Veterans Expeditions


National Geographic Society: Innovators Project

Nick Watson: Bringing the Wilderness Solution to Vets

Mountaineering provides a powerful boost to veterans returning from war.

National Geographic Society
Text by Mark Jenkins


A climber suddenly falls into a crevasse and Nick Watson dives into the snow with his ice ax. The rope goes taut and Watson, a bearded, muscled man, digs in like an anchor, and the climber is caught.

“You OK?” shouts Watson.

There is no answer from the climber down in the hole. He is unconscious or injured, perhaps bleeding.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!” yells Watson anyway.

In a matter of minutes, Watson has tied off the dangling climber, slammed two stakes into the snow, and set up a five-to-one pulley system. Using his own body weight, Watson gradually hauls the injured mountaineer out of the crevasse.

Back on the surface, the unconscious climber suddenly awakes. “Wow! That really works.”

It was a simulated mountain rescue—a teaching scenario for a group of former soldiers, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, all standing in the snow.

“This is the way you save someone’s life,” says Watson.

He’s talking about basic crevasse rescue techniques, but he might as well be talking about the organization he founded, Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, a nonprofit that takes veterans into the outdoors.

“Vets often go from a world with deep camaraderie, commitment, and excitement to a world where they are isolated, at loose ends, and bored,” Watson says in explaining the concept behind the program. Watson speaks from experience—he is a former U.S. Army Ranger—and he knows just how psychologically perilous the military experience can be: Veterans commit suicide at more than twice the rate of civilians.

Having worked as an alpine guide and a counselor in wilderness therapy programs for over a decade, Watson, 40, also believes in the healing force of nature and was convinced that a vigorous outdoor experience would be tonic for veterans, a way for them to “reconnect with fellow soldiers, get outside, and push themselves in a healthy environment.” VetEx—created with another veteran, Stacy Bare—was the outgrowth of that conviction. In its first year, 2010, VetEx took 16 veterans into the mountains for climbing; in 2011, it was over 100; in 2013, almost 300.

Things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.

By consciously replacing the fellowship of arms with the fellowship of the rope, VetEx hit on a novel remedy for readjustment to civilian life—a soldier by soldier, hands-on approach that larger veterans organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) couldn’t provide.

In Watson’s family, joining the military was part of the natural progression of manhood: One grandfather served in World War II, the other in Korea; his father served in Vietnam. He spent over four years in an elite Army unit, the Third Ranger Battalion, on numerous international deployments.

“I pushed myself in the military and had many intense experiences,” says Watson, “but things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.”

He left the Army soon afterward, but it took years for him to recover from the trauma of those deaths. He traveled around the country, worked seasonal jobs, and slowly found solace in the wild. “A therapist I was seeing at the time, a very wise woman, said something that changed my life: ‘You aren’t your experiences; you are how you process your experiences.’”

Thoughtful and passionate, with a sturdy body and three fingers missing on his right hand from an oil rig accident, Watson has been running the organization on his own since 2011, when Bare moved on to direct the Sierra Club’s veterans programs in New England and North Carolina. “We’re a grassroots organization,” says Watson. “It’s friends telling friends.” VetEx has only one paid employee—Watson—and calls on volunteers to run the outdoor “meetups” throughout Colorado.

“Our biggest challenge right now is funding,” says Watson, who relies on his partner, journalist Chris Kassar, 37, to work as VetEx’s unpaid “PR and ‘Fun’ Raising Director.” Keen shoe company and Kahtoola Snowshoes are their only equipment sponsors. “We get new vets outdoors every month, and we’re changing their lives. We don’t need a lot of funding, just enough to keep going.”

Watson, who was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2014, along with Stacy Bare, says his goal is to get thousands of vets outdoors by 2020, training veterans to lead trips all over the country.

