Veterans Expeditions

Posts Tagged ‘Expedition’

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 written by our 8th Denali Team member Chris Kassar.

3rd Annual Browns Canyon 3 day whitewater paddling and Climbing Adventure July 19-21 2015

BC 2015 16

This years 3 day Browns Canyon expedition lived up to it’s billing. Browns Canyon is now Browns Canyon National Monument and we celebrated this new designation with our friends at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Dvorak Expeditions, and 21 military veterans representing every service branch and every conflict from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. The vets on this trip served every role from guide to participant.

BC 2015 7We had 2 long days of paddling whitewater, and one day of rock climbing in camp as well as art classes by Curt Bean and Art of War. Veterans were able to spend time together navigating boats and socializing in camp about the past and the future. “This trip grounded me last year and set me up for a great summer. I have been thinking about this trip, the vets I met, and the adventure we had together ever since. I have been looking forward to this years trip in a very big way, looking for more adventures with my brothers and sisters” says Navy veteran Jordan Daniel.

BC 2015 10

Vets on this trip once again prove that all disabilities and abilities can come together and explore together as a team. At VetEx, we only see ability as our vets show us this time and time again. Our trips and expeditions are for all vets, all eras, all service types. We run trips this way because we are all veterans. This is our community. We want everyone to be included. This journey down Browns Canyon is a good example of this. The river always providing us with adrenaline and life lessons. We will see you next year as we plan to grow our whitewater program and offer more trips, to allow more vets to experience the power of a veteran run and veteran led adventure and community.

BC 2015 1BC 2015 11BC 2015 8BC 2015 2BC 2015 12As always, we must thank Keen for getting our vets on this trip in their awesome water shoes. Thank you Keen!

Gear Review: Millet Everest Summit GTX Mountaineering Boots


Climbing Denali in Millet Everest Summit GTX

Climbing Denali in Millet Everest Summit GTX

Millet Everest Summit GTX boots

1.  What is it? The Millet Everest Summit GTX high altitude (8,000 meter) boot. These boots are triple boots with 3 layers of insulation for the extreme cold with an integrated over-boot that eliminates the need for wearing gaiters. This boot retails for $999.99 US dollars.

2. Who are these boots for? These boots are for high altitude and cold weather mountaineering and mountaineers.

3. Pros: The Millet Everest Summit GTX boots are very comfortable and feature a great deal of adjustabiltiy. The liner and exterior boot feature a lacing and velcro strapping combination that make adjusting the boot easy for the desired comfort. This lacing and velcro system also make taking off and putting on these boots with cold fingers a snap.

4. Cons: This is a purpose built boot that performs exceptionally well in it’s very specific niche of high altitude mountaineering. This boots does not have any cons!

5. Overall gear rating is 5 out of 5. Can’t beat the performance packed into this boot. This boot is Veterans Expeditions choice for high altitude mountaineering.


Relaxing on Denali in my Millet Everest Summit GTX's

Relaxing on Denali in my Millet Everest Summit GTX’s

July 9th – 15th, 2014 Veterans Fly Fishing Expedition

A Veterans Expedition adapting the concept of “LRRP”, Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol to Expeditionary travel and Fly-fishing in wilderness Alaska.

Vet fly rods

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.

Mark the Man Rutherford

The author and our leader on this expedition, Mark Rutherford.

9/11 Climbing Trip 2 From Glacier Peak to Mount St. Helens WA

Glacier group w peak

The 3 Amigos. Army, Marines, Air Force Veterans getting after it!


Sometimes you get to go places on expedition and words cannot describe how amazing everything is.  The pictures from our time traveling and climbing in Washington this September 11th say a thousand words.  These volcanoes, trails, rocks, and forests were such an honor to spend quality time in and around.  Glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains were everywhere.  


Look left and see VetEx Co-Founder taking in the magnitude of this vast landscape with Glacier Peak looming in the distance.

