The Denali 7: Dan Wiwczar, John Krueger, Nathan Perrault, AJ Hunter, Nick Watson, Daniel Pond, Demond Mullins.
There’s something about veterans and the call of the mountains.
Sure, the adventure and the adrenaline and everything that comes with being outdoors is a big part of it.
But perhaps nowhere else in the civilian world is that single-minded sense of mission and clarity of focus — so much a part of military life — more evident than when a team of climbers makes a bid for a high-country summit.
“Military people just tend to get it,” says Army veteran Nick Watson, who has guided climbers for more than a decade and founded Veterans Expeditions in 2010. “I hear it over and over again: ‘This brings back everything I loved about being in the military, and none of the crap I hated.’ ”
It’s easy to see why, Watson says. It’s about “being part of a team and doing something exceptionally well, the focus to accomplish the mission and being part of something bigger than themselves. And there’s a certain element of danger. It all comes together on the mountain.”
Watson was just a few years out of the 3rd Ranger Battalion when he found that new sense of focus for the first time in a remote section of Washington state atop a lonely peak dubbed Mount Deception.
He was sweat-soaked and exhausted. And had never felt better.
“It was one of those pure moments … I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I had finally gotten out of my own head,” he says.
“Like with a lot of veterans, the wheels in my head just tended to spin. I had a few experiences that I just stewed over. That occupied so much of my energy. I didn’t even realize how much until that moment on the mountain. I realized when I was climbing, all I thought about was climbing. That focus is addicting. It’s a like a drug, a very good drug, and I was definitely hooked.”
From that moment on, says Watson, “all I wanted to do was climb more mountains.” And that’s exactly what he’s done.
Indeed, 14 years later, you might say he’s in the pure-moment business, a mountain-climbing medicine man dealing his favorite high-country drug to as many veterans as he can.
In 2010, he co-founded Veterans Expeditions — VetEx for short — with former Army captain Stacy Bare, with the idea of building a community of veteran climbers across the country.
The two men were named among National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2014 for their work.
“That first year, we started small with only about 16 veterans,” Watson says. “The next year, we took 100 out.”
By the end of this summer, VetEx will have turned 1,500 veterans into mountaineers, while also building a cadre of local climbing leaders and a network of volunteers to help support the effort.
Among VetEx’s most recent trips was an eight-person bid to the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley — the tallest mountain in the U.S., better known in the climbing community simply as Denali.
Getting started in mountaineering is easier than you might think, Watson says.
“Mountaineering definitely requires a level of physical fitness,” he says. “The best thing you can do to get in shape for it is put weight on your back and go uphill. That can be anything from climbing flights of stairs or bleachers to hiking hills. Personally, I also like mountain biking because it builds strong legs and strong lungs.”
He recommends reading Steve House’s “Training for the New Alpinism” for a good overview on the physical demands and technical skills you’ll want to build.
Personal gear starts with a good pair of mountaineering boots. “We can loan you just about everything you’ll need except boots,” he says.
While standard hiking boots or even combat boots are fine for most day trips into the mountains, for extended trips you’ll want the stiffer sole and thicker insulation that come with real mountaineering footwear.
Loaner gear is fine, but if you get hooked, you’ll want to start investing in your own equipment.
“On top, you can insulate with the basic layers of poly pro the military gave you as long as you’ve got an outer shell that will keep you dry,” he says. He likes Outdoor Research’s Foray Jacket ($215).
Even in the summer, weather can turn extreme within minutes, so a “security layer” of insulated pants and jacket also is critical. Look for something lightweight that compresses well for stashing until needed. Watson likes Outdoor Research’s Neoplume Pants ($150) and the Patagonia DAS Parka ($209).
Basic ski gloves will cover most of your needs, but an extra pair of lightweight gloves are good to have as well. Mountaineering sunglasses are a must-have to protect from wind and the blinding glare of snow.
For overnight trips, you’ll need a sleeping bag rated to the lowest temperatures you could face as well as a pad to insulate you from the heat-sucking ground and snow.
Rounding out your mountaineering gear will be crampons, the spikes that strap on to boots for traction in ice and snow; a mountaineering ax — critical for “self-arrests” in a fall; as well as a helmet and a climbing harness to rope in with other climbers to prevent the most serious drops, particularly when traversing glaciers.
