The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency vision statement is Know the Earth, Show the Way, Understand the World; and there’s no better vantage point to do that than standing atop the Earth’s highest mountain.
In April 2014, Karen Diener, a geospatial intelligence specialist with KD Geospatial Solutions who supports NGA Research (formerly Innovision), led a group of 10 employees from around the intelligence community and the Department of Defense on a hike up Mount Everest.
Her passion for climbing began five years ago through her involvement in No Barriers Warriors, where she helped disabled military veterans climb mountains. Their mission statement is ‘what’s within you is stronger than what stands in your way’ and the organization aims to bring awareness to the battles veterans face when returning home.
That experience ended up helping Diener get over her fear of heights and exposure. Since then, Diener has completed eight alpine climbs in six countries.
It was Diener’s idea to ascend Mount Everest with an NGA flag in hand. She wanted to give the flag, which would feature the NGA seal, to Willie Benegas, her Alpine climbing guide who would be making the full climb to the summit.
After speaking with former NGA Director of Operations Ellen McCarthy, who encouraged the NGA flag idea, and having deputy directors from the other IC agencies approve as well, Diener made a flag that included the seals of NGA, NRO, NSA, CIA and DIA.
“You only get seconds at the top because it’s windy and cold, so one flag with all the emblems was my goal,” said Diener.
When the group was only three days away from reaching base camp, blocks of glacier ice broke off, causing an avalanche near the summit. That April 18, 2014 avalanche buried 25 climbers, mostly Sherpa guides who were preparing the mountain for climbers.
“We were all concerned because the Sherpas trekking with us knew people trapped up there,” said Diener. “We had all become close with them by this point so we were praying with and for them and their families.”
Benegas holds the record for the second most climbs of a U.S. citizen to Everest’s summit. He was an integral part of a team who recovered victims of the avalanche. Diener describes Benegas as a rescuer, a “true saver of lives,” who has never lost a client. His team recovered three people who were injured in the avalanche.
NGA also supported recovery efforts by analyzing and sending imagery to Nepal. “Everybody was a part of a natural disaster, got to see the mountain come down, and help, and be a witness of it,” said Diener. “Through them [Sherpa team], we were able to help more.”
Coincidentally, in April 2015, the agency once again provided support to the country after the Nepal earthquake disaster.
“When the earthquake hit, everyone from our group became involved in some way to help and reach out to a place and people we will forever love and feel attached to,” said Diener.
Benegas was again on Everest during the earthquake, along with his brother Damian, and they were able to assist in relief efforts. They created and implemented a new relief program called ‘Path to Recovery,’ a program that raises money to employ locals who would carry supplies to remote areas of the Himalayas, offering support to areas that would otherwise go without aid for a month. For this and for their rescue efforts, the Benegas brothers were recognized by the United Nations World Food Program and received a humanitarian award.
“People were involved, people helped, people continued to help and build relationships as the mountain shut down for two years,” said Diener. She noted how NGA’s role in the Everest disasters and how being there, at the highest peak in the world, as part of the organization that “knows the world” was truly special.
The flag will be rotated around the IC agencies depicted on it. Diener hopes it will serve as a symbol of what teamwork accomplishes and how the IC assists in disasters around the world.