The Flying Windmills on Denali

Published 2008-05-23

Graham Ward and Keelan McNulty on the Summit of Denali. Photo by Graham Ward

FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska – Capt. Keelan McNulty, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, Task Force 49, and 1st Lt. Graham Ward, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, reached the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley summit May 17 despite often debilitating challenges during all stages of the expedition. The first major challenge for expedition leader and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot McNulty was finding a partner to accompany him on the arduous trek. He said he planned for three years to make the climb by taking a mountaineering course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, buying equipment and training.

McNulty said he had partner prospects for months, but they all backed out due to scheduling conflicts. However, Ward offered to partner with McNulty, despite having no experience climbing any of the world’s major peaks.

McNulty said he didn’t take Ward seriously until the infantry scout platoon leader made plans for the duo to participate in training and firmly established his intentions when he purchased more than $5,000 of mountaineering equipment.

“I wasn’t going to let this dream of his fail because someone couldn’t pull through,” Ward said. “It is the chance of a lifetime, and if there is anyone I want to climb anything with, it’s Capt. McNulty.” The two trained tirelessly for three months, Ward said, entering into a rigorous physical fitness regimen that included uphill ski marches in the Delta Range and on Moose Mountain with 130-pound rucksacks.

The Soldiers used the Fort Wainwright rappel tower to become familiar with traversing crevasses, Ward said, but more importantly, McNulty mentored Ward to get him up to speed on the mountaineering knowledge required to summit the highest peak in North America, which is widely regarded as the second toughest climb after the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest.

“I had 100 percent confidence that Capt. McNulty was going to teach me what I needed to know,” Ward said. “We were going in there as a team, and if he was going to slide off a ridge, I was going to try and stop us, or I was just going off with him.”

Word got around the national climbing community, and the duo quickly picked up sponsorships for additional equipment. Their title sponsor, Mystery Ranch, specializes in making custom packs for the U.S. special operations community and wanted the Soldiers to test their equipment in the toughest conditions on the continent, said Mark Seacat, a company field representative. According to McNulty, Seacat also provided invaluable mentorship to the team.

It was touch and go, Ward said, as the two worked out arrangements for leave with their commanders. They also needed approval from their chain-of-command to complete the dangerous climb prior to deploying to Iraq later this summer.

The two officers prepared a PowerPoint brief, meticulously detailing their plan, their risk assessments and their equipment to show how prepared they were to take on the expedition, McNulty said. Any questions about moving forward with the climb were settled when it was revealed the two officers would summit the mountain in honor of their units, bringing the United States of America flag, their battalion colors and several unit coins to the ceiling of North America.

Still, Denali National Park staff members were reluctant to grant Ward’s application to climb Mount McKinley, McNulty said, because he had checked “none” under mountain climbing experience. Upon an interview and a review of his experience as an Army Ranger and a scout platoon leader, his petition was granted upon the recommendation of Park Ranger John Loomis. According to McNulty and Ward, Loomis’ reputation was riding on the Soldiers’ ability to conquer “the Great One.” That same reputation would be irreparably damaged if either of the officers required a rescue operation during the expedition.

The two Fort Wainwright Soldiers made the drive from Fairbanks to Talkeetna Junction May 3, where the Talkeetna Ranger Station was established in 1977 to serve mountaineers climbing in Denali National Park. The two officers, their two 130-pound rucksacks and their sled were then transported by small plane to the base camp at 7,700 feet.

The team quickly made an impression, with McNulty wearing a huge bushy wig and jangling a cowbell in honor of a “Saturday Night Live” skit starring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken to motivate others climbers on the mountain. According to Ward, their enthusiasm was contagious and word got around about the extraordinary duo.

Although it took the team several days to ascend to 14,200 feet, McNulty said, they made the trek from 14,200 to 17,200 feet in an astonishing nine hours.

Not all was well, however, and it looked like the wheels would come off the expedition when Ward developed what was likely Acute Mountain Sickness, which stems from a lack of oxygen at altitude and includes a headache, a loss of appetite and lethargy. McNulty said he was ready to call the expedition off, but Ward wanted to wait it out.

“That was the hardest mental day of my life,” Ward said, “because it was so easy to quit. I was about to say for the first time in life, ‘I just failed at something I really tried to do.’” All was not lost, though, as two days passed and so did the illness.

There was another problem, however, as 60-knot winds kept anyone from attempting to summit the mountain, McNulty said. Other expeditions were aborting in the face of the daunting weather. On their fourth day at 17,200 feet, the officers decided they would wait one more day before calling their own expedition off.

“We decided from the get-go, because we weren’t super experienced, that we weren’t going to push weather or our bodies,” McNulty said. “We made a pact that we weren’t going to push it. It’s the greatest peak in North America, but it isn’t worth dying over or not being able to do our jobs in Iraq.”

On day five, Ward said, the weather cleared at 17,200 feet, and McNulty and Ward continued on to reach the summit of Mount McKinley on the 15th day of the expedition.

The two said they ensconced several unit coins at the peak as they had promised, and the national and battalion colors were flown in honor of the country and the units who had trusted them to come back triumphant and ready to deploy.

“This is a motivator to Soldiers not to sit around, but to take Alaska in to its fullest,” McNulty said. “There is so much this state has to offer. Go to MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) and rent equipment if you have to in order to enjoy the state.”

Although McNulty climbed as a member of 1-52nd, he said he will be assigned to 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, during their deployment to Iraq this summer. He said he honored both units during his climb.

Ward attended Special Forces Assessment and Selection immediately following the expedition. Although he was selected, he will deploy to Iraq with 1-25th SBCT before attending the Special Forces Captain’s Career Course next summer.