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).
Dan Wiwczar, Chris Kassar, AJ Hunter, Nick Watson, Daniel Pond, Nathan Perrault, Demond Mullins, John Krueger. The 8 For 22 Climb for the Fallen Team.
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.
This group of veterans had some things in common: they had all been out with VetEx on several trips and on several occasions, they all were climbers and avid outdoor people, they all served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both, all were willing to step up their own training programs, attend lots of team training’s, fork over their own cash to help fund the trip, and fund-raise for trip costs. All vets cited climbing and the outdoors as a key component in their transition from active duty service to civilian life. All were very comfortable with the statement, “climbing saved my life”. Meet our team by watching this short film https://vimeo.com/118863719.
We set our sites at training and sponsors for the month of January through March. We pitched gear companies at the Outdoor Retailer show. We raised money, we hit up sponsors, we trained. Over and over again. Our training consisted of ice climbing, running, biking, gym workouts, carrying weight uphill, hiking, snowshoeing, and several 1/2 team and all team training’s. Our team training’s were held in upstate New York and Colorado. This team’s ability and desire to train hard on their own and train together as a team was a huge factor in our overall success and safety on the mountain.
Hilleberg tents with Homesteak peak in the background. The 10th Mtn Division trained and camped here as they prepared for the Alps in WW II. This area was perfect for our team to test gear and get ready for our Denali expedition.
We set up fixed lines on Monarch Pass for our final team training in Colorado. We tested out our high altitude parka’s, bibs, and sleeping bags from Millet that just arrived prior to our final training. We packed up gear, finished off our food and shopping list for over 3 weeks on the mountain. We were ready for the next leg of our journey, transporting our team and gear from Colorado to Anchorage Alaska and then on to Talkeetna. One final training to get feedback from our friend and climbing mentor Luis Benitez. Luis checked how the team roped up together and the systems we use for fix lines and crevasse rescue. Luis liked what he saw in our team and gave us the final check we needed before flying out for Alaska. Luis told the team, “you guys are ready”.
Luis Benitez gives direction to team member John Krueger on self rescue.
Johnny and Dan prep group gear.
Daniel Pond and Dan Wiwczar get their Millet sizes right.
The travel was pretty easy going. We had great weather, no delays, and our team arrived safely with all of our gear. We linked up with some local vets who would help us with lodging in Anchorage and with our logistics, food shopping, final gear needs, and transportation to Talkeetna. Things were going smoothly. We were all very happy with that. We arrived in Talkeetna in the late afternoon on May 21st. We met with our pilots at K2 Aviation, set up our fly out on the following day, and settled into our lodging for the next 2 nights in Talkeetna.
We can’t say enough about K2 Aviation. They sponsored our flights on and off the glacier. That’s how highly they think of our vets.
The following day we met with the National Park Service Denali Rangers for our final briefing. The National Park Service does a very impressive job keeping Denali clean and safe. We often climbed with the rangers on the mountain and spent some down time with their climbing teams as well. We spent time with the rangers at the Visitor Center talking with tourists and climbers alike. The visitor center hung our banner in their lobby for the rest of the climbing season.
Our team banner hangs in the Talkeetna NPS Visitor Center.
We spent the rest of the day packing all of our gear that would come with us for the next 3 weeks plus. We staged it to be weighed and dispersed over 2 plane loads in the K2 Aviation hanger. We had a team dinner and readied ourselves for the expedition. Years of planning and preparing behind us. It was time to climb the summit of “The Land Defended”, the top of North America.
We landed on the Kahiltna Glacier and the white world that would be our home for the next 3 weeks. Our team got right to work packing their sleds for travel to camp 1, 7800 ft. camp. Training was already paying off as everyone knew what to do and the team was ready to travel in no time. I lead out team number 1 and Dan Wiwczar lead out team 2. We set out across the glacier on the lower mountain.
We arrived at camp 1 at 7800 ft. and set up camp. Finishing off our 1st day and our only single carry of our ascent. Weather would slow our progress here as we would need to wait out the heavy, wet snow.
When the weather cleared we did a carry up to camp 2 at 11,000 ft. We then moved camp up to camp 2 in pretty solid weather. Team spirits were high. Everyone was still just so blown away on the size and scale of everything out on the glacier. Everything in the lower 48 is tiny in comparison.
