By John BudnikSeptember 6, 2016
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Braving snowstorms, hauling gear, and risking your life might not sound like fun to most people, but if you're a mountaineer, they can make for an ideal summer vacation.
For Capt. Stephen Austria, project engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers, an unguided expedition in June climbing the highest mountain in North America, Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), was a dream come true. He made the climb with his girlfriend, Rebecca Melesciuc, hoping to raise some awareness of Soldier suicide.
"Not many people want to do things like that. It is cool to say I have climbed it," Austria said of the 20,310-foot peak.
During the climb, Austria carried an American flag to honor Soldiers he knew who had taken their own lives, including his best friend and fellow Soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division. The flag had been with Austria on every mission while he was deployed to Iraq.
"[Soldier suicide] is a bigger issue than what some people make it out to be," he said. "I climbed for veterans in general, too. It is a unique family that we are a part of."
Austria and Melesciuc began planning their journey to Denali more than a year ago. The two winter camped in Hatcher's Pass near Palmer to master their equipment, acclimate to the cold, and practice cooking outside. The duo also trained in avalanche and crevasse rescue and honed their knot-tying skills, Austria said. Preparation was key for the pair.
The couple packed about 280 pounds of supplies for the 28-day trek, including cold weather clothing, avalanche beacons, climbing equipment, sleeping gear, probes, shovels, sleds, and 100 pounds of food. As a testament to Melesciuc's toughness, she carried more than her weight in provisions, Austria said.
Aside from the physical demands of the climb itself, the two found the psychological challenges of the excursion (like fighting boredom during bad weather) particularly difficult.
"It is mostly mental," Melesciuc explained. "I really wanted to sprint up that mountain, but it is about making the right call when the weather is bad and waiting it out. You need to take care of yourself."
Inclement weather prevented the couple from reaching the summit, but Austria accomplished a major milestone in life by proposing to Melesciuc on an overlook at 14,000 feet in elevation -- the highest point the two reached.
"We really wanted to see this area of camp called 'Edge of the World,'" Melesciuc said. "There were two park rangers out there moving a weather station, and Stephen asked if they could take our picture. The ring was hiding in the coat. He dropped down and proposed. It was a surprise."
Ultimately, the three weeks on the side of a mountain and the days they spent trapped in a tent served as a good test for the newly-engaged couple.
"We were not killing each other, yet," Austria joked. "We were still talking."
Both agree that scaling more mountains is in their future. They plan to return to Denali and eventually reach the summit. In the meantime, they will focus on Austria's Army career and other expeditions. Melesciuc adores the Chugach Mountain Range and hopes to climb several of its peaks this year.
Until their return, Denali will be waiting for them.
"Being up there in the Alaska Range, a lot of people do not understand how huge the mountains are there and what is in Alaska," Austria said. "It is out of this world."