Tag Archives: National Geographic Adventure

Veterans Climb North America’s Tallest Peak to Heal the Wounds of War

Denali Team descending the summit ridge. Photo by Army Vet Dan Wiwczar
Denali Team descending the summit ridge. Photo by Army Vet Dan Wiwczar

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.

Nathan Perrault on Denali, Alaska; Photograph by Chris Kassar
Nathan Perrault on Denali, Alaska; Photograph by Chris Kassar

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.

The team on Denali's summit; Photograph by Dan Wiwczar
The team on Denali’s summit; Photograph by Dan Wiwczar

“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.”

Crossing the glacier, Denali; Photograph by Chris Kassar
Crossing the glacier, Denali; Photograph by Chris Kassar

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.

John Krueger on the summit ridge, Denali; Photograph by Chris Kassar
John Krueger on the summit ridge, Denali; Photograph by Chris Kassar

“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:

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.

Return to Hyalite Canyon: Veterans Build Community That Stretches Beyond Mountains

Return to Hyalite Canyon: Veterans Build Community That Stretches Beyond Mountains

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

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

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

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.

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 nick@vetexpeditions.com 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 nick@vetexpeditions.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.

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.