“Peace for the soul, only happens when you seek to touch the edges of the map.” - DFG
In American society, it is generally frowned upon to take a couple weeks off work in the busy season. But don’t we need times of self-care in our routines and lives, even during the busy season? You know, something that affects your core being, sheds light on your pain, acknowledges your inadequacies, and ultimately provides a clearer look within your soul.
Let’s begin in August 2001.
The tragic events of 9/11 occurred my first semester of college and subsequently reset what I had known as my geopolitical baseline up to that point. Four years later in May 2005, after studying history, political science, and participating in Army ROTC at Clemson University, I started my active-duty career in the U.S. Army.
Over the next 18 years, I committed myself to being the best warrior-diplomat (Infantry Officer) for the Rangers, Paratroopers, Operational Advisors and Soldiers that I had the opportunity to lead. The camaraderie and memories I gained from tours in the 82nd Airborne Division, 75th Ranger Regiment, and Asymmetric Warfare Group will never fade.
Interwoven with those memories are tough days, long nights, and split-second decisions. There is no second attempt or redo in warfare; it’s live, it’s real, and it is nothing like any video game or movie.
The experience leaves an indelible mark on your soul. It created bonds I’ll forever cherish, but also unseen scars that I’ll forever carry with me. And now that it’s all over, I’ve found myself wondering how I can make the transition from warrior to citizen.
In February 2023, I was on terminal leave from the Army after choosing to medically retire (my time serving had gifted me with a C5-C7 spinal fusion). It was at that time that I started work at NEMO as “The Warranty Specialist.” As the Warranty Specialist, I repair and return NEMO equipment so it’s ready for the next adventure, while keeping NEMO’s sustainability efforts in mind.
It has been an incredible first six months at NEMO — the energy and passion across the team in all facets of the business is amazing to witness. The time and effort to bring the best products to market all while keeping to our “Endless Promise” goal is a collective effort and something that everyone truly prides themselves on.
No matter how fulfilling I’ve found the next chapter in my career, though, there’s still a noticeable void. How do you reset your mind after 22 years of structured lifestyle? What happens when the colors of a sunset, kisses from your dog, or laughter of loved ones don’t provide the joy and happiness you expected? What’s the healthy replacement for the adrenaline of combat?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. That’s why I set out on a journey to study my military service PTSD and explore the best scientific treatments available through time in the outdoors.
After July 4th of this year, I flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, on my way to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP). The going-in plan was to grab a rental (priority: cheap with a large trunk); take the scenic Idaho backroad route up to Jackson, Wyoming; pick up my friend John; figure out a last-minute place to bivouac (who needs reservations in July for GTNP, right?); and then prepare our gear to climb.
What actually happened... Well, let’s just say things never really go as planned, but that’s something I’m learning to embrace.
Recently, Outside magazine published an article that discusses how routine functions you do for your mental health (like going for a run every morning) can actually be stagnating. It’s learning to embrace unorthodox parts of our lives and non-routine activities that boost our cognitive dexterity. I’m not saying I actively create chaos in my daily life, but I do love something about flying by the seat of my pants when traveling. Something about all those National Lampoon’s vacations where Clark Griswold plans everything — only for it all to become a disaster — speaks to me.
The rental was a new Camry; I drive a ’94 Land Cruiser daily so anything with A/C and acceleration works for me. Trunk space was better than anything else available at 11 p.m., so I went with it.
The route from Salt Lake City to Jackson through southeast Idaho is amazing and best to do in the daylight as it goes through sections of open-range ranching. There are rolling hills and green landscape as far as you can see — put on a great podcast or book and let the 4.5 hours be something you cherish.
Personally, I listened to Matthew Perry’s recent autobiography Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, a recommendation from my sister. Matt is witty, casual, and charming in his depiction of himself and his friends, and candid about his struggles with addiction. As someone who has used alcohol for the last three years to deal with my own demons, I can relate to the psychological struggle of relying on a depressant that provides a neurological serotonin boost to escape your innermost thoughts. It’s worth a listen.
