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.
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.
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.
Veterans Expeditions, a Colorado-based non-profit that reconnects service members to one another, the land they fought for and outdoor employment opportunities, will take its second Browns Canyon expedition June 21-23.The rafting and climbing expedition is in partnership with Friends of Browns Canyon. Dvorak’s Raft Kayak and Fish Expeditions will be the outfitter and will provide guiding on the river for 15 participating veterans of diverse abilities and eras from around the country. Lee Hunnicutt of Salida is the trip coordinator.
2013 VetEx Browns Canyon crew
“Our first such mission in June 2013 was an unqualified success, and we want to build on that,” said Hunnicutt. “Veterans Expeditions co-founder and friend Nick Watson and I share a belief based upon our own individual experiences recovering from the effects of combat and the difficulties faced while trying to reintegrate into civilian society. Each of us, and countless others, found the solace we sought in the outdoors. Wilderness provides an opportunity to view your life in relation to something far greater and can help you find or create a stable center inside you, one that you can revisit when needed. This concept has proven itself over and over, from Outward Bound to Veterans Expeditions. Lives are changed for the better by the wilderness experience.”
2014 VetEx Browns Canyon crew
According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 22 veterans take their own lives each day. Many more struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, lives upset by multiple deployments, financial difficulties and delayed benefits.
Watson, a former Army Ranger, recruited participants from the VetEx community. In 2013, VetEx ran more than 30 trips across the United States, getting hundreds of military veterans outside and earning the honor of 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year.
“The time spent out with all these veterans and all these service stories is nothing short of awesome,” said Watson. “Veterans let their guards down with one another, and out came the stories of war and civilian life struggles and success.”
This trip is fully funded by donations at no charge to the veterans. 100% of funds raised go directly toward trip expenses, with no administrative fees or salaries.
If you know a veteran who might be eligible for Veterans Expeditions, or to volunteer or contribute, please contact Lee Hunnicutt at [email protected] or Nick Watson at [email protected]
About Veterans Expeditions
Veterans Expeditions is a veteran led, chartered non-profit in the State of Colorado. Veterans Expeditions has an independent board and operates nationwide. Their mission is to empower veterans to overcome challenges associated with military service through outdoor training and leadership. Learn more at www.vetexpeditions.com.
About Friends of Browns Canyon
For years, a local coalition comprised of recreationists, sportsmen and local businesses have been working to protect Browns Canyon. The Friends of Browns Canyon, along with bipartisan lawmakers, are working towards permanent protection of the approximately 20,000-acre area.
Nick Watson: Bringing the Wilderness Solution to Vets
Mountaineering provides a powerful boost to veterans returning from war.
National Geographic Society
THE INNOVATORS PROJECT
Text by Mark Jenkins
A climber suddenly falls into a crevasse and Nick Watson dives into the snow with his ice ax. The rope goes taut and Watson, a bearded, muscled man, digs in like an anchor, and the climber is caught.
“You OK?” shouts Watson.
There is no answer from the climber down in the hole. He is unconscious or injured, perhaps bleeding.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!” yells Watson anyway.
In a matter of minutes, Watson has tied off the dangling climber, slammed two stakes into the snow, and set up a five-to-one pulley system. Using his own body weight, Watson gradually hauls the injured mountaineer out of the crevasse.
Back on the surface, the unconscious climber suddenly awakes. “Wow! That really works.”
It was a simulated mountain rescue—a teaching scenario for a group of former soldiers, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, all standing in the snow.
“This is the way you save someone’s life,” says Watson.
He’s talking about basic crevasse rescue techniques, but he might as well be talking about the organization he founded, Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, a nonprofit that takes veterans into the outdoors.
“Vets often go from a world with deep camaraderie, commitment, and excitement to a world where they are isolated, at loose ends, and bored,” Watson says in explaining the concept behind the program. Watson speaks from experience—he is a former U.S. Army Ranger—and he knows just how psychologically perilous the military experience can be: Veterans commit suicide at more than twice the rate of civilians.
Having worked as an alpine guide and a counselor in wilderness therapy programs for over a decade, Watson, 40, also believes in the healing force of nature and was convinced that a vigorous outdoor experience would be tonic for veterans, a way for them to “reconnect with fellow soldiers, get outside, and push themselves in a healthy environment.” VetEx—created with another veteran, Stacy Bare—was the outgrowth of that conviction. In its first year, 2010, VetEx took 16 veterans into the mountains for climbing; in 2011, it was over 100; in 2013, almost 300.
