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.
VetEx Wild River Guides LRRP Team 2015 on the 4th of July
A team of Veterans undertakes the first fly-fishing expedition on the Kanektok River of 2015; adapting techniques of “LRRP”, Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol.
From the trip log of June 27th, 2015. “The team of 7 Veterans accompanied by a journalist assembled in Dillingham and joined the staff of Alaska’s Wild River Guides. We studied the topographic maps of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and reviewed our expeditionary goals then got busy packing the minimal amount of camping gear, clothing, and fly fishing equipment needed to accomplish the first raft descent of the Kanektok in 2015.”
We planned to travel lighter than standard guided trips to enable us to efficiently explore farther from the established channels and pioneer some new camps off the main river channel. To do this we’d forgo traditional tents in favor of Black Diamond Megamids and Bivy sacks under a group tarp shelter. We’d drastically reduce the amount of food we’d carry and cut weight by configuring ½ our rafts as paddle rafts, saving almost 100 pounds in oar frames and oars. We asked participants to shave weight in their personal gear so that rafts would be as light as possible.
Wings, Black Diamond Mega Mids, and Bivy sacks keep the loads light on LRRP missions like this expedition
This was the third annual Veterans Expeditions Alaska Fly Fishing Trip and the second year of experimenting with the “LRRP” (Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol) concept. The annual Alaska trip is a brainchild of Nick Watson co-founder and Director of “Veterans Expeditions.” Nick strives to involve military veterans in expeditionary travel, and fly-fishing in a more profound way than being passive recipients of a “fully guided fly fishing trip”. Nick wants veterans to experience authentic and visceral, even edgy expeditionary travel rather than something “canned” with passive participation. We’d see if we were up to his standards.
The LRRP concept applied to expeditionary fly fishing is to travel light without excess gear, to explore lesser known waters off the beaten track- to use scouts to reconnoiter where potentially hazardous conditions might put participants at risk – to explore vantage points gained from uplands away from the river, to rely on each other as a team to solve problems, and with a little luck catch the first wild Kanektok fish of the season on the fly!
VetEx Executive Director Nick Watson and Board President Lee Hunnicutt talk it over as they prep for the float plane flights that will take their team into the Alaska Bush for a week of adventure
The team of Veterans had a range of skills with individual strengths and weaknesses but one thing was shared by all. They were passionate outdoors-men. One was a committed mountain biker. Several were alpine climbers. One was gifted with great orienteering skills. Another had just returned from kayaking in Glacier Bay. One had several years of Alaskan experience. They’d served in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, the middle east and worldwide in various capacities. Along the way, like military veterans nationwide, they’d suffered injuries both on and off the battlefield and to a man they’d lost buddies in combat and various other traumas. One participant took his cap off revealing a six-inch scar from a battlefield injury to the skull. Another walked into our initial briefing with a prosthetic leg from an I.E.D explosion. Purple hearts from wounds in Vietnam told another story. Halting speech from a team member with a brilliant mind evidenced another’s traumatic brain injury.
Fly out day started at 0600 hrs getting packed, breakfasted, time at the float-plane lake to weigh all the gear, and load it into aircraft. We flew outbound through mountain passes in float-planes. We passed the Gechiak Lake fire, a 14,000 acre lightning fire under the left wing in the Togiak River drainage then angled north past Kemuk Lake, and turned west before descending into Pegati Lake, the headwaters of the Kanektok. The air logistics to move our party of 12, consumed much of the day.
2 paddle rafts that could go light and fast and 2 oar boats to carry bulkier gear were assembled by a team with above average mechanical skills. Then we shoved off downriver. With the LRRP group we’d travel late into the first evening and use the midnight sun to “crack off” some miles, fully aware we could have an easier time of it camping at the lake. The team pushed ahead late as the midnight sun extinguished itself to the north and passed a cow moose with a calf. Participants alternately dragged rafts through the shallows then paddled through alpine pools. Paddlers worked on their strokes.
A leopard spotted Rainbow Trout was taken on a streamer and then released as we paddled. The first couple of fish inspired us. We paddled on through scattered cumulus showers and minor gusty squalls for more than a dozen miles as the sun set to the north. This was not an ordinary group of armchair adventurers. They pushed farther and harder with the LRRP objectives to go beyond where the guides had camped and boated before, breaking new ground. A simple pasta dinner fueled our bodies. The wind died after midnight and the mosquitoes were horrific. In the early hours of the second morning the group turned in to sleep.
There was ice on the camp at sunrise on day 2 as the coffee boiled. Alaska’s skies had been “severe clear” last night, with temperatures below freezing. What more would the day bring? We broke camp and passed a fresh 200-acre lightning fire scar in the alpine tundra way up on a mountainside while thunderheads filled in the sky and the crags rang with thunder. Cold downdrafts followed by icy rain. The teams paddled on, hoods cinched tight.
The vets hiked up a remote tributary while Lee and I stayed with the rafts. We fished a bit and waited for the younger participants to return. Lee and I are in our seventh decade and are OK letting the younger adventurers rack up higher mileage days as long as they returned to us later with fishing “beta”. Lee and I found ways to prop ourselves in the rafts and nap until their return.
