Pursuit & Peril: The Steve Watkins story

Scotty Smith / KTUU
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) Editors note: This story was originally published on March 2, 2016

It's March 2014, the temperature outside is well below zero, and Steve Watkins is standing on the frozen Yukon River in Ruby, Alaska cheering on mushers as they make their way towards the burled arch in Nome.

As a reporter covering the Iditarod, meeting interesting people along the trail from Anchorage to Nome is common, but few people have the ability to leave a lasting impression like Steve Watkins, a man in pursuit of a dream to touch lives and inspire.

Watkins, a Kansas native, grew up wanting an exciting life and after 39 years, it hasn't disappointed. He graduated from West Point and MIT, served as an Army Ranger and Paratrooper and was assigned to Fort Richardson in Alaska. He decided to extend his military service to volunteer for an active duty deployment to FOB Solerno in Khost, Afghanistan.

After retiring from the military nearly a decade ago, he has served as a contractor in conflict environments.

"Part of it was my lifelong pursuit of something exciting and meaningful," said Watkins. "I was also an extrovert and really was fulfilled by meeting and knowing a lot of different types of people, relating to them, and I think I was in search of maybe, maybe myself?"

Watkins is currently a project manager overseeing nearly 300 people throughout Afghanistan. His team is tasked with gathering information for the country's Ministry of Defense.

"I'm trying to not need to take risks to feel alive," Watkins said. "I'm trying to scale back into normalcy. It's not easy because it's so intoxicating. That's one of my challenges, it's a very personal and very private challenge."

In 2013, Watkins sustained severe injuries on the the battlefields of Afghanistan that left him 90 percent disabled. While he won't talk about his injuries, upon returning home, recovering from surgery and suffering from PTSD, Watkins decided to move forward in an aggressive way, searching for something greater than himself, a chance to heal and, perhaps most importantly, inspire his fellow veterans and their families.

"I'd like to inspire veterans, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder, to overcome their challenges by undertaking physically rigorous and audacious endeavors," said Watkins.

That challenge is what led him to the banks of the frozen Yukon River in 2014. He was driving a snowmachine along the famed Iditarod trail, as he prepared mentally to compete in the Last Great Race the following year.

"The Iditarod is a great combination of all the things I enjoy," Watkins said. "It's a historic physical challenge. It's the Arctic environment, dogs. I love it."

Despite a lack of experience, in 2015, rookie musher Steve Watkins did in fact compete in the Iditarod.

"I made promises to the survivors of deceased veterans," said Watkins. "I couldn't… I wouldn't know how to quit. I made promises to people who meant the world to me, so I was going to do whatever it took."

He finished the thousand mile trek from Anchorage to Nome in 12 days and 10 hours, earning a finisher's belt buckle. But for Steve, simply finishing one of the toughest races in the world wasn't enough. He had his sights on the world's tallest mountain as well. If completed, Watkins would become the first person to complete the Iditarod and climb Mount Everest in the same year.

About a week after crossing under the burled arch in Nome, Steve was on a plane to Nepal.

"Everest is just incredible," Watkins said. "It reminded me of a large multi-national force base in Afghanistan. You've got all sorts of nationalities and all sorts of colors and sights and sounds. The trip from Base Camp to Camp One is unbelievable. This Khumbu Ice Falls, this jumbled ice. You're on a moving glacier at 17,500 feet elevating up to 19,600, and you're going through some of the most treacherous and dangerous terrain I've ever seen. Not some of… The most dangerous that I've ever seen."

Although Steve had visualized the summit many times before, standing on top of the world's tallest peak accompanied by his Iditarod finishers belt buckle, the mission dream would unfortunately never come to fruition. Roughly one month after his Everest journey began, on April 25, Watkins and members of his expedition were acclimatizing at camp one when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 9,000 people.

Up on the mountain, Watkins recalls his thoughts as he watched an avalanche sent from the top of the world barrel towards him and his fellow climbers, gaining size and speed as it approached.

"I looked around for a way out. I'm looking for something to get behind. Something. There's just nothing," said Watkins. "So, it became in my mind and heart just obvious that this might, this would likely be the last moment of my life. I thought of my friends who have died in war, and I said… 'I'll see you soon. I'm coming now.'"

Watkins dropped to his knees, waiting for the avalanche to wash over him.

"I thought so many thoughts in that moment as this tidal wave of death was coming at me. I thought what a wonderful life. What a wonderful life I've had," Watkins said. "I don't know what I did to deserve such a great life, but I had a great one."

With snow and ice crashing against his tent, having accepted death, the avalanche suddenly stopped.

Watkins and his expedition team realized how lucky they were as they called down to base camp to inform them of their fate. It was then that they learned base camp was destroyed, and many people had been killed, including six Sherpas from Watkins' expedition team.

"It was like a war zone, that was the best way I could conceptualize it," said Watkins. "There was dead bodies. There was gear scattered everywhere. It was a disaster zone. Ground zero."

Upon returning to base camp for several days, instead of searching for food or clothing buried in the snow, Watkins searched for his treasured Iditarod finishers belt buckle.

"It was almost illogical how much I wanted to find that belt buckle," Watkins said. "It symbolized something great, and I had lost it. In my mind."

A frantic search that would come up empty.

One year after earning the finishers belt buckle, and the losing it, the Iditarod Trail Committee did mail him a replacement. As for the original buckle, it remains buried on Everest, the very place Watkins hopes to someday return, pushing beyond life's unexpected and most daunting challenges in a tireless pursuit to inspire veterans.



 
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