Chief exercises resilience through mountain climbing



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 a group of Airmen think a way to reinforce all of these concepts is found at the top of each American states’ highest point.


The U.S. Air Force 50 Summits Challenge was unofficially started by a team of Airmen in 2005 when they wanted to make U.S. military the first to have its members stand atop the “Seven Summits,” the highest peaks of each continent. After the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge was completed in May 2013, the founders decided to do a similar challenge in America. The Air Force 50 Summits Challenge was born.


Most recently, Chief Master Sgt. Dean Werner, the emergency management program manager for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, led a climb Aug. 4-6.


“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.”


The U.S. Air Force 50 Summits Challenge website states that it has worked hard to include as many Airmen as possible. This will be a major part of this USAF 50 Summits Challenge. Each trip tries to include wounded warriors and Airmen overcoming personal challenges. Local outdoor recreation programs and base chaplains are also invited to participate, since they are an important resource that Airmen should have experience working with.


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 halt further climb upwards and 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 rock falls 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.


Werner was drawn to the challenge because of his need of physical challenge in his life and finds climbing mountains can give him that more than anything else he has found.


“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. 


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


“The U.S. Air Force 50 Summits directors are considering Mount Denali for next summer, and I would definitely like to do that mountain next,” Werner said. “I’d like to have Denali be the third of my ‘Seven Summits’ and conquer the toughest of the 50 state highpoints. It’s about a 3-week climb, which requires prior big mountain experience and Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua satisfy that requirement. It would be nice to conquer all the summits and I should be able to get Mount Elbrus in Russia and Puncak Jaya in Indonesia.”    


Werner also encourages Airmen to get involved if they are looking for a challenge.


“Check out the USAF 50 Summits website,” Werner said. “As of now, 25 states are completed with 25 to go. The closest states to Florida that still need to be climbed are Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.”


Representatives from the U.S. Air Force 50 Summits Challenge can be contacted on Facebook at or on their website at