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Face of Defense: Chief Leads Team in Resilience-Building Mountain Climb

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Sept. 21, 2016 — The four pillars of comprehensive airman fitness are mental, physical, social and spiritual. How airmen strengthen each pillar is their own decision, but one senior noncommissioned officer thinks a way to reinforce all of these concepts is found at the top of each American state’s highest point.

Most recently, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Dean Werner, the emergency management program manager for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, led a hike Aug. 4-6, adding to his list of mountains climbed.

“I led a group of 10 airmen to the summit of Granite Peak, Montana, which is considered the most difficult of the 50 state highpoints to conquer, except for Mount Denali, Alaska,” Werner said.

The climb consisted of tackling 28 miles in three days while gaining more than 7,000 feet of elevation.

“The purpose of the challenge is to boost the mental, physical, social and spiritual health of our service members through climbs of each American state’s highest geographical point,” Werner said. “Hikes and climbs offer a chance to interact with other airmen, expand one’s comfort zone, and tackle a peak that often looks too big to climb- just like big life problems we each face from time to time.”

Although the Forest Service estimates only a 10 to 20 percent success rate for this summit, six of the 10 airmen in Werner’s team made it to the top.

Assessing Risks

“Risk management was definitely a large part of our success, as there are many very dangerous areas during the climb,” the chief said. “We assessed the risks as a team, and as four of our team members realized their experience level did not match the mountain requirements, they made sound decisions to … safely head back down the mountain. 

“Part of this challenge is to push yourself past your comfort level,” he continued, “and even those who made the decision to turn around definitely pushed themselves past that level and still gained valuable experience to push a little further next time.”

The team had some close calls with falling rocks and picking the correct route on the final push to the summit, but they all returned safely to the trailhead with no injuries, Werner said.

Trekking up mountains can be tough, but the chief said he is drawn to the sport specifically because of the physical challenge it presents.

“Between the elevation gained, the limited amount of oxygen and the risks involved, mountains provide me with what I use to cope with the other challenges in my life,” said he explained. “When you challenge yourself with a difficulty you enjoy, sometimes that makes other difficulties less challenging. From 2011 to 2014, I went outside the wire many times in Afghanistan and have since struggled with how that affected me. When I conquer the challenge of a tough summit, my faith tells me I was brought there for a reason: to enjoy that summit that was given to me in that moment.”

When at the summit of a mountain, Werner said he feels there are more important things in life than dwelling on difficulties.

Exhilaration and Appreciation

Werner said reaching the summit of a big mountain gives him a lot of satisfaction when he looks down and sees what he went through to get to the mountaintop. Climbing a mountain like that is a brutal workout, he added, but when he reaches the top, he does not feel fatigue or pain -- just exhilaration and appreciation.  

This climb was not the first time Werner has taken on a mountain. He also has climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua in Argentina.

“My first big mountain was Mount Kilimanjaro, and I climbed it while on leave from Afghanistan,” Werner said. “Having never climbed a mountain over 15,000 feet before, I didn’t know how tough it would be, so I dedicated lots of time to conditioning.

“My remote camp in Afghanistan didn’t have any roads or trails to run on, since our camp was only 200 meters by 200 meters,” he continued. “I did all of my training on a treadmill, mostly running, doing interval training, and once each week setting it a max incline of 15 percent and walking with a backpack. I also did a lot of weightlifting and pushups to prepare, as I set a goal of doing 1,000 pushups during the five-day climb.”

Werner said he looks forward to his next climb and that he encourages airmen to try this activity if they are looking for a challenge.

“Mountains, and especially team climbs with fellow airmen, give team members a great chance for camaraderie and confidence-building,” Werner said. “I would like to see airmen take advantage of this activity, as the healing powers of the outdoors, and especially mountains, are very beneficial. After a climb, airmen will understand that their climb gave them something that other avenues of assistance for life difficulties could not have. Even if an airman without those difficulties climbed with this program, they will realize that their adventure gave them a level of personal growth and confidence few other means could.”

Distribution channels: Military