We ran 10 trips this winter season snowshoeing, mountaineering, ice climbing, and fat biking in New Hampshire and Colorado. We had just under 200 veterans and active duty military get outside with us this winter season.
We had beginners out all season and had some advanced vets out pushing their limits. We had trips with 50 vets out in several smaller teams and we ran trips with 5 vets pushing their skill level.
We made new partnerships, picked up some new sponsors, and ran our winter trips through the support of private dollars.
We had fun, we laughed a lot, and we grew our community to new heights. We combined trips with fundraisers, created some other fun fundraising opportunities, and grew our leadership. We brought in new board members and other talent that is taking our small organization to the next level. In short, we had our best winter season yet and we have released our biggest summer schedule to date http://vetexpeditions.com/index.php/schedule/.
Get outside VetEx Nation! See you out there in 2016.
Sweeping glacial valleys punctuated by jagged peaks stretch endlessly below us. Our tiny, winged chariot swerves hard right and lands on a nondescript field of snow, more sledding hill than an airstrip. We scramble to unload all our gear and then suddenly the plane disappears with a loud flash.
An eerie silence moves in and a familiar mix of anxiety, exhilaration, and uncertainty enters my gut. This is how any worthwhile expedition begins—with the realization that you are now unarguably on your own.
In 2014, my partner Nick and I spent 25 days on Denali. A horrendous storm forced us off the mountain just 2,000 feet shy of the summit. Though that was a personal trip, it was also a scouting mission for this current climb with Nick’s nonprofit, Veterans Expeditions. I have returned here to Denali as the only non-vet, and only woman, on a team we have named “8 for 22.” The eight of us plan to attempt the climb for the 22 service members who take their own lives every day. We hope that reaching the summit as a team can raise awareness about this staggering statistic among many of the other struggles veterans face.
Back on the glacier, we rig and pack sleds with mountains of gear and snake out of basecamp. We pass other climbers waiting to fly home and we learn that no one has successfully summited yet this season. No one says it, but we wonder what the mountain holds for us.
The next day we move from Camp 1 (7,800 feet) to Camp 2 (11,000 feet). Daniel, a Marine used to being able to push through suffering, struggles under the unrelenting sun and we slow to a crawl. He does not ask for help, but without a word, we empty his sled, lighten his backpack and move onward and upward. Continue reading Determination on Denali→
Against a cobalt sky, puffy pewter clouds waltz with the sun. Below, Bradley Noone stands knee-deep in a quiet pool of emerald water. Back and forth. Back and forth. Patiently and with focus, he rhythmically cuts the air with a neon yellow line until finally bringing it to rest gently on the water. Slowly, he strips the line and moves the fuzzy olive and white Dalai Lama through the water.
Time passes; out here how long is of little concern. He thinks “one last cast,” and then, a splash at the surface, and weight on his line. He looks around, but nobody is nearby to help. Without hesitation, he returns confidently to the battle at hand and reels the speckled char closer, bringing the fish to hand as if he’s done this a thousand times instead of one. He grabs the blade dangling from his belt, looks the squirming fish in the eye and breaks the long peaceful silence of the last few hours with a simple, but surprising mantra, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Culture of Gratitude
Noone, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, has seen his share of violence in his 28 years, but clearly, he has not become desensitized to death. “I thanked him without even thinking about it because we were gonna eat him,” he says. “That moment meant something and I wanted to acknowledge the weight, the meaning in his sacrifice just to help us.”
What is it? Hilleberg the Tentmaker Keron 3, Keron 3 GT and Keron 4. If someone were to ask me today what kind of tent I want, it wouldn’t take half a second to reply the Keron series tents from Hilleberg. After testing in the Colorado Rockies, then trusting them on Expedition to the Summit of Denali, I would conclude simply that these tents are the best in the business. We were dry during rains on the lower mountain, and protected from raging winds and sub-zero temperatures on the high mountain plateaus. The double door design made living in close quarters easy to manage, and the added vestibule on the GT allowed for the versatility of storage or protected working space. The design was thought out, down to the yellow mesh and internal fabric increasing the amount of light inside the tent during daylight hours.
Who are these Tents for? I can easily see this tent excelling in any climate or conditions. As an explorer and climber, I can’t think of a season or location I wouldn’t trust a Hilleberg tent to keep the elements at bay. As with any 4-season capable tent, the total weight is more than what you would want for a strictly back-packing tent, but the durability and protection make the weight worth the effort.
Pros: Very impressive durability in extreme conditions, with an attention to minute design features that make a world of difference. Easy to set up, and solid once they are. The removable internal tent with yellow fabric brightened days where being outside was not an option. More than a handful of climbing teams used the external tent as a cover for the kitchen, and the GT option made for a great design to ensure cooking in a sunken kitchen was safe.
