Imagine a former Kanab resident who grew up acclimated to desert life, eventually leading a skilled climbing team to the frozen summit of the highest peak in North America, the 20,320 foot Denali.

Major Gary McDonald, son of Gary and Leanne McDonald of Kanab, is currently ascending Mt. McKinley. McDonald graduated from Kanab High School in 1985.

McDonald, Commandant of the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska, began the climb on May 17. The team of six soldiers were broken up into two, three-man teams, one led by Major McDonald, the other by veteran climber and civilian training specialist Steven Decker.

The climbers were transported from Fort Wainwright to Talkeetna by UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. After being briefed by National Park Service rangers, they were flown to the Kahiltna Glacier base camp to begin their climb. The trip is planned to take 18 days, depending on weather conditions.

The Denali climb, according to a video of McDonald, is meant to widen the instructors’ experience and increase their technical skills. “We look for physically fit NCO’s with leadership skills and a positive personality. The climb takes a lot of heart, and we need someone who is not willing to quit.”

McDonald went on to explain that the Army, through the Northern Warfare Training Center, hoped to let the world know it is still into mountaineering and protection of northern borders. The unit has been operating in Alaska since 1948.

The climb, often in unpredictable and brutal weather conditions, includes such physical challenges as skiing, snowshoeing, glacier travel and traversing icefalls. They often deal with white out conditions and sub-zero temperatures. McDonald said the physical strain gets even more demanding, since most of the climbs have to be done twice- to carry needed equipment and provisions. The six-man team conducted a series of winter summit training together in preparation for the climb, and were ready for the challenge.

Major Joshua Camara, Deputy Chief of Public Affairs, U.S. Army Alaska, said that as of May 29, the NWTC team has made good progress and was at Base Camp Five, elevation 17,200 feet. He said the weather and lack of oxygen at that elevation present new challenges to climbing teams. “They’re waiting for a good window (of opportunity) now,” said Camara. “They’re looking for a time when there’s going to be pretty good weather. The last leg must be carefully timed and planned. They have to take a lot more precautions.” Making the summit at the best possible speed would take approximately eight hours.

Camara said the two teams are skilled and adept at the physical challenge they’re undertaking, and are in good hands with the Utah native’s leadership. “Major McDonald is a talented climber and a great person.”