As we passed down river a bull Caribou was seen on a ridge on river left. By days end we were more than 24 miles from the lake and found a gravel bar camp which had signs of hosting a moose hunter’s camp in a prior year. Biting black gnats were terrible when the wind died but we were fairly well protected by head-nets, buffs, and our shelters.
For several days we explored side channels which hadn’t seen an angler in 8 months using a style of travel we called “jungle tours”. Unlike a typical guided raft trip where a guide navigates only specific river channels based upon the prior trip’s navigation and fishing success, with this team we wanted to learn channels not previously scouted. We’d send ahead a raft with scouts to ascertain whether a channel was navigable (prior to committing the full group). Because we were the first group of rafts on the river in 2015 there was in fact no way to know how the spring floods had rearranged the channels. Scouting was also particularly critical because our 2 paddle rafts required much more teamwork applying power strokes, managing speed, and effectively steering than our two oar boats. Vets in the paddle rafts experienced considerably more adrenaline per hour than those of us in the oar boats because of close encounters with sweepers.
We descended into the portion of the Kanektok known as “the braids.” The Kanektok valley was blanketed with wildfire smoke and it began to drizzle. Jordan and Nick traveled with me and we exchanged stories to pass the time. Jordan shared Alaskan adventures from his years at Fort Richardson and Nick, just off a successful summit attempt on Denali had his own Alaska adventures to recount. We passed slowly down the tundra valley measuring our progress against mountain landmarks. Our scout boat found the vanguard of the 2015 salmon run that afternoon. Small pods of Sockeye, and Chums, and a single pair of King salmon rested in a quiet pool. The salmon had come 60 miles upriver by this point while we had descended nearly 40.
Camp 3 was below a dramatic bluff on a side channel we’d never stayed at before. Crews dragged the rafts up a side channel making camp in a zone none of us had ever experienced, keeping with our exploratory goals. Ravens silently came and went from a nest on the bluff. A huge solitary Brown bear’s tracks marked the sand bar and likewise tracks of a solo wolf. The bear that left those prints was one of the great old males whose tracks are only seen in the early season before people are on the river, then absent all summer, only returning very late in the autumn when man has left. Nick and I found scraps of fur and some vertebrae from a beaver, which had been recently consumed by either the Bear or Wolf.
Fly rods engaged us with sport for hours as the landscape scrolled by and provided food for the table. The anglers searched with dry flies, streamers, egg patterns, and nymphs taking Rainbows and Arctic Grayling, which were released. On day 3 Jordan Vaughn hooked, played, and ultimately lost a huge slab of a Rainbow, while the crew ate lunch and cheered him on. On day 4 Lee & Jordan lost track of the numbers of Rainbow they released, including some spectacular trophy fish. One day we killed a Dolly Varden Char for supper that had a 5-inch long fingerling trout protruding from it’s mouth. That night we had a simple dinner of Dolly Varden and rice.
The animals we saw as we paddled downriver, in addition to Caribou, were mainly migratory birds. The brilliant Arctic Tern was a constant companion, scooping up salmon fry and delivering them into the blood red bill of their mate at the nest. The large sandpiper whose presence was so notable was the Greater Yellowlegs, which swooped about shrieking like a car alarm as we passed through their nesting territories. A territorial Harlans hawk screamed at us and Bald Eagles watched as we slipped past. A small colony of Cliff Swallow nests was discovered on an overhung rock bluff that looked like a human nose just above the river. We passed a family of Great Horned Owls. The birds and the smaller animals like Mink and Beaver were the bulk of wildlife seen on the river, while the “mega-fauna” like Caribou, were the memorable punctuation marks to the trip.
From the log of. July 1, 2015. The log records “James is amazing with his prosthetic leg.” We traveled beyond the mountains onto the coastal plain. The high ground receded behind us and the river developed huge meandering loops, oxbows, and vast gravel bars littered with driftwood from prior floods. “The salmon pools are now longer and broader with emerald water”… and we explored new side channels but did not find many salmon or Char. “Today we saw the first set of human tracks, besides our own of the season”.
We camped below a huge curving bluff that the Veterans ascended the following morning. As we spent days travelling together and night’s camping the team members shared stories of patrols rocked by IED explosive blasts and ambushes which left survivors with traumatic brain injuries, shrapnel wounds, followed by amputations, and rehabilitation. If ever there was a group of individuals grateful to be on an expedition across the vast Alaskan landscape this is the group.
I can’t speak for the rest of the team but by day five I was fatigued by the long days of travel and the short, midnight sun drenched nights of sleep. Still we had more big days of travel ahead. From the log of July 2, 2015: “Jordan was on fire with lot’s of hookups and he took the first chrome bright Sea Run Dolly of the 2015 season.” We began seeing significant numbers of Sockeye as well as Dolly Varden. Now in the lower river the sport fishery grew more intense and the anglers put the fly-casting skills honed on prior days to work taking salmon and char as well as rainbows.
