By John Budnik
USACE - Alaska District Public Affairs
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON -- Blistering snowstorms, excruciating work hauling gear and possible death might not sound like an ideal summer vacation for most. If you are a mountaineer, then the experience is a paradise.
For Capt. Stephen Austria, project engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Alaska District's Foreign Military Sales Program, a mid-June, non-guided expedition climbing Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, was a dream come true for him and girlfriend, Rebecca Melesciuc, and one he hopes brings awareness to Soldier suicide.
"Denali is the highest mountain in North America," Austria said of the 20,310-feet peak. "Not many people want to do things like that. It is cool to say I have climbed it."
While visibly humble, Austria explained his personal encounters with suicide. Both his best friend and a fellow Soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division committed suicide. He also knew several others in a previous unit who took their own lives. To honor those Soldiers, he carried an American flag on the majestic mountain that was with him on every mission while deployed to Iraq.
"It is a bigger issue than what some people make it out to be," he said. "I climbed for veterans in general, too. It is a unique family that we are a part of."
Austria and Melesciuc began planning their journey to Denali more than a year ago. The two winter camped in Hatcher's Pass near Palmer to master their equipment, acclimate to the cold and practice cooking outside. Initially, the couple met as members of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska for which Austria now serves as a board member.
"I did a guided mountaineering course in the Alaska Range last May," Melesciuc said. "I knew I wanted to climb Denali and thought I was going guided, originally. I took the course to learn the foundations, joined the club to make contacts and reinforce what we learned."
The duo also trained in avalanche and crevasse rescue, as well as ensuring their knot-tying skills were sharp, Austria said. Preparation was key for the pair to have a successful climb.
"Being out there and experiencing the mountain is the trip," he said. "If you summit, then it is a plus, but it was not the main reason. Safety is number one. If you come back alive and uninjured, then it was a good climb."
In fact, Austria's Army training coupled nicely with his childhood experience as a Boy Scout -- where he learned to backcountry backpack and mountaineer -- to help prepare for the trip. The climbers packed about 280 pounds of gear and supplies for the 28-day trek, including 100 pounds of food.
"You want to eat stuff that you actually like and will not just carry up there," Austria said. "If you have a happy stomach, then you can do anything."
In addition to the food, other supplies included backpacks, avalanche beacons, climbing gear, cold weather clothing, probes, shovels, sleds and sleeping gear. As a testament to Melesciuc's toughness, she carried more than her own weight of provisions up the mountain, he said.
Aside from the physicality of the climb itself, the greatest challenge was overcoming the psychological aspects of the excursion. Fighting boredom when the weather was bad and setting the right pace was a difficulty for the duo, Melesciuc said.
"It is mostly mental," she explained. "I really wanted to sprint up that mountain, but it is about making the right call when the weather is bad and waiting it out. You need to take care of yourself."
Although the couple did not reach the summit due to inclement weather, Austria accomplished a major milestone in life by proposing to Melesciuc on an overlook at 14,000 feet in elevation -- the highest point the two reached.
"We really wanted to see this area of camp called 'Edge of the World,'" Melesciuc said. "There were two park rangers out there moving a weather station and Stephen asked if they could take our picture. The ring was hiding in the coat. He dropped down and proposed. It was a surprise."
Comically, she added, one of the rangers caught the moment on camera, while the other had turned around and wondered if he had missed the moment.
Meanwhile, spending three weeks on the side of a mountain and at times trapped in a tent for days was a good test for the newly-engaged couple.
"We were not killing each other, yet," Austria joked. "We were still talking."
Both agreed scaling mountains are definitely in their future. They also would like to return to Denali and eventually summit, but will focus on Austria's Army career and other expeditions for now. Melesciuc said she adores the Chugach Mountain Range and is hoping to climb several of its peaks this year, while focusing on becoming a stronger skier.
Until their return, Denali will be waiting for them.
"Being up there in the Alaska Range, a lot of people do not understand how huge the mountains are there and what is in Alaska," Austria said. "It is out of this world."