Picture of Stacy Bare climbing a mountain
Stacy Bare, a former Army captain and Bronze Star recipient and VetEx co-founder, climbs Mount Rainier in Washington State. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS KASSAR


“Immediate, Intense Trust”“What Veterans Expeditions does, at its core, is re-create the positive aspects of the military without all the negatives,” says Demond Mullins, 32, an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq in 2004-2005.Meeting up with Veterans Expeditions was so important to Mullins, a professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that he flew across the country just to spend a couple of days climbing with fellow vets. In the snow-covered Rockies above Leadville, Colorado, they practiced technical mountaineering skills, such as moving as a roped team, self-arrest with an ice ax, crevasse rescue, crampon technique, and ascending fixed lines.Mullins has participated in more than a dozen adventures with VetEx. “On every trip I meet new vets,” he says, kneeling in the snow at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), adjusting the carabiners on the climbing ropes for a crevasse rescue scenario. “There’s always this immediate, intense trust. We have the same point of reference. We know what it’s like to put our lives on the line for each other.”Mullins, who is built like an Olympic sprinter, loves being outdoors, “working as part of a team, relying on one another—things we all learned in the military, but [now] without the threat of violence.”Epidemic of SuicideAccording to a VA report last year, 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the U.S., double the number of suicides among nonveterans. In 2012, 349 active-duty soldiers killed themselves—more than the 295 who died in combat in Afghanistan that year. reports that 4,487 American troops died in Iraq, about half the number of soldiers who kill themselves every year. In Afghanistan, 2,229 Americans have died; more veterans than that will kill themselves at home in the U.S. before Thanksgiving this year.

One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD.

The U.S. military is aware of the problem, if uncertain what to do about it. The VA has set up a crisis hotline and a website offering help through direct phone contact, online chats, and other resources, but VA hospitals are notoriously backlogged and slow to respond to veterans struggling with mental illness. Brigadier General David Harris recently wrote on the Eglin Air Force Base website that “it is important for us to re-address topics such as suicide prevention and awareness.” He encourages friends and family to be alert to the “clues and warnings” of potential suicide, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness, and reclusiveness. “When we observe our wingman appearing depressed … request help early on.”

Clearly, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by despair: Almost 70 percent of suicides among veterans are by Vietnam War soldiers, 50 years old or older, a community that suffered a particularly hard return to a society that was largely hostile to the war they fought.

And suicide isn’t limited to those who saw combat. A recent Department of Defense study, citing heavy drinking and depression as root problems, found that almost 80 percent of suicides are by soldiers who did not experience combat. A 2014 report in JAMA Psychiatryrevealed that almost 20 percent of Army enlistees struggled with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or “intermittent explosive disorder”—a condition characterized by uncontrollable attacks of rage—before they joined the service.

And then there is the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder. One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD. Other soldiers have returned home with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), often caused by the concussive force of an improvised explosive device (IED). Unlike scars and amputations, these are the “invisible injuries” of war.

Picture of Nick Watson and veterans
Nick Watson teaches crevasse rescue to veterans in Leadville, Colorado. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


Gut-Level UnderstandingLuke Adler, 28, who served in Afghanistan in 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, is in Leadville for the climb. He is wearing his military-issue camo backpack and heavily insulated khaki military pants made for the extreme cold. In Afghanistan, he had been hit by IEDs twice and has a TBI. “This is the thing,” he explained, as he adjusted a pulley system for hauling up an injured or unconscious climber: “You do epic things in the service. It’s life or death. When you come home to civilian life, you really miss that intensity.”After he got out of the 82nd Airborne, Adler returned to his parents’ home in Iowa and fell in with what he describes as a “bad group of vets” who were using drugs and alcohol to get through the day. “It took about a year to straighten myself out. I realized all I was doing was hurting myself and everyone who loved me.” Currently enrolled at Colorado State University, he is preparing to become a high school social studies teacher.All of the vets on the Leadville outing experienced combat. Here in the mountains, they fall easily into conversation with each other about their service. It is a singular brotherhood. Their experiences were too difficult for their civilian counterparts to fathom.Samantha Tinsley, 34, earned a degree in international relations before joining the service as an enlistee, not an officer, and was deployed all over the world for a decade. John Brumer, 27, led his own 12-man squad through the mountains of Afghanistan (and is now starting his own brewery in North Carolina). Robert “Robbie” Hayes, 28, and John Krueger, 26, were in the same unit, fighting together in Afghanistan’s opium-ridden Helmand Province. Lee Urton, 32, a former Marine, was part of the initial invasion of Afghanistan and says he “lost something in the war, but I would never take back a minute of it.”It’s a common sentiment. They have suffered, but they have no regrets about joining the military. Each man and woman did something that the vast majority of Americans will never do: defend their country with their lives. One participant sketches a scene of combat with just a few words and everyone immediately knows what he’s talking about. They nod in agreement. There is no need for apologies or bragging. “They get it,” as Watson says. “They understand each other on a gut level.”

