High elevation niche: Mont.-based business offers high-altitude training for military, civilians
By KELLEY CHRISTENSEN | The Montana Standard, Butte | Published: February 16, 2014
Not too many people make a living teaching other people how to jump out of airplanes into 10,000-foot mountains, but that’s exactly what Rod Alne does.
Alne is the president and CEO of the Butte-based The Peak Inc., a veteran-owned small business that was established in 2005 to enhance the performance of military special operations units, elite law enforcement, wilderness professionals and outdoor enthusiasts.
The Peak provides high altitude training to ensure maximum performance during extended periods of operation in austere environment.
The idea for The Peak came to Alne when he was deployed in Afghanistan. Alne is a retired Air Force chief master sergeant with 27 years of service under his belt. But while deployed in Afghanistan, he noticed many of his fellow soldiers suffering from altitude sickness.
“I want to get (soldiers) to understand the effects of altitude, especially when they’re not acclimated,” Alne said. “Our training is geared toward mountain movement — how to negotiate mountainous terrain on ATVs, skis, on horses, on foot. What makes (The Peak) so attractive to the military is they can land at the airport, off-load at the hangar, and they can do multiple training events in the area.”
When Alne retired from the Air Force, he wanted to find somewhere to put his business that would help soldiers acclimate to high altitudes. He’d been to Butte before, and knew it was just the place. He moved his wife and two daughters from Florida, where he’d been stationed, to Butte without much second thought.
While The Peak has in the past primarily attracted the attention of the Department of Defense for training soldiers prior to deployment because of its three drop zones at elevations 5,600, 8,000 and 10,000 feet, The Peak is expanding its training courses offered to the general public.
The Peak offers wilderness first aid, CPR, avalanche awareness, navigation, swift water rescue, technical rescue climbing and basic survival courses. The Peak helps facilitate the survival skills course offered at Montana Tech.
With the anticipated cuts to the Department of Defense budget, Alne recognized a need to expand his customer base away from just military personnel.
“We have to diversify to stay fluid with the way things are with the (federal) budget,” he said. “There are so many activities you can do within 45 minutes of Butte.”
The Peak is based out of a hangar at Bert Mooney Airport. During an interview with The Montana Standard, the hangar was filled with an artificial village destroyed by rubble. The village was part of a training simulation The Peak had created for military personnel to practice rescuing wounded people during combat. The hangar also has a climbing wall and a classroom where Alne and his staff teach their courses.
The Peak has also used abandoned mine shafts in the area to train confined space rescue courses. The Peak has dropped soldiers onto Red Mountain and the soldiers traverse the ridge to get back to camp at Pigeon Creek.
The main challenge The Peak has faced is also its greatest asset — location.
“The training environment is outstanding,” Alne said. “But the exposure is not so good. We’re isolated out here.”
But nearly a decade after establishing his business, Alne has the pleasure now of a diverse clientele base.
Alne said the most rewarding part of his work is hearing from people who used the training he gave them and that training really helped them.
“(Soldiers) have sent emails while they’re deployed about how valuable the training was and how it saved their butts,” he said. “We’ve trained 600-700 people here, people who have done missions overseas.”
Alne believes that his business has been a boon to Butte as well.
“I have guys come in for two week and it’s a boost to the airport, to the hotels, to the grocery stores and restaurants,” he said. “Once they come they all want to come back.”
The desire to come back has certainly been true for Air Force Major John Shoemaker, who is the commander of a parachute water survival school in Pensacola, Fla. He said he’s done training exercises with The Peak five times since 2009.
“It was really great for guys going into Afghanistan because of the altitude work,” Shoemaker said of the course. “It helps these guys get acclimated. If somebody gets in trouble (while serving overseas), our guys have the technical expertise to set up a hasty recovery.”
Shoemaker said The Peak has facilitated training courses for all branches of the military, and that the training in the thin air of the Highland Mountains south of town has been particularly helpful to his men.
“I’ve done the Highland traverse course three times,” he said. “We jumped into a high altitude drop zone, we hiked up just above the tree line and spent the night up there. Then we got up before daybreak and started our traverse across the mountain because it takes eight hours. Meanwhile the aircraft flies overhead doing resupply drops with water. It’s like service to the moon up there.”
During the on-the-ground training, Shoemaker said, the C-130 crew also gets training doing resupply drops and low-level flight training in the mountains.
“It’s been an outstanding course,” he said. “The high altitude element and the mountain environment brings a quality aspect to the training we do.”