An Alaska Army National Guard soldier said spending Good Friday trekking up Flattop Mountain with a large wooden cross was something he simply felt compelled to do.
"I just felt called to do it," said Richard Mitchell, a soldier in the guard's Bravo Company 1-143rd Infantry Airborne Regiment. "It made me remember why I'm here on this earth, and I also wanted to do it for people out there suffering from depression and contemplating suicide. For me, religion has always helped."
The 24-year-old, like many Christians worldwide, commemorated the religious holiday with a solemn procession. But Mitchell's move forward – and upward – on the popular hiking trail was done alone. His climb memorialized the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, he said, but he also carried the cross in memory of military veterans who committed suicide.
"It's a sad thing. Twenty-two veterans committing suicide every day, and it shouldn't be that way," he said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a study in 2013 revealing that rate, which translates to a death every 65 minutes.
Mitchell said he hasn't had a close companion in the military die of suicide, but like many in the armed services, he knows others who have dealt with such a death.
Last year, he hiked up Arctic Valley for the same reasons. He put a call out on social media to challenge his friends and raise awareness about the issue. This year, his reasons were more personal – he wanted to humble himself for the soldiers' struggles.
Ascending Flattop on Friday wasn't easy, he said. Sixty pounds of gear and the wooden cross weighed him down; the weather made the climb difficult. When he reached the top, it was cloudy, windy and snowing.
"I got tired, but I felt I need to finish what I started," Mitchell said.