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Scaling the Mountain

May 12, 2024

There’s a saying that a mother will move a mountain for the sake of her children. But sometimes, to move a mountain, you first might have to scale it.

In 2023, that is just what one widowed mother did – so she would find the inner strength to raise her children alone.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, thousands of husbands kissed their wives goodbye and headed to the front. Many never returned – leaving fatherless children and wives who were now widows. Some of these mothers were also forced to flee their homes and build new lives somewhere else…even while they were still trying to pick up the pieces of their old ones.

Natalia Zaremba is one of those mothers. Early in the war, her Navy pilot husband was killed in action, leaving her to raise their two young boys by herself.

I can’t imagine the feelings of grief and loss she must have felt. Or the fear she must have had for her children.

Then, one day, Natalia heard about a special place meant exactly for people like her. A camp in the Austrian alps where she and other grieving mothers could mourn, heal, and rebuild together.

The Mountain Seed Foundation camp was built by a former American marine named Nathan Schmidt. There, in the middle of Austria, Schmidt discovered that climbing on those snowy peaks helped him recover from the trauma of serving three tours in Iraq. So, after the war began in Ukraine, he offered the camp to Ukrainians who needed their own place to heal.

At first, Natalia doubted whether climbing would be of any help. But she knew she needed to do something to move forward. As she put it, “I want[ed] to find the strength to not let my husband down, and to give our children a good future.” So, she joined twelve other widows and their children, all from the city of Mykolaiv, to learn how to scale a physical mountain…so she could find the courage to summit her own personal one.

First, the kids learned the basics of climbing while Natalia and the other moms participated in group therapy sessions with experts from the Yale School of Medicine. The goal was for the kids to learn how to trust themselves, and for the moms to see that they already had the strength inside them to carry on. Then, Schmidt – the marine who founded the camp – taught them all how to use climbing ropes. He explained how when you climb, you are never alone. You are responsible for others on the rope, and they are responsible for you.

For the mothers of Mykolaiv, it was a reminder that they, too, were not alone.

Next, the mothers and their kids were challenged to climb a thirty-two-story dam. They used a zipline to reach the dam wall where they were able to clip their harnesses to a cable. Then, they had to use the techniques they had learned – both physical and mental – to reach the top. The goal was for them to confront their fears, their doubts, and even their anger head on.

Finally, it was time to scale the actual mountain. Surrounded by snow and ice, blasted by the cold, Natalia and the other mothers climbed hand over hand, step by step, to the 10,500 feet high summit of Mt. Kitzsteinhorn.

The hope: That by climbing to the summit, where all was still and calm, the mothers would also rise above their own pain, their own grief, their own fears…and know they could overcome any obstacle. That if they could scale a mountain for themselves and for their families, they could move them, as well.

Said Natalia, “Climbing to the top of Kitzsteinhorn was a real challenge for me. [It was] extremely difficult. But I did not regret it for a second. Thanks to it, I realized how strong we are together – my boys and I. Now we are ready to overcome any mountains.”

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This Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking not just about my own mother, but about all mothers. Some are students, some have careers, some are homemakers, some are surrogates, some are adopted, some are chosen, and some are a little of everything. But young or old, partnered or single, married or widowed, mothers have to contend with a thousand fears, doubts, and problems. They have to find the inner strength to rise above it all, so they can care for their children and for themselves…every single day.

For these reasons, I am so grateful for my mother, my wife Michelle and for all mothers everywhere, in whatever way you bear the title. There is no harder job, no higher calling.

I’m grateful they have the power to move mountains for their children…because they have the courage to scale them, first.

On behalf of Tina, Kara and myself, we wish you and your family a very happy Mother’s Day.