Five Alaska Air National Guardsmen with the 212th Rescue Squadron became the first group to reach the 20,320-foot peak of Mount McKinley this year, summiting North America’s tallest mountain May 9.
Air National Guard Maj. Matt Komatsu, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Barendregt, Tech. Sgt. Kyle Minshew, Air National Guard Staff Sgt. William “Bill” Cenna and Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Brett Wilson summited the mountain, often referred to as Denali, during a training expedition to enhance their winter survival skills in rescue operations.
“We were dropped off by the 210th Rescue Squadron in a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter on April 25 and began our training the next day to enhance our high altitude winter rescue and glacier skills,” Komatsu said. “The nature of climbing Denali provided our team the training we needed in terms of being able to survive in those types of climates. We went out there to train, with the added benefit of summiting Denali if possible.”
With Denali Base Camp at the 7,200-foot level, the Alaska Guardsmen began the tedious climb on April 26, making sure to follow a daily schedule to avoid injury and sickness.
“Our daily plan was pretty predictable,” Komatsu said. “You wake up when the sun hits your tent, spend a couple hours getting something to eat and drinking plenty of water before preparing for the day’s movement. Nothing super spectacular, but sort of the patient approach to the route is the best way to avoid getting altitude sickness.”
According to Komatsu, the Alaska Guardsmen moved up the mountain six to eight hours a day with a 2,000 to 3,000-foot daily gain in elevation.
“We were on skis and roped together up to about 11,000 feet, and then from 11,000 feet we used crampons, ice axes and rope climbing until we reached the peak,” Komatsu said.
After two weeks of climbing, the Alaska Guardsmen reached the peak around 6 p.m. May 9, completing an arduous journey during a year that marks the 100th anniversary of the first successful ascent of McKinley’s summit.
“It was pretty rewarding,” Komatsu said. “We had a lot of challenging weather on the way up and to be able to persevere as a team, get the training value of it and learn when to push it and when not to push it, provides us real lessons for conducting missions here in Alaska.
“There pretty much is not a more unforgiving environment than Denali,” the major continued. “This training and environment will prepare our team for the real hard core, dangerous winter missions where we have to stay alive and keep the patient alive for a couple of days or longer. It’s critical to our ability to operate in Alaska.”
In addition to this team, the Alaska Air National Guard’s 212th Rescue Squadron, also known as Guardian Angels, plans to send two more expedition teams to Denali this climbing season to conduct training in winter rescue and glacial climbing operations.
Three members of the 212th Rescue Squadron are also supporting the National Park Service as part of the Volunteers-In-Parks program, where pararescuemen use their specialized skills to accompany National Park Service climbing rangers for roughly 30 days on the mountain to assist in rescue operations.