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
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.
Overall gear rating: 4.8/5.
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.
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://220.127.116.11/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.
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.” Continue reading Mountaineering can offer vets a chance to get out of their ‘own head’
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. Continue reading Gear Review: DeLorme InReach Explorer
This winter we ran snowshoe and ice climbing trips in New Hampshire, New York, and Colorado. Hundreds of military veterans attended our trips. Our 1st Annual VetFest in North Conway, New Hampshire kicked off the season with Ice Climbing for all abilities and a successful Mount Washington mountaineering summit attempt. VetFest saw vets and military from all over the Northeast. It was a great way to kick off the winter season with gear givaways, guest speaker Steve Arsenault, and so much more. Stay tuned this winter as we will make this years VetFest even bigger. Thanks to the VICE group and Cathedral Mountain Guides for teaming up with us and creating such a fun winter event for our vets. Continue reading VetEx 2015 Winter Recap
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.
Temperatures suddenly drop and clouds dominate the skyline. Light rain morphs to flurries. The wind gains strength driving snow sideways through the canyon we’ve called home for the last week.
Some hoods go up, but other than that no one seems to notice. It’s business as usual on the last day of the 2nd Annual Veterans Expeditions Ice Climbing Camp in Hyalite Canyon outside Bozeman, Montana. Climbers move upward on the icy blue wall while belayers below remain focused on keeping their partners safe.
Photograph by Chris Kassar
Half way up a fat, somewhat picked out waterfall, Samantha Tinsley doesn’t skip a beat even though wind and snow swirl about making it feel as if we’re in a tiny, recently shaken snow globe. She climbs steadily and pauses periodically to perform an odd ritual that involves reaching her arms overhead and clapping … five giant claps. Then, without fanfare, she resumes her ascent.
Wondering why someone would act so foolishly mid-climb? Well, because renowned climber Conrad Anker, told her to try it. And honestly, who can refuse a recommendation from one of the premier alpinists in the world? Not many and especially not someone like Tinsley, an ex- Sergeant First Class in the Army who is always up for a challenge. But, Anker’s exercise wasn’t just a fun test or a way to make her look silly. This trailblazing mountaineer with a huge heart suggested it because steadying your feet, securing tools, and clapping enthusiastically overhead mimics the balance needed to place ice screws–a skill critical to learning to lead climb.
Throughout the week, Anker humbly shared countless such climbing secrets, tons of life wisdom, loads of laughs and his cut of camp chores with this diverse team of 13 military veterans and active duty service members brought together through a partnership between Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), Sierra Club Mission Outdoors and Montana Alpine Guides.
“I didn’t serve, but there are so many guys and gals returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who deserve our respect and have a lot to offer,” says Anker who also joined the group last year in Hyalite. “Spending a week sharing my backyard with this incredible group of veterans and helping them find a sense of connection and camaraderie is my little way of helping out. It’s an honor for me to be a part of this.”
And, of course, it’s an honor for the participants to climb with Anker, known for successfully tackling some of the most technically challenging terrain in the world. “In 2013, I came as active duty and was blown away and humbled by the group, the guides and especially Conrad, whose energy was infectious. Everyone was so helpful, supportive and team-oriented including Conrad who was quick to help with the not-so-glamorous chores of chopping wood and cooking. Looking to continue a life of service post military, Conrad gives much to emulate,” says Tinsley who had only climbed ice once before joining the inaugural Veterans Expeditions Hyalite Canyon excursion last March.
Sam Tinsley crushing it in Hyalite Canyon, Montana; Photograph by Chris Kassar
After a week in Hyalite, she was hooked on ice and on VetEx because there were no expectations or requirements to talk about feelings or experiences. “We could just climb and have fun and let things happen naturally,” says Tinsley. “Being outside with a group of military folks that way is amazing. There’s a shared common bond that makes us click so quickly. From the first day, it’s like we’ve known each other forever.”
So, Tinsley jumped at the chance to return this year during which she tested her skills on steep WI6 chutes, tough mixed routes and learned a bit about leading. But, she didn’t come back only–or even mostly—for the ice. She came back seeking support from friends new and old and hoping to gain the perspective required to handle one of the biggest changes in her life to date. Just days before boarding a plane to Montana, Tinsley, who logged 11½ years of service including several international deployments, officially left the service and became a veteran.
“Sam is in transition. She’s asking the same questions we’ve all asked. What comes next? What can I do as a civilian that’s even going to remotely match the excitement of what I did in the military?” says Veterans Expeditions Executive Director and co-founder, Nick Watson. “Time outdoors with VetEx helps folks like Sam find the space to make some big life decisions and since we’ve all been there, she can look to us for guidance and support.”
And, lean on folks she has. In fact, Tinsley credits the relationships formed on last year’s trip with getting her through this uncertain and difficult transition. “Once I decided to separate, I reached out to the vets I met here for advice and I didn’t feel completely lost anymore. Already having those handrails in place and that support network set up was incredible,” says Tinsley.
This is exactly what Watson and ex-Army Captain Stacy Bare envisioned VetEx would become when they founded it in 2010. They sought to unite veterans in the outdoors, but more importantly to create a community that transcends the mountains and reaches into everyday life.
“Often after leaving the service, vets are bored and lose that spark. Getting them outside, doing something meaningful on the land they defended has an enormous amount of power to reignite that spark and get them unstuck,” says Watson. “Plus, out here we’re all just climbers and climbing is a lot like serving–it’s fun, dangerous, and at times, your life is in another’s hands. That creates the potential for strong connections that stretch beyond the rivers, peaks, deserts, crags and icy waterfalls where they are made.”
Photograph by Chris Kassar
Bare and Watson were named 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for turning their vision into reality, however, with over 21 million veterans living in the US, many of whom struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress, and 2.5 million service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 alone, they know their work has just begun.
But, they also know they are not alone since the VetEx family consists of teachers like Anker and participants like Tinsley who are dedicated to helping VetEx reach new heights and achieve its lofty goals. “The outdoors provides the elbow room to reflect on where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you’re going,” says Tinsley. “I’m very humbled these opportunities exist for vets and am doing my part to get the message out to veterans and soon-to-be-veterans who need this experience. VetEx provides an incredible and unmatched opportunity to build community and make friends that will last a lifetime.”
To see more photos visit: www.chriskassar.com/photos.
To watch a short video from our week in Hyalite at: http://vimeo.com/89679719.