The Climb 
The next morning, after a day of training in the snow, the VetEx team snowshoes to the Tenth Mountain Division hut below the west ridge of 13,209-foot (4,026-meter) Homestake Peak. This hut is a fitting redoubt for the team to organize their attack on Homestake, only intermittently glimpsed through the swirling blizzard.The Tenth Mountain Division was created during World War II specifically to train soldiers in winter survival, skiing, and mountain warfare. The division trained at Camp Hale, built at an elevation of 9,300 feet (2,835 kilometers), 17 miles (27 kilometers) north of Leadville. In 1945 the Tenth Mountain Division breached the Apennine Mountains and played a pivotal role in the liberation of northern Italy. Some 4,000 “ski troopers” were wounded, and 992 lost their lives.By now the vets, many of whom scarcely knew each other 24 hours ago, are good friends. They’re sharing their life stories and scheming to go climbing together in the near future. Wars are fought outdoors, and returning to the outdoors is a salve.The night before, as we bunked in the homey Leadville Hostel, Watson had told me that “something happens on these trips that I never saw with civilians. There’s this incredible bond that forms, this connection. These men and women need each other. They were trained to work together toward a common goal, and that’s exactly what mountaineering is all about.”

Picture of Nick Watson talking to veterans
Nick Watson (on left) sits with veterans Demond Mullins (center) and Lee Urton (right) as they talk about the impact of mountaineering and climbing on veterans. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
This summer, the vets of VetEx plan to attempt Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. In 2015 they’re mounting a difficult expedition to 20,322-foot (6,194-meter) Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in the United States. Watson, along with Chris Kassar and vet Dave Lee, 35 (who served in the modern Tenth Mountain Division in Bosnia), are heading to Denali in two weeks to attempt the West Buttress route as a scouting mission.As for Homestake, after hours of climbing, the team is stopped by a howling whiteout and forced to turn back before reaching the summit. “Couldn’t see a thing,” Watson said afterward. “It was great training. Just like military”. 

The VetEx Experience at Winter Outdoor Retailer 2014

OR VetEx Pints

Our Pint Glass Sale at KEEN Happy Hour. VetEx logo looking good.

This winter a team of  VetEx veterans went to the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City.  We went with big plans of new partnerships and quality time with long time partners.  Keen set us up in their booth Wednesday through Friday of the show.  We interacted with Keen staff, Keen customers, and show goers all day long in the booth.  Things started to heat up for pint sales and happy hour.  Keen donated all of the proceeds to VetEx.  Thanks for the continued support Keen.

OR Keen Booth

Keen and VetEx at the 2014 Winter OR Show

Keen and VetEx at the 2014 Winter OR Show

VetEx veterans had the pleasure of hanging out and talking with Wade Davis after his talk at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast.  Wade is the author of Into the Silence, a spectacular book on World War I and the military veteran climbers who took on Everest, Mallory included.  This book is a must read for the veteran climber.  Mr. Davis writes of war in such detail and accuracy.  The reader can defiantly draw comparisons to then and now.  Those veteran climbers paved the way for VetEx today. Many of those WW I vets were unemployed and looking for peace and a future in the outdoors.

OR Wade Davis talks to the men

VetEx Leadership gets some wise words from a very wise man. Thanks for the time Wade Davis. A class act and avid supporter of veterans.

