Veterans Expeditions(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) (or VetEx, as its more commonly called) began in the Rocky Mountains region of Colorado, but in the past decade has expanded its footprint to become a nationwide organization, running trips not just in the Rocky Mountains, but on the East Coast, southern desert regions and more recently in the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
In years past, VetEx often ran trips in the PNW to climb classics like Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, but the majority of that group would fly in from out of state, then head back home after their climb. In 2019, VetEx established a permanent foothold in the PNW when it added three local leaders to the roster who could lead climbs not only for those famous peaks, but the lesser-known local jewels that only locals might recognize. Over the past three years of operating with a dedicated group of leaders local to the PNW, the number of trips the organization ran went from just three in that first year to seven in 2022, with plans to run 20 trips in 2023, just in the PNW alone.
On one recent PNW trip, a group of seven veterans set out to do an overnight trip in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, where the plan was to camp in the gorgeous rocky alpine area known as Gothic Basin, and climb a nearby summit, Del Campo Peak. This trip would require the veterans to hike 15 miles and gain about 5,000 feet of elevation to attain the summit prize. But if you asked them, gaining the summit is only a small part of the motivation.
“Whether we get to the summit or not is a secondary goal here,” said Nate, one of the PNW-based VetEx trip leaders, during his initial brief at the trailhead. “Really, the only true objective is to be safe and have a lot of fun this weekend.”
The team finished prepping the equipment needed for their weekend in the mountains, then started up the trail. The group distracted themselves from the uphill effort by chatting with each other; some were regulars on VetEx trips and were checking in with each other on life updates since they last got out together, while others were new. But even those who were new were easily folded into the group dynamic.
Matt, an Army veteran who joined the PNW team for the first time this year, found himself signing up for every trip he could after his initial outing with VetEx. When asked what this community meant for him, he said, “Having other veterans that have shared in the struggles and victories of military service helps to unpack and resolve many of the challenges other outlets may not understand. The camaraderie comes quickly and naturally.”
While VetEx trips tend to have a lofty objective at the end, like a summit, it is not a peak-bagging organization, but rather a community-building one. The group photos at the summit are just a small portion of what each veteran walks away with; along with a sense of self-achievement after a hard-fought fight to the summit and also the comradery of a team all struggling together to achieve that goal.
Mike, a Navy veteran who was on his first VetEx trip, said that even though mountaineering was a new activity for him, “it doesn’t really feel all that new because I’m used to suffering through physical activity with a group of people. This feels comfortable and familiar enough, like a ruck march, but remove the actual miserable parts and replace them with incredible views and great conversations.”
The veterans who join these trips come from every branch and range, from those who left the service decades ago, to those who are still active duty or in the reserves.
Colton, one of the newest additions to the leader roster for the PNW team said, “I just left the Marine Corps a few months ago, after 10 years as an officer, and I’ve heard about how sometimes veterans leaving the military can feel a sense of detachment because they are no longer a part of that tight-knit community … but tying my love for the outdoors with the VetEx community has made my transition to that new life in the civilian world so much easier, by staying connected with other people who served their country, and all through our mutual love of getting outside.”
After spending a night in Gothic Basin and a successful summit of Del Campo Peak, the team started packing up their camp to make the journey back down the mountain. Conversations floated from the next trips everyone planned on getting out on, to what food people were looking forward to eating after the trip. Once the team got safely back down to their vehicles, Jocelyn, an Air Force veteran and new addition to the leader roster, mentioned that there was a Mexican restaurant in one of the nearby towns and there was an immediate agreement that chips, salsa and margaritas were exactly what the group was craving after a long and fulfilling weekend.
The Pacific Northwest VetEx team has just wrapped up their 2022 season, but they are already well into preparing for 2023, with a lot more trips planned.
“We’ve expanded our PNW leaders out here to five of us now,” said Nate. “This means we can run more trips than ever before, and we are on track to have about 15 next year, which is double what we’ve ever run in this region. We are also expanding the types of trips offered, from our core focus in mountaineering, to adding backcountry skiing, sea kayaking and more. It’s a really exciting time for VetEx here in the PNW.”
Are you a veteran, active duty or reservist and want to join the PNW team or any of the other Veterans Expeditions trips around the country on a trip in 2023? The trips will be posted on the Veterans Expeditions(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) website for sign up around the end of the year, and also announced on their Instagram(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) and Facebook(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) accounts. If you want to help this non-profit continue to do the work they do to get veterans outside, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Veterans Expeditions.