We set up camp 2 at 11,000 feet. It was a pretty solid camp. Space was tight and we made the best of it. We got some more weather, the wind picked up, and we looked for a window to get through windy corner for a carry to camp 3.
We got a window to move and set out for camp 3. We climbed Motorcycle Hill and then Squirrel Hill. The winds picked up after Squirrel Hill. The wind chill was getting dangerous and we put on face masks and goggles and kept our heads down.
The wind was bad around Windy Corner. We pushed hard to get through and the winds died once we got through the rock fall area. We cached our gear at camp 3 (14,000 ft.) and headed back down to camp 2. On the way back through Windy Corner, we were hit with rock fall. A large boulder came down between myself and Demond that got everyone’s attention. It had been an eventful day. The team did very well with all the challenges. It was a big step forward for us and the team was excited.
We regrouped and moved our camp up to camp 3 at 14,000 ft. The team was tired, but in good spirits. We would take a rest day, build up our camp, then tackle a carry to camp 4 at 17,000 feet.
Camp 3, 14,000 ft. camp. We didn’t know it then, but we would wait out several storms here.
We headed up the head-wall above camp 3. This is when the climbing starts on this route (the West Buttress). We would need to negotiate the fixed lines to gain the ridge and walk along the ridge to camp 4 where we would cache our gear, have lunch and descend back down to our camp. This was our first taste of high altitude climbing on the mountain. The team rocked the fixed lines and
were humbled by the exposure on the ridge. The way down the fixed lines is much harder and we struggled to find our pace and method. Most of the team was feeling the effects of the altitude. It was an amazing day. The weather was a bit windy and cold, but it would prove to be the best weather we would see in a long time. The next time we climbed the fixed lines we were pushed back by very high winds. When we did make it back up to camp 4 for our summit attempt, we were hit with very high winds again along the ridge. Winds that knocked us over while we were standing on a ridge just a foot or 2 wide in many places. That ridge walk scared all of us straight. If we weren’t already focused, now we were super focused on the job at hand.
What I am glazing over is that we spent over 2 weeks waiting out the weather at camp 3 for our summit bid. We were on pace to be off the mountain in under 2 weeks. Instead we spent more than that amount of time waiting out weather. The team showed it’s maturity and intestinal fortitude by waiting out the weather for that long. We played Frisbee, went on walks to the Edge of the World, created the Camp 3 Olympics, went up and down the fixed lines, read books, ate food, and tried to keep our heads in the game of climbing this mountain.
Camp 3. We built it up to handle the storms. We were very comfortable in our Hilleberg tents and Millet sleeping bags.
Camp 3 Olympics. This is our very own Dan W. competing in the wand launch.
We spent a lot of time in the cook tent at camp 3 cooking meals and hanging out.
Our plan for our summit attempt was simple, don’t go up to camp 4 until we had a 2 to 3 day climbing window. We would take our chances fighting out the weather at camp 3. Our plan was to move camp and go for our summit bid the following day. It would be very important to save energy on our move and camp set up day. We were hoping for the winds to die down and that we would not have to dig in a camp at 17,000 feet. We ended up getting blasted by high winds all day and having to dig in a bomber camp to help shelter us from the wind. We worked harder than we wanted, but the team was working well at taking care of themselves and each other at this point. I remember being so proud of the team while we were having lunch in our newly dug swimming pool that would soon be our camp 4.
Camp 4 17,000 feet.
The next morning we awoke to high winds and cold temps. We got ready for our summit bid as we kept a close eye on the ridge above Denali Pass where spin drift was showing us how high the winds were. We decided to wait out the wind. By late morning, the winds finally died. We finally had the weather we needed to summit. Now all the team needed to do was put in a solid day and keep out of trouble. We headed out of camp 4 at 17,000 ft. trying to hold back the excitement.
The climb above camp 4 below Denali Pass
Pig Hill is the final climb up to the summit ridge
We were climbing very well. Smooth and steady. The team looked strong today. We all knew that this was our time to shine after waiting so long for the opportunity to have a summit bid. We topped out on Denali Pass and took a break for a snack and water. It was cold, but the winds had died down. We had clear skies and great visibility. It was pretty clear that we got the day we needed. We climbed on and reached the base of Pig Hill, our final climb to gain the summit ridge.
