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Helicopter crew preps Park Service camps on Denali

by Phillip Manning ~ April 29th, 2014

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As climbing season approaches, it means a logistical challenge for everyone involved,  including the National Park Service.   Mountaineering Rangers see to the safety of climbers throughout the season as well as ensuring that regulations are followed.  In order to do that, they need semi-permanent camps with supplies and shelter.  Many times, they are assisted by the Alaska Air National Guard, but this year is a bit different, as Ranger Joe Reichert explains.

“Because the military has been deployed, the big two-rotor aircraft you’ve seen over the past few years, the Chinooks, that typically help us out, weren’t able to this year, so we’ve been flying our loads in with this helicopter, the A-Star B3.”

While the massive Chinook helicopters have the capacity to lift about ten tons of equipment, the much smaller A-Star, which is similar to the Alaska State Troopers’ primary rescue helicopter, has to make more trips to carry the same load.  While Joe Reichert says that they are operating on schedule, the team recognizes that time is of the essence.

“The season’s getting well underway this week, and the weather’s cooperating really well.  We’ve got quite a few climbers in the Ruth Gorge, and on the Tokositna [Glacier] climbing Mt. Huntington.  We have about five to ten groups already started on the West Buttress.  The climbers are arriving.  The annual migration is happening.”

Right now, Joe Reichert and the helicopter crew are focused on moving supplies to what is known as “Fourteen Camp,” which is, appropriately, located near 14,000 feet of elevation.  He says Fourteen Camp is very important to the Park Service’s operations on the mountain for a number of reasons.

“We’ve got a medical tent, a communications tent, then the rangers have their individual sleep tents for the volunteers and the rangers.  It’s all the bulk gear that’s going up.  They still hike up.  All the rangers and volunteers will spend between six and ten days hiking up to 14,000, and acclimating on the way, and checking the camps, talking to climbers, and getting to know people on the mountain.”

At the literal controls of the operation is Andy Hermansky.  He has flown this particular helicopter for Denali National Park as a contractor for five seasons, including a climber rescue at 19,800 feet in 2011. As for setting up base camp, Andy Hermansky says that the job won’t be too different this year, it will just mean more trips back and forth without the military’s heavy lift capability.  Looking cool and relaxed standing next to his machine, he says that the majesty of the Alaska Range never seems to dull.

“It’s beautiful, obviously.  It’s definitely a very unique area, but obviously a different type of flying than what a tourist would expect to see.  It’s big, obviously high where I’m going, and I think beautiful is just a fitting word.”

If everything remains on schedule, the necessary supplies should all be in place by the time that climbing season intensifies over the next two weeks.

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