Rescue squad summits McKinley

Beth Bragg
Alaska Air National Guard photo

A rescue squad just made news on Mount McKinley for something other than a rescue.

A team of five Alaska Air National Guardsmen became the first to summit Mount McKinley this season, reaching the top of the 20,320-foot peak on May 9.

The men -- Matt Komatsu, Paul Barendregt, Kyle Minshew, Bill Cenna and Brett Wilson -- are members of the 212th Rescue Squadron, which has gained fame over the years for assisting with high-altitude rescues on Denali.

The climb served as a training expedition to hone winter survival skills needed in rescue operations, team member Matt Komatsu said.

"Everything you do on that mountain translates directly to what we do for rescues," he said, "from understanding the gear you need to survive, to how to correctly use it, to how to set up your tent, to how to build a snowblock so you don't get blown off by 85 mph winds.

"...It's not a question of if, it's a question of when one of the (guardsmen) goes out and has to keep survivors alive out in cold weather."

Even the group's arrival at Kahiltna Glacier, the base camp for McKinley expeditions, served as training. To get to the 7,200-foot camp, the team hitched a ride on a Pave Hawk helicopter, courtesy of the 210th Rescue Squadron.

"They don't fly that many missions into Denali, so if something comes up, it's good for them to know the camps," Komatsu said. "It was mutually beneficial."

It was the first summit of McKinley for everyone but Barendregt, who has made a couple of summits and has participated in rescues on the mountain, according to Komatsu.

"The park service has its own rangers who are super, super highly skilled and they tend to handle the rescues," Komatsu said. "But if we're there, we certainly assist, and they have on occasion requested our assistance."

The May 9 summit date is about typical for the season's first summit, park officials said, although climbers are dealing with unseasonably cold temperatures.

"It's a little surprising because it's been so crappy," spokeswoman Kris Fister said, "but they just need that window."

Komatsu said the team didn't take a thermometer with them -- "which was probably fortunate, because we never knew how cold it was" -- but team members talked to a group of park rangers about a day behind them who got a reading of minus-20 at 14,000 feet.

"We had some pretty impressive snotsicles and icicles on our faces, that's for sure," Komatsu said.

The team needed two weeks to reach the top of North America's tallest peak, and although the cold never halted them, wind and whiteouts did.

"We had to hunker down at 7,200 feet because the winds were just honking," Komatsu said. "We took a weather day or two at 11,000 (feet), and we were on our way up to 14,000 when we got turned around by 65 to 75 mph at the top of Motorcycle Hill, where our ropes were blowing horizontal."

Once the climbers reached the mountain's fixed lines at 15,500 feet, high winds smacked them again. It took them about 3.5 hours to reach the top of the fixed lines at 16,200 feet.

The group's summit day started beautifully but ended poorly, Komatsu said.

"We summited in pretty much a whiteout, and descended in the same whiteout and flat light," he said. "It was one of those days where we were thinking it was gonna be a great photo opp at the summit and it ended up being a 13-hour day. Back at the 17,000 camp, it took us awhile to find our tents."

According to Denali National Park statistics, there are 215 climbers currently on Mount McKinley. Thirteen have completed their climbs, but only the five guardsmen have reached the summit. A total of 914 are registered to climb Denali this season.


Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.