FORT WAINWRIGHT – Almost every year since the mid-1970s, the “Sugar Bears” of Fort Wainwright, formally known as Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, have carried supplies for the National Park Service up into the mountains of Denali National Park for the start of climbing season. This year the tradition continued Monday, with the Sugar Bears loading 8,000 pounds of supplies into two CH47F Chinook helicopters at the airport in Talkeetna, Alaska, and delivering the loads to the base camp on Kahiltna Glacier, 48 miles to the northwest by air.
“The Army has a partnership with the National Park Service. It allows us to train with our helicopters in a high-altitude environment. Because Denali is so much higher than everything else around here, it allows us to test the helicopter and take it to its limits. At the same time, we’re helping the Park Service to take all their equipment to base camp,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Francois Collard, battalion standardization pilot and the mission commander for the event.
Unlike with many popular mountaineering or climbing destinations in the rest of the United States, it is not possible to drive to the base of the mountain, as there are no roads within miles of the area, so all base camp supplies must be flown in.
Approximately 1,300 climbers are expected to attempt to summit Denali—North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet—this year. Due to the mountain’s location in the far north, the primary months for climbing are May and June, with some expeditions starting as early as mid-April and others not starting until July. While nearly all mountaineers are flown into the base camp in the present era, historically they hiked in or rode there in dogsleds, and two registered parties this year will be trekking to base camp on foot, according to Talkeetna Ranger Station staff.
“Denali brings a big contingency of climbers to attempt the summit, so we put in ranger camps—a base camp at 7,200 feet and one at 14,200 feet—and that is our infrastructure so we can do our jobs,” said Tucker Chenoweth, south district ranger for the National Park Service.
Those jobs include resource protection, climber education, and search and rescue operations. The rangers and volunteers who staff the camps will typically spend 14 to 25 days on the mountain at a time, and the camps are fully stocked to provide for their needs and enable them to assist the climbers, especially if they run into trouble.
Getting all of the necessary supplies from the ranger station in Talkeetna up onto the glacier would be a considerable undertaking on its own for the Park Service, which does not have any internal heavy-lift capability, but the partnership with the military eases that burden. Soldiers and Park Service staff teamed up to load the four tons of materiel into two Chinooks, which flew down from Fort Wainwright for the day. The gear included plywood and plastic flooring, large tents, medical supplies, fuel, rescue gear, and of course food.
When asked what types of food were included in the shipment going up to the base camp, Chenoweth replied with a laugh “just candy bars.” He then elaborated that while they do in fact bring some candy bars, “food is really important up there. So we have hamburgers and bacon and pancakes—you know, the things that anyone would want when they’re on a 25-day trip.” Climbers are expected to bring all their own supplies, but the rangers will provide them extra food in a search and rescue scenario.
In addition to all the aforementioned supplies, the Sugar Bears also delivered 500 gallons of fuel, which weighed about 3,000 pounds.
“They’ll use that for emergency fuel. If they have to do a rescue on Denali, they can go back to the base camp and top off and get fuel as needed, and they won’t have to come all the way back here [the Talkeetna airport],” Collard explained.
Collard noted that while the majority of the rescues from Denali and the other peaks within the park are done by the National Park Service, the High Altitude Rescue Team within Bravo Company is available as a back-up or if the Park Service rescue team needs more fuel or supplies than their smaller helicopters can take.
While their service is not often needed, the HART soldiers must maintain their skillset through regular training.
“The performance of the aircraft is greatly reduced when you fly at higher altitudes, and the human performance is also changed because this is not a pressurized aircraft like a commercial plane, so we need to use supplemental oxygen to stay awake and to continue to operate. So this allows us to test the aircraft and the human side as well,” said Collard.