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.
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.
“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!”