Return to Hyalite Canyon: Veterans Build Community That Stretches Beyond Mountains

Temperatures suddenly drop and clouds dominate the skyline. Light rain morphs to flurries. The wind gains strength driving snow sideways through the canyon we’ve called home for the last week.

Some hoods go up, but other than that no one seems to notice. It’s business as usual on the last day of the 2nd Annual Veterans Expeditions Ice Climbing Camp in Hyalite Canyon outside Bozeman, Montana. Climbers move upward on the icy blue wall while belayers below remain focused on keeping their partners safe.

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Photograph by Chris Kassar

Half way up a fat, somewhat picked out waterfall, Samantha Tinsley doesn’t skip a beat even though wind and snow swirl about making it feel as if we’re in a tiny, recently shaken snow globe. She climbs steadily and pauses periodically to perform an odd ritual that involves reaching her arms overhead and clapping … five giant claps. Then, without fanfare, she resumes her ascent.

Wondering why someone would act so foolishly mid-climb? Well, because renowned climber Conrad Anker, told her to try it. And honestly, who can refuse a recommendation from one of the premier alpinists in the world? Not many and especially not someone like Tinsley, an ex- Sergeant First Class in the Army who is always up for a challenge. But, Anker’s exercise wasn’t just a fun test or a way to make her look silly. This trailblazing mountaineer with a huge heart suggested it because steadying your feet, securing tools, and clapping enthusiastically overhead mimics the balance needed to place ice screws–a skill critical to learning to lead climb.

Throughout the week, Anker humbly shared countless such climbing secrets, tons of life wisdom, loads of laughs and his cut of camp chores with this diverse team of 13 military veterans and active duty service members brought together through a partnership between Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), Sierra Club Mission Outdoors and Montana Alpine Guides.

“I didn’t serve, but there are so many guys and gals returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who deserve our respect and have a lot to offer,” says Anker who also joined the group last year in Hyalite. “Spending a week sharing my backyard with this incredible group of veterans and helping them find a sense of connection and camaraderie is my little way of helping out. It’s an honor for me to be a part of this.”

And, of course, it’s an honor for the participants to climb with Anker, known for successfully tackling some of the most technically challenging terrain in the world. “In 2013, I came as active duty and was blown away and humbled by the group, the guides and especially Conrad, whose energy was infectious. Everyone was so helpful, supportive and team-oriented including Conrad who was quick to help with the not-so-glamorous chores of chopping wood and cooking. Looking to continue a life of service post military, Conrad gives much to emulate,” says Tinsley who had only climbed ice once before joining the  inaugural Veterans Expeditions Hyalite Canyon excursion last March.

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Sam Tinsley crushing it in Hyalite Canyon, Montana; Photograph by Chris Kassar

After a week in Hyalite, she was hooked on ice and on VetEx because there were no expectations or requirements to talk about feelings or experiences.  “We could just climb and have fun and let things happen naturally,” says Tinsley.  “Being outside with a group of military folks that way is amazing. There’s a shared common bond that makes us click so quickly. From the first day, it’s like we’ve known each other forever.”

So, Tinsley jumped at the chance to return this year during which she tested her skills on steep WI6 chutes, tough mixed routes and learned a bit about leading. But, she didn’t come back only–or even mostly—for the ice. She came back seeking support from friends new and old and hoping to gain the perspective required to handle one of the biggest changes in her life to date. Just days before boarding a plane to Montana, Tinsley, who logged 11½ years of service including several international deployments, officially left the service and became a veteran.

“Sam is in transition. She’s asking the same questions we’ve all asked. What comes next? What can I do as a civilian that’s even going to remotely match the excitement of what I did in the military?” says Veterans Expeditions Executive Director and co-founder, Nick Watson. “Time outdoors with VetEx helps folks like Sam find the space to make some big life decisions and since we’ve all been there, she can look to us for guidance and support.”

And, lean on folks she has. In fact, Tinsley credits the relationships formed on last year’s trip with getting her through this uncertain and difficult transition. “Once I decided to separate, I reached out to the vets I met here for advice and I didn’t feel completely lost anymore. Already having those handrails in place and that support network set up was incredible,” says Tinsley.

This is exactly what Watson and ex-Army Captain Stacy Bare envisioned VetEx would become when they founded it in 2010. They sought to unite veterans in the outdoors, but more importantly to create a community that transcends the mountains and reaches into everyday life.

“Often after leaving the service, vets are bored and lose that spark. Getting them outside, doing something meaningful on the land they defended has an enormous amount of power to reignite that spark and get them unstuck,” says Watson. “Plus, out here we’re all just climbers and climbing is a lot like serving–it’s fun, dangerous,  and at times, your life is in another’s hands. That creates the potential for strong connections that stretch beyond the rivers, peaks, deserts, crags and icy waterfalls where they are made.”

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Photograph by Chris Kassar

Bare and Watson were named 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for turning their vision into reality, however, with over 21 million veterans living in the US, many of whom struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress,  and  2.5 million service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 alone, they know their work has just begun.

But, they also know they are not alone since the VetEx family consists of teachers like Anker and participants like Tinsley who are dedicated to helping VetEx reach new heights and achieve its lofty goals. “The outdoors provides the elbow room to reflect on where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you’re going,” says Tinsley. “I’m very humbled these opportunities exist for vets and am doing my part to get the message out to veterans and soon-to-be-veterans who need this experience. VetEx provides an incredible and unmatched opportunity to build community and make friends that will last a lifetime.”

To see more photos visit:

To watch a short video from our week in Hyalite at:

For more info on Veterans Expeditions go to:
For more info on the Sierra Club Mission Outdoors:
To visit Hyalite with Montana Alpine Guides go to: