Soldiers Scale North America
Soldiers Scale North America’s Highest Peak
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Smith, 4th Infantry
Brigade Combat Team.
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska – (AFPS) – June 30, 2014 – 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
The 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division makes
its way across Summit Ridge on Alaska's Mount McKinley, June 15, 2014.
photo by Spc. Tyler Campbell
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
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
Key mission objectives were to test and strengthen tactics, techniques, and
procedures, while operating in a mountainous, high-altitude, cold-weather
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
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
"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.