Army veteran Nick Watson, co-founder of Veterans Expeditions, right, climbs a slab of ice Feb. 20 at the grotto falls in Hyalite Canyon in Montana. Veterans Expeditions helps military veterans take outdoor adventures challenging them in a variety of activities such as ice climbing, mountain biking and more. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez / Bozeman Daily Chronicle)
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BOZEMAN, Mont. Army veteran Nick Watson jabbed an ice pick into a frozen waterfall and started up an ice-climbing route in Hyalite Canyon on Wednesday afternoon.
Below, fellow veterans and famed Bozeman mountaineer Conrad Anker shouted encouragement.
"Put your left foot up onto that ledge right down by your knee there," Anker yelled.
"Use your whole body I've got you," added Mike Kirby, an Army Ranger who did three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Eleven veterans 10 men and one woman were in Bozeman last week ice climbing with Anker and local climbing guide Sam Magro, thanks to Veterans Expeditions. The Colorado-based nonprofit uses wilderness adventures to connect veterans and empower them to overcome challenges they face following military service.
Despite physical limitations or emotional scars of war, the veterans contribute to a team and accomplish a difficult mission.
"In a nutshell, it kind of mirrors combat, but the mountain is your adversary instead of people," said Josh Brandon, 35, of Olympia, Wash. "You're not getting shot at, but the mountain can turn on you instantly."
Brandon served three tours in Iraq with the Army. He fought in the violent Sadr City, a district of Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City, where he said one day a group of locals would be your allies, and the next day they'd become your enemies.
Brandon took home a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He tried therapy and prescription drugs but ultimately found mountaineering to be the best medicine. He climbed Mount Rainier with four of his platoon leaders one of whom is blind from an explosion.
"That literally changed me," Brandon said. "I went from being on a downward spiral to turning around and putting my life on track."
This was Brandon's first time ice climbing and the first time Veterans Expeditions has organized such a trip in Bozeman. The group arrived Feb. 17 and stayed through Friday.
The climbing experience of the veterans ranges from none to an experienced climbing guide in the Teton Range. On Wednesday, several veterans were climbing Elevator Shaft, a moderately difficult route, according to Anker.
Veterans Expeditions was founded two years ago by Watson, an Army ranger who served in Korea and Central and South America, and fellow veteran Stacy Bare.
Watson said groups for veterans were fairly limited to traditional organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And at the same time, the suicide rate of former servicemen was alarming. He said 22 veterans take their lives each day.
Last year, Veterans Expeditions took 12 trips and served about 150 vets. This year, Watson said, they expect to take about 20 trips and serve several hundred veterans. The organization takes servicemen backpacking, rock climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking and whitewater rafting.
"It gives the veterans a non-clinical space to adjust to the normalcy of civilian life," Watson said.