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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
Click to see all of VetEx’s generous sponsors.
This article originally posted on National Geographic Adventure written by our 8th Denali Team member Chris Kassar.