Things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.
By consciously replacing the fellowship of arms with the fellowship of the rope, VetEx hit on a novel remedy for readjustment to civilian life—a soldier by soldier, hands-on approach that larger veterans organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) couldn’t provide.
In Watson’s family, joining the military was part of the natural progression of manhood: One grandfather served in World War II, the other in Korea; his father served in Vietnam. He spent over four years in an elite Army unit, the Third Ranger Battalion, on numerous international deployments.
“I pushed myself in the military and had many intense experiences,” says Watson, “but things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.”
He left the Army soon afterward, but it took years for him to recover from the trauma of those deaths. He traveled around the country, worked seasonal jobs, and slowly found solace in the wild. “A therapist I was seeing at the time, a very wise woman, said something that changed my life: ‘You aren’t your experiences; you are how you process your experiences.’”
Thoughtful and passionate, with a sturdy body and three fingers missing on his right hand from an oil rig accident, Watson has been running the organization on his own since 2011, when Bare moved on to direct the Sierra Club’s veterans programs in New England and North Carolina. “We’re a grassroots organization,” says Watson. “It’s friends telling friends.” VetEx has only one paid employee—Watson—and calls on volunteers to run the outdoor “meetups” throughout Colorado.
“Our biggest challenge right now is funding,” says Watson, who relies on his partner, journalist Chris Kassar, 37, to work as VetEx’s unpaid “PR and ‘Fun’ Raising Director.” Keen shoe company and Kahtoola Snowshoes are their only equipment sponsors. “We get new vets outdoors every month, and we’re changing their lives. We don’t need a lot of funding, just enough to keep going.”
Stacy Bare, a former Army captain and Bronze Star recipient and VetEx co-founder, climbs Mount Rainier in Washington State. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS KASSAR
“Immediate, Intense Trust”“What Veterans Expeditions does, at its core, is re-create the positive aspects of the military without all the negatives,” says Demond Mullins, 32, an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq in 2004-2005.Meeting up with Veterans Expeditions was so important to Mullins, a professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that he flew across the country just to spend a couple of days climbing with fellow vets. In the snow-covered Rockies above Leadville, Colorado, they practiced technical mountaineering skills, such as moving as a roped team, self-arrest with an ice ax, crevasse rescue, crampon technique, and ascending fixed lines.Mullins has participated in more than a dozen adventures with VetEx. “On every trip I meet new vets,” he says, kneeling in the snow at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), adjusting the carabiners on the climbing ropes for a crevasse rescue scenario. “There’s always this immediate, intense trust. We have the same point of reference. We know what it’s like to put our lives on the line for each other.”Mullins, who is built like an Olympic sprinter, loves being outdoors, “working as part of a team, relying on one another—things we all learned in the military, but [now] without the threat of violence.”Epidemic of SuicideAccording to a VA report last year, 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the U.S., double the number of suicides among nonveterans. In 2012, 349 active-duty soldiers killed themselves—more than the 295 who died in combat in Afghanistan that year. Statisticbrain.com reports that 4,487 American troops died in Iraq, about half the number of soldiers who kill themselves every year. In Afghanistan, 2,229 Americans have died; more veterans than that will kill themselves at home in the U.S. before Thanksgiving this year.
One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD.
The U.S. military is aware of the problem, if uncertain what to do about it. The VA has set up a crisis hotline and a website offering help through direct phone contact, online chats, and other resources, but VA hospitals are notoriously backlogged and slow to respond to veterans struggling with mental illness. Brigadier General David Harris recently wrote on the Eglin Air Force Base website that “it is important for us to re-address topics such as suicide prevention and awareness.” He encourages friends and family to be alert to the “clues and warnings” of potential suicide, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness, and reclusiveness. “When we observe our wingman appearing depressed … request help early on.”
Clearly, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by despair: Almost 70 percent of suicides among veterans are by Vietnam War soldiers, 50 years old or older, a community that suffered a particularly hard return to a society that was largely hostile to the war they fought.
