Five members of Alaska’s Air National Guard reached to the top of Mount McKinley in Denali National Park on May 9.
Maj. Matt Komatsu, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Barendregt, Tech. Sgt. Kyle Minshew, Staff Sgt. William Cenna and Staff Sgt. Brett Wilson spent two weeks ascending the mountain as part of a training exercise in winter survival skills.
Two men on the team had been on Denali before. Barendregt had summited twice before and Cenna had previously climbed. For Komatsu, Minshew and Wilson, it was their first trip up Denali.
“We were dropped off by the 210th Rescue Squadron in a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter on April 25 and began our training the next day to enhance our high altitude winter rescue and glacier skills,” Komatsu said in a press release.
“The nature of climbing Denali provided our team the training we needed in terms of being able to survive in those types of climates. We went out there to train, with the added benefit of summiting Denali if possible.”
The group started their ascent on April 26 and climbed for approximately 6-8 hours each day. The group had 4 storm days where they had to stop climbing and stay in their tents. The worst weather happened in the lower altitudes while the group was making their way up the glacier.
“Our daily plan was pretty predictable,” Komatsu said. “You wake up when the sun hits your tent, spend a couple hours getting something to eat and drinking plenty of water before preparing for the day’s movement. Nothing super spectacular, but sort of the patient approach to the route is the best way to avoid getting altitude sickness.”
Since it’s still early in the season, the team benefitted from the lack of people on the mountain and allowing them to train in isolation. By the time the team came back down, they say that people were starting to fill up camps.
“Nowhere else can we experience true winter environments, true glacier environments to help facilitate our training for overland movement, rope travel, glacier techniques so we’re more confident in the mountains and traveling through them to assist with rescues…This training is absolutely essential and borderline mandatory for guys to get up there and experience,” Cenna said.
“I had never been on a mountain like that with any kind of altitude. I’m the new guy up here,” said Minshew. “You’re living it day in and day out. You’re constantly immersed in that environment. It just forces you over time to just adapt.”
The Guardsmen are part of 212th Rescue Squadron, also known as Guardian Angels. Two more teams from the squadron will head to Denali this season to train in rescue and climbing operations.
Three members of the squadron are assisting National Park Service climbers in rescue operations on the mountain as part of the Volunteers-in-Parks program.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Denali.
Note: The article has been updated to include comments from Tech. Sgt. Kyle Minshew and Staff Sgt. William Cenna