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.”
To see all of VetEx’s generous sponsors go to: http://188.8.131.52/index.php/about/partners/
This article originally posted on National Geographic Adventure http://adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/11/veterans-climb-north-americas-tallest-peak-denali-is-the-pinnacle-of-land-we-fought-for/ written by our 8th Denali Team member Chris Kassar.
A Veterans Expedition adapting the concept of “LRRP”, Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol to Expeditionary travel and Fly-fishing in wilderness Alaska.
From the trip log of July 9’Th, 2014. “The team assembled in Dillingham. We had a map briefing and reviewed LRRP mission goals. We had a question and answer period then everyone got busy packing waterproof bags with the minimal amount of camping gear, clothing, and fly fishing equipment needed for our expedition.”
The fly-fishing LRRP concept was a brainchild of Nick Watson co-founder and Director of “Veterans Expeditions.” He wanted to involve military veterans in expeditionary planning, travel, and fly fishing in a much more profound way than being passive recipients of a “fully guided fly fishing trip”. Nick wanted veterans to experience something more authentic, something with an “edge” that you could feel viscerally and not something “canned” with passive participation.
Nick wanted the Veteran participants to “own” the physical challenges and to experience the wilderness profoundly. The LRRP fly-fishing trip was born. We’d travel light, scout waters about which little was known, rely on each other as a team, and with a little luck catch some wild fish on the fly!
The morning weather briefing forecast challenging weather but the rain and low clouds lifted enough for visual flight and 8 of us in float planes departed for the bush. We flew into the headwaters of a river deep in the wilderness where Nick had reason to believe that we’d experience complete solitude in an alpine setting where the team could assemble rafts and form teams of paddlers. Then we’d train for the mission.
From the aircraft we scouted the hazards of the upper river and all were awestruck by the remoteness and beauty. The team foresaw the complexity of navigating the shallow channels and the challenges of route finding through passages choked with Cottonwood tree sweepers and tangled root wads.
For 2 days Nick and the participants trained as paddle teams on the headwater lake. To descend the outlet river we had to get the teamwork right. The paddle training was critical to the success of the LRRP because unlike a guided raft trip where a guide, alone controls the river navigation -in a paddled craft much more teamwork is involved applying power and steering strokes.
Fly rods were rigged and the angler/veterans who each had different amounts of fly-fishing experience practiced the techniques they’d need to augment their rations with fresh fish protein. For this type of fishing they cast large streamers imitating baitfish and took some hungry Arctic Char.
From the log of day three. July 12, 2014. “We formed up, into paddle teams who’d stay together for the critical downriver portion and shoved off paddling down lake toward the outlet river through a series of rain squalls. We savored the alpine headwaters environment but were eager for the pull of the current downstream. Down lake there were gusty winds off a snowfield but we gathered confidence as paddle teams. At the outlet some Chum Salmon and a few pods of Sockeye were staged but our focus was on safe wilderness travel so we passed up on that fishing.
We had a LRRP safety meeting at the outlet where the river gathered strength. We discussed what we’d seen in the inbound aerial reconnaissance: ”narrow swift channels, log jams, overhanging willow sweepers, a few rocks, and some flood scoured gravel bars”. We had not seen very many easy- “no brainer” route choices. We decided we would try to send a scout boat ahead whenever the channel outcome was in doubt to prevent pinning a raft against logjams. Then we began the descent. The outcome was unknowable.
I can’t speak for the rest of the team but “I was very anxious”. I’ve done enough descents of rarely run and never-run rivers & creeks in Alaska to know that they don’t all “work out”. This one, although we’d scouted it from the air, might kick our butts if there were major channel obstructions combined with fast current. I knew that the combat Veterans probably had a higher threshold for adrenaline and the unknown than I had.
The teamwork they had developed earlier was critical and hour-by-hour they scouted and ran narrow channels. I’ll never forget the state of alertness of all members of the team. There was not much slack in what the river offered them. There was a slim line between running a “good line” down river through the sweepers and capsizing a boat and needing a rescue. We paddled down a river about which little is known.
No surprise that the guys dug deep and coordinated control of the boats through the narrow channels, eddies, & hazards. There were some “nail biter moments” where once you’d cleared the obstructions with your own boat then you considered the rescue options if your pals behind were in trouble. Although no one else mentioned it that day, my adrenal glands had all the stimulus they needed.