Look left and see VetEx Co-Founder Nick Watson taking in the magnitude of this vast landscape with Glacier Peak looming in the distance.

From the lush forests of the North Cascade to the moonscape of Mount St. Helens.  We traveled, hiked, and climbed this land with our eyes wide open and smiles upon our faces.  Three veterans and one non-veteran traveling around and enjoying every second.  We hiked and climbed long, hard days and took none of it for granted.  Army, Air Force, and Marine veterans all exploring this new world together as a team.  If this sounds like fun to you, get on the next trip with VetEx.  See you all outside very soon.

St. Helens summit flag

The summit of Mount St. Helens on 9/11/13

St. Helens showing off Keens

We couldn’t do it with out the Keens on our feet.


9/11 Climbing to Mt. Olympus with SCMO and VetEx


Originally posted here


Dan, Derek and Joshua on the summit of Mt. Olympus.

By Joshua Brandon, Sierra Club Military Outdoors Organizer

We climb for many reasons. We climb to challenge ourselves and we climb for spiritual fulfillment. We climb to mark the anniversaries of our victories as well as the tragedies. Last week, our team of veterans climbed for their own personal reasons in remembrance of the events of September 11th, 2001.


Dan after his first alpine lead.

Many in our community lost friends and family in the events of that day, but far more of us mark that day as the turning point in which our lives were forever changed in the ensuing conflict of the following twelve years. Regardless of various motivations, our team marks the event by challenging ourselves in the wilderness.


Crossing the gap.

From September 7th to the 12th, I joined veteran climbers Dan Wiwczar and Derek Quintanilla in a traverse of Mount Olympus and the Ridge of the Gods in the wilderness of Washington State for the annual 911 climb.


Supper below the Blue Glacier.

Over the course of five and a half days, we walked and climbed 48 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation change on five peaks and two glaciers. We traveled through one of the largest temperate rain forests on the planet, steep sub alpine hills, and glaciated alpine vistas encompassing some of the most beautiful landscapes in our country.


Ridge of the Gods, with objectives Athena and Athens Owl to the right.

I was proud of my team as they faced every challenge the mountain threw at us. Long distances, dangerous crevasse travel, fluctuating temperatures, and exposed climbs on rotten rock only seemed to make them stronger as the trip ground on.



Parting shot of Mt. Olympus rising above the Blue Glacier.

Dan was given no quarter on his first major glacier climb, and both he and Derek rose to the challenge in completing their first alpine rock lead climbs. The tougher the conditions, the bigger their smiles, the more dangerous the route, the louder they laughed. I’ve always been lucky to have veterans like these at my side in the wilderness.


Joshua picking a line.

Over the course of the climb I was left with the following thought: Each one of us turned to the mountains to find our way when we left the ranks, and each one of us continues to lead their fellow veterans to help them find their way after the war. Like the generations of veterans who have come before us, we have returned to the lands we once defended to heal.


On the approach.

While the lands we fought for will forever be intertwined with our lives, their importance to us is far greater than our individual purposes. These lands symbolize the very heart and soul of our nation, and our warriors are once more needed to defend them.


David Brower High Camp below Olympus.

Our wildest places define America itself, and it is in these wildest places that we will define our legacy for generations to come. We spilled our blood on foreign soil to preserve them, and now we must once again lead our countrymen in fighting to protect them. Go into wilderness to find your way, fall in love with the lands you defended, and lead our country in defending them a second time.


Derek and Dan on Athena’s Owl.

I’d like to personally thank Dan Wiwczar and Derek Quintanilla, above, for an amazing climb. I can’t say enough about your great display of character in tough situations. I’d also like to thank Sierra Club Outdoors, Veterans Expeditions, and Suunto for their generous sponsorship of this climb.


Joshua on lead.

All photos are by and with permission of Dan Wiwczar (Sierra Club Mission Outdoors Outside Adventure Film School graduate).

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