Photograph by Chris Kassar

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Murky fog envelops the valley floor. Snowflake after snowflake plummets to Earth with a purpose and persistence only the mountains can muster. Overhead, Mike Kirby, an Army Ranger who served one tour in Afghanistan and three in Iraq, gracefully places axes and kicks steps as he ascends a skinny chunk of frozen water. From below, a boisterous group hollers encouragement and advice.

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Without warning, the impressive ridges towering above disappear into the mist and a snowy silence falls over the canyon. Moments later, a triumphant yawp from above inspires a chain reaction of hoots and howls that echo the length of the icy gorge. It’s day three of Veterans Expeditions’ inaugural ice-climbing excursion in Hyalite Canyon and although wet weather soaks the rainbow of jackets before me, nothing can dampen the spirits of the 11 military veterans who make up this climbing team.

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Photograph by Chris Kassar

“When I left the military, I didn’t have my mates with me anymore. I didn’t have my back covered and I felt very naked going out into the world again,” says Kirby who works as a rock climbing guide in the Tetons and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “But, out here with a group of vets working toward a common goal, there is this automatic connection and understanding. I’m with my brothers again, and I know my back is covered.”

Inspired by their own experiences with the healing power of nature, Stacy Bare, a former Army Captain and Bronze Star recipient, and Nick Watson, a former Sergeant in the Army Rangers, launched VetEx in spring 2010. VetEx, a veteran-led non-profit, uses wilderness challenges to connect veterans, create community, and help those returning from war overcome the challenges they face. Since its inception, VetEx has touched the lives of hundreds of veterans by getting them out on mellow snowshoe hikes, technical rock climbing trips, demanding mountaineering expeditions, whitewater rafting excursions, and grueling peak ascents

In late February, VetEx joined forces with the Sierra Club, local climbing guide Sam Magro of Montana Alpine Guides, and premier alpinist Conrad Anker to bring a diverse crew of veterans—some who had never even picked up ice axes before—to the snowy trails and frozen cliffs of Montana’s famed Hyalite Canyon for a week of training and winter camping.

“We chose ice climbing this time because it’s the most Jedi of all sports. You’ve got to be mentally focused and you’ve got to be willing to trust that the ice won’t fail, your partner won’t fail,” says Bare, who now works as director of Sierra Club Mission Outdoors. “You’re exposed on ice, and it’s the ultimate return to mission, teamwork, and camaraderie which so many of us miss from the military.”

Although the goal is to learn and hone skills, it is clear from the beginning that the team’s purpose stretches far beyond reaching the top or conquering frozen waterfalls.  These ten men and one woman, many of whom served after 9/11, climb for the challenge, fun, and discovery inherent in stepping beyond where you are comfortable. They climb because they still can; each kick, each swing a tribute to their fallen brothers and sisters who gave everything.

Throughout the week, they express gratitude for the chance to live another day, for the ability to learn new skills, for the opportunity to experience the beauty and solitude of Hyalite and mostly for the chance to spend time outside with a group of people who understand them without explanation.  Through the adventure of ascent and the challenge of each push on the ice, healing happens before our very eyes. Bare’s prediction while addressing the group on day one comes true:  “This is not intended to be a therapy trip, but by the very nature of what we do, you will feel better about life and everything else.”

Due to Magro and Anker’s expert guidance and exceptional patience, each member of the team spends the week progressing through a series of skills that prepares them for the ultimate test: a multi-pitch adventure. On the last day, small-groups of two accompanied by competent guides trudge through the depths of Hyalite to tackle 2-, 3-, and even 4-pitch challenges.  That night around the campfire, stories of success and struggle, fear, and laughter, teamwork and MacGyver-like moves flew across the flames.  Despite exhaustion from the day, the group lingers for hours until finally the last log turns to ash and folks retreat to frigid tents sparkling under a nearly full moon.

“Being a combat veteran, I spend a lot of time in my head–trying to remember things, forget things, ignore things, reduce anxiety,” says Demond Mullins, a former Sergeant in the New York Army National Guard who served in Iraq. “Being on an expedition like this was a great exercise in just being present and enjoying the moment. The company was great and we shared an encouraging and progressive dynamic.  There’s no greater therapy than connecting oneself to nature, earth, and community.  This expedition accomplished all of this and I can’t wait to get back out there!”

***

For more info on Veterans Expeditions go to: www.vetexpeditions.com.
For more info on the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors: www.sierraclub.org/missionoutdoors
For more info on Sam Magro go to: www. sammagro.com
For more info on Montana Alpine Guides go to: http://www.adventuremontana.com/

Comments

  1. Stacy Bare
    United States
    March 5, 2013, 11:08 am

    What a great story! Thanks a lot NatGeo for taking the time to highlight our service members who fought to defend the places that are often profiled here (especially in the US!).

    More stories like this please!

  2. Dave Mayer
    Boulder
    March 5, 2013, 11:19 am

    Love this. Please do a continuing series on these guys.

  3. Brook Hopper
    Berkeley, ca
    March 5, 2013, 11:35 am

    Love stories like this! Hyalite cyn is an inspiring place, but not as inspiring as these climbers!

  4. Dani Adams
    Kentucky
    March 5, 2013, 11:40 am

    Thank you for writing about our military veterans. This is the perfect forum to write about them and our connection to the outdoors. Please keep it up!

  5. Nick Watson
    Salida, CO
    March 5, 2013, 11:46 am

    Great to see more veteran stories in NatGeo Adventure! All these vets have fascinating life stories and experience. More stories on veterans shed light on who these people really are to a public who wants to know more.