To carry it all, look for a backpack ranging in size from 30 to 85 liters, depending on the length of your trip.
“For day trips, 30 to 45 liters is plenty to carry all your water, snacks and snivel gear,” Watson says.
Military-issue assault packs or even a sturdy college book bag — as long as it has waist and chest straps — are good options.
WHAT IS IT? The only device you really need in the backcountry. A rugged handheld global satellite communicator that allows you to send and receive text messages, mark waypoints, navigate a route, track and share your journey, and in the event of an emergency, send out an SOS signal.
WHO IS IT FOR? Any outdoor enthusiast – from the casual day hiker to the hard core mountaineer to the long distance thru-hiker – who wants added security and/or a way to stay in touch with family, friends and supporters while exploring in the wild.
PROS – We used it on a 26-day expedition up Denali and on a weeklong river trip in the Alaskan bush. Regardless of the weather, it sent text messages and posted to social media reliably and quickly and it recorded our route each day with great accuracy. The fact that we could post to Facebook, Twitter and “MapShare”– where friends, family and sponsors could track our progress up the mountain and down the river – helped boost supporter engagement and allowed us to build community even from 20,000 feet. The ability to set waypoints with the GPS and navigate with the compass came in handy when marking caches and navigating in white outs.
The SOS feature – which is different than most other devices since the DeLorme InReach explorer sends a delivery confirmation regarding your first call for help and allows you to have 2-way communication with a 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center- provides added peace of mind in the event of an emergency. Luckily, we did not need to test this feature, but knowing we could get a rescue started with the touch of a button helped us sleep better at night.
Despite putting in some long efforts, the battery lasted 3-4 days without needing to be recharged and it charged back to 100% on on our solar panels in a reasonable amount of time.
CONS: I honestly can’t say anything negative about this device. Last year, with a different, less user-friendly brand, we struggled to get messages out when the weather was bad – which was most of the time on Denali! This year, that never happened.
OVERALL GEAR RATING: 5 out of 5. This device was reliable, accurate and easy to use – even for a non-tech geek like me. Thanks to the DeLorme InReach Explorer, we literally brought our loved ones and sponsors with us to the top of North America!
2. Who are these boots for? These boots are for high altitude and cold weather mountaineering and mountaineers.
3. Pros: The Millet Everest Summit GTX boots are very comfortable and feature a great deal of adjustabiltiy. The liner and exterior boot feature a lacing and velcro strapping combination that make adjusting the boot easy for the desired comfort. This lacing and velcro system also make taking off and putting on these boots with cold fingers a snap.
4. Cons: This is a purpose built boot that performs exceptionally well in it’s very specific niche of high altitude mountaineering. This boots does not have any cons!
5. Overall gear rating is 5 out of 5. Can’t beat the performance packed into this boot. This boot is Veterans Expeditions choice for high altitude mountaineering.
Relaxing on Denali in my Millet Everest Summit GTX’s
2. Who is it for? Outdoor enthusiast looking for a multi-season trekking pole. The poles come with interchangeable, screw on/off ground guards made for dirt/rock as well as snow.
3. Pros: The poles used a push button release system for adjusting the length depending on the users preference. This system was extremely easy to use because instead of un-latching the pole catch and trying to clamp them back down at the right setting; the push buttons automatically engaged at the standard lengths that are used on most poles. With the poles completely collapsed they weren’t much longer than the height of my pack. The push button extension system also made it very easy to extend them with gloves on during our 2012 Veterans Day Summit attempt of Mt. Shavano.
These poles were also very, very lite at 14.4 oz. This was also an awesome feature because I was carrying multiple extra layers that day due to the weather conditions. For being so lite, the poles withstood all of the weight I could put on them with no failure of the push button system.
4. Cons: There was only one area of improvement that I would recommend for these poles. When I took the poles off of my pack and extended them, with great ease, I had trouble getting my hand through the wrist straps with my winter mittens on. I would recommend either, extending the area that the Velcro covers on the strap or, making the wrist strap larger to account for the sometime bulkiness of winter gear.
5. Overall Gear Rating is a 4.8 out of 5. I love the ease of use, the weight and the structural integrity of the poles. Only setback: The size of the wrist strap.