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Finding Resilience at 20,000 Feet: Airmen rely on inner strength, each other during difficult Denali climb

Left to right, Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga and Wes Morgan proudly display the Air Force flag on top of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. (Matt Wheat)

Left to right, Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga and Wes Morgan proudly display the Air Force flag on top of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. (Matt Wheat)

Two Reserve Citizen Airmen were part of a five-person team of mountaineers who attempted to climb the highest peak in North America recently to emphasize the importance of proactive resilience. (Lt. Col. Rob Marshall)

Two Reserve Citizen Airmen were part of a five-person team of mountaineers who attempted to climb the highest peak in North America recently to emphasize the importance of proactive resilience. (Lt. Col. Rob Marshall)

Marshall feels alive during the beginning of the team's summit push, several hundred feet above their high camp. (Lt. Col. Rob Marshall)

Marshall feels alive during the beginning of the team's summit push, several hundred feet above their high camp. (Lt. Col. Rob Marshall)

Uberuaga climbs the West Rib of Denali at about16,200 feet. The valley floor is about 8,000 feet below him. (Lt. Col. Rob Marshall)

Uberuaga climbs the West Rib of Denali at about16,200 feet. The valley floor is about 8,000 feet below him. (Lt. Col. Rob Marshall)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

Lt. Col. Rob Marshall knew his resilience was goint to be tested when he led a group of five current and former Airmen on a quest to scale the highest mountain peak in North America in June, he just didn’t think it would be tested quite this much.

“It was a very difficult climb, but unbelievably rewarding,” said Marshall, an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to U.S. Space Command who is currently on full-time orders with the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Air Force, Colorado, about the group’s 20,310-foot trek up Denali in Alaska.

“We overcame a lot of obstacles – from extreme weather to unexpected injuries and illnesses to difficult climbing conditions, but we all made it back safely, thanks to the team’s resilience and reliance on each other,” Marshall said.

In addition to Marshall, the team included active-duty Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga, traditional Reservist Maj. Marshall Klitzke and former Airmen Mark Schaffeld and Wesley Morgan.

All experienced mountaineers, the team was hand-picked to focus attention on the importance of resilience.

“We picked Airmen who have overcome significant personal hardships because we want to use their stories to highlight how important it is for people to practice being actively resilient,” Marshall, who completed the climb with two torn meniscus in his left knee, said.

The lieutenant colonel said the team’s resilience was put to the test at the very onset of the expedition when their flight to the base of Denali was delayed by heavy rain.

“We had been preparing for this for months and we’re all chomping at the bit and then we can’t even take the air taxi to the glacier because of rain,” he said. “A big part of resilience is knowing there are some things that are out of your control and sometimes you just have to be patient. That was reinforced for us on day one.”

Once the rain cleared and the team made it to the base of Denali, the climbers faced their next big obstacle.

“Most people don’t realize it, but one of the greatest dangers at the beginning of a climb is the heat,” Marshall said. “It’s surprisingly hot and when you’re carrying a 60-pound pack and pulling a 70-pound sled, it’s easy to get overheated. On the second day of the climb, one of our climbers got pretty sick with an infection, so he dug into his resilience pillars, including turning to his friends to help him. We gave him extra rest and we were able to find some extra medicine from a climber who was leaving the mountain.”

Despite the infection and some pretty bad blisters, the team navigated occasional bad weather and made it from the glacier airstrip to the 14,000-foot high camp in eight days.

“For the most part, we had excellent weather, outside of a few storms,” Marshall said. “Those storms are representative of daily life. When the weather was good or alright, we would take on risk and push, but we wouldn’t push too hard. When the weather got bad, we would use it as an excuse to take a down day and recover.  We just rolled with the uncontrollable weather.”

The climbers took the traditional Denali path, called the West Buttress, for the first 7,000 feet of ascending from the airstrip to the 14,000ft camp, but from there they took a more difficult route – called the Upper West Rib – for the final 6,300 feet to the summit.

While the climbers have all scaled mountains the world over, their experience on the Upper West Rib tested their resilience like few other expeditions.

“We took the West Rib because we wanted to push ourselves,” Marshall said. “The payoff was some unbelievable views and incredible skiing on a part of the mountain where very few people go. It was great to get away from the crowds, but the climbing was quite difficult.”

This was Uberuaga’s sixth expedition on Denali, but the first time he tackled the Upper West Rib. He said the different route was both exhilarating and more challenging.

“Once we left the standard route and pressed out into the unknown on our own, I felt a sense of adventure and excitement I hadn’t felt since my first Denali expedition in 1999,” he said. “It was much more difficult because we had to break trail in fresh snow, navigate around open and hidden crevasses, assess the risk and need for protection on the steep snow gullies and ice we encountered high on the mountain, as well as continually assess our physical capacity and limits due to the extended time it took to accomplish the route.”

From 14,000 feet, the team took half of their gear up to 16,500, dropped it off and skied back down to their high camp. Following two days of poor weather, they made the trek back up to their balcony camp in sub-zero temperatures and prepared for their final push to the summit.

That’s when their resilience was put to the ultimate test.

“The weather was perfect and everybody was in high spirits, so we started our final push to the summit at about 9 a.m. on June 11th,” Marshall said. “We thought it would take us about 12 hours to reach the summit.”

After climbing for 12 hours, the team was still about 500 feet from the summit when they hit a totally unexpected hard blue wall of glacier ice that was very steep. Despite temperatures hovering around minus-20 and the fact that some of the climbers were experiencing frost nip that was approaching frost bite, the climbers took on the challenge of high-stress vertical ice climbing they weren’t expecting.