Cons: The entire 8 For 22 Denali Team could not think of any cons. On our 27 days on Denali and many training trips, these tents stood up to all we through at them. We didn’t break any part of any of the tents and they came off the mountain in as good of shape as we started with. We can’t say the same for most of our gear.
WHAT IS IT? The Thermarest NEOAIR® XTherm™ is a light weight 4 season air mattress. It has the greatest warmth-to-weight ratio of all air mattresses on the market. With an R-Value of 5.7 and a total weight of 15oz / 430g in the regular and 1lbs 4oz / 570g in the Long.
When 7 military veterans and 1 media person decide to climb North America’s tallest mountain together as a team, amazing things start happening, sponsors step up, and each team member prepares with everything they have for this opportunity of a lifetime. This expedition was awarded a grant from Millet as part of their Millet Expedition Program (MXP).
We finalized our Denali team roster after the 1st Annual VetFest (Veteran Ice Climbing Festival) in North Conway New Hampshire this January. The team would be made up of:
Dan Wiwczar, an army vet from New York, A.J. Hunter an Army vet from New Hampshire, Demond Mullins an army vet from Pennsylvania, Daniel Pond a USMC vet from Colorado, Johnny Krueger a USMC vet from Colorado, Nathan Perrault a USMC vet from Colorado, Chris Kassar , media from Colorado and myself, Nick Watson an army vet from Colorado.
A team of Veterans undertakes the first fly-fishing expedition on the Kanektok River of 2015; adapting techniques of “LRRP”, Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol.
From the trip log of June 27th, 2015. “The team of 7 Veterans accompanied by a journalist assembled in Dillingham and joined the staff of Alaska’s Wild River Guides. We studied the topographic maps of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and reviewed our expeditionary goals then got busy packing the minimal amount of camping gear, clothing, and fly fishing equipment needed to accomplish the first raft descent of the Kanektok in 2015.”
We planned to travel lighter than standard guided trips to enable us to efficiently explore farther from the established channels and pioneer some new camps off the main river channel. To do this we’d forgo traditional tents in favor of Black Diamond Megamids and Bivy sacks under a group tarp shelter. We’d drastically reduce the amount of food we’d carry and cut weight by configuring ½ our rafts as paddle rafts, saving almost 100 pounds in oar frames and oars. We asked participants to shave weight in their personal gear so that rafts would be as light as possible. Continue reading 3rd Annual Alaska LRRP Fly-fishing Adventure June 27th – July 5th with Wild River Guides→
Eight puffy figures tethered together by two neon orange ropes creep slowly and methodically along a snow-covered ridge, barely a boot-width across. Each team member carefully places one foot in front of the other, fully aware that a fall here simply cannot happen. Periodically, the entire slithering serpent drops to the ground—faces and bellies in the snow—to brace against the 80 mph gusts attempting to toss them off the mountain. Though only a mile long, the traverse from 16,200 feet to camp at 17,200 feet takes hours.
Halfway across the narrow spine, a particularly beastly blast rips up the icy slope below and knocks Nathan Perrault off his feet. Agile and attentive, this 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran has the presence of mind to drop down and straddle the tiny bit of ridge before him rather than plummet off either side. Once the gust passes, he hops up and moves to a less exposed spot where he reaches down, pats the pants pocket that holds the dog tags of five buddies who didn’t make it home from war and whispers, “Thank you … for keeping me calm and getting me through that.” Nobody notices. The crew presses on as fast as howling wind and oxygen-deprived legs and lungs will allow.
With each mindful step, this group of seven military veterans ascends higher, pushing onward over rugged terrain. It is their 23rd day on the massif and tomorrow holds their best chance at a summit bid. Their goal is to stand on top of North America as a unit, but their purpose stretches far beyond reaching the summit.
“Denali is the pinnacle of the land we fought for,” says Nick Watson, a former Sergeant in the Army Rangers and Executive Director of Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), a Colorado-based non-profit that uses wilderness challenges to connect veterans, create community and raise awareness. “We’re here to prove to ourselves and other veterans that despite physical injuries or invisible wounds, those who served can still band together and accomplish big things.”
During their 27-day expedition, these men repeatedly prove this fact. They climb for the challenge, fun, and discovery inherent in stepping beyond comfortable limits. They climb because they still can; each kick, each swing a tribute to their fallen brothers and sisters who gave everything. They rely on their training, grit, physical strength, and sheer will to reach the continent’s highest point on June 15, 2015.
“Standing on the summit feels like we’ve truly accomplished something, like all of the hard work and preparation paid off,” says John Krueger, a 27-year old Marine Corps veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When things got tough I pushed through for others—friends who didn’t come home, guys who make it home and decide they can’t take it anymore, those who physically can’t climb any longer—so that makes reaching the top even sweeter.”
