YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A team of U.S. airmen recently reached 29,000 feet — with their feet still on the ground.
The summit of Mount Everest was the final peak to conquer for the Seven Summits Challenge, the goal of which was to have a group of airmen climb the highest mountains on every continent.
Four of the six-man team reached the peak, with two turning back during the final ascent because of illness and potential frostbite.
“I don’t think I could have made this climb if it wasn’t for being part of this team,” said Maj. Rob Marshall, the team leader, just after he and his fellow climbers gorged themselves on breakfast upon returning to Kathmandu, Nepal, from the base camp this weekend. “If I’d been by myself, I probably would have lost my mind or just had a miserable time.”
A test pilot stationed in Amarillo, Texas, Marshall said the team had jokingly dubbed the climb “Misery Fest.”
“We spent about 50 days in the mountains,” the 34-year-old major said. “After 20, 25 days or so, it really starts to wear on you mentally. We all agreed that climbing Mount Everest wasn’t necessarily a technical climb, but it was more of a mental climb.”
Monotony was among the greatest challenges.
“We had a lot of potatoes, rice, noodles,” said Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, a reservist with the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
“I think a lot of us are starched out at this point,” he joked.
“Often you’re just waiting,” Marshall said. “But there was a schedule to stick to in order to stay healthy, so you don’t overdo it.”
That’s something all Himalayan climbers face on a mountain where fickle conditions have contributed more than 200 deaths.
“There’s a very small window when you can climb Everest, just because of the way the patterns work,” explained Capt. Drew Ackles, a helicopter instructor pilot at Fort Rucker, Ala., and one of the four climbers who reached the summit.
“You have to wait for the winds to calm down, for the jet stream to move so that you can be up high on the mountain or else you’ll just get blown off of it. At 29,000 feet, winds are regularly going over 100 mph.
“Then after that jet stream moves, now you have to be concerned about the monsoon moving in, which can bring in an enormous amount of snow. You can’t move on the mountain if you’re getting four feet of snow a day. So you have this very small window that might only be a day or two days or two weeks.”
Meanwhile, the climbers went through the slow process of acclimating themselves to the thin air. They would hike to the next-highest base camp by day, then return to the lower altitude to sleep, sometimes resting for a day or two.
The Air Force team gained a reputation among the dozens of other climbing teams ascending Everest for its collaboration and camaraderie, said Capt. Colin Merrin, a GPS operations mission commander at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.
That esprit de corps “got us through those days when you’re dragging and questioning why we’re here so long and sleeping on snow and rock for 30 days,” said Capt. Marshall Klitzke, a 30-year-old instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy.
Marshall and Mark Uberuaga, a fellow Air Force pilot who was not on this climb, launched the Seven Summits Challenge in 2005 after several pilots died in a crash in Iraq on Memorial Day that year. One of the pilots had become a diehard mountaineer while attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
The ascent of the highest mountains in each continent was intended to boost morale among airmen and raise money for military-related charities. The challenge has no official support from the Air Force or the Department of Defense.
Marshall said the intent had never been for the same airmen to scale all seven mountains, which have included Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.
Marshall successfully summited six of the peaks. And, he was a day away from the McKinley summit when he got a satellite call from his commander that he had to return to his base.
The shifting personnel of provisional climbing teams have worked out well.
“I will say that one of my favorite things about climbing with military people is that I don’t necessarily have to know them before we meet up to climb — as long as they’ve got the background and motivation,” Marshall said. “Being a military member, we’ve got so much in common and we work together so well in terms of team work and leadership-followership.
“Over the last seven climbs, I’ve been able to grab a group of people — many of them I didn’t know — and made sure they had a climbing background. Then we fly in and meet in a foreign country, and we immediately become a strong team. I think that’s something unique to being a military member: To just be able to fly into the middle of a strange location and then form a very strong team very quickly.”
The teams have been committed to the concept of risk management as practiced by the Air Force.
“When you’re in the Air Force in general, once you’ve been in long enough, risk management becomes more of a style of thinking,” Gibson said. “Anything we do we have to ask, ‘What are the risks here?’ We are an asset. We have equipment that’s an asset. What’s the best way to protect that while still executing the mission effectively? That’s the mindset we had.”
That thinking, in part, is why Gibson and Merrin turned back only hours from the summit.
Gibson believed he was at risk of losing toes or fingers from frostbite if he continued. The overnight temperature had fallen to about minus-20 Fahrenheit. Merrin, who’d been in excellent health throughout the climb, suddenly came down with an upper respiratory illness on the final climb.
“We were trying to spread the Air Force safety message,” said Merrin. “You can’t be hypocritical about the matter, saying, yeah, we’re safe climbers but we’re not going to turn around when we get sick. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Managing risk comes with climbing experience.
“In mountaineering, your decisions are very binary,” Merrin said. “It’s like, you make this decision you’ll live, you make that decision you’ll be seriously injured or you’ll die. A lot of times the decisions are black and white. Me and my teammates were kind of joking that it wasn’t even a decision to make. I just had to turn around.
“It was like the hardest and easiest decision of my life, if that makes sense.”
Merrin had descended to a lower camp when he heard on one of the Sherpa’s radios that the Air Force team reached the summit in the early morning of May 19.
“It was an awesome feeling even though I wasn’t there to share it with them,” he said. “I was expecting that I’d be jealous, but it was quite the opposite. I was elated for them.”
Ackles described reaching the top of any mountain as “an interesting pinnacle” because “you’re only on the summit for a matter of minutes.”
“The summit, for me, is not the highlight,” he said. “It’s great that you get there. That’s what you’re striving for, but the time on the summit isn’t the important part. There have been plenty of mountains I’ve climbed and I’ve only stayed up there a minute” – he laughed at the thought – “just turned right around.”
“It’s more the adventure and work getting there, that’s the thing I’m about and about mountaineering that I enjoy.”
Klitzke reached the summit around 4 a.m.
“The sun was breaking the horizon,” he said. “I saw a little band of orange light, then it turned blue.
“It was — after such a long trip and putting so much sweat equity into the climb, then finally getting to the top — a very peaceful moment, a very accomplished moment.”