MOUNT ADAMS — Sgt. Erik Neuenschwander lowered his standards on what makes a good bed after he spent a morning climbing an icy mountain with a backpack full of Army satellite equipment.
“This is the most comfortable place ever,” he declared as he dropped his gear and lay down on a pointy heap of volcanic rocks.
His remarks could be explained by the 3,000 feet of elevation he’d already climbed that morning, digging his boots step-by-step in crunchy snow to ascend the south face of Mount Adams, Washington’s second-highest peak.
From that jagged rest stop, he had another 2,000 feet to go before reaching the 12,276-foot summit.
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Neuenschwander was part of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Special Operations Forces unit that took to Mount Adams last month for some high-altitude training.
They spent two days backpacking in the snow with a couple of pauses to test lightweight satellites, the kind used to support troops on combat missions in Afghanistan and on exercises throughout Asia.
It was also a chance for the soldiers to get away and share a memorable activity together.
“This is something that not everybody gets to do,” said the unit’s senior noncommissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Greg Hudgens.
The communications team supports one of Lewis-McChord’s most secretive units, the 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, better known as the “Nightstalkers.”
A unit on the go
The unit is built around the Army’s best helicopter pilots — the guys who drop Green Berets, Rangers and SEALs into hostile places, then stick around long enough to bring the operators back to their forward bases.
The Nightstalkers deploy overseas for a few months at a time with a frequency characteristic of Special Operations. Their battalion’s previous commander, Lt. Col. Heath Niemi, led troops on 21 deployments between 2001 and 2012.
Such fast-pace demands attract soldiers who value their independence and the responsibility the Army hands them.
“I love what I do. You get the cream of the crop,” said Capt. Matthew Blumberg, 33, of Lacey. He’s the commanding officer for the battalion’s communications group.
Blumberg wanted to give his soldiers a treat and a challenge when he and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Slusser planned the Mount Adams trek. It would be training on a budget, costing the Army a few hundred dollars in gas but otherwise using equipment the soldiers already have.
The unit’s leaders primed the group with four months of planning, including a speedy trip up Mount Si, near North Bend, as a practice run.
“I can’t let my guys do this without me,” said Neuenschwander, 27, of Lacey. He was supposed to be on leave but chose to take the hike with his team.
Just as in Afghanistan, plans change when you hit the ground. Not everyone would make it to the summit, and it would take longer than the team planned.
Mount Adams is supposed to be a fairly short, 12-mile round trip with a steep 6,700-foot elevation gain. The idea is to get to the so-called Lunch Counter, about 9,000 feet above sea level, on the first day for a base camp and then tackle the remaining 3,000 feet, plus the full descent, on the second day.
Last year’s Cascade Creek fire, however, led the U.S. Forest Service to close the mountain’s primary trailhead, adding about two miles each way and an additional 1,000 feet of elevation gain to the climb.
The unit’s long ascent began May 19. Sixteen soldiers carried food, tents, cold-weather gear and a couple hundred pounds of satellite equipment shared among them.
They hauled the
communications gear on two sleds. Four soldiers took turns using ropes to attach themselves at the hip to a sled, then stepping like Santa’s reindeer up the mountain while still carrying about 40 pounds of other gear on their backs.
The sleds made for slow, sometimes awkward trekking, putting Lunch Counter out of reach the first day.
The troops settled instead at a base camp about 7,500 feet above sea level, meaning they’d have almost 5,000 feet to climb the next day to reach the summit.
Most of the soldiers set up tents to share. A few dug into the snow and slept outside on Thermarest mattresses in temperatures that would drop to about 20 degrees. They connected a satellite to begin testing their gear.
Their sled-hauling done, the troops relaxed. They broke into packs of “meals ready to eat” for supper and marveled at a southward view looking directly at Mount Hood.
“It’s awesome. I’ve never done anything like this,” said Spc. Austin Wheeler, 23, whose home state is Kansas.
Back to business
The soldiers got back to climbing about 6:30 the next morning. A night of rest made the ascent seem a little less intimidating; so did leaving the sleds behind.
Four soldiers stayed at base camp. The other 12 buckled on their crampons.
Slusser, 34, set the pace. He climbed up the icy snow and looked for breaks where the soldiers could sit on rocks and catch their breath.
They seemed winded at times, kneeling in the snow and then willing themselves upward. The skies were clear, and the sun beat down.
“It’s a different beast, but I’m glad I came,” said Sgt. Aaron Kowall, 23, of Lacey. He called the climb one of the toughest physical challenges of his life.
A sense of elation came when the group hit the summit about 2 p.m. They snapped pictures of themselves in snow gear and took in a view that revealed Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens to the north, and Mount Hood again to the south.
“I don’t want to get sentimental, but I’m really proud of you guys,” said Slusser, of Spanaway.
They set to work on their main field test, inflating a satellite made by GATR Technologies of Alabama. It looks like a beach ball, and it enables soldiers to connect their communications systems in austere environments.
Slusser linked up with the company’s chief executive over Skype using the satellite. It was a good moment for the company, marking a high-elevation test for the system.
Two soldiers unfurled an American flag. They used it as a backdrop for a brief ceremony in which Blumberg administered an oath of service to Wheeler, the specialist from Kansas.
It was a spectacular scene for Wheeler’s re-enlistment, a special moment he knew he would not repeat. It was his birthday, too.
Partway down the mountain, they unbuckled their crampons and began the glissade, getting to base camp a couple hours after reaching the summit. They laughed as they picked up speed on their butts and hit the brakes using their feet or their ice axes.
“It was just a good day,” said medic Staff Sgt. Sam Patrick, 28, of Lacey.
The hike back down to their vans from the 7,500-foot camp took a few more hours, with the soldiers again burdened by their sleds. This time they had to dodge holes in quickly melting snow at lower elevations.
They made it out before dark. Some looked forward to climbing more peaks over the summer.
“This was a great team-building experience,” Slusser said. “I think the guys learned something about themselves.”