The Denali 7: Dan Wiwczar, John Krueger, Nathan Perrault, AJ Hunter, Nick Watson, Daniel Pond, Demond Mullins.
There’s something about veterans and the call of the mountains.
Sure, the adventure and the adrenaline and everything that comes with being outdoors is a big part of it.
But perhaps nowhere else in the civilian world is that single-minded sense of mission and clarity of focus — so much a part of military life — more evident than when a team of climbers makes a bid for a high-country summit.
“Military people just tend to get it,” says Army veteran Nick Watson, who has guided climbers for more than a decade and founded Veterans Expeditions in 2010. “I hear it over and over again: ‘This brings back everything I loved about being in the military, and none of the crap I hated.’ ”
It’s easy to see why, Watson says. It’s about “being part of a team and doing something exceptionally well, the focus to accomplish the mission and being part of something bigger than themselves. And there’s a certain element of danger. It all comes together on the mountain.”
Watson was just a few years out of the 3rd Ranger Battalion when he found that new sense of focus for the first time in a remote section of Washington state atop a lonely peak dubbed Mount Deception.
He was sweat-soaked and exhausted. And had never felt better.
“It was one of those pure moments … I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I had finally gotten out of my own head,” he says.
“Like with a lot of veterans, the wheels in my head just tended to spin. I had a few experiences that I just stewed over. That occupied so much of my energy. I didn’t even realize how much until that moment on the mountain. I realized when I was climbing, all I thought about was climbing. That focus is addicting. It’s a like a drug, a very good drug, and I was definitely hooked.”
From that moment on, says Watson, “all I wanted to do was climb more mountains.” And that’s exactly what he’s done.
Indeed, 14 years later, you might say he’s in the pure-moment business, a mountain-climbing medicine man dealing his favorite high-country drug to as many veterans as he can.
In 2010, he co-founded Veterans Expeditions — VetEx for short — with former Army captain Stacy Bare, with the idea of building a community of veteran climbers across the country.
The two men were named among National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2014 for their work.
“That first year, we started small with only about 16 veterans,” Watson says. “The next year, we took 100 out.”
By the end of this summer, VetEx will have turned 1,500 veterans into mountaineers, while also building a cadre of local climbing leaders and a network of volunteers to help support the effort.
Among VetEx’s most recent trips was an eight-person bid to the summit of Alaska’s Mount McKinley — the tallest mountain in the U.S., better known in the climbing community simply as Denali.
Getting started in mountaineering is easier than you might think, Watson says.
“Mountaineering definitely requires a level of physical fitness,” he says. “The best thing you can do to get in shape for it is put weight on your back and go uphill. That can be anything from climbing flights of stairs or bleachers to hiking hills. Personally, I also like mountain biking because it builds strong legs and strong lungs.”
He recommends reading Steve House’s “Training for the New Alpinism” for a good overview on the physical demands and technical skills you’ll want to build.
Personal gear starts with a good pair of mountaineering boots. “We can loan you just about everything you’ll need except boots,” he says.
While standard hiking boots or even combat boots are fine for most day trips into the mountains, for extended trips you’ll want the stiffer sole and thicker insulation that come with real mountaineering footwear.
Loaner gear is fine, but if you get hooked, you’ll want to start investing in your own equipment.
“On top, you can insulate with the basic layers of poly pro the military gave you as long as you’ve got an outer shell that will keep you dry,” he says. He likes Outdoor Research’s Foray Jacket ($215).
Even in the summer, weather can turn extreme within minutes, so a “security layer” of insulated pants and jacket also is critical. Look for something lightweight that compresses well for stashing until needed. Watson likes Outdoor Research’s Neoplume Pants ($150) and the Patagonia DAS Parka ($209).
Basic ski gloves will cover most of your needs, but an extra pair of lightweight gloves are good to have as well. Mountaineering sunglasses are a must-have to protect from wind and the blinding glare of snow.
For overnight trips, you’ll need a sleeping bag rated to the lowest temperatures you could face as well as a pad to insulate you from the heat-sucking ground and snow.
Rounding out your mountaineering gear will be crampons, the spikes that strap on to boots for traction in ice and snow; a mountaineering ax — critical for “self-arrests” in a fall; as well as a helmet and a climbing harness to rope in with other climbers to prevent the most serious drops, particularly when traversing glaciers.
To carry it all, look for a backpack ranging in size from 30 to 85 liters, depending on the length of your trip.
“For day trips, 30 to 45 liters is plenty to carry all your water, snacks and snivel gear,” Watson says.
Military-issue assault packs or even a sturdy college book bag — as long as it has waist and chest straps — are good options.
WHAT IS IT? The only device you really need in the backcountry. A rugged handheld global satellite communicator that allows you to send and receive text messages, mark waypoints, navigate a route, track and share your journey, and in the event of an emergency, send out an SOS signal.
