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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.