They made it past the ice wall in about four hours, but the 16 hours of extremely difficult mountaineering had taken its toll on the team. Just a few hundred feet from the summit, the climbers decided to set up an emergency camp with the one tent and emergency gear they had packed just in case of unexpected problems.

“While we were putting our emergency camp together, one of our climbers collapsed from cold, exhausting and high-altitude complications,” Marshall said. “We’re at 19,500 feet, it’s 1:30 in the morning and it’s extremely cold- I knew the situation had suddenly become life-threatening.”

As the rest of the team huddled inside the one three-person tent to warm their extremities and care for the sick climber, Marshall stayed outside to boil snow for water and to radio the park rangers to let them know that one of their climbers was suffering from high-altitude sickness.

“I tapped into the deepest resilience reserve I’ve ever tapped into,” Marshall said. “Although we all had sleeping bags that were rated to minus-20 or minus-40, our friend was in a life-or-death situation. We expanded our circle of people who could help us in an emergency by letting the rangers know we might be needing their help. That’s a key part of resilience. Don’t wait until a problem has overcome you to reach out for help. It’s better to seek help before the problem gets too bad.”

With the ill climber struggling to breathe, Marshall initiated a rescue with the park while the other team members gave him food, water and special medicine the carried specifically for this rare illness. They all then hunkered down in the one tent and waited for the relative warmth of morning to come.

“Our sick climber was slowly stabilizing thanks to our medicines,” Marshall said. “When I called the park rangers back at about 6:30, they already had a rescue helicopter airborne.”

The helicopter arrived and the team placed their fellow climber in a basket and watched as he was flown to safety.

“That was a very emotional moment for all of us,” Marshall said. “This was a very experienced climber who had climbed much higher than Denali. He’d never had a problem like this before. No one wakes up thinking ‘I’m going to get high altitude illness today’ the same way no one thinks they are going to get into a car accident today. Things happen. It’s how you react when the unexpected happens that really matters.”

With their friend safely off the mountain, the remaining team members rested for a few hours before pushing for the summit. Knowing they had a 10-hour trek back down to their high camp with heavy gear, one of the climbers decided not to attempt to make the summit and instead rested for the hike down.  It was a selfless act that ensured the safety of the whole team.

The rest of the team climbed to the summit where they cried, hugged, laughed, yelled and marveled at a view that few people ever get to see. Then, they did some push-ups.

“We did 20 push-ups at 20,000 feet in honor of our two climbers who didn’t make it and in honor of all our Airmen who have died since 9-11,” Marshall said. “It was sunny and there was no wind. It was the perfect weather to be on the summit.”

The team made the 10-hour trek back to 14,000 feet and after some rest, headed back to the base of the mountain.

After reuniting with the evacuated climber, they had a chance to reflect on what the climb taught them about resilience.

“This climb took a lot of grit,” Uberuaga said. “Almost every aspect of the climb was extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. After a spinal infection destroyed my back in 2020, I set this as an ambitious recovery goal. I wasn’t certain I would be able to carry the heavy loads on the lower mountain, function at all from sleeping on the ground in a small tent, or perform well up high after my back reconstruction just six months prior. The relief I felt after successfully completing each stage was powerful. After all I went through last year, I feel empowered to overcome almost anything.”

“There’s a reason why people from all walks of life use mountains as an illustration for so many of life’s events and emotions,” Klitzke said. “Mountains, and mountain climbing, are a microcosmic physical reflection of life’s trials and joys. Similar to life, on the mountain you experience moments of pain, regret, anger, joy, excitement, peace, etc… But these moments come and go, they are not lasting. Every climb provides me a well of lessons, experiences and confidence that I can draw upon to take on future challenges, persevere through hardships and rebound from setbacks.”

“For me, this climb reinforced how important it is to stay positive,” Marshall said. “When the going got tough, whether it was storms, injuries, illness or really challenging climbing, everybody stayed positive. If anybody on our team would have gotten a bad attitude or checked out, it could have put everybody’s life in danger.

“It was also amazing to see how we all relied on each other. Everybody had good days and bad days on the climb. Just like in life, some days you are the person who needs help and sometimes you are the person who does the helping. For me, I fared better on the climb up, but I had terrible foot cramps on the climb down. That’s when I had to rely on my team to take care of me.”

Klitzke echoed Marshall’s sentiments.

“The totality of everything – the climbing objectives, weather, snow conditions, group dynamics, physical adversities – made this the most difficult expedition I have been a part of,” he said. “To each man on the team’s credit, everyone adapted to the challenges well, helped each other, picked up the downed man and stayed positive. The mutual support within the team was the epitome of what you would expect from a bunch of Air Force dudes.”

Uberuaga said he hopes his group’s Denali trip helps inspire other Airmen to get in touch with nature and work on building up their own resilience.

“High altitude mountaineering isn’t for everyone,” he said. “But the benefits of being outdoors with friends collectively tackling significant challenges is really good for everyone’s resiliency. I encourage all Airmen to dream of an adventure, talk some friends into joining you, plan and prepare, and then go out and do it. The confidence and camaraderie gained will be invaluable for tackling day-to-day challenges of your life.”

“Active resilience is the regular intentional practice of getting into difficult scenarios that test your four pillars of resiliency,” Marshall said. “Like going to the gym to lift weights, we've got to exercise our resiliency so we're ready to use it when life throws unexpected challenges at us.  For us, mountaineering and outdoor recreation is a favorite tool. For others, there are countless alternatives. The trick is to find what makes you feel alive and figure out the ways it makes you more resilient. Then do it often!" #ReserveResilient     ■