The summit ridge
At the top of Pig Hill, just below the summit along the ridge, I started to feel the effects of altitude sickness. I was starting to get a bit spacey and was suffering from a very bad headache. I took myself off the lead of team number 1 and Daniel Pond stepped up into that role. I felt okay enough to continue, but made the right decision of taking myself off the lead of our rope teams and having a team member who was feeling well take over. Just another illustration of the strength of this team. We were very comfortable being honest with one another. We made the change in our rope team and we drove on to the summit of North America. The pinnacle of the “Land Defended”.
Denali summit marker/benchmark
The 8 For 22 Climb For the Fallen team on the summit of North America
We made it. We laughed, we cried, we hung out, took pictures, and enjoyed over an hour on the summit. The view was amazing. We just took it in and tried to comprehend all that we experienced on this expedition. It was June 15th 2015. A day this team will never forget. We had spent 25 days on the mountain to this point. We held pictures of our fallen friends, remembered all who wanted to be here, yelled into the wind, and slapped some high fives. Our team had done what we sought to do, we summited together as a unified team of military veterans. We paid our respects one last time and headed back down.
Descending the summit ridge in our Millet summit parkas
We want to thank Millet and their MXP Grant Program for selecting our team. We could not have pulled off the summit of North America and The Land Defended without your help and belief in our military veterans.
And then down the mountain we went. Thank you to our other expedition sponsors and look out for gear reviews of the gear that made it up and down Denali. Thank you Petzl for our climbing harnesses, crampons, and hard goods. Thank you Hilleberg Tents for the Keron tents that made our stay on the mountain so much more enjoyable. Thank you Julbo for the eye wear. Thank you K2 Aviation for flying us to and from the glacier. Thank you Thermarest for the sleeping pads that kept us warm. Thank you Smartwool for the socks and glove liners. Thank you Delorme and Outfitter Satellite Phones for the technologies that allowed us to communicate off the mountain. Thank you Meal Kit Supply and Alpine Aire for the MRE’s and freeze dried food. Thank you Stanley for the mugs and thermoses. We will leave you with some shots of us climbing down to basecamp. Visit our sponsorship page here http://vetexpeditions.com/about/partners/. Text by Nick Watson, VetEx Executive Director and Denali Team Leader, photos by the team.
VetEx Wild River Guides LRRP Team 2015 on the 4th of July
A team of Veterans undertakes the first fly-fishing expedition on the Kanektok River of 2015; adapting techniques of “LRRP”, Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol.
From the trip log of June 27th, 2015. “The team of 7 Veterans accompanied by a journalist assembled in Dillingham and joined the staff of Alaska’s Wild River Guides. We studied the topographic maps of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and reviewed our expeditionary goals then got busy packing the minimal amount of camping gear, clothing, and fly fishing equipment needed to accomplish the first raft descent of the Kanektok in 2015.”
We planned to travel lighter than standard guided trips to enable us to efficiently explore farther from the established channels and pioneer some new camps off the main river channel. To do this we’d forgo traditional tents in favor of Black Diamond Megamids and Bivy sacks under a group tarp shelter. We’d drastically reduce the amount of food we’d carry and cut weight by configuring ½ our rafts as paddle rafts, saving almost 100 pounds in oar frames and oars. We asked participants to shave weight in their personal gear so that rafts would be as light as possible.
Wings, Black Diamond Mega Mids, and Bivy sacks keep the loads light on LRRP missions like this expedition
This was the third annual Veterans Expeditions Alaska Fly Fishing Trip and the second year of experimenting with the “LRRP” (Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol) concept. The annual Alaska trip is a brainchild of Nick Watson co-founder and Director of “Veterans Expeditions.” Nick strives to involve military veterans in expeditionary travel, and fly-fishing in a more profound way than being passive recipients of a “fully guided fly fishing trip”. Nick wants veterans to experience authentic and visceral, even edgy expeditionary travel rather than something “canned” with passive participation. We’d see if we were up to his standards.
The LRRP concept applied to expeditionary fly fishing is to travel light without excess gear, to explore lesser known waters off the beaten track- to use scouts to reconnoiter where potentially hazardous conditions might put participants at risk – to explore vantage points gained from uplands away from the river, to rely on each other as a team to solve problems, and with a little luck catch the first wild Kanektok fish of the season on the fly!
