CHUGIAK — When your new office is located in one of the world’s most extreme natural environments, it’s nice to have a little help moving in.
The National Park Service recently enlisted the help of the U.S. Army to shuttle supplies to Park Service base camps located far up 20,328-foot Mt. McKinley.
“It’s a huge logistical operation for us with the amount of gear we have to bring up and the places we have to get it to,” said Park Service mountaineering ranger Mark Westman.
Westman was one of several rangers who boarded three CH-47F Chinook helicopters flown by the Army’s B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment (the “Sugar Bears”) on an April 24 mission to bring supplies to the Kahiltna Glacier, site of a 7,000-foot base camp where most climbers begin their summertime trek up North America’s tallest peak.
The helicopters flew about 45 minutes from the spruce-dominated lowlands near Talkeetna to the massive glacier — essentially a trip into another world. As the helicopters gained altitude, the scenery outside changed from forested river deltas to canyon-lashed foothills and then, finally, to jagged mountain peaks and snow-covered glaciers.
Park Ranger Joe Reichert said the Park Service needs about 14,000 pounds of gear to supply ranger stations located at the 7,000- and 14,000-foot levels.
“That includes food for about 10 people for about eight to 10 weeks,” Reichert said.
Reichert said rangers are needed on the mountain because of the high volume of climbers who attempt to reach the iconic summit each climbing season, the peak of which runs from May 15 to June 15.
“Between 1,100 and 1,300 (climbers) has been the average for the past decade,” he said.
About half of those climbers reach the summit in an average year, Reichert said.
But not all make it back safely. More than 120 people have died on the mountain over the years, including 11 in 1992 alone, the deadliest year on record. Hazards on McKinley include storms that can pack winds in excess of 100 MPH and temperatures plunging to minus-20 — even in mid-summer.
“The weather contributes to a lot of accidents here,” Westman said.
But the challenging environment also offers a unique training ground for the Sugar Bears, whose missions often take them into some of the most inhospitable mountain terrain in the world. According to Chief Warrant Officer 3 Francois Collard, that’s why the Army is so willing to shuttle Park Service gear up the mountain each year.
“This is something we do that preps us for combat missions downrange,” said Collard, who flew one of the three choppers used in this year’s supply mission. “In Afghanistan, for example, where they have a lot of high peaks.”
The unit spends a couple weeks each year training at altitude in the area, Collard said. Before they hauled supplies for the Parks Service this season, the Sugar Bears performed a variety of maneuvers around the massive mountain, including difficult “pinnacle” landings, where helicopters hover over high peaks and touch just their tail section to the mountain. Collard said the training gives crews experience working above 10,000 feet, where oxygen masks must be worn to prevent hypoxia, a potentially deadly condition caused by a lack of oxygen.
The ability for the two federal agencies to work together provides numerous benefits to both, as well as the climbing community on the popular mountain. Since the Army is sometimes called in to assist with high-altitude rescues, it’s important for the helicopter crews to know the terrain.
“This is training that we need to go and perform the rescue mission, but we also get great benefit to perform our mission downrange,” he said. “At the same time we’re helping these guys out. So it’s a win-win situation.”
It’s also not a bad gig. This spring was Collard’s first trip to the mountain, and he said training on McKinley’s otherworldly terrain was an awe-inspiring experience.
“It’s an awesome privilege to do this,” he said.
After landing on the sparkling Kahiltna Glacier, the Army and Park Service crews rapidly unloaded gear and stashed it for moving later to 14,000 feet. Watching them work were a pair of climbers, Jeff Beckstrand and Jason Blauch, who traveled from Salt Lake City, Utah to spend two weeks on the mountain. The men said they didn’t plan to summit McKinley, but instead were making ascents up technical routes on smaller peaks in the area.
Getting to experience such a unique environment is what draws droves of climbers and sightseers up the mountain each summer, Blauch explained.
“It’s unbelievable up here.”