Army using McKinley for high-altitude training

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

TALKEETNA (AP) -- As they packed their gear into a helicopter at the Talkeetna airport last week, the U.S. Army Climbing Team looked like any other expedition preparing to scale Mount McKinley.

Soldiers wore yellow-and-black Gore-Tex North Face jackets, black Outdoor Research gaiters and bright yellow Koflach mountaineering boots. Most wore glacier goggles with a flap over their nose to protect them from the sun. The climbers had several carabiners and sections of climbing rope hanging from their harnesses.

Their backpacks were stuffed with supplies and had the requisite skis, sleeping pads, ice axes and snow shovels strapped to them.

No camouflage in sight.

In fact, Sgt. George Dauma had the distinction of having the only piece of Army-issue equipment on the climb -- a white pair of bunny boots.

''The Koflachs tear my feet up,'' said Dauma, referring to the high-tech mountaineering boots the rest of the team was wearing. ''I did some work with a set of crampons to fit these.''

Other than the fact they were loading their equipment into a pair of mammoth Chinook Army helicopters, they could have passed for climbers from anywhere in the world.

Moments later, the giant Chinooks roared to life and thundered into the foothills of the Alaska Range, casting shadows on the stunning, snow-covered landscape as the Army embarked on its newest mission -- conquering Mount McKinley.

As it has done every year or two for the last decade, the Army is sending a team of soldiers to climb the 20,320-foot peak. The three-week climb is considered a training exercise.

''The Army is a land force and we're showing we can operate anywhere on Earth as a land force,'' declared Col. Steve Murray, commander of the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Greely, where the team trained for the climb. ''We're using Army training methodology to train for this mission just like we would train for any other mission.''

And just how does climbing Mount McKinley make for a better soldier?

''Climbing Mount McKinley is so technical that they become more technically proficient and pay more attention to specific details, and that in turn makes them a better soldier,'' said Murray, who helped select the team but is not a member of it.

Team members agreed.

''This is a lot bigger challenge than anything else I've done in the Army,'' said Pfc. Aaron Forry from Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks. ''It will make me a better person, which will make me a better soldier.''

Climbing the mountain will be a test of the Army's training, said staff Sgt. Jeff Eldred, normally a radio repairman and communications security specialist.

So why no camouflage clothing, green backpacks and green mukluks?

''We've been given some latitude in what kind of equipment we can use on the expedition, so we've taken advantage of that,'' said Eldred, in one of the North Face jackets. ''Obviously I'm not going to be wearing a yellow jacket into combat.''

Indeed, Murray said he spent more than $20,000 to outfit the 16-member Army team for the climb to ensure they had the proper equipment.

Six team members are instructors at the Northern Warfare Training Center who specialize in mountaineering and cold weather instruction. The others include five soldiers from Fort Wainwright, two from Fort Richardson in Anchorage and three from the Royal Nepalese Army.

Team members were selected through an application and training process after an invitation was issued to all branches of the armed forces in Alaska. The team started training in January, using the Gulkana and Worthington glaciers as training grounds.

The Army has been climbing Mount McKinley regularly since the mid-1970s, according to Murray. The Army realized the importance of cold weather training after tens of thousands of soldiers suffered cold-related injuries in World War II. It developed a version of the Northern Warfare Training Center in 1948.

The three Nepalese climbers, all mountaineering instructors, were added to the team as a part of an exchange program with that nation's army. One of them, 47-year-old Capt. Padam Bahadur Tamang, summited Mount Everest in 1988 and the other two have climbed over 26,000 feet.

''They'll be teaching us more than we'll be teaching them,'' Murray said.

During a briefing at the Talkeetna Ranger Station, Denali National Park ranger Daryl Miller told the climbers to be prepared for lots of traffic on the 14-mile West Buttress route they had chosen. The West Buttress route is the most popular route on the mountain, taken by about 80 percent of the climbers.

''The West Buttress is a very, very busy place at this time of year, and it's going to get busier,'' he said.

He warned them of the high danger of crevasses on part of the route. ''We counted 38 open crevasses two weeks ago between Windy Corner at 13,000 feet and the 14,200-foot base camp,'' Miller said.

The U.S. members of the Army team are relatively inexperienced. Only four have climbed on McKinley before, and none have made it to the top.

In 1998, the Army team made it to 18,700 feet before being turned back by weather, said Chris Hereford, who was on that trip and is a member of this year's team. Army teams summited the mountain every year from 1993 to 1996.

Despite the threat of injury, or even death, the Army climbers were excited about the challenge ahead of them.

''This is definitely the best assignment I've ever had,'' said Capt. Pete Smith, an northern warfare instructor who has been in Alaska just over a year.

Lt. Jennifer Posh is the lone woman on the team. Normally a Chinook helicopter pilot, she jumped at the chance to climb Mount McKinley when her commander told her about it.

''I said, 'What do I need to do?''' said Posh, as she clipped carabiners and rope onto her climbing harness. ''It's exciting. These are the kinds of things I like to do.''

At some point, Posh hopes to join the Army's High Altitude Rescue Team, which is used by the National Park Service to rescue climbers from the upper reaches of the mountain using Chinooks.

''That's the next step,'' she said.

Information and updates on the climb are available at Army Alaska's Web site ( Click on ''Denali 20.''

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