Exercise ALASKAN BUGLE was an expedition for 12 members of 1 Rifles supported by two reservists Maj John Tolan (Alpine Mountain Leader) and Maj Kirsty Watson (Team Doctor). The expedition aim was to climb Mt Denali at 6189m North America’s highest peak. The mountain is a serious challenge at the best of times and this season was beset by terrible weather which made the climb extremely demanding.
The 1 Rifles expedition was led by Captain Josh Axford based at Chepstow and aimed to take novice soldiers to the summit of Mt Denali. The team received extensive pre-training with Alpine and Climbing courses in Scotland and Switzerland as well as an expedition rehearsal in Saas Fee, Switzerland. The team were therefore very well prepared. As part of the approval process, the team was directed to take someone with previous altitude and Denali experience as well as a team Doctor. Maj Tolan has summited Denali successfully on two previous occasions so was asked to assist as senior instructor. The other three AML’s were all from 1 Rifles.
The team deployed by air from Talkeetna to the airstrip on the Kalhiltna glacier to acclimatize and waited for a day for Maj Tolan to arrive separately from a previous expedition. The weather forecast was not good and as soon as the team was complete we began to haul our heavy loads up the route. This entailed carrying a full expedition rucsac as well as dragging a fully laden sled with 35 days of rations. A total load of around 55-60kgs. Our arrival at our first camp – Camp 1 – took about 4 hours. There we had a good night. The next day we headed further to camp 1A and then established camp. Here we were beset by a severe storm which trapped us for five days. The snowfall was so heavy that the tents had to be cleared of snow throughout the day and night – such was the snowfall, that the tents were covered with over a metre of snow three or four times a night.
The wintry weather meant that moving up the route became a game of close weather watching before caching food and equipment higher and later moving up the mountain.
The next camp was Motorcycle Hill camp at 11000ft. Here we did a cache to Windy Corner at 13500ft and the next day moved up to camp three ‘Basin Camp’ which was the main camp on the mountain at 14000ft. Here the team acclimatized, collected the cache from Windy Corner, weather watched and waited for opportunities to cache kit above the headwall fixed lines at 16000ft.
The four rope teams operated independently and chose their ascents according to the weather conditions and acclimatization of the team members. Unfortunately, on one of the ascents to cache kit, two rope teams were hit by a sudden deterioration in the weather and had to retreat in cold and stormy weather which caused three members some minor cold injuries. They were treated by Maj Watson and the next day were evacuated by Cpl Brunt back down the mountain to the airstrip and on to Talkeetna.
This left seven on the hill with two rope teams. Again the poor weather was a factor and we waited for a respite in the conditions to move to high camp for a summit attempt. An opportunity came and we moved to high camp at 17000ft in marginal conditions. The following morning though extremely cold, an attempt on the summit was made. Capt Axford’s team with Lt Brown, Cpl Richardson, and LCpl Bowkett set off first at about 9.30am and Maj Tolan, Maj Watson and Pte Cook set off at about 11am when the conditions warmed up. From here we had a challenging climb up the well protected ‘autobahn’ followed by a slow and steady climb toward the summit at 20400ft (6189M). Capt Ashford’s team summited at about 4pm and Maj Tolan’s at 6pm as the weather broke and a storm hit. Summit photos were a rushed affair in the gathering storm as the team elated but tired set off back down the mountain. There was a difficult retreat to high camp with many other groups struggling in the conditions. At High Camp, tired and cold the two rope groups had a quick meal and retired to the tents to shelter from the cold.
The descent from High Camp to Basin Camp was difficult and cold due to poor weather and on arrival the teams rested at Basin Camp. Capt Axford’s team then headed straight down to the airstrip whilst Maj Tolan’s team rested overnight before heading down to the airstrip. Unfortunately, there had been heavy fresh snowfall overnight so this meant that we had to break trail with heavy loads and sleds in deep snow down the mountain from Basin Camp to Motorcycle Hill camp – this was physically exhausting and the team had to work hard to maintain their resolve to get down safely. We got to the airstrip after about 14 hours to find we had just missed the last plane out. The weather was poor and we then waited at the airstrip for two days before there was a lull in the weather to allow a plane to come in.
Considering the unusually difficult climbing conditions this season, the summit success was a great achievement. 50% of the expedition members had summited against a seasonal average of less than 30% of whom most were experienced mountaineers. The climb took 26 hard days compared to Maj Tolan’s previous Denali climb of 14 days in sunny conditions the year before. The reservists, Maj Tolan and Maj Watson both summitted Denali along with five members of 1 Rifles. The expedition aims were successfully achieved during what has been an extremely arduous and difficult expedition. All team members have developed hugely and have had an incredible experience.
The Ulysses Trust is gratefully thanked for their support in enabling reservists to take part in the venture, which was essential for the 1 Rifles team gaining authority to climb.
Author: Maj J Tolan
Maj John Tolan
East Midlands UOTC
Maj Kirsty Watson