JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – 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, blinding sunlight, and high winds create very difficult climbing conditions.
Dangerous crevasses concealed by snow bridges present 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 reach the summit so far.
Hickey credits the discipline, training and equipment he and his team employed on their way up as key to their success. He said the team's mountaineering skills, cold-weather operations training, teamwork, and conditioning allowed them to keep their momentum as they pressed forward.
The other soldiers who made up the eight-member climbing team included Staff Sgt. John Harris, Sgt. Lucanus Fechter, Spc. Matthew Tucker, and Spc. Tyler Campbell. They joined forces with 1st Sgt. Nathan Chipman and Staff Sgt. Taylor Ward, from the Army's Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt., and Staff Sgt. Stephon Flynn from the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids, Alaska.
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, those meals were not enough for the massive energy expenditure; they also snacked 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 them with headaches and fatigue, which they countered by stopping at intermediate camps along the way to acclimate to the altitude and weather conditions.
They reached the top of Denali using mostly 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 was easier.
"We brought it along, despite the weight," Hickey said. "That was one of the reasons why we were on the mountain -- 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."
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," he 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."
Campbell added, "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.”
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 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 minds.
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.