple snowboarding objectives of my own that I am daydreaming about.

BCM: Is there anyone in particular that you are honoring this year?

JJ: Yea, there always is. There must be with all the energy I put into this project, right? Closest to my heart will always be my best friend Adam. We were platoon mates and went through training together. We owned a house together, and we were brothers. He embodied the characteristics of what I wanted to be when I grew up. He had the older, more experienced guys looking up to him as a younger, new guy. That was someone who deserved to live a fruitful life, and he lived everyday like it was his last—until it really was his last. The burden falls on me to continue his trend, and MMD is something I think he would be proud of.

BCM: What’s next for Mission Memorial Day?

JJ: We have cooked up a ton of ideas for the next step while lying in tents for hours, and we have big plans for what to do on Memorial Day, as there are plenty of other peaks and poles to plant our flags on. However, we don’t want to celebrate Memorial Day just on the last Monday in May, we want to celebrate it every month. We hope to get to a point where we can gather as many people as will follow us and summit something or show up at a war monument and decorate it with wreaths. No matter where we go on Memorial Day, we also want to inspire as many people to go on their own adventures on Memorial Day. If we can get to a point where [we are] funding multiple expeditions to fly flags on different mountains on different continents, then we are where we want to be.


Basecamp photo with the MMD crew last year.

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

Related posts:

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.