On Monday, Army helicopters flew the last round of supplies to Denali base camp for the 2015 climbing season. The unit, dubbed the “Sugar Bears” is well-known in Talkeetna, and has a history in Alaska of combining training and supply runs.
There are signs all around of the imminent beginning of Denali climbing season. The temperature is warming, the mosquitos are back, and the Sugar Bears are in town. Sugar Bears is the nickname of the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment’s Bravo Company, based at Fort Wainwright. If the name conjures up images of breakfast cereal, there’s a good reason.
In the 1960s, a sugary breakfast cereal named Sugar Crisp went on sale. The name has since been changed to Golden crisp. Both brands feature as a mascot the appropriately named Sugar Bear. Chief Warrant Officer Kirk Donovan says Bravo Company’s name originated from supply runs that the unit made after relocating following Vietnam.
“When they first came up to Alaska, they used to haul a lot of supplies to real remote areas—real remote villages, and they used to bring in…cereal.”
Chief Warrant Officer Malcolm Jennings says the unit has official permission to use the Sugar Bear mascot.
“We have a letter of permission from Post Cereal to call ourselves the Sugar Bears.”
Despite the frankly adorable image the unit’s name conjures, the 1-52nd’s Bravo Company is an Army unit like many others. For the last few days, they have been taking loads of supplies from Talkeetna to support the National Park Service’s presence on Denali. That’s not their only role, however. The unit returned from deployment to Afghanistan late last year, and a soldier showed me where on the helicopter guns could be mounted. Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown, a U.S. Army Alaska spokesman, says the Sugar Bears are training again now that they are back in the U.S.
“They’ve been working to get their aircraft back from deployment, get them all refitted and back to operating speed, so they’re going to have a busy summer in the high training season, here.”
Lieutenant Colonel Brown says part of that training means not only the type of terrain the soldiers operate on, but also preparing for the variety of entities that they might have to work with.
“This kind of training gives us the ability to train all over the region, not only at high altitude in this mountainous terrain, but also really doing a lot of collaboration with different agencies.”
The vehicle of choice for the Sugar Bears in their missions is the CH-47F Chinook helicopter. With nearly 10,000 horsepower, a cargo capacity of ten tons, and a top speed approaching 200 miles per hour, the Chinook is ideal for the kind of supply mission that Monday’s flight called for. After a briefing for the reporters tagging along, it was time to get airborne.
After a picturesque flight into the Alaska Range and onto the Kahiltna Glacier, the Sugar Bears began organizing cargo that a smaller helicopter will carry higher on Denali. Totes full of food, fuel containers, and a number of other supplies were loaded into large cargo nets. Denali Mountaineering Ranger Joe Reichert oversaw the sorting and bundling of the gear. He says the interagency cooperation between the Army and the National Park Service benefits both.
“There’s obviously efficiency, and they’re going to be flying in anyway to do their training, so it seems like a mutually beneficial expense.”
With the loads separated and arranged, it was time to head back to Talkeetna. With the back ramp of the Chinook open, the return flight proved noisy, but breathtaking. With this year’s base camp supply runs complete, the Sugar Bears will move on to other training missions until they’re needed elsewhere.