OR Guys with Wade Davis

From left to right: Dan Wiwczar VetEx East Program Director, Josh Brandon heads up SCMO, Wade Davis, Stacy Bare Sierra Club Outings Director, Nick Watson VetEx Executive Director.

Wade talked with our group about his book, Into the Silence, and his current effort to save his homeland in The Sacred Headwaters.  A story of the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass in Northern British Columbia.  The knowledge, subject matter, and passion Mr. Davis has on these subjects is impressive.  I have never spoken with a better speaker and story teller.  We will make sure that VetEx vets will have opportunities in the future to speak with this amazing man and all he has to teach and tell us.

OR VetEx Sally Jewel

The VetEx Leadership with Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Sally heads up the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, and much more.

The VetEx leadership team had the chance to speak with Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell.  It was great to speak with Sally about all her job entails.  Fascinating woman working hard in service to this countries wild places and open spaces.

Or HardWear Lunch

We attended the Mountain Hard Wear lunch and got updated on all the new designs and specifics for their new line.

OR Kahtoola

We wrapped up the show at the Kahtoola booth.  Kahtoola was our first sponsor in 2010 when most folks would not give us the time of day, Kahtoola wanted to make sure our veterans were in their snowshoes and microspikes.  We will always be loyal supporters of Kahtoola as they have been very loyal to VetEx.Adventures of the Year Party SLC

We attended the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year party on Thursday where Stacy Bare and Nick Watson (VetEx Co-Founders) were presented with the 2014 Adventurers of the Year honor.  Thanks National Geographic for recognizing our veteran run, veteran led trips and expeditions nation wide.

It was a great show for VetEx as we got to meet so many new faces and hang out with old partners to talk about future trips and the future of veterans outside. Thank you once again Keen, Kahtoola, and National Geographic for making our show so eventful. 


2014 VetEx Trip and Expedition Schedule

In 2013 VetEx ran over 30 trips across the United States getting hundreds of military veterans outside and earning the honor of 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. In 2014, our schedule is going to be even bigger as we hike, paddle, fish, climb, mountaineer, and mountain bike across the nation as our VetEx Teams truly experience the “Land Defended”. In 2015 we plan to send a team of VetEx veterans on a summit attempt of Denali, the highest peak in North America. In 2016 our goal is to put a VetEx team on the tallest mountain that can be climbed. Get out with VetEx in 2014 and experience veteran run, veteran led trips and expeditions.

Vet Day walk 2

1. January 4-5 Ice Climbing Ouray Ice Park CO with VET

2. January 21-25 Outdoor Retailer Salt Lake Utah

3.  February 1-2 Ice Climbing Ouray Ice Park CO

4.  February 6-7 10th Mtn Hut Community Service Ski or Snowshoe Overnight Leadville CO

5.  February 10-11 10th Mtn Hut Community Service Ski or Snowshoe Overnight Leadville CO

6.  February 15-16 VetEx East Ice Climbing Weekend North Conway NH

7.  March 3-7 VetEx SCMO Montana Ice Week

8.  March 13-14 10th Mtn Hut Community Service Ski or Snowshoe Overnight Leadville CO

9.  March 24-25 10th Mtn Hut Community Service Ski or Snowshoe Overnight Leadville CO

10.  Many more 10th Mtn Hut Community Service Ski or Snowshoe winter trips and summer work trips as well

11. March Ice Climbing Ouray CO Trip TBA

12. May 24-25 Memorial Day Weekend Local Rock Climbing meet-ups in CO, WA, NY.

13. June 2nd annual Browns Canyon Float and Climb Salida Co 3 days 15 vets TBA

14  June Colorado Climbing Week TBA

15. July Mountain School WA TBA

16. July 9-16 Alaska Program (Trip is Full)

17-19. July/August  Pacific Northwest Volcano Climbs as Special Events

Mt. Hood OR

Mt. Rainier WA

Mt. Shasta CA

20. July 2nd annual Veteran Outside Adventure Film School WA TBA

21. August VetEx East hiking, climbing, and fishing week NH and MA TBA

22. September 4-14 9/11 5th Annual 9/11 Climbing Series. The Pickets Traverse Climb ending on Glacier Peak North Cascades WA