Each camp was different and we adapted to what we found. We had camps with good fishing and camps where we worked overtime to catch dinner. We had some of the most scenic camps of our lives. We even had camps without any biting insects where a person could sleep under the stars.
Like a military campaign; dealing with gear weight is a large part of Alaskan expeditionary planning. In the case of the Veterans Expedition we had the initial constraint of fitting our gear & body weight into high performance, bush capable, aircraft and then the further constraint of moving the gear across the landscape by muscle power. Obviously with these very fit veterans the muscle part of moving gear was not a big issue but weight would be a big issue in boat performance. The heavier the boats the less maneuverable they’d be in the narrow river channels.
What gear to leave behind to improve boat performance? Food & clothing obviously could be cut back. From the earliest stages of planning we considered what our shelter options were with respect to travelling light.
To sleep in tents or no tents? We opted to travel without tents to save forty pounds. We planned to sleep in Black Diamond Bivy sacks clustered under 2 communal shelters.
The fishing was a challenge for the entire trip. It was never “stupid”, never easy, and while we released the small char we eagerly cooked some larger fish to feed the crew.
In the evenings the camp was pitched and the flag raised. In the mornings the flag was properly folded and stowed for travel. This was a flag recently retired from military duty aboard aircraft flying medevac missions in Iraq and Afganistan. This was flown to honor the soldiers that had served in order that some could experience the vastness, solitude, wildness, and freedom of America’s wildlands.
We paddled on and searched for fish- finding them generally at the confluences of tributaries. We were early in the season and the migratory Salmon & Dolly Varden Char were just beginning to arrive in this watershed. Then we explored a tannic, tea stained, creek where baby Mallard ducklings rested. An explosion rocked the water as a Northern Pike attacked a mouse pattern fly.
We paddled on to our final camp aware that good fortune allowed these men to have survived hostile military actions. They re-entered civilian life and brought all their training & passion for teamwork together with their love of the outdoors to accomplish the Veterans Expeditions Alaska Long Range Reconnaissance & Patrol mission safely and successfully.
“Our first such mission in June 2013 was an unqualified success, and we want to build on that,” said Hunnicutt. “Veterans Expeditions co-founder and friend Nick Watson and I share a belief based upon our own individual experiences recovering from the effects of combat and the difficulties faced while trying to reintegrate into civilian society. Each of us, and countless others, found the solace we sought in the outdoors. Wilderness provides an opportunity to view your life in relation to something far greater and can help you find or create a stable center inside you, one that you can revisit when needed. This concept has proven itself over and over, from Outward Bound to Veterans Expeditions. Lives are changed for the better by the wilderness experience.”
According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Many more struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, lives upset by multiple deployments, financial difficulties and delayed benefits.
Watson, a former Army Ranger, recruited participants from the VetEx community. In 2013, VetEx ran more than 30 trips across the United States, getting hundreds of military veterans outside and earning the honor of 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year.
“The time spent out with all these veterans and all these service stories is nothing short of awesome,” said Watson. “Veterans let their guards down with one another, and out came the stories of war and civilian life struggles and success.”
This trip is fully funded by donations at no charge to the veterans. 100% of funds raised go directly toward trip expenses, with no administrative fees or salaries.
If you know a veteran who might be eligible for Veterans Expeditions, or to volunteer or contribute, please contact Lee Hunnicutt at email@example.com or Nick Watson at Nick@vetexpeditions.com.
About Veterans Expeditions
Veterans Expeditions is a veteran led, chartered non-profit in the State of Colorado. Veterans Expeditions has an independent board and operates nationwide. Their mission is to empower veterans to overcome challenges associated with military service through outdoor training and leadership. Learn more at www.vetexpeditions.com.
About Friends of Browns Canyon
For years, a local coalition comprised of recreationists, sportsmen and local businesses have been working to protect Browns Canyon. The Friends of Browns Canyon, along with bipartisan lawmakers, are working towards permanent protection of the approximately 20,000-acre area.
Learn more at www.brownscanyon.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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@example.com. 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.
1031 E St.
Salida, CO 81201
Vote for Nick Watson and Stacy Bare (VetEx Co-Founders) for the Peoples Choice Award
Nick and Stacy have been awarded 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for their work at Veterans Expeditions.