Frigid temps, sketchy terrain, unpredictable avalanches, other crazy climbers, and constantly morphing weather conspire to create a wonderful maelstrom of unknowns, but the group works together to control what it can and surrenders to the rest. One thing they never give up on, however, is each other.
“We wouldn’t consider this a success unless we got everyone up and down safely,” says Watson who, along with co-founder Stacy Bare, was honored as one of the 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for VetEx’s community building efforts. “At VetEx and in the military, we stay together. We fail together, we succeed together, we take care of the strongest, the weakest, everyone. And, above all, we don’t leave anyone behind.”
Getting an entire team of eight to the top is not an easy task in the best of conditions. When a series of storms pins the squad at 14,000 feet for 16 days, an already difficult task becomes infinitely more challenging. But, these guys have been shot at, mortared, and blown up. They’ve lost friends and spent entire weeks, months, or years with their lives in peril. To say their experience in combat was intense is the understatement of a lifetime, and it prepares them well for every aspect of mountaineering, including what some would call the hardest part: waiting.
“The weather totally dictates our every move,” says Perrault, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. “But as a military group we’re used to having to wait it out. Without that shared experience, we may have unraveled while sitting still for so long.”
Planning for and being able to weather the downtime is a part of alpinism that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but often it’s the difference between accomplishing an objective or not. To stave off madness, the crew spends days reading, cracking jokes, practicing skills, playing ultimate Frisbee, staying fit with creative workouts, concocting delicious dishes from random foods (think tortillas filled with Nutella, Dubliner cheese, and reindeer sausage), and making friends from across the globe.
In the meantime, they watch dozens of groups bail and head toward hot showers, elaborate meals, and loved ones. “We spent a lot of time training the technical skills, but you can’t train the ability to wait,” says Watson. “Our intestinal fortitude and preparation for the long haul in terms of food and fuel made all the difference.”
This uncanny ability to have fun and maintain perspective even when things get scary, boring, demanding, or extremely uncomfortable stems from their experience with much worse. “In the military you gain a sense of mental toughness that gets you through just about anything,” says Perrault. “I relied heavily on this and motivation from my fallen brothers to get through. They would all want their friends to reach their fullest potential … to have big dreams and chase after them. Whenever I felt weak mentally or physically, I just reached into my pocket to feel their tags. This always made me dig deeper.”
Throughout the expedition, the guys tap into various positive aspects of service like camaraderie, communication, trust, determination, and teamwork to get the job done. By going unguided with no external support, they depend only on each other. This sets them apart from many other groups and ensures they develop invaluable skills that are critical to the future of the organization.
“Our success on Denali is a testament to our ability to recruit well, train hard, run logistics, and secure sponsorship needed to make it affordable,” says Watson citing the overwhelming support VetEx received from the outdoor industry, including a major grant from Millet that made this journey possible. “By scaling the highest peak in North America completely on our own, we’ve proven that we can send teams of vets to tackle objectives safely and successfully anywhere in the world.”
And, from the sounds of it, these men, who now make up the core of VetEx’s leadership, feel confident about their ability to deliver. “At first, the idea of climbing Denali was intimidating. Everyone makes such a big deal about it,” says Krueger. “But, I learned so much on this trip and realized if you just break it into smaller, manageable pieces, then it’s doable. It’s given me confidence and opened my eyes to other bigger objectives that are possible.” Because each individual was part of every aspect, including logistics, menu planning, gear acquisition, fundraising, developing technical skills, and training, they each have a solid foundation for planning future adventures.
Some guys want to attack a more technical route on Denali, while others dream of heading to the Moose’s Tooth or even Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak. Amidst periodic burly expeditions, VetEx will continue serving hundreds of vets a year by running year-round trips including daylong snowshoe outings, multi-day river floats, easy hikes and ascents of North American classics like Rainier and Hood.
Regardless of the destination or goal, the purpose remains the same: to push limits, to honor those passed and to act as a beacon of hope for those struggling. “I feel pretty lucky that I made it home from war without any physical injuries and that I have the opportunity to climb a peak like Denali,” says Krueger. “Climbing mountains is a very selfish thing to do, but if you can inspire other people to get out and do something or if I can gain experience and knowledge that allows me to take someone else into the mountains so they get the same feelings I get, then I think it’s worth it.”
What is it? Meal Kit Supply makes meals that are ready to eat upon opening the package. These meals are as convenient as it gets when it comes to having minimal time to prep and minimal resources available. Our “8 For 22” team used these meals on Denali during our summit push due to how time consuming it was to melt snow for water at 17,000 feet in elevation. Continue reading Gear Review: Meal Kit Supply Meals Ready To Eat→