Arctic warriors summit North America's highest point, put Army gear to the test
June 24, 2014
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska (June 24, 2014) -- Driven by determination and trained in arctic survival, five paratroopers from the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, along with one Soldier from the Army's Northern Warfare Training Center, and two Soldiers from the Vermont Army National Guard, scaled the highest point in North America by reaching the summit of Mount McKinley, June 15.
The mountain, located in the Denali National Park and Preserve in the state of Alaska, ascends to an elevation of 20,237 feet above sea level. It has an 18,000-foot base-to-peak rise in elevation, which is the highest in the world in that category.
The Alaskan Native Athabaskan name for the mountain itself is Denali, which, when translated means "The High One."
Weather conditions on the mountain are often extreme. Bitter cold temperatures, blistering sun, and high winds create very difficult climbing conditions. Dangerous crevasses concealed by snow bridges scatter the surface of glaciers, presenting treacherous obstacles for climbers.
This climbing season has been particularly difficult, which according to the 4/25's climb team leader, Capt. Matthew Hickey, has seen less than 30 percent of climbers reaching the summit so far.
Hickey credits the discipline, training, and equipment he and his team employed on their way up as key factors to their successful attempt. He said the team's mountaineering skills, cold weather operations training, teamwork, and conditioning allowed them to keep their momentum as they pressed forward.
Spartan Brigade teammates who made up the team in addition to Hickey were, Staff Sgt. John Harris, Sgt. Lucanus Fechter, Spc. Matthew Tucker, and Spc. Tyler Campbell. They joined forces with 1st Sgt. Nathan Chipman and Staff Sgt. Taylor Ward, from the Army's Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont, and Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn from the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids, Alaska, to make up the entire eight-member team.
The team followed the West Buttress Route to the summit of Mount McKinley, with each Soldier hauling 140 pounds of gear. They ate Army-issued dehydrated meals twice each day, boiling the water they needed to prepare the meals from snow they collected from the mountainside, while snacking between their meals for added energy and nourishment.
Key mission objectives were to test and strengthen tactics, techniques, and procedures, while operating in a mountainous, high altitude, cold weather environment.
The U.S. Army Alaska-sponsored team took 13 days to reach Denali's summit. The mountain's oxygen-depleted air left team members with headaches and fatigue, to which they countered by stopping at intermediate camps along the way to acclimate to the high altitudes and weather conditions.
The team reached the top of Denali using primarily Army-issued equipment.
Harris, the assistant team leader, said the Army's pull-behind sled system is heavier than a lot of similar sleds, but because of its rigid poles, which are used to pull the sled, navigating downhill and along the sides of slopes was made easier.
"We brought it along, despite the weight," said Hickey. "That was one of the reasons why we were on the mountain, was to test some of this new equipment, or equipment that has been in the inventory for a while that hasn't been used in an environment such as Mount McKinley."
The team's safety equipment was tested when Campbell suddenly fell into a snow-bridged crevasse. The safety harness and tethered line they wore every day saved him from plummeting to the bottom of the 80-foot deep crevasse.
"Personally, I love this piece of equipment," said Campbell. "It's part of the reason why I'm still here today."
"I think it was our fourth day on the mountain, not too far in," Campbell explained. "It was gray out, you know, [there] was a little drizzle, a little snow, and it just looked like a normal slope to me."
"We knew there were crevasses around, but we didn't see them. There was a snow bridge that I walked on, and it was just too weak to hold me up, and I just started falling," Campbell added.
His fall was stopped at about 15 feet down when the safety line rope went tight. He used his training in crevasse rescue to climb nearly to the top where he was then assisted the rest of the way.
"[It was] probably one of the scariest experiences of my life," said Campbell. "We were doing everything as safely as we could, and I'm still here today because of the equipment we used."
The team agreed that safety training and risk mitigation planning were key factors to their successful and safe journey. They also said that even though they were in a bitterly cold, unforgiving environment, turning back before reaching the summit never crossed their mind.
In all, the team spent 16 days on Mount McKinley. On summit day, they reached the top of the mountain inside of a cloud. With limited visibility, nausea, fatigue, and heads pounding, they celebrated, snapped some pictures, and with that, began their rapid descent home for a hot shower and a warm meal.