Veterans Expeditions

Posts Tagged ‘Veterans Expeditions’

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.

Gear Review: Meal Kit Supply Meals Ready To Eat


What is it? Meal Kit Supply makes meals that are ready to eat upon opening the package. These

meals are as convenient as it gets when it comes to having minimal time to prep and minimal

resources available. Our “8 For 22” team used these meals on Denali during our summit push due to

how time consuming it was to melt snow for water at 17,000 feet in elevation.


Who are these meals for? These meals are for people who need convenient meals in the back

country, especially where resources are limited. These meals also work well for longer term

storage for when you experience multi-day power outages or emergency food reserves.


Pros: These meals worked well for our team during our summit bid with multiple functions. The

meals were placed into a large pot of snow and water over the stove. Once the snow melted

and became warm, the meals were warmed and the water was also then drinkable water. TheseMRE 2

meals work well where dehydrated meals would struggle to re-hydrate fully due to the altitude.

These meals also provide a high caloric meal for either before or after a long day outside.


Cons: The only con about these meals is the weight. The packaging can be broken down to save

some weight. The ease of use of these meals often offsets the weight.


Overall gear rating: 4.5/5. These meals are a good choice when going on a high altitude

mountaineering expedition due to the ease of preparation.


Meal Kit Supply

Mountaineering can offer vets a chance to get out of their ‘own head’

The Denali 7: Dan Wiwczar, John Krueger, Nathan Perrault, AJ Hunter, Nick Watson, Daniel Pond, Demond Mullins.

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.”

Pure moments

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.

First-time climbers

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.

La Sportiva’s Glacier Boot is a good basic boot for under $200. On the high end is La Sportiva’s Trango Cube GTX for $375.

“Both are good boots to climb, say, Mount Rainier in the summertime,” Watson says.

For clothing, he recommends water-resistant softshell pants. Patagonia’s Guide Pants($125) are his favorite.

“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.

For one- or two-night trips, he likes the 50-liter Gregory Alpinisto ($239) and for anything longer, the 65-liter Osprey Atmos ($259) is “a good all-’rounder.”

By Jon R. Anderson, Staff writer, Military Times

Original Military Times article

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: DeLorme InReach Explorer


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!

Denali summit Hi re

This gear review was written by Chris Kassar from Elevation Outdoors. Chris was the 8th member of our Denali summit team and tested this devise on our expedition. See her original review here

VetEx 2015 Winter Recap

VetFest group

One of the VetFest Ice Climbing Groups this January in North Conway New Hampshire

This winter we ran snowshoe and ice climbing trips in New Hampshire, New York, and Colorado. Hundreds of military veterans attended our trips. Our 1st Annual VetFest in North Conway, New Hampshire kicked off the season with Ice Climbing for all abilities and a successful Mount Washington mountaineering summit attempt. VetFest saw vets and military from all over the Northeast. It was a great way to kick off the winter season with gear givaways, guest speaker Steve Arsenault, and so much more. Stay tuned this winter as we will make this years VetFest even bigger. Thanks to the VICE group and Cathedral Mountain Guides for teaming up with us and creating such a fun winter event for our vets.

VICE Group

Our Snowshoe trips in Colorado and the Northeast were also a big success with lots of first time and experienced backcountry travelers attending and enjoying these trips. Thanks again to Kahtoola for providing snowshoes and Keen for providing the boots for these trips. We could not do these trips without the generosity of our sponsors.

VetFest Mt WashingtonCo Springs Ice climb

We plan to run a full winter schedule again in 2016 so stay tuned and get out with us on our snowshoeing, ice climbing, and hut trips. We will leave you with more pictures from our amazing 2015 winter trips.

snowshoe CO 15 2


Ouray 15 group














Denali train


VetFest Climber3










Hilleberg tents at night

snowshoe CO 15

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