Just before climbing season kicks off each May, the "Sugar Bears" -- formally known as Company B, 4th Battalion, 123rd Aviation Regiment -- haul food, communications equipment, body bags, prefabricated shelters and other essentials to the Kahiltna's northeast fork, the launching point for climbers attempting the West Buttress route.
The Fort Wainwright-based team also drops off survival and rescue supplies at the 14,200-foot level -- about two-thirds of the way up the peak -- where the elevation can lead to oxygen deprivation.
The effort is a training exercise for the regiment's high-altitude rescue team. The team's expertise also serves as a model for Army Chinook crews operating in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Randolph Rotte, commander of the 4-123rd. Units heading to that country have contacted the Alaska team for guidance in dealing with high-altitude missions, Rotte said.
"Aircraft perform differently in thin air," Rotte said. "There's a pretty steep learning curve, and in the aviation business you can't afford a steep learning curve. That's when bad things happen."
The Park Service, which began erecting base camp April 25, doesn't have anything near the size of the Army Chinooks. It would take 10 trips on the park's smaller chopper for every Chinook load, said Roger Robinson, lead mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park and Preserve.
The Park Service would later transform the mishmash of parts into a makeshift town for rangers and volunteers, and soon, a bustling hub for climbers. This will be the launching point for an estimated 95 percent of the 1,076 people who have signed up to tackle 20,320-foot Mount McKinley this season. It's also a popular stop for hundreds of nonclimbing tourists who fly up on air taxis.
"It's not unusual to see seven planes here at one time on some days," Robinson said. "It can be a mob scene."