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Marine has been through worse than an avalanche

  • From left: Andy Politz, Keith Zeier and J.P. Politz hike towards  Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013. An avalanche triggered as the team neared the top of Central gully swept the three climbers down the ravine around 4:30 that afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    From left: Andy Politz, Keith Zeier and J.P. Politz hike towards Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013. An avalanche triggered as the team neared the top of Central gully swept the three climbers down the ravine around 4:30 that afternoon.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Members of the Ascent of Honor team, including, from left: Andy Politz, Keith Zeier, Thom Pollard and J.P. Politz, make their way through the boulders at the base of Huntington ravine on Mount Washington around 10:00 am, Thursday, January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Members of the Ascent of Honor team, including, from left: Andy Politz, Keith Zeier, Thom Pollard and J.P. Politz, make their way through the boulders at the base of Huntington ravine on Mount Washington around 10:00 am, Thursday, January 17, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Chris Lanka (left) and Eldon Hallows help Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY adjust hs backpack at the Poinkham Notch visitors before the team began their hike to the harvard cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Chris Lanka (left) and Eldon Hallows help Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY adjust hs backpack at the Poinkham Notch visitors before the team began their hike to the harvard cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Using headlamps for light, Ascent of Honor team members Hans Aschinger, Keith Zeier and Eldon Hallows wash dishes following dinner at the Harvard cabin on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Using headlamps for light, Ascent of Honor team members Hans Aschinger, Keith Zeier and Eldon Hallows wash dishes following dinner at the Harvard cabin on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Andy Politz uses a radio to check in with the Mount Washington Observatory at the rescue cache at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013. After an avalanche swept Politz, his son, J.P. Politz and Keith Zeier to the base of the ravine later that day, rescue personnel found the three near this spot.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Andy Politz uses a radio to check in with the Mount Washington Observatory at the rescue cache at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013. After an avalanche swept Politz, his son, J.P. Politz and Keith Zeier to the base of the ravine later that day, rescue personnel found the three near this spot.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Wind-blown snow coats equipment carried by Hans Aschingeras the Ascent of Honor team make their way up Huntington ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Wind-blown snow coats equipment carried by Hans Aschingeras the Ascent of Honor team make their way up Huntington ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Film-maker Thom Pollard looks up through blowing snow after shooting some video of the Ascent of Honor team ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Film-maker Thom Pollard looks up through blowing snow after shooting some video of the Ascent of Honor team ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY hikes up the Tuckerman ravine trail on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013. Zeier used a prosthetic with a crampon attached for the hike and climb up Huntington ravine.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY hikes up the Tuckerman ravine trail on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013. Zeier used a prosthetic with a crampon attached for the hike and climb up Huntington ravine.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Ascent of Honor team member Chris Lanka (right) sits at a table in North Conway's Stairway Cafe as television crews interview other members of the climbing team; Friday, January 18, 2013. On Thursday afternoon an avalanche in Huntington ravine's Central gully swept three climbers, including Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY down Mount Washington. Three climbers were hospitalizes and the other nine members of the team met for breakfast in North Conway Friday morning.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Ascent of Honor team member Chris Lanka (right) sits at a table in North Conway's Stairway Cafe as television crews interview other members of the climbing team; Friday, January 18, 2013. On Thursday afternoon an avalanche in Huntington ravine's Central gully swept three climbers, including Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY down Mount Washington. Three climbers were hospitalizes and the other nine members of the team met for breakfast in North Conway Friday morning.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY (center) and other climbers ascend Mount Washington's Huntington ravine around 10:30 am as they approach the base of Central Gully; Thursday, January 17, 2013. A slab avalanche triggered near the top of the gully around 4:30 pm swept several of the climbers down the ravine, hospitalizing Zeier, team leader Andy Politz and Politz's son, J.P.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY (center) and other climbers ascend Mount Washington's Huntington ravine around 10:30 am as they approach the base of Central Gully; Thursday, January 17, 2013. A slab avalanche triggered near the top of the gully around 4:30 pm swept several of the climbers down the ravine, hospitalizing Zeier, team leader Andy Politz and Politz's son, J.P.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Team leader Andy Politz (center) Scot Blanchard (left) and Keith Zeier (second from right) listen to the weather report at the Harvard Cabin on Mount Washington as they plan their ascent of  Huntington Ravine; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The team was caught in an avalanche as they neared the top of Central Gully on Thursday afternoon that hospitalized Poliz, Zeier and Politz's son, J.P.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Team leader Andy Politz (center) Scot Blanchard (left) and Keith Zeier (second from right) listen to the weather report at the Harvard Cabin on Mount Washington as they plan their ascent of Huntington Ravine; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The team was caught in an avalanche as they neared the top of Central Gully on Thursday afternoon that hospitalized Poliz, Zeier and Politz's son, J.P.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Chris Lanka (left) and Eldon Hallows help Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY adjust hs backpack at the Poinkham Notch visitors before the team began their hike to the harvard cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