VetEx Executive Director Nick Watson and Board President Lee Hunnicutt talk it over as they prep for the float plane flights that will take their team into the Alaska Bush for a week of adventure
The team of Veterans had a range of skills with individual strengths and weaknesses but one thing was shared by all. They were passionate outdoors-men. One was a committed mountain biker. Several were alpine climbers. One was gifted with great orienteering skills. Another had just returned from kayaking in Glacier Bay. One had several years of Alaskan experience. They’d served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, the middle east and worldwide in various capacities. Along the way, like military veterans nationwide, they’d suffered injuries both on and off the battlefield and to a man they’d lost buddies in combat and various other traumas. One participant took his cap off revealing a six-inch scar from a battlefield injury to the skull. Another walked into our initial briefing with a prosthetic leg from an I.E.D explosion. Purple hearts from wounds in Vietnam told another story. Halting speech from a team member with a brilliant mind evidenced another’s traumatic brain injury.
Fly out day started at 0600 hrs getting packed, breakfasted, time at the float-plane lake to weigh all the gear, and load it into aircraft. We flew outbound through mountain passes in float-planes. We passed the Gechiak Lake fire, a 14,000 acre lightning fire under the left wing in the Togiak River drainage then angled north past Kemuk Lake, and turned west before descending into Pegati Lake, the headwaters of the Kanektok. The air logistics to move our party of 12, consumed much of the day.
2 paddle rafts that could go light and fast and 2 oar boats to carry bulkier gear were assembled by a team with above average mechanical skills. Then we shoved off downriver. With the LRRP group we’d travel late into the first evening and use the midnight sun to “crack off” some miles, fully aware we could have an easier time of it camping at the lake. The team pushed ahead late as the midnight sun extinguished itself to the north and passed a cow moose with a calf. Participants alternately dragged rafts through the shallows then paddled through alpine pools. Paddlers worked on their strokes.
A leopard spotted Rainbow Trout was taken on a streamer and then released as we paddled. The first couple of fish inspired us. We paddled on through scattered cumulus showers and minor gusty squalls for more than a dozen miles as the sun set to the north. This was not an ordinary group of armchair adventurers. They pushed farther and harder with the LRRP objectives to go beyond where the guides had camped and boated before, breaking new ground. A simple pasta dinner fueled our bodies. The wind died after midnight and the mosquitoes were horrific. In the early hours of the second morning the group turned in to sleep.
There was ice on the camp at sunrise on day 2 as the coffee boiled. Alaska’s skies had been “severe clear” last night, with temperatures below freezing. What more would the day bring? We broke camp and passed a fresh 200-acre lightning fire scar in the alpine tundra way up on a mountainside while thunderheads filled in the sky and the crags rang with thunder. Cold downdrafts followed by icy rain. The teams paddled on, hoods cinched tight.
The vets hiked up a remote tributary while Lee and I stayed with the rafts. We fished a bit and waited for the younger participants to return. Lee and I are in our seventh decade and are OK letting the younger adventurers rack up higher mileage days as long as they returned to us later with fishing “beta”. Lee and I found ways to prop ourselves in the rafts and nap until their return.
As we passed down river a bull Caribou was seen on a ridge on river left. By days end we were more than 24 miles from the lake and found a gravel bar camp which had signs of hosting a moose hunter’s camp in a prior year. Biting black gnats were terrible when the wind died but we were fairly well protected by head-nets, buffs, and our shelters.
For several days we explored side channels which hadn’t seen an angler in 8 months using a style of travel we called “jungle tours”. Unlike a typical guided raft trip where a guide navigates only specific river channels based upon the prior trip’s navigation and fishing success, with this team we wanted to learn channels not previously scouted. We’d send ahead a raft with scouts to ascertain whether a channel was navigable (prior to committing the full group). Because we were the first group of rafts on the river in 2015 there was in fact no way to know how the spring floods had rearranged the channels. Scouting was also particularly critical because our 2 paddle rafts required much more teamwork applying power strokes, managing speed, and effectively steering than our two oar boats. Vets in the paddle rafts experienced considerably more adrenaline per hour than those of us in the oar boats because of close encounters with sweepers.
