Chief exercises resilience through mountain climbing

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Solomon Cook
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

The four pillars of comprehensive airmen fitness are mental, physical, social and spiritual. How Airmen choose to strengthen them is of their own desire, but one sergeant thinks a way to reinforce all of these concepts is found at the top of each American states’ highest point.

Most recently, 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 28 miles in three days, gaining over 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 U.S. Forest Service estimates only a 10 to 20 percent success rate for this summit, six of the 10 in Werner’s team made it to the top.

“Risk management was definitely a large part of our success as there are many very dangerous areas during the climb,” he 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, 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 Werner 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,” Werner said. “When you challenge yourself with a difficulty you enjoy, sometimes that makes other difficulties less challenging. From 2011-2014, 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.

Werner stated that 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, but when he reaches the top he does not feel tired or sore, just exhilaration and appreciation.

This climb was not the first time Werner has taken on a mountain. He has also climbed other mountains such as Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua.

“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. 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 weight lifting and pushups to prepare as I set a goal of doing 1,000 pushups during the five-day climb.”

Although back from his last adventure, Werner looks forward to his next climb. Werner also 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.”