  6. Joe Kassar
    Mahwah, NJ
    March 5, 2013, 3:59 pm

    Wonderful story; riviting pics. Very pleased to see that these men and women who have put their lives on the line for us, are receiving the recognition and care they so deserve. They are and continue to be an inspiration to all of us, when we so desperatly need hero’s for our kids to emulate.

  7. Thomas
    Bangkok, Thailand
    March 5, 2013, 4:12 pm

    Mark I love you buddy( no homo) damn dude you got yourself in the National Geographic! Way to go!

  8. Carolann Furchi
    Cornwall, New York
    March 5, 2013, 4:12 pm

    This is great

  9. Carolann Furchi
    March 5, 2013, 4:15 pm

    Great to see veterans continuing to show mastery and accomplish great things.

  10. Mike Kirby
    Boulder, CO
    March 5, 2013, 8:51 pm

    It was an honor to serve and to climb with all of you. Thank you Chris for writing such a beautiful story about the men and women who have sacrificed so much and who can reunite by coming together in such a healing place like Hyalite Canyon.

  11. Lauren
    United States
    March 5, 2013, 8:51 pm

    What a moving story! Bravo to the whole team, and thank you, National Geographic, for spreading this message to the world.

  12. Mark Deming
    Brooklyn
    March 5, 2013, 10:18 pm

    @ Thomas, that a picture of an uncaged animal. You can see the ahh wtf do I do look haha.
    Lived life here puts the world into perspective, gives veterans a purpose. We were one spec on a wall, bent from conquering nations to at peace in another brotherhood with veterans and the land we protect. Climbing all over, one with the elements loving every freaking minute of it.
    Picked up a rolodex of people who have my back at every mountain. Can’t beat that.
    The views of Montana are amazing get outside people you only have one life to live.

  13. Mark Deming
    March 5, 2013, 10:21 pm

    Lauren how did you get a picture in there def jealous at your technological prowess. Cute pic if its really you… lol

  14. Stephanie Deming
    March 5, 2013, 10:48 pm

    Love the guy with the weird glasses. Just kidding, but I really do love you. Sounds like an awesome adventure.

  15. Westie Pops
    USA
    March 5, 2013, 11:05 pm

    Thanks National Geographic. As always you have done a fantastic job writing and photographing a story that deserves to be told. Hopefully you will continue to support Veterans and their efforts to heal and enjoy the great outdoors! Kudos to VetEx and the Sierra Club.

  16. John Mackedon
    Washington, DC
    March 5, 2013, 11:49 pm

    Great story. I am a firm believer in this program and I am happy to see it getting the exposure it deserves. I am a huge supporter of VetEx. Thanks to VetEx for all your altruistic endeavors and thanks to NatGeo for once again recognizing a great story needing to be told.

  17. Managed IT Services Orlando
    USA
    March 6, 2013, 7:09 am

    Very impressive. Thanks

  18. Sam Magro
    Montana
    March 6, 2013, 9:29 am

    The week in Hyalite with VetEx was a memorable one, and I think I speak for all of us who were lucky enough to be present. It is great to see that week covered in National Geographic Adventure so others can gather some small idea as to how great it was for all of us there. I hope to see more coverage of other VetEx and climbing trips in the future! Great write up

    cheers,
    Sam Magr

  19. Mike Emons
    TN
    March 6, 2013, 11:03 am

    Great story, great cause…Stacy…fantastic work, I envy your path post-deployment. Way to do what you love and help others while doing it. Brian and Shane would be proud!

  20. Amir A.
    Northern Virginia
    March 6, 2013, 9:36 pm

    Stacy B. and Nick W. are the real deal. Continually pursuing ways to better our Nation’s veteran community through hard, rewarding work outdoors. I participated in several VetEx led excursions after a military deployment and can’t say enough about how much it helped me get back on my feet. Thanks Nat Geo for recognizing the value of supporting vets outside! Please continue to be a part of the story.

  21. Stacy Bare
    March 7, 2013, 8:51 am

    Thanks for the love y’all! Mike, Shane and Brian are never far from my thoughts when I climb. We’ll get you out on a mountain with us soon enough!

  22. Demon!
    Brooklyn
    March 7, 2013, 11:49 am

    So awesome! Keep it coming!

  23. Mike P
    Seattle
    March 7, 2013, 1:16 pm

    Nice work! Glad to see this going on.

    Took me a second to identify Stacy in the photo until I saw the guy standing 5 feet downhill from everyone but still taller than everyone else!

  24. Nick
    Washington, DC
    March 7, 2013, 7:24 pm

    Great Article NatGeo! You guys at VetEx and Sierra Club are doing great things for our vets and what a better activity than rock climbing. Take care of the people who take care of our nation.

    Climb on!!
    -Nick (Washington, DC)

  25. Jared R
    Ramstein, Germany
    March 8, 2013, 12:44 pm

    Outstanding coverage on a top notch group of veterans!! Stacy and Nick keep up the great work. Thanks for publishing nat geo, more stories like these please – very inspirational indeed! Awesome seeing veterans enjoying the beautiful outdoors they fought to protect.

  26. Jen
    Minneapolis
    March 8, 2013, 12:59 pm

    Thank you for sharing this inspiring story! I appreciate the photos, and most of all, the perspective. What a great endeavor!

  27. [...] Veterans Take on Hyalite Canyon and… [...]

  28. Joshua Houdek
    Minneapolis, MN
    March 29, 2013, 10:54 am

    “Explore, enjoy and protect the planet!” This story illustrates the best of Sierra Club’s slogan and the best of adventure therapy. Kudos to all.