We descended into the portion of the Kanektok known as “the braids.” The Kanektok valley was blanketed with wildfire smoke and it began to drizzle. Jordan and Nick traveled with me and we exchanged stories to pass the time. Jordan shared Alaskan adventures from his years at Fort Richardson and Nick, just off a successful summit attempt on Denali had his own Alaska adventures to recount. We passed slowly down the tundra valley measuring our progress against mountain landmarks. Our scout boat found the vanguard of the 2015 salmon run that afternoon. Small pods of Sockeye, and Chums, and a single pair of King salmon rested in a quiet pool. The salmon had come 60 miles upriver by this point while we had descended nearly 40.
Camp 3 was below a dramatic bluff on a side channel we’d never stayed at before. Crews dragged the rafts up a side channel making camp in a zone none of us had ever experienced, keeping with our exploratory goals. Ravens silently came and went from a nest on the bluff. A huge solitary Brown bear’s tracks marked the sand bar and likewise tracks of a solo wolf. The bear that left those prints was one of the great old males whose tracks are only seen in the early season before people are on the river, then absent all summer, only returning very late in the autumn when man has left. Nick and I found scraps of fur and some vertebrae from a beaver, which had been recently consumed by either the Bear or Wolf.
Fly rods engaged us with sport for hours as the landscape scrolled by and provided food for the table. The anglers searched with dry flies, streamers, egg patterns, and nymphs taking Rainbows and Arctic Grayling, which were released. On day 3 Jordan Vaughn hooked, played, and ultimately lost a huge slab of a Rainbow, while the crew ate lunch and cheered him on. On day 4 Lee & Jordan lost track of the numbers of Rainbow they released, including some spectacular trophy fish. One day we killed a Dolly Varden Char for supper that had a 5-inch long fingerling trout protruding from it’s mouth. That night we had a simple dinner of Dolly Varden and rice.
The animals we saw as we paddled downriver, in addition to Caribou, were mainly migratory birds. The brilliant Arctic Tern was a constant companion, scooping up salmon fry and delivering them into the blood red bill of their mate at the nest. The large sandpiper whose presence was so notable was the Greater Yellowlegs, which swooped about shrieking like a car alarm as we passed through their nesting territories. A territorial Harlans hawk screamed at us and Bald Eagles watched as we slipped past. A small colony of Cliff Swallow nests was discovered on an overhung rock bluff that looked like a human nose just above the river. We passed a family of Great Horned Owls. The birds and the smaller animals like Mink and Beaver were the bulk of wildlife seen on the river, while the “mega-fauna” like Caribou, were the memorable punctuation marks to the trip.
From the log of. July 1, 2015. The log records “James is amazing with his prosthetic leg.” We traveled beyond the mountains onto the coastal plain. The high ground receded behind us and the river developed huge meandering loops, oxbows, and vast gravel bars littered with driftwood from prior floods. “The salmon pools are now longer and broader with emerald water”… and we explored new side channels but did not find many salmon or Char. “Today we saw the first set of human tracks, besides our own of the season”.
We camped below a huge curving bluff that the Veterans ascended the following morning. As we spent days travelling together and night’s camping the team members shared stories of patrols rocked by IED explosive blasts and ambushes which left survivors with traumatic brain injuries, shrapnel wounds, followed by amputations, and rehabilitation. If ever there was a group of individuals grateful to be on an expedition across the vast Alaskan landscape this is the group.
I can’t speak for the rest of the team but by day five I was fatigued by the long days of travel and the short, midnight sun drenched nights of sleep. Still we had more big days of travel ahead. From the log of July 2, 2015: “Jordan was on fire with lot’s of hookups and he took the first chrome bright Sea Run Dolly of the 2015 season.” We began seeing significant numbers of Sockeye as well as Dolly Varden. Now in the lower river the sport fishery grew more intense and the anglers put the fly-casting skills honed on prior days to work taking salmon and char as well as rainbows.
Vietnam veteran Lee Hunnicutt, the president of the Veterans Expeditions board took the oars on July 2nd.” Lee is an extraordinarily accomplished man, a natural athlete and leader. Lee rows class IV whitewater at home in Colorado and wanted practice rowing anglers with fly rods. On the oars we coached him just a bit, about the angle and distance to keep the boat from the target water and he took to it immediately. Brian and I fished as Lee rowed.