Picking up John wasn’t something I imagined I would be doing 72 hours prior. This trip to GTNP had been planned out four months in advance with another friend, but for personal reasons he stepped away at the last minute. Left with an open spot on a paid, private 2-person guided ascent of the Grand only three days beforehand leaves you with limited options. The main question becomes: Which of your friends is willing to drop everything, fly across the country, and conduct an ascent of the Grand at the last minute?
The obvious first choice was my dad, but he hasn’t done any mountaineering. So, I texted two friends that I served with on the volunteer fire department up in Chassell, Michigan (in the Keweenaw portion of the Upper Peninsula). I had met Dylan and John three years prior in 2020 when I moved to the U.P. to run the Army ROTC program at Michigan Tech. We had all become close and I knew both had the mountaineering experience to be able to do it last-minute. After an exchange I’ll omit from this blog that outlined just how crazy this all was, John booked a flight for Jackson.
Seeing John walk out of the airport was the high point of this trip for me. His willingness to join me represented the strength of our friendship, a bond that's the type to cherish in the best, worst, and unknown moments of life.
The last time John had been mountaineering, puffy North Face down jackets were all the rage across the globe and my own experience wasn’t much more recent. Our skills, in other words, were a little dusty, so we chose early on to attempt this ascent with the help of Exum Mountain Guides.
This approach allowed John and I to get re-certified on Multi-Pitch 1-2 with two 8-hour instructional days and then a Grand ascent over the next 36 hours. The Exum Guides instruction, whether you were new to rock climbing, an indoor enthusiast, or a seasoned climber, was dialed in. We practiced techniques across the rock-climbing spectrum in preparation for the holds, moves, and pitches we'd see on our Grand approach on the Upper Exum Ridge.
This also allowed John and I to fully test out our gear and build a quick beta of knowledge on what gear would work and what wouldn’t. (There were at least five gear runs to REI and Teton Mountaineering for our final kit setup.) Perfect gear choices for this trip were La Sportiva TX4 Rs, Darn Tough Micro Crew Midweight hiking socks, the Outdoor Research Helium AscentShell Jacket, and NEMO’s new Tensor™ All-Season sleeping pad.
With gear and training squared away, all we had to do was enjoy climbing — and that we did. Hours spent trading stories and some exceptional climbing routes made for a great couple of days, punctuated by cold river swims, rich sunrises over the landscape, and midnight meteor showers. We started to feel solid about our skills and our excitement grew for the opportunity to hike the Grand.
On day three, with a streamlined and well-selected 35 pounds of gear, we started the 8-mile trek to the lower saddle and Exum basecamp. Guiding John and I were two very seasoned climbers, Bill and John-Michael. From my military perspective of daily training for two decades, I’ll just say that guiding is tough work and there’s a strong similarity between the guides and the tight, small teams in the military.
The Exum basecamp on the lower saddle at around 11,500 feet was the afternoon destination. We departed Jenny Lake at 10:30 a.m. and arrived at the lower saddle at around 5:30 p.m. From the basecamp, we would prep, acclimate for 8 hours, and then conduct an early morning ascent the next day at 4 a.m. After gear setup and dinner, I found myself watching the sunset from a piece of Grand Teton granite, sipping on a couple drams of whiskey.
Sitting in that spot that had existed for millions of years put so many thoughts into perspective. During my time in the military, the finite nature of life was front-and-center and I learned to make every day meaningful. It was moments like this, shared with a great friend, that were crucial to savor, and to experience in honor of those that are no longer with us.
At 3:30 a.m., after a long night of restlessness, the propane stove was clicked on by a guide, initiating the start of the day. In the military, Rangers know this period to be called “stand to,” a period of time where you become attuned to your surroundings, ready your gear, and prepare to initiate movement. In civilian life, I now know this time as simply waking up.
This particular morning, we were met with freezing rain, wind gusts up to 40+ mph, and lightning. The ascent would have to hold off while we waited to see if the weather would abate and allow us a safe summit.
