MT. McKINLEY, Alaska — The world goes white as the rotors of the Army helicopter grab for air. Somewhere below, uncomfortably close, looms a huge mountain, the largest in North America.
"Fifty, 40, 30, 20, 10, 5," an airman counts on the intercom as the twin-engine CH-47C settles toward Mt. McKinley. Squinting out the open rear door of the Chinook, he is the only man aboard who can see the ground.
The High Altitude Rescue Team helicopter thumps and lurches to a stop, throwing its crew against their harnesses. It skids downhill slightly.
Snow Wipes Out Vision
"We come in with a little bit of speed before our vision gets wiped out by the cloud of snow," said pilot Scott Nichols, a warrant officer from Salina, Kan.
At 33, Nichols is the leader of a specialized Army rescue team that practices here every spring to prepare for the annual pilgrimage of mountaineers from around the world.
In a few seconds, the blizzard subsides and McKinley is there again. From this close, the 20,320-foot peak is a freezing white world jammed up against an ice-blue sky, forbidding and breathtaking.
The dark green chopper, christened the Iron Maiden by its crew, lifts off again, whipping up a hurricane with its 60-foot rotors. Laboring in 25 pounds of Arctic survival gear and oxygen masks, the team members will try yet another landing at the mountain's 14,000-foot level.
Controls Become Sluggish
"Up this high, it's more squirrelly, more hairy," said Nichols, as he coaxes the 16-ton Chinook into the thin air. "Above 10,000 feet, the control response is a little sluggish, the power response a little slow."
Some of the hundreds of climbers who try Mt. McKinley get hurt; some die on its wind-scoured flanks. Most do not. The 11 pilots and 13 flight engineers who fly in Nichols' team put in many hours each spring to improve the odds.
The crews, all recruited from the 242nd Aviation Company at Ft. Wainwright, are volunteers and receive no extra pay.
Eight of the company's 16 helicopters have modified hydraulics and oxygen systems that allow them to operate at 22,000 feet instead of their normal 15,000 feet. Chinooks are among the military's largest helicopters. In Vietnam, they ferried troops, artillery and supplies.
For a few weeks each spring, the noisy Chinooks, smelling of fuel and exhaust, descend on the community of Talkeetna, a staging area for climbers and sightseers 60 miles southeast of Mt. McKinley.
Last year, 645 climbers attempted the summit. About half made it. Countless tourists flew around the peak.
National Park Service records show only three helicopter landings at or near the 18,000-foot level, two by Army helicopters. The only higher landing was by a private pilot who set down at or near the peak during a rescue attempt in the 1970s, the Park Service said.
Here at 14,000 feet, Nichols and Chief Warrant Officer Charles J. Ray turn the Chinook for another landing.
The Iron Maiden, built in 1970, is beginning to show its age. Its paint is peeling, worn to the metal in spots.
Crews Work in Pairs
A second Chinook--they always fly in pairs while training above 10,000 feet--squats on the mountain, dwarfed by surrounding peaks.
The Army is not usually called first for rescues on McKinley. "Civilian operators must have the first opportunity, so that we're not competing with them," Nichols said. "But we can go higher than they can, and we can do rescue-hoist missions."
Nichols said that in the last decade, the team has made 46 rescues, but none in the last three years.
Denali National Park Chief Ranger Tom Griffiths said the declining number of rescues may be partly due to medical help available at the High Latitude Research Group camp, set up in recent years by the University of Alaska at 14,300 feet.
Still, he said, the Army team's readiness is comforting.
Another touchdown, another blizzard, and the Chinook starts to climb again.
Few Problems Encountered
Crew members dismiss the hydraulic fluid leaks here and there. "You ever hooked up five garden hoses and not had a leak?" asks Chief Warrant Officer Ronald G. DeBoom.
So far, the Army's workhorse copters have had few problems on the mountain. The crews closely watch the weather and the aircraft's mechanical condition.
"We don't want to get trapped up there," DeBoom said.
The altitude, which robs the craft of power, also affects the crews.
"It's more fatiguing. Your depth perception is off," said Sgt. Jim Bogart, a 24-year-old flight engineer from Houston. "There's more things to go wrong."
Nichols decides who will be on the team. "We have a lot of people who want to go up there. But for rescues, I've had to take the most experienced," he said.
"We've had a couple that went up there and said they didn't want to do it any more," DeBoom said.
Others wouldn't trade the job for the world.
"It's something extra," said Sgt. Bruce Wood, a 26-year-old crewman from Onsted, Mich. "It's one of the things I came to Alaska for."