KAHILTNA GLACIER — In Anchorage, telltale signs of spring's arrival include budding willows and returning geese. In Nenana, locals watch for the tilting tripod in the annual Ice Classic.
In Talkeetna, this winter's end was heralded by the arrival of 25,000-pound U.S. Army Chinook helicopters, which help the National Park Service set up the camps used by rangers patrolling Mount McKinley and other high peaks in the Alaska Range.
The climbing season will begin early next month, and more than 700 mountaineers are already signed up to take a crack at Denali. At about 20,250 feet, the peak is North America's highest, and it saw 1,200 attempts and 430 summits last year.
The typical launch point for Denali expeditions is base camp at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. And on Monday, the Army crews dropped off a last load of gear there after spending nearly a week in the area, ferrying equipment in support of climbing season and using the surrounding high alpine as a playground for training exercises.
"It's beautiful — it's a great mission," said David Lawson, a safety officer with the 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, based at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.
The unit — also known as the Sugar Bears — filled one of its two helicopters with reporters for a flight to the glacier on Monday, including scenic swoops across valleys, photo opportunities above crevasses and even a brief stop high atop a narrow ridge overlooking the base camp.
The machines — newer models nicknamed "Slimer" and "Sovereign" — cost about $6,000 an hour to operate, said one of the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Malcolm Jennings.
"We love flying these helicopters, especially in the park," Jennings said. "Taking others is a treat for us."
The Army uses the tandem-rotor Chinooks to assist the Park Service with gear and logistics, but the opportunity to practice high-altitude flight and maneuvers in the Alaska Range is useful for mountainous environments like Afghanistan — and if the Army is called in for a rescue on Denali or elsewhere.
The unit is prepared to mobilize if it's called to assist recovery efforts from the recent earthquake in Nepal, said Lt. Col. Alan Brown, chief of public affairs for U.S. Army Alaska.
"These are the guys that are prepared to go," Brown said. "Considering what they're doing, it is possible."
The Army does the heavy lifting without charging the Park Service, said Maureen Gualtieri, public information officer with Denali National Park and Preserve.
"They'd be up here regardless," Gualtieri said. "They're here doing their operations, and it's just icing on the cake we're here at the same time."
As for the other costs, they're included in the park's estimated $1.4 million annual budget for its Talkeetna-based operations, which primarily support mountaineering. The park's whole budget is roughly $10.5 million, Gualtieri said.
User fees — $365 this year, for an adult mountaineer — fund about 25 percent of the Talkeetna operations, while the park collects about $85,000 more from guiding services.
While the park instituted the fee in 1995 and has raised it several times, Steve Ellis, vice president at the federal budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, argued that the resulting revenues cover only a "small portion" of costs related to mountaineering.
"I'm not saying it is a huge contributor," Ellis said in an email. "But this climbing subsidy siphons funding away from other National Park Service programs. Most, if not all, of the cost of these operations should be recovered."
The Army visitors do, however, offer a boost to Talkeetna's economy while they're in town, purchasing jet fuel locally and burning 300 gallons per hour of helicopter flight, Jennings said. And they stay in the Swiss-Alaska Inn.
"Talkeetna shows us all their hospitality — they're the greatest hosts in existence," said Lawson, the safety officer. "It's like being at grandma's."