    Chris Lanka (left) and Eldon Hallows help Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY adjust hs backpack at the Poinkham Notch visitors before the team began their hike to the harvard cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.

    ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • From left: Andy Politz, Keith Zeier and J.P. Politz hike towards  Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013. An avalanche triggered as the team neared the top of Central gully swept the three climbers down the ravine around 4:30 that afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Members of the Ascent of Honor team, including, from left: Andy Politz, Keith Zeier, Thom Pollard and J.P. Politz, make their way through the boulders at the base of Huntington ravine on Mount Washington around 10:00 am, Thursday, January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Chris Lanka (left) and Eldon Hallows help Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY adjust hs backpack at the Poinkham Notch visitors before the team began their hike to the harvard cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Using headlamps for light, Ascent of Honor team members Hans Aschinger, Keith Zeier and Eldon Hallows wash dishes following dinner at the Harvard cabin on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Andy Politz uses a radio to check in with the Mount Washington Observatory at the rescue cache at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013. After an avalanche swept Politz, his son, J.P. Politz and Keith Zeier to the base of the ravine later that day, rescue personnel found the three near this spot.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Ascent of Honor team leader Andy Politz stops to get a view as blowing snow obscures visibility as the group ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Wind-blown snow coats equipment carried by Hans Aschingeras the Ascent of Honor team make their way up Huntington ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Film-maker Thom Pollard looks up through blowing snow after shooting some video of the Ascent of Honor team ascends Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Thursday, January 17, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY hikes up the Tuckerman ravine trail on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013. Zeier used a prosthetic with a crampon attached for the hike and climb up Huntington ravine.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Ascent of Honor team member Chris Lanka (right) sits at a table in North Conway's Stairway Cafe as television crews interview other members of the climbing team; Friday, January 18, 2013. On Thursday afternoon an avalanche in Huntington ravine's Central gully swept three climbers, including Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY down Mount Washington. Three climbers were hospitalizes and the other nine members of the team met for breakfast in North Conway Friday morning.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Harvard cabin caretaker Rich Palatino updates the avalanche advisory board for Huntington ravine outside the cabin around 7:00am; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The gullies towards the center of Huntington ravine were at "Moderate" risk of avalanche danger on Wednesday and remained moderate in Thursday's forecast. Wind-blown snow caused conditions to exceed the forecast and an avalanche in Central gully swept out from under 12 climbers, injuring three around 4:30 in the afternoon.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY (center) and other climbers ascend Mount Washington's Huntington ravine around 10:30 am as they approach the base of Central Gully; Thursday, January 17, 2013. A slab avalanche triggered near the top of the gully around 4:30 pm swept several of the climbers down the ravine, hospitalizing Zeier, team leader Andy Politz and Politz's son, J.P.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Team leader Andy Politz (center) Scot Blanchard (left) and Keith Zeier (second from right) listen to the weather report at the Harvard Cabin on Mount Washington as they plan their ascent of  Huntington Ravine; Thursday, January 17, 2013. The team was caught in an avalanche as they neared the top of Central Gully on Thursday afternoon that hospitalized Poliz, Zeier and Politz's son, J.P.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
  • Chris Lanka (left) and Eldon Hallows help Keith Zeier of Brooklyn, NY adjust hs backpack at the Poinkham Notch visitors before the team began their hike to the harvard cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington; Wednesday, January 16, 2013.<br/><br/>ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

Andy Politz and Keith Zeier met by chance last summer, when they were paired for a tough, 20-hour climb on Mount Ranier in Washington.

Politz, 53, had been climbing mountains for 40 years, Everest included. Zeier, a 26-year-old Marine veteran, was making his first climb and doing it on a prosthesis in place of the left leg he lost to a war injury.

