LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. -- Six continents. Seven years. More than 100,000 feet climbed and next month, the USAF 7 Summits Challenge team is setting out to climb to the top of the world.
At 29,035 ft., Mount Everest is the highest peak on Earth. If successful, six Airmen will become the first American military team to reach the summit of Mount Everest and the first team of military servicemembers from any nation to reach all seven summits. Airmen who are making the trek to Everest are stationed all across the country, including two right here at Headquarters Air Combat Command.
"For me, it's not about making history," said Capt. Kyle "Husky" Martin. "It's about proudly representing something larger than me." Nicknamed Husky for sleeping out in the snow multiple times, Martin first started climbing 10 years ago. He heard about the Air Force 7 Summit challenge when he joined the United States Air Force Academy mountaineering club as a young cadet. Now a T-38 pilot and division chief for the 1st Operations Group, the Manhattan, Kan., native has climbed many mountains, including Ama Dablam, a mountain in the Himalayan range of eastern Nepal relatively close to Mount Everest.
"Ama Dablam is the climb I'm most proud of," he said excitingly. "It's rock climbing, ice climbing and really, really exposed to base camp, which is 4,000 ft. below you."
Led by Maj. Rob Marshall, a 34-year-old Special Operations pilot who has successfully conquered more than 30 peaks, the USAF 7 Summits Challenge team is dedicated to one thing: honoring fallen comrades by carrying the American and Air Force flags to the highest point on each continent.
Those fallen comrades include several of Marshall's friends who were killed when an Air Force MC-130, call sign Wrath 11, crashed in the Albanian mountains in 2005. Two months later, tragedy struck again when two more of Marshall's friends, Captains Derek Angel and Jeremy Fresques, also died with three other Airmen in a small-plane crash near Diyala, Iraq. "Remember walking around a track to raise money for your school or charity?" Marshall asked. "Well, I decided to take it vertical."
For every thousand feet the team climbs, they ask people to donate towards the college education of their fallen comrade's children.
In addition to Captain Martin, the Everest team includes: - Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a CV-22 pilot, from Mercer Island, Wash., stationed in Amarillo,Tex. - Capt. Andrew Ackles, 29, a TH-1N instructor pilot, from Ashland, Ore., stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala. - Capt. Marshall Klitzke, 30, a KC-135R pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. - Capt. Colin Merrin, 28, a GPS satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. - Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, 36, a reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. "This trip is a great way to highlight the resiliency of the Wounded Warrior," said Senior Master Sgt. Robert Disney, a pararescueman and wounded warrior who is ascending to the Everest Base Camp. "I want Airmen to understand that, no matter what their experience or current life position, there is nothing that they cannot overcome." Along with Disney, two other wounded warriors will be going to the base camp: - Capt. Augustin "Gus" Viani, 28, a Combat Rescue Officer, stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. - Master Sgt. Gino (last name and details withheld for operational security) Though the team is not sponsored by the Air Force, Disney credits his Air Force training for preparing him for this very moment.
"For a PJ, climbing or mountaineering is just another way of getting to work," he said. "Our Operational Risk Management training prepares us to weigh the risk-to-reward ratios of our choices and to make life-and-death decisions on the fly." Those risk-management skills, something Husky hopes Airmen pay attention to on and off duty, has contributed to the team's unblemished history of safety and success. With the team being stationed all over the country, training together becomes a challenge. However Husky managed to get creative when it came to preparing himself for the ultimate climb. "Since I don't have mountains here in Hampton Roads, I'll go out to the beaches," the captain said. "My daughter is my training partner. She'll add her might 20lbs to the baby backpack and we'll hike through the deep sand in my Everest boots. We look pretty absurd, but she loves to go outside." Disney also credits his wife Tess for helping him prepare for this moment. With her support, he has gotten back into climbing shape in just two months.
With both men days away from leaving, Disney and Husky both hope to surpass their own limitations and encourage other Airmen do the same. "Oh and come back with all of my toes," Husky adds. "I definitely want to come back with all of my toes."