Unquestionably the use of paddle rafts was much more demanding on the team than traditional fly-fishing oar boats. There were some very tough moments avoiding entrapment in sweepers where only effective teamwork saved the day. The teamwork the Vets developed paddling and camping through “Jungle tour” section made the second half of the journey through the broad lower river seem straightforward. The boats were having increasing success with salmon, char, and trout and camp setup and breakdown was smooth.
Steve Burns participated in every activity and did well. He reminisced after the trip that “I’m still recovering from a very serious traumatic brain injury and have issues with speech and balance” He remembers that one day he tripped over a tent guy-line and hit the gravel quite hard. From all quarters of camp came teammates racing to help him recover and after the trip he reminded me “how selfless the group was”. He said “I’ll always remember the amazing crew that accompanied me on the river”.
On July 3rd after several days of fair skies and good travel conditions the weather turned hot and windy and smoke haze from Kuskokwim River wildfires dominated the atmosphere. We fished and rafted in the lower river listening to the songs of “dueling” male Golden-crowned Sparrows alternating from opposite banks. It’d been a week since we’d experienced any electronic media. Our audible world was bird calls and the river sounds and our friends. We created our own fun with bantering camp chatter and humorous remarks punctuated with rock skipping competitions. That plus fly-casting was all we needed to pass the time.
From the log of July 3, 2015 at 8:00 pm. “A new wildfire ignited about one mile upriver from us”. It was growing rapidly and the smoke of burning tundra was laying low over our camp. Smoke turned the sun to the color of an apricot and then the sky nearly blackened. We assessed our camp situation defensively. The light hearted feelings of earlier in the day were replaced with sober questions as to whether our camp was defensible, about whether to pack camp and travel through the late hours? “The winds were steady at 5 mph, gusting to 15 and pushing the fire toward us.”
Our wildfire defensibly assessment concluded that we were bordered on 2 sides by the river on a sufficiently inflammable gravel bar, backed by a less flammable riparian corridor of green willows. We figured that we were likely in a safe zone. We watched the sky darken but the fire must have run out of fuel because it did not advance much further. We slept in the smoky gloom and later in the night a light rain washed the air clean.
Like a military mission; dealing with gear bulk and weight is a large part of Alaskan expeditionary logistics. In the case of the Veterans Expeditions trip we had the initial constraint of fitting our gear & body weight into high performance, bush capable, aircraft with finite capacity and then later of moving the gear across the landscape by paddle power.
Our team members had various abilities from athletic alpinists to significantly disabled anglers. One team member was a leg amputee who surprised everyone with his abilities wading, dragging rafts, and packing gear across uneven terrain. Mornings he’d hop into camp one legged then attach his carbon fiber leg and grab a coffee. We had a team member with a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) of epic proportions who paddled well, developed a serviceable cast, and packed dry bags across the gravel bars with the rest of us.
Weight limits and paddle raft performance? We knew the paddle rafts must be as light as possible. Food & clothing would be cut back to save weight. We didn’t carry coolers nor any ice, saving dozens of pounds. Bacon and eggs and perishables? No. We packed light dry foods like pasta and rice with high calories that could be supplemented with fish. From the earliest stages of planning we considered what our shelter options were with respect to travelling light. To sleep in tents or not? 8 of us slept in Black Diamond Bivy sacks clustered under communal MSR Outfitter Wing shelters saving 75 pounds of tentage.
The fishing during the first week of the Kanektok season was never “stupid”, nor easy, and while we released the majority of the fish hooked, the group worked hard to kill an occasional salmon or a brace of Char feed the crew. Each of us took note when a “supper fish” was killed for dinner. A fish for supper meant something different than it would if a cooler of steaks had been brought along.
The fishing changed dramatically for the better on July 4, with V wakes from incoming pods of Char & Sockeye pushing across riffles and holding in eddies. Now the fly-fishing turned on providing opportunities, challenges, and spectacular fresh fish for dinner. The Dolly Varden were eager to feed on salmon eggs and took trout beads without hesitation. We experienced the strength of Char who’d just returned to fresh water after months eating a rich diet in the saltwater. They charged about the riffles like Steelhead and porpoised across the flats when hooked.