WHO IS IT FOR? Any outdoor enthusiast – from the casual day hiker to the hard core mountaineer to the long distance thru-hiker – who wants added security and/or a way to stay in touch with family, friends and supporters while exploring in the wild.
PROS – We used it on a 26-day expedition up Denali and on a weeklong river trip in the Alaskan bush. Regardless of the weather, it sent text messages and posted to social media reliably and quickly and it recorded our route each day with great accuracy. The fact that we could post to Facebook, Twitter and “MapShare”– where friends, family and sponsors could track our progress up the mountain and down the river – helped boost supporter engagement and allowed us to build community even from 20,000 feet. The ability to set waypoints with the GPS and navigate with the compass came in handy when marking caches and navigating in white outs.
The SOS feature – which is different than most other devices since the DeLorme InReach explorer sends a delivery confirmation regarding your first call for help and allows you to have 2-way communication with a 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center- provides added peace of mind in the event of an emergency. Luckily, we did not need to test this feature, but knowing we could get a rescue started with the touch of a button helped us sleep better at night.
Despite putting in some long efforts, the battery lasted 3-4 days without needing to be recharged and it charged back to 100% on on our solar panels in a reasonable amount of time.
CONS: I honestly can’t say anything negative about this device. Last year, with a different, less user-friendly brand, we struggled to get messages out when the weather was bad – which was most of the time on Denali! This year, that never happened.
OVERALL GEAR RATING: 5 out of 5. This device was reliable, accurate and easy to use – even for a non-tech geek like me. Thanks to the DeLorme InReach Explorer, we literally brought our loved ones and sponsors with us to the top of North America!
I spent last week in Salt Lake City, Utah at the Outdoor Retailer Show. I was there to find out what outdoor companies are working with military veterans and to remind companies to consider veterans in their marketing of outdoor gear. My goal was to partner my veteran non-profit (Veterans Expeditions or VetEx) with any outdoor company who recognizes military veterans as an educated consumer of their outdoor gear. I was also looking for the latest gear to test and review. I was looking for companies who identified with my mission and wanted to provide gear to the veterans who come on VetEx trips. I was to report back what I found in an Elevation Outdoors Blog. I walked into the enormous Salt Palace with open eyes and ears. This is what I found.
I met with the good folks at Keen to thank them for providing shoes for VetEx veterans and talked further to see if Keen could continue to support the footwear needs of VetEx. Turns out Keen will continue to support VetEx’s footwear and wants to see veterans as Keen Ambassadors. I can’t tell you how good it feels to sit down with an outdoor company and be treated fairly and with respect even though I am not some outdoor big-shot hucking myself of anything that might kill me or claiming first ascents around the world. I am just an ordinary veteran who found peace in the outdoors and wants to share the outdoors with as many vets as possible. Keen gets it though because we “inspire” the folks at Keen by just being military veterans who want to build community through the outdoors.
Boa Bindings make Louis Garneau snowshoes a snap
I went to a sushi lunch provided by the folks at Backbone Media. It was a good opportunity to eat some great food and get some time with new products from Boa and Louis Garneau. I was impressed with the Boa bindings used on the snowshoes offered by Louis Garneau. The snowshoes were all very light with the Boa binding and the running snowshoes (center snowshoes in photo) were the lightest snowshoes I have even felt. The unique binding allows for one handed in and out operation. For veterans with hand or upper body disabilities like myself, the one handed operation is very appealing for its simplicity and ease of operation. Stay tuned as I have been promised a demo of these snowshoes when they are released this coming fall. We will have the vets at VetEx put these snowshoes and their cool bindings through a gear test and review. We will let you know how theses snowshoes stack up after solid use.
Next I met with Verde PR and got the lowdown on Julbo eyewear, K2, Madshus, and Metolius. Stay tuned on gear reviews from these companies and their products. I am hoping to get more eyewear to test from Julbo and start the conversation for them to become the eyewear provider of VetEx. Good eye protection is so important in the high mountains and most of our veterans lack a pair of solid sun glasses.
Kahtoola Microspikes see an upgrade
It was on to the Kahtoola booth for happy hour and a talk with Danny Giovale, the owner of Kahtoola. There was a large crowd gathered at the Kahtoola booth and they were giving away lots of microspikes and snowshoes. I watched them give away pair after pair. The most gear I witnessed being given away all week at the show. Danny and I sat down for a chat about how far VetEx has come. Kahtoola was VetEx’s first gear sponsor and they have been backing us since we started. I was reminded of just how down to earth Danny Giovale is as well as his entire Kahtoola gang. You will not find better people in the outdoor industry than these folks. A refreshing, made in the USA company that truly supports military veterans. Can’t say enough about the people behind such great outdoor gear. Happy to hear there will be new things coming soon from this Flagstaff Arizona company. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Their microspikes are one of a kind and the standard for in between season mountain travel. The snowshoe binding releases from the deck to provide instant traction to your boots.