Vietnam veteran Lee Hunnicutt, the president of the Veterans Expeditions board took the oars on July 2nd.” Lee is an extraordinarily accomplished man, a natural athlete and leader. Lee rows class IV whitewater at home in Colorado and wanted practice rowing anglers with fly rods. On the oars we coached him just a bit, about the angle and distance to keep the boat from the target water and he took to it immediately. Brian and I fished as Lee rowed.
Unquestionably the use of paddle rafts was much more demanding on the team than traditional fly-fishing oar boats. There were some very tough moments avoiding entrapment in sweepers where only effective teamwork saved the day. The teamwork the Vets developed paddling and camping through “Jungle tour” section made the second half of the journey through the broad lower river seem straightforward. The boats were having increasing success with salmon, char, and trout and camp setup and breakdown was smooth.
Steve Burns participated in every activity and did well. He reminisced after the trip that “I’m still recovering from a very serious traumatic brain injury and have issues with speech and balance” He remembers that one day he tripped over a tent guy-line and hit the gravel quite hard. From all quarters of camp came teammates racing to help him recover and after the trip he reminded me “how selfless the group was”. He said “I’ll always remember the amazing crew that accompanied me on the river”.
On July 3rd after several days of fair skies and good travel conditions the weather turned hot and windy and smoke haze from Kuskokwim River wildfires dominated the atmosphere. We fished and rafted in the lower river listening to the songs of “dueling” male Golden-crowned Sparrows alternating from opposite banks. It’d been a week since we’d experienced any electronic media. Our audible world was bird calls and the river sounds and our friends. We created our own fun with bantering camp chatter and humorous remarks punctuated with rock skipping competitions. That plus fly-casting was all we needed to pass the time.
From the log of July 3, 2015 at 8:00 pm. “A new wildfire ignited about one mile upriver from us”. It was growing rapidly and the smoke of burning tundra was laying low over our camp. Smoke turned the sun to the color of an apricot and then the sky nearly blackened. We assessed our camp situation defensively. The light hearted feelings of earlier in the day were replaced with sober questions as to whether our camp was defensible, about whether to pack camp and travel through the late hours? “The winds were steady at 5 mph, gusting to 15 and pushing the fire toward us.”
Our wildfire defensibly assessment concluded that we were bordered on 2 sides by the river on a sufficiently inflammable gravel bar, backed by a less flammable riparian corridor of green willows. We figured that we were likely in a safe zone. We watched the sky darken but the fire must have run out of fuel because it did not advance much further. We slept in the smoky gloom and later in the night a light rain washed the air clean.
Like a military mission; dealing with gear bulk and weight is a large part of Alaskan expeditionary logistics. In the case of the Veterans Expeditions trip we had the initial constraint of fitting our gear & body weight into high performance, bush capable, aircraft with finite capacity and then later of moving the gear across the landscape by paddle power.
Our team members had various abilities from athletic alpinists to significantly disabled anglers. One team member was a leg amputee who surprised everyone with his abilities wading, dragging rafts, and packing gear across uneven terrain. Mornings he’d hop into camp one legged then attach his carbon fiber leg and grab a coffee. We had a team member with a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) of epic proportions who paddled well, developed a serviceable cast, and packed dry bags across the gravel bars with the rest of us.
Weight limits and paddle raft performance? We knew the paddle rafts must be as light as possible. Food & clothing would be cut back to save weight. We didn’t carry coolers nor any ice, saving dozens of pounds. Bacon and eggs and perishables? No. We packed light dry foods like pasta and rice with high calories that could be supplemented with fish. From the earliest stages of planning we considered what our shelter options were with respect to travelling light. To sleep in tents or not? 8 of us slept in Black Diamond Bivy sacks clustered under communal MSR Outfitter Wing shelters saving 75 pounds of tentage.
The fishing during the first week of the Kanektok season was never “stupid”, nor easy, and while we released the majority of the fish hooked, the group worked hard to kill an occasional salmon or a brace of Char feed the crew. Each of us took note when a “supper fish” was killed for dinner. A fish for supper meant something different than it would if a cooler of steaks had been brought along.
The fishing changed dramatically for the better on July 4, with V wakes from incoming pods of Char & Sockeye pushing across riffles and holding in eddies. Now the fly-fishing turned on providing opportunities, challenges, and spectacular fresh fish for dinner. The Dolly Varden were eager to feed on salmon eggs and took trout beads without hesitation. We experienced the strength of Char who’d just returned to fresh water after months eating a rich diet in the saltwater. They charged about the riffles like Steelhead and porpoised across the flats when hooked.
On Independence Day, we paddled to our final camp flying the stars & stripes above an oar boat. Each of us was acutely aware that fortune allowed these particular men to survive where others had fallen. As we passed down the final miles of the Kanektok, flag raised, powerboats from the fishing lodges pulled aside and cut their motors to let the Veterans pass. It was completely unscripted and a fitting end to a great adventure.
Trip Report written by Mark Rutherford, owner of Wild River Guides. We can’t thank Mark enough for the time and effort he puts into these expeditions! Mark gives our vets all he has. We are forever grateful.
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
As always, we must thank Keen for getting our vets on this trip in their awesome water shoes. Thank you Keen!
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!