On Independence Day, we paddled to our final camp flying the stars & stripes above an oar boat. Each of us was acutely aware that fortune allowed these particular men to survive where others had fallen. As we passed down the final miles of the Kanektok, flag raised, powerboats from the fishing lodges pulled aside and cut their motors to let the Veterans pass. It was completely unscripted and a fitting end to a great adventure.
Trip Report written by Mark Rutherford, owner of Wild River Guides. We can’t thank Mark enough for the time and effort he puts into these expeditions! Mark gives our vets all he has. We are forever grateful.
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.
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.”
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.
The author and our leader on this expedition, Mark Rutherford.
Our crew being extracted just prior to storm rolling in.
A week on the Togiak River with Warren MacDonald, who fly fishes from his wheelchair, and with Nick Watson – disabled Army Ranger / founder of Veterans Expeditions, and Dick Watson, his father – a Vietnam Veteran.
From the trip log: “Some hours we passed through schools of salmon and Dolly Varden Char and other hours we fished through a pristine river devoid of fish but full of beauty. We traveled in all kinds of weather and that felt like we were earning our place among the wildlife on the landscape, as only those who live exposed out in the elements, can earn their passage. Some days we saw a powerboat from a fishing lodge or from Togiak Village, and they gazed at the wheelchair lashed on our raft and raised a hand of greeting.
I knew within seconds of meeting former Army Ranger Nick Watson that his outlook on life and his good attitude about challenges would help make our fly-fishing expedition a success. As he deplaned in Dillingham I reached out to shake his hand and was amazed at what he handed me! Oops I should have remembered that it was his right hand that had been re-shaped by 6 surgeries.
The partial hand that returned my handshake was strong and calloused and the human face above it smiled saying that he was pleased to meet me. His father, Dick Watson, reached out and crushed my hand saying that he’d fished for Striped Bass all his life in New England and was excited to learn to fly fish with his son for salmon and trout.
Down the hall rolled our third angler, Warren MacDonald on an all terrain wheelchair. Warren is a “double- below the knee- amputee”. He had a big grin upon arrival and while we headed to the baggage claim I told him that I was surprised at how he’d deplaned so quickly. I couldn’t mentally grasp how he’d descended Dillingham’s old-fashioned aircraft stairs, which are like those used on DC 3’s in the 1950’s, as fast as the other passengers. He explained in a very understated manner that he appreciated the flight crew’s offers of assistance to transfer him to an aisle wheel chair and help him down the stairs but that he’d maneuvered down the aisle and then the stairs using his arms, torso, and the stumps of legs. He said it takes him more time explaining to various airport agents how he could manage it by himself -than it takes just launching down the stairs.
I wondered how well would Nick do fly fishing with one good hand and how Warren would manage with no legs and how would Dick Watson learn to fly fish after a lifetime of bait fishing in the salt? None of those answers were clear at first but as the week passed the group’s fly-fishing and wilderness travel success built upon ten thousand bits of technique. The other question I pondered is: will fly-fishing grow and evolve with the participation of these disabled anglers and Army veterans? By participating will they change the sport?
VetEx Co-Founder Nick Watson even caught fish.
Dick Watson returned from his tour in Vietnam while I was still in high school in the early 1970’sm and he spent the next 30 years building a steel fabricating business in New England. Within an hour of landing in Dillingham we found ourselves asking Dick if he could repair Warren’s wheelchair where metal fatigue had caused the chair seat to fail. His answer was, “Of course I can fix it. Have I got access to some materials and tools?” So to keep the expedition moving forward Dick went to work on repairs that will probably last the life of the chair. That was just the first instance where Dick and the other participants “welded” the trip together using technique brought from their life experience and adapted to the challenges of Togiak River travel.
Vietnam Veteran Dick Watson gets dropped off at Togiak Lake AK
Our fly-fishing objective was the Togiak Wildlife Refuge where we’d raft and fly-fish 60 miles, nearly the entire Togiak River. We planned to camp using alpine mountaineering tents for shelter and we would share the workload among the group. We had a strong team. In addition to Warren, Nick, & Dick: three of my experienced Alaska fishing instructor / guides had volunteered for the trip plus Patagonia Fly fishing Ambassador Dave McCoy. All eight of us were eager to pack up and get underway. We discussed the challenges of Alaskan weather, and floatplane flying through the mountains, plus changing river water levels might pose for our group. We felt prepared for the challenges, however there was one element still not addressed.
