You could call it interagency cooperation at the highest level, or at least the highest elevation in North America.
Aviators from B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment and their CH-47F Chinook helicopters continued a decades-old mission April 22 by flying in to help the National Park Service set up camps for climbers attempting to summit Denali.
The Sugar Bears flew two Chinooks from Fort Wainwright to Talkeetna, Alaska, the start point for most climbers tackling Denali and other area peaks. There they met up with National Park Service rangers and loaded several thousand pounds of equipment and supplies into the helicopters for transport to the 7,200-foot level of Kahiltna Glacier.
NPS personnel establish a base camp on the glacier and a second camp at 14,000 feet for climbers attempting the popular West Buttress route each year.
More than 90 percent of climbers attempting Denali take this route. Roughly 1,000 climbers take the West Buttress annually, with only about 50 percent reaching the summit. On average, about 100 climbers suffer altitude sickness or frostbite and 12 require rescues. About 40 people have died on the West Buttress.
The Sugar Bears also have a long history of returning to the mountain when called to assist in these high elevation rescues when climbers find themselves in danger. These rescues require special skills and training for the extreme conditions and effects of the high altitude on the Chinook’s capabilities.
The base camp mission allows the more experienced Chinook pilots to train newer pilots and crew members in the terrain with no climber lives on the line.
The Soldiers of the B Company's High Altitude Rescue Team have made several rescues from North America's highest mountain over the years, including one at 19,600 feet and a rescue hoist at 18,200. The National Park Service calls on the Army when its helicopter is out of service, there are more patients than their small aircraft can carry at one time or for other reasons the park service helicopter cannot do the mission.
It all started when the military became involved in rescue work in 1949. Captain Searle of the Army's 74th Rescue Squadron performed the first helicopter landing in support of a rescue on Denali.
In 1973, after a tragic military aircraft crash at the 14,000-foot level on Mount Sanford, the Army created the High-Altitude Rescue Team. This team specialized in rescues of downed military aircraft at high altitudes.
Their first civilian mission took place on Denali in July 1976. The team landed a helicopter at the 17,200- foot level on the West Buttress and rescued an injured climber. The team was also instrumental in high altitude rescues the following two seasons. Unit designations have changed over the years, but noteworthy Army rescue missions recorded in National Park Service records have included:
On May 3, a large group from the United Kingdom was descending the West Rib. At about the 14,800-foot level, one of the members slipped and fell 800 feet, sustaining serious head injuries. The following morning, the Army Chinook Helicopters lowered an Air Force “PJ,” to the accident site. The injured climber was stabilized and then hoisted from the accident site. This was only the second hoist operation to ever be conducted on Mount McKinley.
Despite the record number of climbers on the mountain, there were only 12 search and rescue incidents. Two of these were helicopter hoist operations from the 18,000-foot level on the Cassin Ridge, where three Korean climbers were evacuated in two separate incidents. The Army High Altitude Rescue Team flew their Chinook helicopters to conduct the highest hoist operations ever completed by the Army. These were also probably the highest hoist operations ever completed in North America.
On April 9, two Alaskan mountaineers were ascending the southeast spur of Mount Deception. They were roped together with a 50-meter rope and a section of cornice broke from beneath one climber, who began a tumbling fall down a 75-degree slope. Both men’s ice axes were lost.
The only option left to arrest the fall and prevent being pulled off the ridge himself, was for the lead climber to jump off the opposite side of the ridge. During the fall, the first climber had suffered internal injuries and had lost his pack. During the next 10 hours, the pair slowly made their way back to their base camp at the 5,700-foot level on Eldridge Glacier. The injured climber was evacuated by the mountaineering rangers and an U.S. Army Chinook helicopter later that evening.
On June 25 Richard Turnbull experienced acute abdominal pains at the 14,200-foot camp on the West Buttress. He was assisted by team members to the ranger station and diagnosed as suffering from unknown severe abdominal pains. Turnbull was flown off by an Army Chinook helicopter.
Military personnel and Volunteers in Parks performed several life-saving rescue missions, preventing statistics that would have rivaled the tragic seasons of 1976 and 1992. On June 9, a climber fell to his death and his climbing partners were rescued by the park service and the Army High Altitude Rescue Team.
Park service rescuers were helicoptered to the 19,600-foot plateau by an Army Chinook. They descended 400 feet to the climbers’ camp where they assisted and carried the survivors back up to the 19,600-foot plateau, where the Chinook evacuated them. This Chinook, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bill Barker, landed twice at 19,600 feet. This set a new altitude record for this type of helicopter.
On June 11, a climber fell while attempting a ski descent of Sultana Ridge on Mount Foraker and slid out of control approximately 2,000 feet before stopping at the edge of a 1,500-foot precipice. Members of his expedition assisted him to the 12,000-foot level. The Army's High Altitude Rescue Team, using a Chinook helicopter, winched a NPS rescue ranger and the injured man up into the helicopter.
On June 14, the NPS located three overdue Taiwanese climbers at the 19,400-foot elevation. Park service rescuers found one man dead. They assisted the two survivors to 17,000 feet where an Army Chinook helicopter airlifted them to Talkeetna.
On June 18 eight British Military climbers were near the summit when three members of the team fell 300 feet from the 19,300-foot level on the West Rib. One member sustained head injuries. while another injured his ankles.
Two healthy partners remained at 19,000 feet to assist with the injured team members while the other four members descended to get help. On June 19, as the four healthy members descended, two other members fell 2,000 feet. These two climbers landed at the 15,800-foot level. One broke his leg in the fall and the other sustained only minor injuries. The ambulatory climber descended directly toward the 14.200-foot camp.
He fell twice more and, in the process, sustained frostbite to his fingers as he made his way out of crevasses. These two expedition members were rescued by NPS ground teams and transported to the 14.200-foot camp where they were evacuated by an Army Chinook helicopter on June 21 to an Anchorage hospital.
During the period of May 28 to June 1, NPS rangers and volunteers working out of the 14.200-foot camp responded to multiple incidents, including a broken leg, a mental breakdown, and other injuries. Two of the more seriously injured climbers were evacuated from the 14,200-foot camp by the U.S. Army Chinook helicopters on June 1.
Soldiers from Fort Wainwright's B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, evacuated a man from Mount McKinley July 7, after reports that he was acting mentally unstable.
Although Denali National Park has the use of a helicopter during the climbing season, the Army was asked to assist because the man was considered a potential threat to a pilot in the park's small high-altitude helicopter. The 25-year-old climber was strapped to a backboard for transport in an Army Chinook CH-47 helicopter.