Airman Journeys to Top of the World
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The Tibetans call it "Chomolungma," meaning "mother goddess of the world." Global Positioning System satellite equipment measures its peak at 29,035 feet, and for Capt. Colin Merrin, Mount Everest will soon be a bullet on his mountaineering resume that can't be topped.
Merrin, a GPS operator from the 2nd Space Operations Squadron here, will begin the journey of a lifetime at the end of March. Although, before getting a call from the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, reaching the top of Mt. Everest was not something that appealed to him.
"It's really commercialized," Merrin said . "Everest also has a bit of a weird stigma to it."
Had the call come from anyone else, it's possible he would have declined the invitation, however, after hearing the greater cause, he reconsidered.
The U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge is an independent Air Force team whose vision since its creation in 2005 has been to reach seven famed summits and plant the American and Air Force flags. They climb to promote camaraderie and esprit de corps among Airmen, highlight personal fitness and growth and honor friends and colleagues who have died in the line of service since 9/11.
The group also supports the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that provides full scholarship grants as well as educational and family counseling to the surviving children of special operations personnel who have died. The organization also provides financial assistance to those severely wounded and their families.
"My primary motivation was the foundation," Merrin said . "Climbing Everest has become a great way to support them as well as the team."
If successful in their endeavor, Merrin's crew will become the first team of active-duty American military members to have reached its summit. In addition, the Seven Summits team will also be the first from any nation to have reached the top of all seven famous mountains that include Mount Elbrus, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua, Mount McKinley, Mount Vinson and Mount Kosciuszko.
The journey to the top of the tallest peak in the world doesn't start at the base. It starts months, sometimes even years, before.
"Everest isn't a mountain you can just go (climb)," Merrin said . "I started training hard three months before the trip to Mount Everest. I try to keep my training as specific as possible. If you want to get better at benchpressing, you benchpress. If you want to get better at climbing mountains, you climb."
For Merrin, Colorado Springs is a perfect training ground. With the base camp of Everest sitting at 17,500 feet, Pikes Peak serves as a good starting point for getting acclimated to higher elevations.
Because of the dangers associated with Mount Everest, climbers are encouraged to have glaciated mountain experience as well as high altitude mountain climbs. In February 2011, Merrin was able to test his body's response to extremely high altitudes when he reached the 22,841 foot summit of Aconcagua, located in the Andes mountain range in Argentina.
"The human body is not designed to endure the sort of conditions you find past 18,000 feet. There's about 40 percent of the normal amount of oxygen, but my body did well," said Merrin. "Knowing that reassures me for Everest."
There are still dangers that are out of Merrin's control, but he feels reassured about those as well.
"The team I'm going with is a strong group of elite climbers," he said. "There's a strong focus on risk management and safety."
Each one of the members has a skill they bring with them, said Merrin, including a paratrooper that will be with them the entire time.
"We want to summit, but we want to do it safely," he said.
Additionally, officials with the 50th Space Wing are extending their support to Merrin and the Seven Summits team.
"I am extremely proud of Capt. Merrin. It's a mind-bending prospect if you think about it -- to have a team of Airmen standing on the top of the world's tallest mountain," said Lt. Col. Thomas Ste. Marie, the 2nd SOPS commander. "The fact that Colin is a GPS operator is even more fitting."
The first leg of Merrin's journey is set to begin with a two-week long, 40-mile trek to Everest's base camp and an acclimation climb up Mt. Lobuche nearby at the end of March this year.