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Kentucky Air Guardsmen scale Mount McKinley as part of extreme-weather training

Five combat controllers from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron scaled Mt. McKinley near Talkeetna, Alaska, on May 25, 2013, as part of arctic mountaineer training. The 20,237-foot summit is the highest mountain peak in North America. (Photo courtesy 123rd Special Tactics Squadron)

Five combat controllers from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron scaled Mount McKinley near Talkeetna, Alaska, on May 25, 2013, as part of arctic mountaineer training. The 20,237-foot summit is the highest mountain peak in North America. (Photo courtesy 123rd Special Tactics Squadron)

KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Five combat controllers from the Kentucky Air National Guard gained valuable extreme-weather experience recently by scaling to the top of Mount McKinley near Talkeetna, Alaska.

Senior Master Sgt. Wes Brooks, Master Sgts. Russ LeMay and Aaron May, and Tech. Sgts. Grant Kinlaw and Harley Bobay of the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron reached the summit of North America's highest mountain May 25 after many weeks of mid-altitude and high-altitude conditioning.

The objective of such extreme training, which involved glacier travel techniques, crevasse rescue operations and avalanche prediction, was to give the Airmen experience they might need during cold-weather, high-altitude military operations, according to Chief Master Sgt. Tom DeSchane, the 123rd's combat control enlisted manager.

"In preparing for part of their war-time tasking, these guys have to practice their mountaineering skills and land navigation through arctic conditions," DeSchane said. "Each operator is issued his own skis, snow shoes and all the accoutrements for surviving the elements. Going up Mount McKinley teaches them how to rope-in and traverse the terrain safely with all of the equipment that they have to carry."

Combat controllers are part of the Air Force Special Operations community and are among the most highly trained personnel in the U.S. military. As certified air traffic controllers, they deploy undetected into combat and hostile environments to establish assault zones or airfields while simultaneously conducting air traffic control, fire support, command and control, direct action, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, humanitarian assistance and special reconnaissance.

Planning for the high-altitude training exercise began about a year ago when the five men participated in mountaineering training in the snowy mountains outside Salt Lake City, Utah, with other members of their squadron.

There, the squadron practiced knots, anchors and other rope skills, as well as movement techniques, minimalistic equipment and clothing, and medium-altitude terrain traversing.

"Originally, the idea to climb (McKinley) came from Aaron, who had tried to climb the mountain before with his previous unit," LeMay said. "His team was unable to reach the summit when they stopped to help rescue another group of climbers who had an accident."

Accidents on the mountain are common and mostly caused by climbers who are not properly trained or prepared for the change in altitude and the extreme environment.

The Kentucky team took great care in preparing for their climb.

When the five-member team arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, outside Denali National Park and Preserve, they spent the first day with a guide service, familiarizing themselves with their equipment and preparing meals. The team then departed by air taxi to Mount McKinley base camp, where they spent three days engaged in hands-on training to ensure a solid skill foundation.

For the next 13 days the five Airmen and two guides applied all of their skills and techniques to climb the mountain summit, stopping at camps along the way to acclimate, rest and complete training objectives, before making the return trip to base camp.

"Summit day was the hardest part of the climb," LeMay said. "It took us five to six hours of straight climbing from the last camp we stayed at to reach it. We were the first group of the day to reach the summit so we had about 45 minutes to ourselves to see how beautiful it was. It was the clearest day at the top, so we could see for miles around us. It was amazing."

Having to make way for other climbing groups, the combat controllers returned to the camp they stayed in the night before to rest for their descent.

"It was tough to go up to the top," LeMay continued. "Everything about going up and coming down was tough. The cold-weather environment is very unforgiving, and it makes even the smallest tasks very difficult.

"It was the best kind of cold-weather training we could have gotten. Working in such a harsh environment gave us invaluable experience. The climb was amazing, but a lot of hard work."