One of my last stops was to the folks at SteriPen. You know, the ultraviolet backcountry water zapper. SteriPen was very interested in helping get vets outside. They make a special SteriPen for Special Ops that I will be testing very soon. SteriPen will also donate these cool water purification devices to VetEx for our expeditions and trips. Very cool of these guys to come in and help us out with a product that will give us clean drinking water in the backcountry.
So thats a wrap on the Outdoor Retailer Show from my military veteran perspective. I will also be testing gear from Patagonia, Mountain Hardware, Mammut, and many others. Clif will be making sure our veterans have the snacks to get us through the next backcounty challenge and beyond. I thank all the outdoor companies helping military veterans achieve their outdoor goals!
By Nick Watson, Former Army Ranger and Co-Founder of Veterans Expeditions (VetEx)
1. What is It? The Marmot Silverton Jacket. The color is Fern/Wintergreen. The jacket retails for $495. It is a hard shell built to withstand big mountain weather without the weight and bulk of most Jacket’s in this category. http://marmot.com/products/silverton_jacket
2. Who is this Jacket for? The Marmot Silverton Jacket is for the back country skier and snowshoer who wants a premium shell to keep them dry and protected from mountain weather. The jacket performed well on Mt. Rainier this April during many snow storms. The jacket also kept me dry in rainy Seattle. This Jacket shines as an all around versatile piece of gear for the high mountains and the city raincoat.
3. Pros: I like the pockets (2 waist pockets, 1 chest pocket, and 1 left arm pocket). I like the zippers on the jacket, pockets, and pit zips. They have always worked without hassle. I like the protection the jacket offers.
4. Cons: The jacket has few cons. This Jacket has a fitted fit which works in some cases and not others. In my case the jacket fit me great except for the extreme high mountain winter weather type conditions. I would want the next size up for 7,000 meter peaks or higher.
5. Overall Gear Rating is a 4.5 out of 5. This is the perfect 4 season mountain jacket to keep you dry.
6. This jacket is in my pack for anything the Colorado high country can throw at me.
Gear reviews will be written by military veterans who have been using and testing gear as they train with VetEx for upcoming expeditions, races, and events. The criteria for the reviews has been created with knowledge and experience of both military deployments and wilderness guiding. We bring a very practical approach to our reviews. Please note that the gear being reviewed may have been purchased at retail, pro-dealed, sponsored, etc.
Gear Review Criteria:
1. What is it?
2. Who is it for?
5. Overall Gear Rating
6. Is it in my pack?
VetEx Co-founder Nick Watson is the primary gear tester for VetEx, and we will gladly post gear reviews from any and all military veterans who want to post their reviews here.
Gear Tester Bio, Nick Watson:
Nick served 5 years as an Army Ranger with 3rd Ranger Battalion from 1991-1995.
Nick graduated from numerous advanced leadership and survival schools to include Airborne School, Ranger School, S.E.R.E. Survival School, Non-Commissioned Officer Primary Leadership Development Course, Combat Lifesaver, and Field Sanitation. He was involved in numerous international and national deployments. Nick has been working as an Outdoor Professional since leaving the army. He is a graduate of the Recreation Management program at the University of Vermont and has held numerous jobs in the outdoor industry to include: National Park Service Park Ranger, NPS Biological Technician, Trail Crew Boss, Wilderness Therapy Instructor, Field Director, Wilderness Guide, etc. That is 20 years of outdoor experience. Nick is an “all-arounder” who enjoys the challenge of the outdoors paddling, mountain biking, road biking, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, climbing ice and rock, and most of all he enjoys those epic long days high in the mountains. His gear reviews focus on practical, real world application and function of each gear item. If Nick carries it in his pack, you want it in yours!
Photo by Scott Ostrom
Gear Tester Bio, Livio Ciciotti:
Livio Ciciotti is a native of Upstate New York where he grew up playing football and working on local farms bailing hay. Since moving to Colorado in early 2012 he has really found his home in the high country. Livio is a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology where he studied Graphic Media and Communications. While attending RIT, Livio enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, in the Infantry. Livio hoped to one day become a Marine Infantry Officer but due to a serious accident he was not able to fulfill that ambition. He served six years with India Co. 3rd Battalion 25th Marines. While serving in the Infantry Livio attended Tactical Small Unit leaders Course as well as Combat Life Saver Course and Combat Hunter Course. In 2010 Livio deployed to Southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan where he served as a Vehicle Commander and Team Leader. Livio was promoted to Sergeant and served as a squad leader before his contracted ended in 2012.
Livio loves getting high in the Colorado Rockies on isolated trails where he can enjoy the outdoors to the fullest.
Photo by Scott Ostrom
He continues to learn and advance his outdoor skills with Veterans Expeditions. His favorite part of the VetEx experience is sharing the trail with the “Brotherhood” as he calls it. “It’s a commitment that we owe each other and ourselves as veterans to stay connected and to support each other.”