Around 6:30 a.m., after a hearty meal of oatmeal and a power nap snuggled in our NEMO sleeping bags, we arose quickly at Bill’s announcement: “The weather has cleared, we step off in 15 minutes.” My heart began to race with excitement and the adrenaline kicked in at the possibility of summiting the Grand.
The twenty-three pitches of the Upper Exum Ridge range from a T5.5 to T5.7. This past July, due to the incredible winter across the mountain, we were prepared to use crampons and ice axes if required.
The climbing and views from the ridge across the valley are some of the best in the park. It was an exhilarating 4-hour ascent, with cold wind on the western approach and searing sun on the eastern face.
The summit and descent back to Jenny Lake were indescribable experiences, made all the more special by sharing them with a friend. During our trek to the summit, I felt more comfortable being forthright with John about my personal struggles with PTSD. John had seen me at my best and worst over the last couple of years, so he knew exactly what kind of pain I was in and offered the kind of support we all need in our lives: that of a friend who's there for you without judgement, who listens more than they speak, and who is willing to get on a plane whenever necessary.
Being able to express my emotions and frustrations and speak candidly about my demons is not easy. I’ll be honest: I don’t let many people in. I’m sure this sentiment speaks for most people who struggle with their mental health; we prefer to keep it known only to our inner circle. But over this trip, I came to realize that keeping it to myself is what perpetuates the stigma and is why so many people are afraid to talk about their own struggles. That revelation is not new, I know, but it was for me.
I never thought that, after a two-decade long career, my biggest struggle would be the six months after leaving the service. You go from being dialed in at your military position one day to recalibrating your whole life the next. I didn’t expect it, but I am very fortunate to have a support system of family and friends around me. You hear of too many stories of veterans who have burned all their bridges and isolated themselves under the weight of PTSD. The suicide rate for veterans continues to be around 17 deaths per day, and over the last two decades I have lost too many close friends to this disease.
Ten years ago, while I was on my fourth deployment, my wife Jess and my mom raised funds in support of the Home Base program. The Home Base’s Intensive Clinical Program is an outpatient treatment designed to help veterans and their family members who are struggling with invisible wounds like PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and more. The two-week program combines evidence-based therapy with complementary and alternative medicine and is sponsored by the Boston Red Sox charitable foundation and Massachusetts General hospital.
I never thought that I would need a resource like this, but I’m fortunate to have friends and family that advocated for me to seek help from the best care. It was on this GO FAR trip that I finally made the decision to attend a two-week outpatient program within the suite of programs offered by the Home Base program. In October of 2023, along with a cohort of other service members with special operations backgrounds, I’ll spend two weeks in Boston at a hotel, abstinent of all substances except prescribed medications, to learn strategies for coping with PTSD. It is an honor to have the opportunity to attend such a program.
My trip to the Grand Tetons gave me the environment and time needed to envision the next chapter of my life. It was, in a way, a vision quest in pursuit of help, balance, and renewal. And among those mountains, I found the answer I was looking for:
Just like well-used gear, we sometimes need a little repairing ourselves.
NEMO Gear List:
- Hornet OSMO™ 2P Ultralight Backpacking Tent
- Tracker OSMO™ 2P Ultralight Backpacking Tent
- Stalker™ Down Mummy Sleeping Bag
- Coda™ Down Mummy Sleeping Bag
- Flyer™ bluesign Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad
- Tensor™ All-Season Ultralight Sleeping Pad (coming soon in 2024!)
- Resolve™ Men’s 30L Technical Daypack (coming soon in 2024!)
- Double Haul 50L & 70L Duffel & Tote (coming soon in 2024!)
- Moonlite™ Antler Reclining Camp Chair
- Moonlander™ Dual-Height Camp Table
The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it.
Daniel Gwosch is the Warranty Specialist at NEMO. When not repairing NEMO equipment he is a seasoned adventure tramper and aspiring mountaineer. He enjoys gardening, hiking, and backpacking with his partner Jessica and their two rescue dogs, Mangas and Tu.