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Five current and former airmen recently completed the climb of a 20,310-foot climb to Denali, Alaska, the highest point in North America, on June 19. Ascents are done primarily in the name of resilience, but without the extensive use of risk management before and throughout adventures, they may not have been accomplished safely.

An ascent requires a lot of preparation. “After considering what would be the most difficult and attractive route for us,… we ask ourselves: ‘do we have the skills to do it? “… Do we have the skills to do it safely?” Said Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, an increased individual mobilization currently assigned to the Space Operations Command on full-time commands with the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, and founder of 50 Summits Challenge.
The US Air Force 50 Summits Challenge is a project was intended to help 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 all the time, ”said Marshall, speaking of the safety mindset used throughout the climb. The team also participated in the Seven Summits Challenge, where the goal was to reach the highest point on every continent to promote camaraderie and esprit de corps among Airmen and to highlight fitness and personal growth.

When thinking about the planning and safety perspective, there are many preliminary steps involved in making the multi-week climb. Weeks of preparation, weather research, appropriate clothing, mandatory or optional equipment, meals, medical treatment, travel, itinerary, communications technology, a fitness regimen, backup plans and the team selection / dynamics are all considerations. It “starts on day one and doesn’t end until every member of the team is safely home,” Marshall said.

On the last day of the journey to the top, team planning and real-time execution of risk management saved a life. Although they hoped to minimize risk, an injured or incapacitated climber at the top of the mountain is still part of the plan and during this difficult day at the top the team suffered a life-threatening medical emergency. in danger, frostbite and unforeseen mountain conditions.

A chain of treacherous events began with hours of snowfall collapse to the last 500 feet, forming an almost vertical wall of 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 there was a strip of hard blue ice about 100 feet in height. wide, “Marshall said. “We had to cross it to get to the end of the technical section, which required careful ice climbing. There was no U-turn at this point, it was much safer to complete the climb than to descend.

After four hours of climbing the ice wall, several climbers reported having frostbite on their toes, and one experienced climber was showing signs of severe altitude sickness, something that can appear with little warning. It quickly got worse when the climber collapsed and struggled to breathe, forcing Marshall to call the National Park Service.

“In all my years of climbing, I never had to ask for help. It’s not something that none of us would want to do, ”he said. “Fortunately, we called him 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 medication, two-way communication with the national park rangers, enough supplies to keep the climber safe and fed in a harsh environment, and training to initiate and complete an evacuation. at high altitude. “

From a risk management perspective, although health and safety emergencies have occurred, there have also been many successes. Transporting the equipment to allow the team to set up an emergency bivouac at 19,500 feet was essential to the well-being of the climbers and was part of the plan. Because two communication options were there, including a standard radio and satellite communications, they were able to communicate with the home assistance network and communicate in real time with rescuers nearby.

It is also important to choose the right people. “All of our climbers were qualified. … If someone didn’t have the skills to climb the blue ice at the end of the West Rib or had given up, it could have been a disaster, ”Marshall said.

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

“We put weeks of planning into each expedition. … Our climbers are all ready for the challenge of high altitude mountaineering, ”he said. “Before each climb begins, we remind ourselves 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.

Over 15 years of high altitude mountaineering and nine climbs of the various “Seven Summits”, the team has managed to hoist all climbers to the summit, except for four. Two of the six turned around on Mount Everest in 2013 and two of the six did not reach Denali in 2021. “54 out of 60 reaching these heights is a pretty remarkable record compared to the 50% success rate of many private and commercial expeditions, ”he said. mentionned. “I attribute our exceptional success and safety record to an unwavering focus on risk mitigation and the teamwork that comes from groups of Airmen and Guardians climbing together.”

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