Each one came off that mountain changed by the other, they said in interviews earlier this week, before both were injured in an avalanche Thursday on Mount Washington. Months after that first climb, the two started Ascents of Honor, a charity to raise awareness about war injuries and money for the families of wounded veterans.

As their first event, Politz and Zeier planned a January climb up Mount Washington, home of the world’s worst weather, to bring attention to their cause. They convinced Thom Pollard, a Jackson filmmaker Politz has known for years, to climb with them, bringing his camera to document the expedition.

“I never wanted to get out of the military,” said Zeier on Tuesday, after a morning of snowboarding on Wildcat Mountain. He had no choice in 2006, when a bomb blasted the Humvee he was in, severing a main artery in his leg. Zeier said Tuesday that the survivor’s guilt he’d carried for years began lifting as he put more energy into the charity and training for the Mount Washington climb.

“You fight for something so hard to be where you want to be, and in an instant it’s over,” Zeier said Tuesday. “This has given me a renewed sense of purpose. There are so many similarities (between climbing) and the military. You work with small teams. The weather could change. You could be in a difficult situation. You have to think on your feet and tap into your reserves. That’s what attracted me to climbing.”

Difficult situation

As anyone following the news knows, the weather did change, and Zeier, Politz and their 10 climbing companions did get into a difficult situation when the avalanche sent them tumbling down Huntington Ravine.

Politz broke his leg and remains hospitalized in Lebanon. Zeier hurt his back and shoulder and remains hospitalized in Berlin. Neither could be reached after the avalanche, but the friends climbing with them said both are in good spirits and no less determined to resume their work with Ascents of Honor.

After all, Zeier has been through worse.

He was a 17-year-old high school student living with his mother in New York when terrorists attacked the city on Sept. 11, 2001. Zeier was a strong athlete with good grades, and he’d planned to graduate early to play soccer professionally in Holland.

Zeier changed plans when he learned his best friend’s father, a man who’d been a father figure to him, had been killed responding to the World Trade Center. He graduated early and enlisted in the Marines. His mother had to sign his papers because at 17, Zeier needed her permission.

Six years into his service, Zeier suffered the leg injury and brain damage when an IED hit his Humvee in Fallajuh, Iraq. He returned home to New York with both legs but a prediction from doctors that he’d always need a cane to walk. Instead, Zeier dedicated himself to intense physical training, and in May 2009, he ran a 100-mile marathon in Florida, raising more than $100,000 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

Zeier’s leg pain worsened, and in 2010 he eventually agreed to let surgeons remove it, just below the hip. As soon as he was able, he resumed his physical training and two years later, traveled to Washington to hike Mount Rainier for the Special Operation Warrior Foundation.

Politz, of Columbus, Ohio, made the trip, too, because a climbing friend was one of the organizers. The two met when Politz and Zeier were paired for the climb. Zeier was roped to Politz, a common practice in rugged, steep terrain. Politz said Tuesday that he often has to push his climbing crews on with encouragement and orders to “get moving.”

Zeier didn’t need pushing or pulling. “Keith drives hard enough,” Politz said. “Right off the bat, I caught the quality of the guy and the character.” When they finished, Zeier hadn’t dropped his pack or taken a drink of water before he told Politz he’d “fallen in love with the mountain” and wanted to climb again.

They did, in New York over the summer, with Politz traveling from Ohio. A shared love of climbing led to Ascents of Honor.

Engaging with veterans

Zeier knows his war injury is impossible not to see. He worries about returning veterans who have invisible, emotional injuries that don’t get immediate attention. He and Politz decided they would use Ascents of Honor not just to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation but also to bring awareness to post-traumatic stress disorder.

And through example, they want to encourage other Americans to engage with returning veterans, through climbing or another shared interest.

“This is one of the biggest things I want to get across,” Zeier said Tuesday, “how an everyday person can have an impact and change the life of a veteran. Andy did that for me. And he said I’ve had an impact on him.”

Zeier had never been to New Hampshire when he arrived last week for the climb. He knew the Mount Washington ascent would be challenging. That’s why he and Politz, who’s made the climb before, chose it.

“My personality is that I see something and I want to do it 100 percent,” Zeier said. “I just enjoy every day. I was given a second chance at life. Not many people are given that second chance, and I want to make the most of it.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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