Rising to the challenges of Denali

Story by Staff Sgt. Matthew E. Winstead, U.S. Army Alaska Public Affairs

KAHILTNA GLACIER BASE CAMP, Alaska — Crowning a vast glacier, Mt. McKinley’s impressive magnitude rises above surrounding peaks.

Also known as Denali — an Koyukon Athabaskan word meaning “The High One” — at more that 20,000 feet above sea level, it stands as the tallest peak in North America, and third highest in the world.

The mountain has a history of claiming the lives of unprepared climbers and offers some of the most treacherous terrain and harshest climates on the planet.

It’s exactly the kind of challenge a team of U.S. Army Alaska mountaineering experts welcomes.

Six members of the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center cadre landed on the Kahiltna Glacier, May 17, to begin a 14- to 20-day climb to the mountain’s summit.

The NWTC trains Soldiers to fight and win in a variety of unforgiving environments. Its Black Rapids Training Center near Delta Junction, Alaska, offers courses in extreme cold weather operations and military mountaineering.

The NWTC team was shuttled in courtesy of two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crews from Company A, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Even though this is a mission the U.S. Army hasn’t attempted since before the events of 9/11, the climbers are no strangers to mountaineering.

The NWTC instructors specialize in maneuvering on treacherous terrain in arctic conditions and say they’re ready for anything the mountain has to throw at them.

The team consists of five active-duty Soldiers and one Army civilian, each fully equipped with a tailored packing list of sustainment supplies and climbing gear.

“We’ve made sure to plan for everything from weather to altitude sickness,” said Maj. Gary McDonald, commandant of the NWTC, based at Black Rapids Training Area, Alaska. “We’ll be moving in rope teams to help mitigate the danger from potentially falling into hidden crevasses and adhering to  (a) strict rest (and) movement plan.”

People typically experience altitude sickness at an elevation around 17,000 feet above sea level. Bodily functions begin to operate abnormally due to several factors, chiefly the lessened air pressure and reduced concentration of oxygen at the higher elevations, McDonald explained.

Some of the signs of altitude sickness can include altered mental states, a reduced ability to absorb nutrients, vertigo and decreased awareness along with a general feeling of malaise, McDonald said.

With so many risk factors, this is no small task for the members of NWTC.

They have planned meticulously for months to ensure safety and for some members of the team, the climb presents the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I’ve wanted to climb this thing for the last four years,” Sgt. Jacob Collins, an NWTC instructor said. “I attended the mountaineering course back in 2007 as a (private first class), and I sorta fell in love with it. Ever since then, this mountain has been on my to-do list.”

In addition to meeting the personal goals of some of the team members, the climb is providing them the perfect opportunity to hone their skills as they encounter conditions and travel methods most amateur climbers wouldn’t consider.

“Most of our early movements at the lower elevations will be done at night,” Staff Sgt. Brian Bailey said. “Nighttime provides us more protection from the heat and solar radiation reflected off the snow and ice, and it also hardens the soft spots, allowing us to cross over them with less risk of falling through and into a crevasse. There’ll also be less traffic from other climbers to deal with, as the other climbers tend to travel during the day.”

Mount McKinley currently hosts an estimated 200 additional climbers on its various levels, according to Denali National Park Service officials.

Steven Decker, a training specialist with NWTC and the team member with the longest tenure at the NWTC, described the climb as a culminating training event using every technique and method taught at the schoolhouse.

“This is a capstone training event, similar to a unit going down to (The National Training Center) or (Joint Readiness Training Center) in the lower 48,” Decker said. “A climb of this magnitude refines critical skills, (and) helps establish a greater confidence in the methods we teach.”

In addition to his current role as an Army civilian, Decker was previously assigned to NWTC as a Soldier.

McDonald said training in such extreme conditions makes Soldiers more adaptable to any terrain and conditions.

“What we do here makes us better as a fighting force,” he said. “Our Army might not always need to fight on terrain as harsh as this, but having the ability and confident members can make fighting on normal terrain that much easier.”

McDonald pointed out the vivid similarities between areas of the Black Rapids Glacier, where NWTC is located, and the mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan.

“There are photos of the mountains of Afghanistan that are completely indistinguishable from the landscape we have available here in Alaska,” he said. “The terrain matches, the vegetation matches — the comparison is uncanny. The training benefits of such areas are invaluable and need to be used more than they currently are.”

In addition to summiting McKinley, the team has offered to assist in rescue missions conducted by the Denali National Park Service in their immediate area during the climb.

“While making it to the summit is a goal, it’s not the only goal we have in climbing the mountain,” McDonald said. “The park service has agreed to contact us in the event they receive word of a needed rescue in our immediate area. If that happens, we’ll render any assistance that we can. While that may render our attempt to summit the mountain unsuccessful, we will do whatever we can to help out in those situations.”

The climbing team is currently making its way up Denali and will rest at several camps along the way.

At the 17,000-feet camp, the elevation is expected to begin affecting the climbers.

They are expecting the last leg of the climb to be the most strenuous, and will have to conserve their resources for their descent, where most fatalities traditionally occur.

“Just because you make it to the top doesn’t mean you’re done,” team member Sgt. Tony MacDougall said. “You still gotta climb back down.”

For more information about the NWTC, visit http://www.wainwright.army.mil/nwtc/.