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Standing Atop the Bottom of the Earth

  • Published
  • By Capt. Robert Marshall
  • 8th Special Operations Squadron
Driving my ice axe into the lip of snow separating our team from the summit of Antarctica's highest peak, I trusted its tenuous hold and took the last step up. The views during the entire trip were amazing, but nothing quite tops the view, or the feeling, that greets you on the summit.

It is hard to imagine that just four days earlier our tents were battered and broken by 30-40 mph winds in a spell of bad weather that lasted four days. But with a little tenacity and patience, our goal of flying the Air Force flag from atop Antarctica was realized.

Five years ago, our group of Air Force members started a historic undertaking: to be the first team of American military members to climb the famed '7 Summits', which is made up of the highest point on each continent. At the time, no military group had ever attempted it. We dreamed of seeing the Air Force flag proudly flying from the top of each continent and eventually on top of the world.

The successful expedition to reach Antarctica's summit was the fifth peak tackled in the challenge, leaving just a small mountain in Australia and then the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest, remaining.

Stepping off the Russian IL-76 transport that had just delivered us to a remote runway of blue ice was like stepping onto the surface of a different planet. There were no plants, animals, insects or smells just the sound of bitter wind blowing off the glaciated peaks surrounding us.

Shortly after arriving in Antarctica, our team loaded hundreds of pounds of food, fuel and equipment onto a small turboprop that flew us to a huge glacier flowing off the side of our goal: Mount Vinson.

Standing at 16,077 feet, Mount Vinson is a rugged and beautiful combination of ancient ice, snow pack thousands of feet deep and crumbling rock.

As the small plane turned on its skis and departed, the truly remote nature of our location sunk in. Without that one plane, there was little way we were leaving this mountain range. It put a smile on the face of the team members, as it was just us and Mount Vinson: our task was free from distractions. We had been meticulously planning this climb for weeks, and it was time to execute.

Being in Antarctica, we planned for extreme conditions. Our primary risk came from the possibility of cold injuries: frostbite and hypothermia. After reviewing cold injury prevention and treatment with Hurlburt Field medical personnel, and in conjunction with our winter mountaineering equipment, we were prepared to deal with ambient temperatures of 40 below zero.

Luckily the coldest temperature we encountered was 15 below zero, during our summit day. While we always protected against the cold, the team also had to take significant steps to avoid severe sunburn due to the 24-hour sunshine and reflective snowcap.

With base camp built at 7,500 feet on the beautiful Branscomb Glacier, we began several long days of in which we carried equipment and supplies to camps higher up the mountain. Traveling to higher altitudes and then returning lower to sleep helps the body acclimatize.

Each day averaged 12 hours of hauling backpacks and sleds, digging tent platforms and cutting snow blocks for protective walls. Travel required crossing deep crevasses and climbing steep faces of snow and ice, so we remained roped to each other at all times outside camp.

Four days later, we had established ourselves at the 10,000 feet camp and stashed supplies at the 12,500 feet camp. We were ready to move everything to the high camp when a storm system moved over the entire mountain range. For the next six days, high winds, cold temperatures and low visibility forced us to hunker down at 10,000ft. Out of reach of our supplies at 12,500 feet, we watched as food and fuel began to run low.

But, in line with the training and risk management taught to all Air Force Special Operations Command members, we stayed put, not willing to foolishly risk our welfare to push up and further into the storm. Slowly the clouds broke and the winds abated, leaving us just enough time to push higher towards the summit before running out of supplies and catching our scheduled flight.

Attempting a mountain summit is much like long distance swimming: you must ensure you have enough energy to not only reach the top, but enough to turn around and make it back.

Carrying enough water, keeping it from freezing and consuming thousands of calories from the right foods is as important as staying warm during a high-altitude summit attempt. Luckily for us the weather and snow conditions were perfect. Taking a more challenging route than normal, the team reached a ridge just 1,000 feet below the summit that offered breathtaking views of the Antarctic landscape.

An hour later, we climbed over the steep lip atop the summit, proudly swapping high-fives and soaking in the accomplishment of reaching the top.

In line with a long standing tradition started during my early years of climbing at the Air Force Academy, we did pushups on the summit. The idea is to give a military twist as well as show the mountain didn't take all our strength.

Additionally, the pushups have become a great way to raise money for military-oriented charities, with donations made for each pushup accomplished. Since 2005, team members have raised approximately $60,000 for charities.

After proudly flying the American and Air Force flags, we quickly packed up and began the descent.

Poor weather was rolling in at base camp, threatening the ability for our small plane to land. What took us four days of active climbing to ascend only took 12 hours to descend, that's how motivated we were to catch a flight and begin our trip back home. The plane landed through thickening clouds and fog, getting us off the glacier just as the weather socked in.

Three days of poor weather later, we loaded back onto the Russian cargo plane and flew the four hours back to the tip of South America. Our physical training, mental preparation and extensive equipment paid off: no one on the team got frostbite or seriously injured and the U.S. Air Force became the first military team to reach the summit of Antarctica.

Funny enough, it felt much like "another day at work" in the unpredictable and exciting life known to members of AFSOC.

For more information about the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge visit