FT. GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- A team of Air Force mountaineers began their journey to ascend and summit Mount Everest recently as the final expedition of the independent U.S. Air Force Seven Summit Challenge.
The team of six Airmen is underway on a 50-day journey to the highest mountain on earth, completing a project that began eight years ago with the goal of reaching the highest mountains on each of the seven continents, to plant the American and Air Force flags.
Collectively, teams of the Summit Challenge have already scaled the more than 104,337 vertical feet on Mount Elbrus, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua, Mount McKinley, Mount Vinson and Mount Kosciuszko. The summit team is accompanied by four trekkers and three wounded warriors (two pararescuemen and a combat rescue officer) who will not make a summit attempt but support the team in their feat. The team reached Nepal March 31, and began the final stages of the trip. After spending a few days in the region getting used to the increased elevation, the team pushed on to Everest.
By April 10, most of the team had moved up to base camp facilities at Lobuche, a mountain peak near Everest. The group then moved on to the Everest Base Camp to acclimatize at further increased elevation and practiced important procedures such as crevasse rescues and ladder handling. At Everest Base Camp, Capt. Rob Marshall, one of the co-founders of the AF Seven Summits challenge and the leader of the team, was able to make a call home early April 15.
"We were having an awesome day today. We had our Puja, a big spiritual blessing (ceremony), where we ask Mount Everest and essential the spirit of the mountain to bless the team and give us good luck," Marshall said, shortly before his data connection was interrupted.
With a view of the Khumbu icefall, a precarious gateway on the ascent to Everest, Marshall said the team grew more excited -- looking at the mountain they've prepared so hard to climb. Scaling Mount Everest is not a quick affair. Marshall said the group will move at a slow pace to improve their chances of getting as many people as possible to the summit.
"You can climb Everest at a faster pace, but from our research, we are giving ourselves the best chance to acclimatize and the optimal amount of time to reach the top," Marshall said.
Health is an especially difficult issue for expeditions in the Himalayas. Most of the team fell ill with intestinal "bugs," shortly after their arrival in Nepal, due to the foreign food and living conditions. The team since returned to Lobuche, which with nearly 20,161 feet elevation is already higher than any point in the continental U.S. They plan to ascend the lower peak April 16 for a "shakedown climb," giving everyone the important chance to check out their gear on a lower elevation, lower risk climb before making their first trip through the Khumbu icefall and up to Camp 1 on Everest. The mountaineers plan their final ascent to Everest for mid-May, however the teams anxiety is rising. "The stakes of this climb are the highest (no pun intended) of my life," Marshall wrote online. "There is a lot of personal pride and no shortage of money on the line here." They climb to promote camaraderie and team spirit among Airmen, raise money for charity and to honor and commemorate the fallen.
Though not on an official military mission, if successful in their endeavor to scale 29,029-foot Mount Everest, the crew will become the first team of active-duty American military members to have reached Everest's summit. On the team are: - Maj. Rob Marshall, a V-22 Osprey pilot from Mercer Island, Wash., stationed in Amarillo, Texas - Capt. Kyle Martin, a T-38 Talon pilot, from Manhattan, Kan., stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va. - Capt. Marshall Klitzke, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy. - Capt. Colin Merrin, a GPS satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Schriever AFB, Colo. - Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, a Reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick AFB - Capt. Andrew Ackles, a TH-1N instructor pilot, from Ashland, Ore., stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala.
(Information courtesy of USAF Seven Summits Challenge blog and U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs. For more information, and to support the crew's effort, follow the team's progress at http://www.usaf7summits.com and at http://www.facebook.com/pages/USAF-7-Summits-Challenge.)