DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE — For decades, the U.S. Army in Alaska has used massive Chinook helicopters the size of engorged semi-trucks to haul essential equipment to a glacier in the Alaska Range ringed by North America’s tallest mountains.
The partnership is mutually beneficial: The National Park Service, which oversees climbers aiming to summit Denali and Foraker within Denali National Park and Preserve, gets supplies schlepped 7,200 feet up to its rugged base camp on Kahiltna Glacier. The military gets to train its pilots in the nuances of high-elevation aviation, skills that have been put to use during rescue missions and coordinated operations with Park Service.
“It helps these guys be able to come to the park and train at altitude,” said Park Service Ranger Joe Reichert, who has been part of base camp operations since 1994 and has summited Denali “a few times.”
“They get their training, and we get our gear,” he added.
As Reichert spoke on Kahiltna during a recent afternoon, a small crew of soldiers hauled material out of a chopper belly, piling heavy plastic totes, hearty slabs of plywood, propane tanks, tent poles, tarps, cook stoves, coolers and 2x4s in the snow. It’s equipment that will help a small tent city weather the climbing season, which at its height, according to Reichert, sees “50 to 100 people going in and out of here every day.”
Many of those are short-term visitors, flying in on small planes from Talkeetna for an afternoon of sightseeing. But as many as 1,200 climbers are registered with the Park Service this year, almost all of whom will try ascending Denali.
“It’s looking like it’s gonna be 2019 levels. We’re looking real similar to pre-COVID,” Reichert said.
The 2020 season was shut down entirely because of the pandemic. Operations resumed in 2021, but with the vaccination rollout just a few months old and international travel restrictions still in place, fewer mountaineers, especially from abroad, participated.
The rebounding number of registrants belies another trend happening during spring in the Alaska Range: More visitors are arriving to recreate independent of the formal Park Service system.
“What I’ve seen is an increase in is in the number of backcountry users. That seems maybe a little bit earlier in the season and also greater quantity,” said Debbie Reiswig, who oversees climber registration for the Park Service “from the beginning of their dream till they arrive on our porch.”
Though no Denali climbers had yet arrived, not far from the base camp site were a handful of tents, skiers and alpinists making the most of the late-April sunshine and deep snow.
“Lotta domestic from the Lower 48 and Alaska,” Reiswig said.
Ebullient and beaming, Reiswig came to the Park Service after a career in the Bush with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She and her family would fly onto the road system from Dillingham and spend long weekends in Talkeetna, where she was drawn over and over again to the ranger station in town and spent years hoping to get one of the rare positions that infrequently open up.
“I love working with the climbers and helping them fulfill their dreams,” Reiswig said.
Two Army helicopters had hauled in supplies, which by mid-afternoon sat in big heaps, half-buried in a ring of snow to keep them from blowing away. As one Chinook took off, it kicked out an 80 mph prop-wash, ripping off flat hunks of snow crust that skittered over the glacier like scraps of cardboard in a hurricane. The crew was ascending farther upward to practice landings and take-offs at 14,000 feet.
“As you get higher in altitude, the performance of any aircraft gets reduced,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Francois Collard, one of the pilots attached to the 1st Battalion, 52nd Regiments B Company based in Fairbanks. They’re nicknamed the “Sugar Bears,” borrowing their icon from the 1960s Sugar Snap Crisp cereal.
Since the Army first partnered with the Park Service on hauling in base-camp supplies at the end of the 1980s, there have been a few years skipped, primarily when Alaska units were deployed overseas. Without Chinooks, the Park Service relies on small planes crammed with as much equipment as will safely fit while ferrying supplies back and forth.
“We can make one trip instead of multiple trips,” Collard said. “And then the other thing is the performance of the aircraft. It’s able to fly in higher altitudes with higher weights.”
Their work done, the Sugar Bears snacked on bagged lunches in the afternoon sun, the olive green of their camo-patterned uniforms stark against the snow.
Leaving Kahiltna, the pilots flew a meandering path that followed parts of the West Buttress route, which, according to the Army, more than 90% of climbers follow to try to summit Denali.
“On average, about 100 climbers suffer altitude sickness or frostbite and 12 require rescues. About 40 people have died on the West Buttress,” the U.S. Army Alaska said in a statement. “The Sugar Bears also have a long history of returning to the mountain when called to assist in these high elevation rescues when climbers find themselves in danger.”
During a scenic descent, the Chinooks proved remarkably nimble, flying low, tight turns in glacier valleys guarded by peaks with slopes serrated by wind and cold-cleaved crags. Not far below the stuttering propellers were hectic jumbles of recent avalanche debris.
The only other evidence of movement in the mountains were the occasional squiggles left in the snow by backcountry skiers.