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Sierra Club’s Military Outings Program lays siege to Hyalite

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
BD employee Dennis Connors and BD athlete Conrad Anker siege Hyalite Canyon with the Sierra Club’s Military Outings Program.

I have been part of two small communities of very tight knit people my entire life. As the saying goes, “climbing is a small world”. You probably know someone to crash with in almost every state, and if you have been around long enough you will most likely find yourself couch-surfing at every crag you travel to. The military community is this way too. In August 2013 I was introduced to the one and only Stacy Bare, Director of the Sierra Club’s Outings program and co-founder of Veterans Expeditions. I was linked up with him through my graduate school program in a meeting during the Outdoor Retailer Summer show. Stacy shared how he was helping US Military Veterans get outside, and using the vertical world to do it. We kept talking about ideas and brainstorming ways to get more vets into climbing. We both understand the mountain’s healing abilities and inspirational capacities and wanted to share this with our fellow Vets. We even found out that we served in the same portions of Iraq, at the same time, and even some of our missions were linked. I was eager to use my climbing background to get out and climb with fellow Vets, Stacy shared this motivation, and I needed a partner organization for my graduate final project.

Stacy and I continued our conversations over the next few months and it became apparent that the Sierra Club was great at getting Vets outside and getting them climbing. However, they lacked any kind of developed program to target specific outcomes they are hoping to get with through their program. Perfect. Here is my opportunity to utilize my climbing history and love of this sport, and to act as an ambassador between the climbing community and the Veterans’ community. Stacy and I agreed that I would develop the curriculum and we would give it a test run during the Sierra Club/ Veterans Expeditions’ annual trip to Hyalite canyon to take Vets Ice Climbing. He also thought it would be great for me to come and climb with fellow Vets, show them the positive sides of climbing, and how climbing can become a sense of strength to overcome some of the issues that veterans face. It also gave us the opportunity to inspire the Veterans to become interested in a sport that requires natural and wild places to enjoy. It is the beginning of our plan to build an Army of conservationists through the Veterans’ community. So over the next few months I developed a curriculum that allowed for tons of climbing in an absolute beautiful location, inspired pro-environmental behaviors in the Vets, and inspired them to be leaders.

Fast forward to March 2nd, 2014. A group of Veterans are staying at the Lewis and Clark hotel ready to get out for a week of climbing in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. If you have never been to Hyalite Canyon, it is a must see. After group introductions I knew this trip was going to be awesome. I was part of two full-on communities, Veterans and Climbers, converging around something that has been part of my life since I was a pre-teen—climbing. Seeing the motivation and diversity in the group was amazing and I knew at that instant that climbing was more than just something we like to do for leisure. It becomes our identity. Much like Veterans identify themselves as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines while we served, we can now identify ourselves as Climbers. When you graduate Marine Corps boot camp they instill into and ethos “once a Marine, always a Marine”; and when you become a passionate climber you will never let go of that title.

For the next five days, the 14 veterans of the trip climbed ice like it was the siege into the Battle of Fallujah. I have never seen a group of 14 climbers that motivated to climb. Normally, there is a lot of sitting around and socializing during cragging. Not on this trip. This crew was absolutely astonishing. Every rope that was up had a climber on it, getting after it, the entire time. Ice was going everywhere. We also had the absolute pleasure of having fellow BD Athlete and climbing legend Conrad Anker climbing with us the entire week. Conrad has never served in the military, but his connection to the climbing community, the battles he has fought in the mountains, the losses he has endured, and the motivation he has to continue climbing mimics that of a seasoned and experienced military Vet. There is a lot we as Vets can learn from climbers like Conrad, and through his actions we can see that climbing will always be that passion we can find when we need something positive to continue in our lives.

These types of trips are more than just climbing. They allow a group of individuals who have an underlying bond a way to come together in new and different community and build identity during and after military service. Just like serving in the military, climbing can take you to amazing places, sometimes put you in situations of serious consequence, make you rely on your partner or team for success or even to save your life, provide endless challenge, and can give you an extremely strong sense of community. Climbing also builds upon a person attachment to wild places and scenic places and increases your buy-in to conserving these places.

Many veterans face serious challenges when they leave military service. Depression, loss of identity, post-traumatic stress, suicide, substance abuse, and a sense they will never fit into society can plague the success of very strong, successful people. Climbing is a good way to give Veterans a positive activity to focus their energies, enjoy successes, and become part of a community. It also gives them something to fight for—the protection of the wild lands of the country they vowed to protect.

I for one am extremely grateful to be part of these two wonderful communities of climbers and veterans. It was amazing to see first time ice-climbers get so motivated by the aesthetics of Hyalite Canyon and the strength of their veteran-climbing partners. Some guys were top-roping WI5 on their second day out, WITHOUT falling. I’d like to throw a quick thank you to Black Diamond for supporting me in my climbing life and on this trip, and to Montana Alpine Guides for continually putting up ropes whenever any of the vets wanted to try something else or something different. Oh, and for the curriculum, I’m pretty sure we were successful in inspiring the Vets on this trip to become more conservation minded and inspire them to continue to protect their nation by protecting the wild places they love to go climb.

Dennis Connors is a BD employee and US Marine combat veteran who moved to SLC to continue his passion for climbing and protecting the wild places he enjoys.