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When the work of a rescue helicopter crew is done, it can be hard to imagine what Coast Guard first responders do for fun. If perilous lifesaving missions are all part of the job, thrills may require a higher altitude of adventure. For some, the next level is found at about 18,000 feet.
Coast Guard members have a long-standing tradition of elevated off-duty achievements. From assisting with the Wright brothers' flight experiments in 1903 to transitioning into jobs as NASA Space Program astronauts, aiming high has been a trend for the 223-year-old-service’s personnel.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Craig Longobardi, an aviation maintenance technician who was until recently stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, has earned his own place in the over-achieving Coast Guardsmen hall of fame. Longobardi has just returned from the 2013 Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, (THEM), in the Himalayas of Nepal.
Named after the first successful ascent of Mount Everest by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, THEM is the highest marathon run in the world. The trip begins at 11,000 feet and ends at 11,306 feet, after a hike up to approximately 18,000 feet to the Everest Base Camp where the marathon begins. It requires three weeks of altitude acclimatization and extensive physical conditioning. For many of us, the 14 day trek to the starting point would qualify as a major accomplishment.
“This marathon was more of an adventure than a trail race. It was more about finishing,” explained Longobardi.
He described running along crags that could take your life with a slip, on a terrain of raw and jagged rocky material. Many areas consisted of long climbing steps of ancient origin, only three feet wide. Suspension bridges spanned hundreds of feet across glacier cut canyons. The terrain was so broken that it was often difficult to determine what was path, but Sherpa and marathon organizers called out to participants to keep them going in the correct direction.
One of the toughest things he described was the communication barrier. Longobardi ran with a German group, so there was very little communication between them. Two members of his group were from Holland and spoke enough English and German to communicate roughly.
Longobardi described hiking for six to eight hours a day. The amount of elevation gained determined the amount of time rested, which allowed participants to acclimatize to the dramatic difference in atmosphere. “We spent two nights on the glacier at the Everest Base Camp,” he said. “You can hear large cracks as the glacier moves. In the evenings you can lay out on the ice and hear it moving as well as avalanches in the distance.”
“I was very humbled by the Sherpa,” said Longobardi. “If you think your job is hard, these guys would carry enormous amounts of gear on their backs and set up camps with food and medical supplies ahead of the participants.”
With every narrow canyon crossed and mountainside summited another endless landscape stretched out before him, and with each leg of the trip the Sherpa travelled ahead to prepare the campgrounds. This was still just the hike to the beginning of the actual marathon, which begins after participants complete the roughly two week hike to the Everest Base Camp at 17,895 feet.
When finally he reached the point that marks the beginning of the marathon, Longobardi finished in only 15 hours. He came in first among Americans, fifth among international and 11th overall, which includes the highly acclimatized Sherpa contenders. He received a certificate that states his successful completion of the 60th Diamond Jubilee Everest Extreme Marathon running the Highest Altitude Route from Everest Base Camp. This was the 60th anniversary event, a distance of 60 kilometers (37 miles).
“At the end of the race, after twenty-two exhaustive days and only two showers, we were rushed into a helicopter to be transferred back to our departing flight at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, one of the most treacherous runways in the world,” said Longobardi. He spent the remaining time there observing the airplane wreckage that litters the mountainside before returning to the realm of beds and running water.
As one adventure can often lead to another, a door to one of the greatest achievements a human being can attempt was opened during his time in Nepal. During his travels he was introduced to Emilia Hillary, the great granddaughter of Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary invited Longobardi to attempt a summit of Everest with a group of climbers in 2014, which he intends to do.
One other achievement marked the journey as well as the character of Longobardi. On his arriving day, he met a young lady who manages an orphanage called New Children’s Home, located in Kathmandu. He was given a tour of the facility, which left him troubled by the conditions. Upon returning to the United States, Longobardi contacted the facility, donated funds to rebuild bathrooms and showers and became a permanent sponsor as the U.S. ambassador to the orphanage. He has sinse located American sponsors for three of the children, who will help fund their educational, medical and material needs.
Longobardi has now transferred from Air Station Barbers Point to Group Air Station North Bend, Ore., a quiet area of the Pacific Northwest coast where rescue personnel stay busy with a vibrant commercial and recreational fishing fleet. On his off time, you can bet that he will be training for his next achievement, a trip to the Mount Everest summit where he will bring his own triumphs and those of the U.S. Coast Guard to the top of the world.