And suicide isn’t limited to those who saw combat. A recent Department of Defense study, citing heavy drinking and depression as root problems, found that almost 80 percent of suicides are by soldiers who did not experience combat. A 2014 report in JAMAPsychiatryrevealed that almost 20 percent of Army enlistees struggled with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or “intermittent explosive disorder”—a condition characterized by uncontrollable attacks of rage—before they joined the service.
And then there is the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder. One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD. Other soldiers have returned home with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), often caused by the concussive force of an improvised explosive device (IED). Unlike scars and amputations, these are the “invisible injuries” of war.
Nick Watson teaches crevasse rescue to veterans in Leadville, Colorado. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Gut-Level UnderstandingLuke Adler, 28, who served in Afghanistan in 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, is in Leadville for the climb. He is wearing his military-issue camo backpack and heavily insulated khaki military pants made for the extreme cold. In Afghanistan, he had been hit by IEDs twice and has a TBI. “This is the thing,” he explained, as he adjusted a pulley system for hauling up an injured or unconscious climber: “You do epic things in the service. It’s life or death. When you come home to civilian life, you really miss that intensity.”After he got out of the 82nd Airborne, Adler returned to his parents’ home in Iowa and fell in with what he describes as a “bad group of vets” who were using drugs and alcohol to get through the day. “It took about a year to straighten myself out. I realized all I was doing was hurting myself and everyone who loved me.” Currently enrolled at Colorado State University, he is preparing to become a high school social studies teacher.All of the vets on the Leadville outing experienced combat. Here in the mountains, they fall easily into conversation with each other about their service. It is a singular brotherhood. Their experiences were too difficult for their civilian counterparts to fathom.Samantha Tinsley, 34, earned a degree in international relations before joining the service as an enlistee, not an officer, and was deployed all over the world for a decade. John Brumer, 27, led his own 12-man squad through the mountains of Afghanistan (and is now starting his own brewery in North Carolina). Robert “Robbie” Hayes, 28, and John Krueger, 26, were in the same unit, fighting together in Afghanistan’s opium-ridden Helmand Province. Lee Urton, 32, a former Marine, was part of the initial invasion of Afghanistan and says he “lost something in the war, but I would never take back a minute of it.”It’s a common sentiment. They have suffered, but they have no regrets about joining the military. Each man and woman did something that the vast majority of Americans will never do: defend their country with their lives. One participant sketches a scene of combat with just a few words and everyone immediately knows what he’s talking about. They nod in agreement. There is no need for apologies or bragging. “They get it,” as Watson says. “They understand each other on a gut level.”
The Climb The next morning, after a day of training in the snow, the VetEx team snowshoes to the Tenth Mountain Division hut below the west ridge of 13,209-foot (4,026-meter) Homestake Peak. This hut is a fitting redoubt for the team to organize their attack on Homestake, only intermittently glimpsed through the swirling blizzard.The Tenth Mountain Division was created during World War II specifically to train soldiers in winter survival, skiing, and mountain warfare. The division trained at Camp Hale, built at an elevation of 9,300 feet (2,835 kilometers), 17 miles (27 kilometers) north of Leadville. In 1945 the Tenth Mountain Division breached the Apennine Mountains and played a pivotal role in the liberation of northern Italy. Some 4,000 “ski troopers” were wounded, and 992 lost their lives.By now the vets, many of whom scarcely knew each other 24 hours ago, are good friends. They’re sharing their life stories and scheming to go climbing together in the near future. Wars are fought outdoors, and returning to the outdoors is a salve.The night before, as we bunked in the homey Leadville Hostel, Watson had told me that “something happens on these trips that I never saw with civilians. There’s this incredible bond that forms, this connection. These men and women need each other. They were trained to work together toward a common goal, and that’s exactly what mountaineering is all about.”
Nick Watson (on left) sits with veterans Demond Mullins (center) and Lee Urton (right) as they talk about the impact of mountaineering and climbing on veterans. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
This summer, the vets of VetEx plan to attempt Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. In 2015 they’re mounting a difficult expedition to 20,322-foot (6,194-meter) Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in the United States. Watson, along with Chris Kassar and vet Dave Lee, 35 (who served in the modern Tenth Mountain Division in Bosnia), are heading to Denali in two weeks to attempt the West Buttress route as a scouting mission.As for Homestake, after hours of climbing, the team is stopped by a howling whiteout and forced to turn back before reaching the summit. “Couldn’t see a thing,” Watson said afterward. “It was great training. Just like military”.