Fall Speaker Series: VetEx


The season is upon us here at the Gunks. Crisp days followed by cool nights, and, for the climbers among us, a sea of sticky stone. While your day might be filled with plugging gear or even a Catskills run and hike, join us at Rock and Snow every Saturday night from September 27th to November 15th for our annual Fall Speaker Series. We’ve hand-selected the most entertaining, stellar speakers for the series, which is free of charge. Check in at our Events page to stay up-to-date and follow our blog every Monday for musings on the upcoming speaker.




In 2013, a group of three men, Dan Wiwczar, Derek Quintanilla and Joshua Brandon, set out to traverse the Ridge of the Gods and Mount Olympus—the tallest, most eye-catching peak of the Washington State’s Olympic Mountains—over six days. They covered more than 48 miles on foot, gaining and losing over 11,000 feet of elevation. Crossing a temperate rain forest, sub alpine hills, five peaks, and two glaciers—the group continued on, moving methodically.


From the peaks of the Ridge of the Gods, the wilderness of Washington State opened up in all directions. The ethereal white blanketed the dark, ragged peaks, and a distant blue range whispered out into the horizon. Empty and full at the same time, the vastness met everyone in a different place for moments of reflection.



Photos provided by Dan Wiwczar or sourced from vetexpeditions.com

The group of three men made this expedition in the beginning of September 2013 not only to tick off a peak on their personal bucket lists. All three were veterans; they were making the grueling climb as a quest to honor 9/11, and those who serve the nation and face challenges returning home.



According to a report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs in September 2014, of the nearly two million service members who were deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade, one in five returned suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s a striking truth—one of many issues veterans face after their service ends—which Wiwczar highlighted in a video he shot for a veteran organization aimed to help the cause of this statistic.


VetEx, short for Veteran Expeditions, is a veteran-led, chartered nonprofit based in Colorado, which works to empower veterans to overcome challenges like these. Appointed the Northeast Director in 2013, Wiwczar will be at Rock and Snow on Friday, November 7 at 8pm to give a presentation about his personal experience of cathartic mountain scapes and the organization’s aim.



Wiwczar, now a Rosendale resident, grew up in Long Island. After graduating from SUNY New Paltz, he spent eight years as an Infantryman in the US Army. After he finished his service, his love for the outdoors led him to a new career. He has spent countless years since working towards becoming an outdoor educator and guide.

In 2012, he founded Alpine Outdoor Adventures, an outdoor guide company located here in the Hudson Valley, which leads trips and classes ranging from hiking to snowshoeing to backcountry yoga. He simultaneously works for Iron Mountain.

Though Wiwczar had been climbing for years, the Mount Olympus trip last year was particularly meaningful.

“[After the expedition] I effeminately started to identify myself as a climber,” says Wiwczar of the trip to the Olympics last September. “While it may not seem like much, military service and consequent deployments play a huge part of an individuals life, and it is sometimes hard to make the transition out of it.”



The skills he used on this expedition—those he’d learn to move efficiently through the mountains and to trust his team—opened up the alpine world, and an ability to access landscapes that not many are able to experience.


“I started to realize there are other things that I can be, other than someone who has been to war,” says Wiwczar. “There are bigger things that I can do.”


For Wiwczar, expeditions into the mountains have remarkable similarities to combat, and the comradeship you get among fellow climbers is very similar as well.


Wiwczar first got involved with VetEx after a North Conway ice climbing trip a few years ago. When the organization asked him to join the VetEx staff as the Northeast Director, just over a year ago, he jumped at the offer to increase the events and reach on the east coast.



“I saw it as an opportunity to help other veterans who may be struggling as I have in the past,” says Wiwczar. “As climbing has helped me move on and become a better person, I really enjoy introducing it to other veterans.”


Over the past few years, the organization has helped Wiwczar open up many doors. In 2013, the Sierra Military Outdoors sponsored the Veteran Outside Adventure Film School, and Wiwczar, who has studied film in school, created a video aimed to help connect people by sharing the therapeutic ability of the wilderness.


“It was the first time I’d picked up a camera since school,” says Wiwczar. It was also the first time he was able to use his background in film and connect his two passions.


Through his films, his work as a guide and his work with VetEx, Wiwczar hopes to share with other veterans how climbing and outdoor engagement can be a therapeutic thing.



“The logistical planning, to the training, to the execution are something I felt was missing once I left the military,” says Wiwcza, “and planning for the next big mountain is a healthy way to replicate those things.”


In 2014, VetEx had a packed schedule for participating veterans: ice climbing in Ouray and North Conway, hut trips in Colorado and bigger expeditions like Denali and Mt. Rainer. VetEx has been going through some reorganization, but 2015 will follow a very similar schedule as 2014. Participates of the program can expect a mix of local trips and national trips, one of which will be the Veterans Climbing Festival partnered with Cathedral Mountain Guides. This will take place on the first weekend in January 2015. Wiwczar hopes to have 50 participants at this event.


“We are also sending a team of six to eight to Denali in May/June of 2015,” says Wiwczar, who also adds that there will be an Alaska Fly Fishing trip in July.



“Here in the Northeast my focus is going to be getting a group of vets who are interested in gaining certifications so that we can run more events locally,” says Wiwczar.


This Friday, Wiwczar will present at Rock and Snow on VetEx, the mission, past trips and what’s next. But the bottom line, notes Wiwczar, is simple: “it’s important to get out with other Vets and encourage others to get out.”