On a Denali glacier, organising base camp because the climbing season rebounds from pandemic lull

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DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND CONSERVATION – For decades, the US Army in Alaska has used giant Chinook helicopters the size of cluttered semi-trucks to haul essential equipment to a glacier in the Alaska Range surrounded by North America’s highest mountains.

The partnership is mutually beneficial: The National Park Service, which oversees climbers wanting to climb Denali and Foraker in Denali National Park and Preserve, has supplies towed 7,200 feet up to its rugged base camp on Kahiltna Glacier. The military can train its pilots in the nuances of high-altitude aviation, skills that have been used in rescue operations and coordinated operations with the park service.

“It helps these guys to get into the park and train at altitude,” said Park Service Ranger Joe Reichert, who has been part of base camp operations since 1994 and has climbed Denali “a couple of times.”

“They get their training and we get our gear,” he added.

As Reichert spoke about Kahiltna recently that afternoon, a small group of soldiers were retrieving materials from the belly of a helicopter and piling heavy plastic containers, thick sheets of plywood, propane tanks, tent poles, tarps, cookstoves, radiators and SUVs in the snow. It’s gear that will help a small tent city survive the climbing season, which Reichert says is at its peak “from 50 to 100 people going in and out here every day.”

Many are short-term visitors, flying in on small planes from Talkeetna for an afternoon of sightseeing. But this year, up to 1,200 climbers are registered with the Park Service, almost all of whom will attempt to climb Denali.

“It looks like it’s going to be 2019. We look a lot like pre-COVID,” Reichert said.

The 2020 season has been completely suspended due to the pandemic. Operations resumed in 2021, but with vaccination only a few months old and international travel restrictions still in place, fewer climbers, particularly from abroad, participated.

The rising number of registrations belies another trend unfolding in the Alaska Range in the spring: increasing numbers of visitors come to relax outside of the formal park service system.

“What I’ve seen is an increase in the number of backcountry users. That seems like maybe a bit earlier in the season and a bigger crowd too,” said Debbie Reiswig, who oversees climbers’ registration for the Park Service “from the beginning of their dream to the moment they arrive on our porch.”

Though no Denali climbers had yet arrived, a handful of tents, skiers, and mountaineers were not far from base camp, making the most of the late April sun and deep snow.

“Lots of locals from the Lower 48 and Alaska,” Reiswig said.

Exuberant and beaming, Reiswig came to the Park Service after a career in the bush with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. She and her family flew from Dillingham onto the road network and spent long weekends in Talkeetna, where she was drawn to the town’s ranger station and spent years hoping to land one of those rare jobs that seldom came up.

“I love working with the climbers and helping them achieve their dreams,” said Reiswig.

Two Army helicopters had brought in supplies that by mid-afternoon lay in great heaps, half-buried in a ring of snow to keep them from blowing away. As a Chinook lifted off, it prop-washed at 80 mph, ripping off flat chunks of snow crust that flitted across the glacier like shredded cardboard in a hurricane. The crew continued to climb to practice landings and takeoffs at 14,000 feet.

“As altitude increases, the performance of any aircraft decreases,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Francois Collard, one of the pilots of 1st Battalion, 52nd Regimental B Company, based in Fairbanks. Nicknamed the “Sugar Bears,” they borrow their icon from the 1960s Sugar Snap Crisp cereal.

Since the Army first worked with the Park Service to haul supplies for base camp in the late 1980s, a number of years have been skipped, mostly as Alaskan units were stationed overseas. Without Chinooks, the Park Service relies on small planes crammed with as much gear as will safely fit while hauling supplies back and forth.

“We can do one ride instead of multiple rides,” Collard said. “And then the other thing is the performance of the plane. It is able to fly at higher altitudes with heavier weights.”

After work, the Sugar Bears nibbled on packed lunches in the afternoon sun, the olive green of their camouflage uniforms stark against the snow.

The pilots exited Kahiltna and flew a winding path that followed portions of the West Buttress route, which the Army says more than 90% of climbers follow to attempt to reach the summit of Denali.

“On average, about 100 climbers suffer from altitude sickness or frostbite and 12 require rescue. Approximately 40 people have died on the West Pillar,” the US Army Alaska said in a statement. “The Sugar Bears have also long returned to the mountain when called upon to assist with those high-altitude rescues when climbers are in danger.”

During a scenic descent, the Chinooks proved remarkably agile, flying low, tight turns in glacial valleys guarded by peaks with wind- and cold-cleaved cliffs jagged slopes. Not far below the sputtering propellers was a frantic jumble of new avalanche debris.

The only other signs of movement in the mountains were the occasional squiggles left in the snow by backcountry skiers.

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