23. 4th annual Veterans Day Climb Joshua Tree CA

24. Mountain Bike Team to run 3 or more race in 2014 April-September CO, AZ, UT

*More trips will be added and trip dates updated as the information is available so check back regularly

Please email [email protected] for more information or to reserve your slot for any of these trips.  All military veterans are eligible.  DD214 and filled out applications required.  You can mail applications and DD214′s to the address below or email to [email protected]  Please note that this schedule will be updated on a regular basis as trip dates confirm and current conditions become known.  In general, all trips are at no cost to military veterans except for travel to and from a given trip and in some cases a reserve your slot fee.  Our larger trips and expeditions may require that you have been out with VetEx prior to attending these more expensive expeditions.  Reserve your slot today as many of these trips will fill-up.

Veterans Expeditions Application Form

Nick Watson

Veterans Expeditions

1031 E  St.

Salida, CO 81201

Vet group catwalk Ouray ice

Photo credit to Eric Schuette via Chad Jukes


VetEx Co-Founders are 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year

Vote for Nick Watson and Stacy Bare (VetEx Co-Founders) for the Peoples Choice Award


Nick and Stacy at Montana Veteran Ice Climbing Week March 2013.

Nick and Stacy have been awarded 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for their work at Veterans Expeditions.


Nick and Stacy on the summit of Mt. Rainier.



Veterans Day VetEx style “Not your Average Veterans Day Parade” Colorado and New York

Vet Day Summit 13

The summit of Mt. Elbert CO. The highest mountain in Colorado, 2nd highest in the lower 48 states. Veterans from the Army and Marines as well as Active Duty Airforce.


This Veterans Day we ran two trips, one in Colorado, and one in New York.  The Colorado group climbed Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in the state at 14, 433 feet or so.  The New York group climbed rock for two days in the Gunks.  The veterans and active duty military that showed up and climbed with us this Veterans Day was dynamic and diverse. 

Not your average Veterans Day Parade

Not your average Veterans Day Parade Colorado

Vet Day walk 2


We had first timers and outdoor professionals.  Male and Female veterans showed up to be contributing members of the larger VetEx team.  The time spent out with all these veterans and all these service stories was nothing short of awesome.  Veterans let their guards down with one another and out came the stories of war and civilian life struggles and success.


VetEx East 2 days of rock climbing in the Gunks group.

VetEx East 2 days of rock climbing in the Gunks group.

Thank you to all those who have served.  These trips are for you!  

Gunks Rock Turner VetEx

Major John Turner tearing up some rock.


9/11 Climbing Trip 2 From Glacier Peak to Mount St. Helens WA

Glacier group w peak

The 3 Amigos. Army, Marines, Air Force Veterans getting after it!


Sometimes you get to go places on expedition and words cannot describe how amazing everything is.  The pictures from our time traveling and climbing in Washington this September 11th say a thousand words.  These volcanoes, trails, rocks, and forests were such an honor to spend quality time in and around.  Glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains were everywhere.  


Look left and see VetEx Co-Founder taking in the magnitude of this vast landscape with Glacier Peak looming in the distance.

Look left and see VetEx Co-Founder Nick Watson taking in the magnitude of this vast landscape with Glacier Peak looming in the distance.

From the lush forests of the North Cascade to the moonscape of Mount St. Helens.  We traveled, hiked, and climbed this land with our eyes wide open and smiles upon our faces.  Three veterans and one non-veteran traveling around and enjoying every second.  We hiked and climbed long, hard days and took none of it for granted.  Army, Air Force, and Marine veterans all exploring this new world together as a team.  If this sounds like fun to you, get on the next trip with VetEx.  See you all outside very soon.

St. Helens summit flag

The summit of Mount St. Helens on 9/11/13

St. Helens showing off Keens

We couldn’t do it with out the Keens on our feet.


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