Warren MacDonald catches fish from his chair. Photo by Dave McCoy
Warren’s legs were amputated from a backcountry accident in Tasmania several decades ago leaving him with very short leg stumps so that no fly fishing waders could fit. Team members Brian Malchoff and Dave McCoy looked at my collection of Patagonia waders and selected a pair that Warren proposed to radically alter for a custom fit. After trial fitting, then by trimming part of the wader legs off with scissors, and working with various waterproof tape products Warren put on re-purposed waders which he felt would keep him dry and were tough enough that he might be able to “walk” using them to protect his stumps on gravel bars.
At Togiak Lake, in the heart of the 2 million acre Togiak Wilderness, we began the adventure. Our weather was spectacular. From the floatplane we saw Brown Bears, Moose and Bald Eagles as we neared Togiak Lake. We unloaded the plane, rigged rafts, strung up fly rods, built a camp, and caught a Coho salmon and an Arctic Char for dinner. Beer was cooled to river temperature sipped while Loons were laughing on the lake. We had arrived.
Nick, the former Army Ranger, is probably “constitutionally incapable of complaining”. He has full use of his left hand and partial use of right hand. Nick learned a “serviceable” fly-cast through hours of practice at Togiak alongside his father. But fly line management was a challenge for him with only one functional hand. Think about fly-fishing one handed and try your own experiments next time you are casting. Embracing the challenge, by week’s end Nick had figured out how to make the casting and line management process work and took the largest Salmon of his life and countless sea run Dolly Varden Char.
Dick Watson talked of retiring soon from a lifetime of lifting and welding heavy steel. He spoke reverently of gathering with old buddies each week to surf cast chunks of bait into the Atlantic. Dick was the angler who I thought would have the toughest time learning to fly fish. Indeed Nick and I had considered the prospect that he might not be able to master the elements of fly-fishing! We wondered if we should pack a spinning rod as back up? We were so wrong! Dick was resolute. He learned steadily building on each day’s experience. In fact he was so passionate about the sport that he fished from dawn to dark, from the day we arrived at Togiak Lake until moments before the floatplane picked us up at the end.
Warren MacDonald’s amputated legs might seem like a barrier to expeditionary fly-fishing but when you hang out with outdoorsmen of Warren’s caliber you come to understand that they’ve already excelled at so many challenges that they just take it “in stride” and create solutions as challenges arise. So he began his fly-fishing career by redesigning his waders and rebuilding his wheelchair. Then, he pushed out into the current and began to cast.
The Watson’s on a gravel bar camp that was the norm.
There were fish caught. Lovely fish – Rainbow Trout, Arctic Grayling, and Dolly Varden Char! There were Chum Salmon, Coho, and Sockeye.
As the Togiak river unfurled before us, there were bald eagle chicks on the nest and mink scampering along the shore with fish in their jaws. Arctic Terns screeched when we rowed past their island nesting territories. A mother brown bear and her cub stripped the flesh off a salmon while we passed the binoculars back & forth. One afternoon, when the wind was fierce and we were searching for a camp in the lee of a sheltering bluff, a Gyrfalcon swept past us hunting sandpipers on the wing.
Fly-fishing evolved over the centuries because it’s been infused with the genius of creative individuals who adapted new materials and techniques to an ancient sport. This week Warren, & Nick, & Dick took up Alaska’s Wilderness fly-fishing’s challenges.
Perhaps when Dick Watson is back home in New England he’ll consider the fly rod for native Brook Trout or his beloved Striped Bass. Nick and Warren who live in the Rocky Mountains have thousands of miles of creeks, rivers, and alpine lakes in their back yards. I have no doubt that they’ll each take the techniques learned on the Togiak River and adapt to the fly-fishing challenges ahead of them.
We want to thank John Merritt and Jamie Ferry for their generosity. Without those two compassionate fly fishermen this type of experience for disabled anglers would never, ever happen. This program, funded entirely from John & Jamie’s generosity, is five years old and inspires anglers to dream about Alaska. We also thank the lodges and guides in Bristol Bay who meet disabled anglers on the river and stop to chat and share fly patterns. All of us thank the disabled anglers who’ve participated and supported this program with suggestions and advice. You are an inspiration for everyone in the fly-fishing & outdoors community.