This photo taken Sunday, April 24, 2016, over the Kahiltna Glacier, near Denali in the Alaska Range, shows a Chinook helicopter through the open cargo bay doors of another Chinook. The U.S. Army helped set up base camp on North America's tallest mountain. Three Chinook helicopters the size of city buses took supplies like food, communication equipment and fuel to the base camp at the 7,200-foot level of Denali. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

This photo taken Sunday, April 24, 2016, over the Kahiltna Glacier, near Denali in the Alaska Range, shows a Chinook helicopter through the open cargo bay doors of another Chinook. The U.S. Army helped set up base camp on North America's tallest mountain. Three Chinook helicopters the size of city buses took supplies like food, communication equipment and fuel to the base camp at the 7,200-foot level of Denali. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

US Army helps set up base camps on Alaska’s Denali

  • By Mark Thiessen
  • Monday, May 9, 2016 8:40pm
  • News

KAHILTNA GLACIER — Three U.S. Army Chinook helicopters the size of city buses ascend higher and higher in the Alaska Range, following the 44-mile long Kahiltna Glacier, which from above resembles a frozen, mile-wide white ribbon of ice cutting through craggy mountains.

At 7,200 feet, they land light as a feather at the base of North America’s tallest mountain, below a few brightly colored tents, temporary shelters for early season climbers dotting the white landscape.

There’s nothing military about this mission. Instead, these Chinooks are delivering potentially lifesaving food and medical equipment for two base camps, one at 7,200 feet and the other at 14,000 feet, to assist those attempting to climb the 20,310-foot Denali.

But it’s not just a delivery job for the Army, ferrying this equipment up the mountain for the National Park Service. It’s training for when the helicopters need to fly in high altitude locations such as Afghanistan, which one of the helicopter pilots said most closely resembles Alaska.

“It’s really valuable training in a really unique location in high-altitude flying, in hoist training and then mountainous area flying,” said Capt. Corey Wheeler, commander of B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment.

The unit, which goes by the more non-militaristic nickname of Sugar Bears, is based at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska.

“This is one of the opportunities we have here in Alaska that really they don’t get in a lot of the other places in the Lower 48,” said the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer III Kirk Donovan, who was wearing dark sunglasses to fend off the unforgiving sunlight glistening off the glacier.

Among the benefits is taking “the helicopter right to the very limit of what it will and will not do. But on top of that, it gets all the guys familiar with the competence and the confidence it takes to fly up there on a regular basis,” he said.

The Chinooks were temporarily based at the airstrip in nearby Talkeetna, Alaska, the quirky little tourist town where climbers get their last taste of civilization before heading up the mountain.

They flew supplies to the lower base camp on April 24, where soldiers slogged, slipped and sank in 2 feet of snow trying to off load telecommunication equipment, plywood flooring for tents, propane tanks, fuel blivets and boxes of frozen food.

The supplies for the higher base camp were set aside for delivery at a later date, when a park service helicopter could fly the supplies higher up the mountain and when rangers were in place to receive them.

The Army has helped establish the base camps for decades when not deployed, and in those years it helps reduce the carbon footprint of getting supplies on the mountain, said Dan Corn, one of Denali rangers.

“It helps out a tremendous amount because we get everything in here with one load,” Corn said. It would take a small aircraft 10 or 11 trips to match the 12 1/2-ton carrying capacity of a Chinook.

That wasn’t the most impressive part of the helicopters for Geoffrey Johnson, a Boston man who was spending a two-week climbing and skiing trip with a friend.

“The rotor wash was quite powerful and it blew the center pole of our cook tent through the snow base that we had erected for it,” he said of one Chinook’s landing about 100 yards downglacier from their tent.

Johnson and his friend never intended to climb Denali, instead setting their sights on the smaller 10,450-foot Mount Frances — which was right outside the flap of their tent. Those attempting to climb Denali arrive in late April, and the main climbing season goes through early July.

As of May 3, there were 759 climbers on Denali, attempting to become the first to reach the summit after the Obama administration changed the name of Mount McKinley late last summer to its traditional Alaska Native name.

This photo taken Sunday, April 24, 2016, on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska, shows Army soldiers unloading a Chinook helicopter that landed on the glacier near Denali. The U.S. Army helped set up base camp on North America's tallest mountain. Three Chinook helicopters the size of city buses took supplies like food, communication equipment and fuel to the base camp at the 7,200-foot level of Denali.  (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

This photo taken Sunday, April 24, 2016, on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska, shows Army soldiers unloading a Chinook helicopter that landed on the glacier near Denali. The U.S. Army helped set up base camp on North America’s tallest mountain. Three Chinook helicopters the size of city buses took supplies like food, communication equipment and fuel to the base camp at the 7,200-foot level of Denali. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

More in News

Dr. Kim Thiele stands by a wall of newspaper clippings and images of family members and precursors in his office near Kenai on Monday. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
‘A ministry for me’

Kalifornsky doctor wraps up career after 44 years

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, listens to testimony during a Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday in Juneau. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Bjorkman game seizure bill received warmly in Senate committee

Of the roughly 150 animals the department takes each year, an average of between one and two are determined to be wrongfully seized

A collage of photos of Nikiski North Star Elementary students taking swimming lessons at the Nikiski Pool. (Photo collages provided by Nikiski North Star Elementary)
Community effort puts 200 Nikiski North Star students through swimming lessons

The lessons covered “everything,” from basic flotation to constructing rough-but-functional life jackets out of clothing

From left, Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, hugs Rep. Stanley Wright, R-Anchorage, after House passage of sweeping education legislation while Rep. Maxine Dibert, D-Fairbanks, watches on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
House passes BSA increase, with other education provisions

The bill now goes back to the Senate, where lawmakers must approve the bill as-is before it can head to the governor’s desk

Rep. Justin Ruffridge speaks about
House considers, rejects multiple school funding amendments during Wednesday floor debate

Over several hours, lawmakers considered six different increases in the Base Student Allocation to public schools

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan addresses members of the Alaska Legislature in the House chambers on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)
Dismissing critics, Sullivan touts LNG project

During his annual address to the Alaska Legislature on Wednesday, the U.S. senator said state leaders should be doing everything they can to make the project successful

From left, Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, east side setnetter Ken Coleman and Konrad Jackson present information about a bill establishing a voluntary buyback program for east side setnet fishery permits during a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Senate committee hears setnet buyback bill

The East Side of Cook Inlet Set Net Fleet Reduction Act is sponsored by Nikiski Sen. Jesse Bjorkman

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, speaks in support of debating an omnibus education bill in the Alaska House Chambers on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024 in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Tie vote kills early House debate on education funding

Lawmakers went into an hourslong recess that ended with adjournment until Tuesday morning

Most Read