Highest risk, biggest reward: Planning for Denali

  • Published
  • By Jessie Perkins
  • Air Force Safety Center

Five current and former Airmen recently finished scaling a 20,310-foot climb up Denali in Alaska, the highest point in North America, June 19. The climbs are done mainly in the name of resiliency, but without the extensive use of risk management before and throughout the adventures, they may not have been accomplished safely.

A lot of preparation goes into a climb. “After considering what would be the most challenging and appealing route for us, … we ask ourselves, ‘Do we have the skill to do it? … Do we have the skill to safely do it?’,” said Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, an individual mobilization augmentee currently assigned to the Space Operations Command on full-time orders with the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, and a founder of the 50 Summits Challenge.

The U.S. Air Force 50 Summits Challenge is a project focused on helping Airmen fly the Air Force flag from the highest point in all 50 states. The challenge also aims to promote the well-being of Airmen through physical, mental, social and spiritual means.

“It's mentally stimulating; there is real-time risk management happening all the time,” Marshall said, when speaking on the safety mindset used throughout the climb. The team has also participated in the Seven Summits challenge, where the goal was to reach the highest point on each continent to promote camaraderie and esprit de corps among Airmen and to highlight personal fitness and growth.

When thinking about the planning and safety perspective, many prior steps are involved to make the multi-week climb. Weeks of preparation, weather research, proper clothing, mandatory vs. optional equipment, meals, medical care, travel, itinerary, communications technology, fitness regimen, backup plans and team selection/team dynamics are all considerations. This “begins on day one and doesn't end until each team member is home safely,” Marshall said.

On the last day’s journey to the summit, team planning and real-time execution of risk management helped save a life. Although they hoped to keep the risks to a minimum, an injured or incapacitated climber high on the mountain is always part of the plan and during that challenging summit day, the team experienced a life-threatening medical emergency, frostbite and unforecasted mountain conditions.

A treacherous chain of events started with hours of collapsing snow steps to the final 500 feet being a wall of nearly vertical blue ice.

“What we didn’t know until we reached the top of the Upper West Rib was that it was not only very steep, but had a band of hard blue ice maybe 100 feet wide,” Marshall said. “We had to cross this to reach the end of the technical section, which required careful ice climbing. There was no turning around at this point—it was far safer to finish the climb than to descend.”

After four hours of climbing the ice wall, several climbers communicated that they were getting frostbite on their toes, and one experienced climber was showing signs of serious high-altitude sickness—something that can appear with little warning. This quickly took a turn for the worse when the climber collapsed and had trouble breathing, forcing Marshall to call in the National Park Service.

“In all my years of climbing, I’ve never had to ask for a rescue. It’s not something any of us would ever want to do,” he said. “Luckily we called it early and had the proper medication and training.”

The climber was successfully evacuated by helicopter and recovered almost immediately once at sea level.

“Always be prepared for the unexpected,” Marshall said. “We were well prepared with emergency medicine, two-way communication with the National Park Rangers, enough supplies to keep the climber sheltered and nourished in an austere environment, and the training to initiate and complete a high-altitude evacuation.”

From a risk-management perspective, even though health and safety emergencies occurred, there were also many successes. Carrying equipment that allowed the team to set up an emergency bivouac at 19,500 feet was essential to the climbers’ welfare and was part of the plan. Because two communication options were there, including a standard radio and satellite-based communications, they were able to communicate to the support network back home, and communicate in real-time with rescuers nearby.

There’s also the value in picking the right people. “All our climbers were qualified. … If anyone lacked the skill to climb the blue ice at the end of the West Rib or had given up, it could have spelled disaster,” Marshall said.

In the end, the team remained calm and used their experience and risk-management planning to overcome the dangerous cold, steepness and uncertainty.

“We put weeks of planning into each expedition. … Our climbers have all come prepared for the challenge of high-altitude mountaineering,” he said. “Before the start of each climb, we remind each other that coming home alive is the most important measure of success. The mountain will still be there, year after year, so we can always come back later and try again.”

More than 15 years of high-altitude mountaineering and nine climbs of the various ‘Seven Summits,’ the team has successfully gotten all climbers to the top, with the exception of four. Two of six turned back on Mount Everest in 2013 and two of six did not summit Denali in 2021. “54 out of 60 reaching these summits is a pretty outstanding record compared to the 50% success rate of many private and commercial expeditions,” he said. “I attribute our outstanding success and safety record to an unwavering focus on risk mitigation and the teamwork that comes from groups of Airmen and Guardians climbing together.”