JBER soldiers conquer Denali

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 23:00
The 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, climb team makes its way across Summit Ridge on Mount McKinley June 15 at the Denali National Park and Preserve. The team was demonstrating their arctic abilities and validating their training and equipment.

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON-- 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 June 15.

Mount McKinley, in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, rises to an elevation of 20,237 feet above sea level.

It has an 18,000-foot base-to-peak rise in elevation - the highest in the world in that category.

Athabaskan Alaska Natives’ name for the mountain is Denali - “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.

The 4/25 IBCT’s climb team leader, Army Capt. Matthew Hickey, said he’d seen fewer 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 Army Staff Sgt. Taylor Ward, from the Army’s Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt., and Army Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn from the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids 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 about 140 pounds of gear.

They ate Army-issue dehydrated meals twice a day, boiling the water they needed to prepare the meals from snow they collected on the mountainside.

However, two of those a day was not enough for the massive energy expenditure; they also snacked 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 team, sponsored by U.S. Army Alaska, took 13 days to reach Denali’s summit.

The mountain’s oxygen-poor air left team members with headaches and fatigue, which

they countered by stopping at intermediate camps along the way to acclimate to the altitude and weather conditions.

The team reached the top of Denali using primarily Army-issue equipment.

Harris, the assistant team leader, said the Army’s pull-behind Akhio sled system is heavier than most similar sleds, but because of its rigid pulling poles, navigating downhill and along the sides of slopes were easier.

“We brought it along, despite the weight,” Hickey said. “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.”


Crevasse fall

The team’s safety equipment was tested when Campbell 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,” Campbell said. “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 recalled.

His fall was stopped 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 assisted the rest of the way.

“[It was] probably one of the scariest experiences of my life,” Campbell said. “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 in a cloud.

With limited visibility, nausea, fatigue and heads pounding, they celebrated and snapped some pictures - but they didn’t stay long.

Having conquered the summit, they began a rapid descent for a hot shower and a warm meal.

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