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.
Our Pint Glass Sale at KEEN Happy Hour. VetEx logo looking good.
This winter a team of VetEx veterans went to the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. We went with big plans of new partnerships and quality time with long time partners. Keen set us up in their booth Wednesday through Friday of the show. We interacted with Keen staff, Keen customers, and show goers all day long in the booth. Things started to heat up for pint sales and happy hour. Keen donated all of the proceeds to VetEx. Thanks for the continued support Keen.
Keen and VetEx at the 2014 Winter OR Show
VetEx veterans had the pleasure of hanging out and talking with Wade Davis after his talk at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast. Wade is the author of Into the Silence, a spectacular book on World War I and the military veteran climbers who took on Everest, Mallory included. This book is a must read for the veteran climber. Mr. Davis writes of war in such detail and accuracy. The reader can defiantly draw comparisons to then and now. Those veteran climbers paved the way for VetEx today. Many of those WW I vets were unemployed and looking for peace and a future in the outdoors.
VetEx Leadership gets some wise words from a very wise man. Thanks for the time Wade Davis. A class act and avid supporter of veterans.
From left to right: Dan Wiwczar VetEx East Program Director, Josh Brandon heads up SCMO, Wade Davis, Stacy Bare Sierra Club Outings Director, Nick Watson VetEx Executive Director.
Wade talked with our group about his book, Into the Silence, and his current effort to save his homeland in The Sacred Headwaters. A story of the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass in Northern British Columbia. The knowledge, subject matter, and passion Mr. Davis has on these subjects is impressive. I have never spoken with a better speaker and story teller. We will make sure that VetEx vets will have opportunities in the future to speak with this amazing man and all he has to teach and tell us.
The VetEx Leadership with Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Sally heads up the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, and much more.
The VetEx leadership team had the chance to speak with Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. It was great to speak with Sally about all her job entails. Fascinating woman working hard in service to this countries wild places and open spaces.
We attended the Mountain Hard Wear lunch and got updated on all the new designs and specifics for their new line.
We wrapped up the show at the Kahtoola booth. Kahtoola was our first sponsor in 2010 when most folks would not give us the time of day, Kahtoola wanted to make sure our veterans were in their snowshoes and microspikes. We will always be loyal supporters of Kahtoola as they have been very loyal to VetEx.
We attended the National Geographic Adventurers of the Year party on Thursday where Stacy Bare and Nick Watson (VetEx Co-Founders) were presented with the 2014 Adventurers of the Year honor. Thanks National Geographic for recognizing our veteran run, veteran led trips and expeditions nation wide.
It was a great show for VetEx as we got to meet so many new faces and hang out with old partners to talk about future trips and the future of veterans outside. Thank you once again Keen, Kahtoola, and National Geographic for making our show so eventful.
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)