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Inside the Gates: Army Alaska soldiers conquer Denali

Soldiers stand atop Denali after they reached the summit on June 4.
Soldiers stand atop Denali after they reached the summit on June 4.(Army Alaska)
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 8:10 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The U.S. Army challenges people to be the best they can be during their military career. A handful of Army Alaska soldiers have conquered one of their biggest challenges: they reached the top of Denali back in June.

“When I’m out in nature, I just feel a real connection to God, seeing his handiwork, and his creation,” said Maj. Bob Hearon, a chaplain who made the trip. “Getting to see it from that angle, from upwards of 20,000 feet high, being far above the clouds and mountains, you can’t really out it into words. It’s just something that I was awestruck by the beauty.”

Hearon, like most of the others in the the group, made his first climb on North America’s tallest mountain. However, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Swope reached the summit for the second time.

“This time it was quite a bit colder, the mountain looked fairly different. The trail was slightly different,” Swope said. “Those were really the only big changes. It was just great to be up there again. A great mountain, I loved it.”

The climb is an annual tradition organized by the Northern Warfare Training Center, where the Hearon and Swope are stationed. However, soldiers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Fort Wainwright, and Fort Greely also took part in this year’s trip.

The climb can be incredibly dangerous. The team faced other challenges, besides sub-zero temperatures.

“We were in an earthquake while we were in the tent at 14,000 feet is when the earthquake hit,” Hearon said.

It did not cause any harm to the climbers.

The soldiers started their journey in late May. Hearon said it took them 13 days to reach the summit. Hearon will never forget the date.

“It’s my wife’s birthday, fourth of June,” he said.

The climb allowed the soldiers to learn something about themselves.

“Doing something hard together, depending on one another,” Hearon said.

Others believe there’s a message they can deliver to their fellow soldiers.

“You can overcome, you can overcome anything,” Swope said. “Just like we have mountains in our lives, you can do it.”

Soon, the public will be able to share in the journey. The soldiers are putting together a documentary about their experience. It’s expected to be released online by the end of July.

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