KAHILTNA GLACIER BASE CAMP -- Climbers on Mount McKinley will get an interesting sight over the next month as two U.S. Army Alaska climbing teams attempt to summit the iconic mountain.
The operation, which has been occurring on almost an annual basis since 1980, serves as a serious test for soldiers' cold-weather, mountaineering and high-altitude skills. The first group of climbers landed at base camp Wednesday, with plans to begin their summit within the next 24 hours. They hope to make it to the south summit of the 20,320-foot mountain sometime in the next two to three weeks.
The two groups of seven men each are making their way toward the summit in full winter uniforms, complete with camouflage outer layers, bulky brown packs and white plastic pull sleds. Wearing that camo will be a first for the crews, according to crew leader Capt. Sam Palmer of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Wainwright. In the past, the soldiers have always worn a mix of civilian and Army gear, though it leaned heavily toward the latter.
Changes in the Army's cold weather uniform, which includes silk base layers, windproof jackets and a soft-shell outer layer, have improved enough to make them appropriate for a mission as extreme as climbing McKinley, Palmer said. The only nonissued clothing the men will be wearing is a civilian down jacket, and only because it's lighter than the Army-issue jacket.
"We're not in Kansas anymore," one soldier joked as they trudged from the glacier landing strip toward higher elevations at the base of craggy, steep, snow-covered mountains Wednesday. The walk marked their first steps toward the summit.
Each soldier will carry about 120 pounds of gear. That includes civilian tents, lighter than the 10-man, 300-pound canvas tent they would usually carry on a scouting trip, Palmer said. It also includes gas, sleeping gear, cookstoves, skis, other mountaineering equipment and food. The men will be eating winter rations along the way, similar to the typical "meals ready to eat" soldiers usually consume, though the mountain meals are freeze-dried and lighter.
Each soldier is also allowed five pounds of food of his own choosing. For some, that's bagels and candy bars. One soldier had a gallon Ziploc bag filled with dehydrated strawberries. Another brought 2½ pounds of butter.
The group members' mountaineering experience varies. Palmer, for example, has climbed numerous high peaks across the country. Another ranking officer, 1st Sgt. Ken Miller, climbed McKinley as a civilian in 1999 and another, Staff Sgt. Zachary McGee, reached the summit with the Army last year.
But for the others, it's a brand new experience. Four of the seven of the first group -- who range in age from 19 to 36, most under 30 -- just started training for the mission in March. They've been skiing as much as possible, Palmer said, and working on training assignments in the Delta Range, another section of the Alaska Range closer to the soldiers' Fairbanks-area base.
Despite the crash course, Spc. Garrett Oldsen said he felt prepared for anything. Training near Delta prepared him, but the highest they climbed was 7,200 feet -- roughly the same elevation as the base camp from which they were preparing to leave Wednesday.
There's no rush to get to the top, he said, and the crew will be making their way up at a moderate pace, shuttling gear from their camps up to higher elevations, then sleeping low in order to acclimate gradually.
"This is a once in a lifetime experience," Oldsen said.
And while it might seem like a bit of stretch to have soldiers climbing Mount McKinley, they aren't alone. This year, a group of Marines from the Mountain Warfare Training Center were on their way up the mountain shortly after the Army. Even a group of military training from the United Arab Emirates began their ascent of the mountain Tuesday. The National Park Service says roughly 1,200 people will attempt to summit the mountain during this year's season, which generally runs from mid-May through mid-June.
Palmer said when he served in Afghanistan, the mountain skills he learned had practical applications, even though the men never fought in terrain nearly as high as the summit of McKinley.
"We have to be able to maneuver in any terrain," Palmer said. "If you can get places your enemy can't, that's an advantage."
Reach Suzanna Caldwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.