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Soldiers climb Mount McKinley, test Army gear

Jul. 14, 2014 - 01:35PM   |  
Soldiers with 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, pull heavily loaded sleds up Mount McKinley in June.
Soldiers with 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, pull heavily loaded sleds up Mount McKinley in June. (U.S. Army Alaska)
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The Squad Cook Set was used to melt snow and boil water. (Army)
The Wilderness Engineering Base Camp Sled has a plastic shell with built-in runners. (Army)

Eight soldiers battled biting winds, blistering sun and subzero temperatures to scale North America’s tallest mountain — and they did it all with Army-issued gear.

The soldiers, from U.S. Army Alaska, the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center and the Army Mountain Warfare School, reached the summit of Mount McKinley on June 15.

The peak, located in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, rises to an elevation of 20,237 feet above sea level. A second team of soldiers made it up to about 14,000 feet before they had to turn around because of weather and illness.

U.S. Army Alaska has conducted expeditions up Mount McKinley for years, but this is the first time the climbers have relied almost solely on Army-issued equipment, said Capt. Matthew Hickey, the team leader.

“The purpose of climbing Mount McKinley wasn’t so much about climbing Mount McKinley as it was to validate the cold-weather training and equipment that soldiers up here use year-round,” he said.

Alaska provides soldiers with “some of the world’s most fascinating and difficult terrain to operate in,” Hickey said.

“As soldiers in U.S. Army Alaska, we’re expected to be the nation’s premier arctic warriors,” he said. “There’s no better place to train and validate as Mount McKinley.”

While the expedition up Mount McKinley isn’t open to all — the two teams of about eight soldiers each trained for months to make the climb — Hickey said he expects soldiers stationed in Alaska will see more cold-weather training events and exercises.

“As we transition from the war on terror to some of our more traditional tasks, we’re expected to operate in cold-weather environments, in mountainous terrain, in glaciated terrain,” Hickey said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been able to focus on this mission.”

On the expedition, the soldiers followed the West Buttress Route to reach the peak. Each soldier carried about 140 pounds of gear; they ate Army-issued dehydrated meals twice a day, and boiled water using the snow they collected from the mountainside.

In all, the soldiers spent 15 days on the mountain.

“Everything worked as well as we could have hoped,” Hickey said. “The best piece of equipment the Army has is the soldier himself. That’s ultimately why we were successful.”

Here’s a look at the gear the soldiers used and how they performed.

Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System

The team used the Army’s ECWCS as they faced temperatures that would drop to 25-below-zero, wind chills that felt like 40-below, and sunny, daytime highs in the 30s.

“You deal with extreme cold and it’s difficult to move your fingers, then the next moment you’re in the sun and you’re sweating and you’re trying to keep your body temperature from getting too high,” said Hickey, an avid mountain climber who scaled Mount McKinley on his own in 2011.

The ECWCS has seven layers: silkweight undershirt and pants, midweight wool undershirt and pants, fleece top, wind jacket, soft shell top and bottom, waterproof top and bottom, and extreme cold weather parka and trousers.

The ECWCS was not as light or packable as some of the more expensive civilian climbing gear, but it worked well enough to get the job done, Hickey said.

“It kept us warm, allowed us enough freedom of movement to conduct the climbing tasks we were to do,” he said.

Team members also used every piece of the seven-layer system in one combination or another, Hickey said.

“Each of them had a purpose while we were on the mountain,” he said.

For the climb, the team added zippers to the pockets and attached 550 cord loop gaiters to the pant legs.

The gaiters were meant to keep the pants from riding up and letting snow into the soldiers’ boots and socks.

In addition, Natick Soldier Systems Center issued the team soft shell tops and bottoms made of a new material called “Tweave.”

The fabric is supposed to be better than the current “Epic” fabric.

Hickey gave it his approval.

“The ‘Tweave’ is designed to be a better material and option for better protection against the wind and more water resistant,” he said. “We found that to be the case.”

Some of the soldiers were better able to compare the two because they started training with the soft shell made from “Epic” material before switching out to “Tweave,” Hickey said.

“We found it was more protective against the wind and moisture and with suitable breathability,” he said.

Sgt. Luke Fechter, one of the soldiers on the expedition and a longtime climber, said the ECWCS was “a little challenging.”

“I trained with it every winter here in Alaska, so I was already used to it in operations; I just had to adjust it for climbing,” he said.

Once he adjusted, Fechter said his only real complaint was the extreme cold weather parka — the outermost, puffy layer of the system — wasn’t quite warm enough.

“This was something we found on our training missions, so we all brought a down parka to help with that,” he said.

It was important for the team to test and validate the Army-issued clothing, Hickey said.

“You can go to an REI or a mountaineering shop in town and buy a $600 jacket in Gore-Tex and fancy fabrics that are light and fit you perfectly,” Hickey said. “But to equip every soldier in that manner would cost more money than we need to spend. What we have on hand is affordable clothing that meets our mission requirements, and we proved that by bringing it to the top of the tallest mountain in North America.”

Firebrand Mitt

The mittens are new, and they’re meant to replace the Arctic Mitten. The Firebrand is lighter, warmer and less bulky.

The mittens haven’t been issued across the force in Alaska, but Hickey said he expects soldiers will start getting them next winter.

Fechter gave the mittens a thumbs-up.

“I wore them pretty much the whole climb to the summit, and they did awesome,” he said. “I got to keep my fingers, so they did good.”

Squad Cook Set

The soldiers tested this cook set made by Mountain Safety Research, also known as the Marine Corps Cook Set.

The set consists of a stove, a pump, a wind screen, a repair kit, fuel bottles and a carry bag. It was used to melt snow and boil water.

“We found them to be a very good piece of equipment that can be issued to teams and squads here in Alaska,” Hickey said.

Wilderness Engineering Base Camp Sled

The team ditched the ahkio sled in favor of smaller, individual sleds to haul their equipment up the mountain.

The ahkio sled is typically pulled by a team of five to 10 soldiers, and it weighs almost 40 pounds, Hickey said.

On the climb, each soldier had his own “mini sled,” he said.

Even those sleds, however, were heavier than a typical civilian climbing sled, Fechter said. The sleds were about 10 pounds, while a civilian model is about two pounds, he said.

“It was a great sled, very tough and durable, but a little bit overkill for a short-term mission like climbing Mount McKinley,” he said.

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