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Challenging the Mountain and Building Brotherhood

Mount Whitney soars above the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California as the highest point in the contiguous United States. Those who reach the summit - 14,505 above sea level - are rewarded with a panoramic view of untouched wilderness and a lasting sense of accomplishment. 

Since 2012, brothers from the Zeta Xi Chapter at the University of California, Davis, have participated in the chapter’s “Trekking for the Troops” event to scale Mount Whitney.

Hiking in groups of eight to 12 brothers, they complete the challenging climb by planting the Sigma Nu flag at the summit to memorialize their accomplishment. 

“Trekking for the Troops is about finding a bigger purpose beyond yourself,” said Mike Wheeler, Alumni Advisory Board Chairman and Chapter Advisor for Zeta Xi Chapter. “It’s teamwork and overcoming challenges and [realizing] if you can do this…you can do anything.”

The event serves as the chapter’s primary philanthropy, raising funds for organizations supporting military veterans, including the Wounded Warrior Project. 

For the Zeta Xi chapter, conquering the majestic mountain is more than a bonding of brothers on the 10-day hike to the top. It represents the resiliency of brotherhood, the founding of Sigma Nu Fraternity, and the beginning and future of their chapter. 

Rebuilding with Purpose

The parallels between the challenging hike up Mount Whitney and the history of the Zeta Xi Chapter are symbolic. The first chapter opened in 1952 but lost its charter in the early 1990s after four decades on campus.

In 2009, Sigma Nu was back on campus, spurred by a sense of purpose and a 400-page petition from the founding brothers of the Zeta Xi Chapter. 

The petition included Zeta Xi’s commitment to Sigma Nu Fraternity to become a Rock Chapter. That vision soon became a reality. At this year’s 70th Grand Chapter, Zeta Xi was awarded its 6th Rock Chapter Award. 

Wheeler believes much of the chapter’s success is tied to the Trekking for the Troops event, which began in 2012, just three years after the chapter was established. The principles of mountain climbing aligned with the chapter’s goals of teamwork and leading with purpose. 

The idea to hike Mount Whitney was proposed by Brother Zach Dashner, who served as the chapter’s Philanthropy Chairman. Dashner was inspired by his father, a military veteran, and his brother, who participated in the Journey of Hope bike ride across the country for his fraternity (Pi Kappa Phi) to raise money for individuals with disabilities.

“It was an incredible event and a transformative experience for [my brother],” said Dashner, who graduated from UC Davis in 2014. “And because we were a new chapter, I thought an endurance event, lasting several days, would help build our chapter culture and identity.” 

Eminent Commander Cole Murdoch noted that the event also supported the chapter’s goals to direct its focus externally through service and charity.

“In 2012, the chapter was working to come up with our primary philanthropy event,” Murdoch explains. “So they looked to the Fraternity’s traditions and roots in military service among the founders for inspiration.”

At the time, the UC Davis chapter had a relationship with a local organization that provided services to military veterans. Although that organization has since closed, the commitment to veteran assistance remains, primarily those that address Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD), a key platform of the Wounded Warrior Project.
Life on the Hike

In August 2012, the first group of eight brothers from Zeta Xi Chapter set off on the inaugural hike up Mount Whitney. The group included Dashner, an avid hiker and Eagle Scout, who was the self-described “den leader” for the first Trekking for the Troops event.

The journey begins on the John Muir Trail, the southern path to the summit of Mount Whitney, and encompasses 110 miles hiked over ten days. Each hiker carries with them nearly everything they need for the duration of the hike, from tents to food to water. 

At the halfway point, the group is re-supplied with a cache of items dropped off by chapter brothers or alumni.

Michael Hartmeier remembers the hike he led in 2015 as more physically demanding than many on the trip had expected. Trekking up and down mountain passes of several thousand feet each day while managing mental and physical fatigue was a constant challenge for the group.

“However, seeing how brothers helped each other through this process by carrying weight or providing serious and comical motivation was also a reminder of the special bond of brotherhood in our chapter and Sigma Nu in general,” said Hartmeier, who celebrated his 21st birthday during the trek.

For Nicholas Aikawa, who participated in the 2014 trek, being disconnected from the usual “noise” of daily life allowed him to fully connect with his group.

“It was a really good opportunity for me to develop friendships with brothers I didn’t know that well,” said Aikawa, who served as the chapter president. “I enjoyed being isolated from technology and social media while on the trail.”

Despite blisters, fatigue, and minor mishaps, Dashner said reaching the top of Mount Whitney with his Sigma Nu brothers made every hardship along the way worthwhile. 

“Like achieving Rock Chapter, summiting Whitney is a result of the hard work and experiences we shared,” he said. “The thrill of getting to the top lasts a few moments, but the memories made on the journey are forever.”

Years later, during an Affirmation of Knighthood Ceremony, one of the brothers on that first trek revealed how the experience remains a part of him.  

“He told me the trek was the most transformative experience he’d had while in Sigma Nu and would be with him for the rest of his life,” Dashner said. “And I thought out of four years [in the chapter] it was the best…and that was pretty cool.”

The Path Forward and Upward

With each group of brothers who participated in the Trekking for the Troops over the years, it became apparent that those who went up Mount Whitney came down changed by the experience.

“Every man that has been on this trip has been transformed…and saw the trajectory of their lives change for the better,” Wheeler said. “It causes the men to think bigger about their lives and their impact…and that they can change the world.”

For Murdoch, he hopes Trekking for the Troops will inspire other chapters to look for opportunities to build brotherhood atop a mountain.

“Perhaps chapters on the East Coast can pick a mountain in Appalachia or in the Rockies for Midwest chapters to summit,” said Murdoch. “And we can all plant the Sigma Nu flag on the same day…what a wonderful symbol of brotherhood.”

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