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USAF 7 Summits Challenge takes Airmen to the top of the world

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Lauren Johnson
  • 1st SOW Public Affairs
Capt. Rob Marshall never had the desire to climb Mount Everest.

That is, until he stood at its base and looked up.

At the time, Captain Marshall, currently a pilot with the 8th Special Operations Squadron, was a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant enjoying his final summer before reporting to active duty.

"I wanted to do something different, so I grabbed a backpack and bought a roundtrip ticket to Nepal with no plans and no ideas," Captain Marshall said. "The next thing you know, I found a guide to travel with and went up to the base of Everest."

Captain Marshall was no stranger to mountains. A native of Washington State, he grew up in a community of some of the world's top mountaineers, many of whose footprints line the rugged slopes of the world's highest peak.

And standing in its shadow, Captain Marshall suddenly felt compelled to join them.

"I looked up and said, 'I'm coming back here, but it's got to be for a bigger reason than just wanting to climb it.'"

In 2005, a bigger reason knocked on his door.

The knock belonged to Captain Mark Uberuaga, a fellow Washingtonian and outdoor enthusiast, who was interested in sharing Captain Marshall's flat near RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, where both men were lieutenants serving in the 352nd Special Operations Group.

And both, it seems, had a common vision.

"He banged on the door, and by the time he left the house we had already discussed climbing the highest peak on each continent for the Air Force," Captain Marshall said

The "Seven Summits Challenge" was not a new concept. The task was first accomplished in 1985 by Dick Bass, who coined the term in his book, Seven Summits. Since then fewer than 200 climbers have completed the feat.

Captains Marshall and Uberuaga planned not only to join that distinguished list, but to be the world's first all-military team to attempt and complete the challenge.

"We chose mountain climbing because it's something we're both good at," Captain Marshall said, referencing his upbringing and the fact that his friend, currently with the 55th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. was recently named Air Combat Command's 2008 Athlete of the Year for mountaineering.

"We also wanted to promote the good people in the Air Force and the good things we do," he added.

But before the idea could take shape, another mountain stood in their way.

This mountain was in Albania, and it became the resting place of an MC-130H Combat Talon II, which crashed in March 2005, shortly after Captains Marshall and Uberauga became roommates, killing nine Airmen from the 352nd SOG.

"It shook me to the core," Captain Marshall said. "We decided starting [the Seven Summits Challenge] immediately would be a powerful way to raise money for their families."

The mountaineers teamed up with the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides scholarships and educational counseling to children of special operations personnel killed in action.

"The 'seven summits' is a catchy phrase to describe the highest peak on each continent," Captain Uberauga said. "But more than that, it's a really great way to accomplish a goal and do it in recognition of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation."
 
"We lost [the crew] in Europe, so we decided to start by climbing the highest peak in Europe," Captain Marshall said.

In July 2005, the Airmen took the USAF 7 Summits Challenge on its inaugural trip up Russia's 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus. At the summit, they raised the Air Force flag, and then skied triumphantly to their tents several thousand feet below.

"It was a great adventure and it was really satisfying," Captain Uberuaga said. "We got lots of support, and it propelled us to our next goal."

The next goal was Mount Kilimanjaro, towering over Africa at 19,340 feet. Not a technically difficult climb, Captains Marshall and Uberauga decided to extend an open invitation.

"We had a wide variety of people," Captain Marshall said, "Some who had experience at high altitudes and some who had no experience."

At the extreme was Capt. Jaime Rivas, now with the 96th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., who is quick to admit she was inexperienced and unprepared.

"I'm from New Orleans. I'm from 14 feet below sea level!" Captain Rivas said. "I don't think I'd even heard of Kilimanjaro."

Captain Rivas didn't have any mountaineering gear - she didn't even own a sleeping bag. But she was excited to travel and to support the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, and she said the team was very supportive of first timers.

"I think it really added to the trip to have different experience levels," Captain Uberuaga said.

"I want to take people who have never seen the top of a mountain and share that experience with them," Captain Marshall added. "For me, it's not just going up the mountain, it's watching how it changes each person. It improves their life, opens them up to new experiences."

But according to Captain Rivas, those experiences don't come easy.

The trek up Kilimanjaro was two weeks of sleeping in tents, waking up early to march up a steady 20-30 percent incline, and drinking lots of tea, which serves as a diuretic and helps prevent altitude sickness.

"You wake up and feel sick, because your breathing rate isn't what it's supposed to be at that altitude, because your body's not used to it," Captain Rivas said.

The day of the summit attempt the group woke at midnight. They planned for a six-hour trip, which would put them at the top just in time to watch the sunrise.

"It takes several days to strike at a summit," Captain Marshall said, "And sometimes on the way up you wonder if you're even going to make it. Is the weather going to hold? Is somebody going to get sick? You never quite know if you're going to make it until you get to those last final steps."

Those last final steps were excruciating for Captain Rivas.

"All my effort was going into putting one foot in front of the other," she said. "I got to a point where I would walk ten feet and have to take a break."

"Toward the end she really started to get worn out with the altitude, thin air and cold temperatures," Captain Marshall said. "We cheered her on, and we all walked to the summit with her."

Captain Marshall said, more than reaching the summit, the joy of climbing is in the camaraderie among teammates.

"When you get to raise the American flag or the Air Force flag surrounded by your friends and teammates, it's a great, great accomplishment," he said. "It's the most natural high you're ever going to get."

It's a high from which Captain Rivas has yet to come down.

"It made me realize the world is a small place," she said. "If you're willing to get out of your comfort zone and just go do it, there's a really neat experience waiting for you."

Between Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua (22, 834 ft. - South America), and most recently Alaska's 20,300-foot Mount McKinley, sixteen Airmen have shared in the Air Force seven summits experience.

Captain Marshall credits their 100 percent success rate largely to the physical fitness, strength and tenacity cultivated in the Air Force.

"[Our Airmen have] an amazing variety of skills and a range of hobbies," he said. "One of our objectives is to help the American public see and appreciate what goes on in military people's lives, both on and off the job. The more familiar they are with those of us serving the nation, the better our relationship and understanding."

That relationship will be vital to their next mission; conquering the Nepalese giant itself, 29,035-foot Mount Everest in spring 2010.

Captain Marshall said Air Force and community support will be critical to the success of the climb.

To date, all fundraising proceeds - upwards of $50,000 - have gone directly to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, but for this, their most logistically challenging climb, donations will be essential to help the team reach the top.

If they summit, it will be the first time an organized American military team has successfully climbed the tallest mountain in the world.

"Climbing Everest will be a great inspiration to Airmen across the world, to our team members and to the American public," Captain Marshall said. "It's a goal five years in the making."

Five years ago, looking up at Everest, Captain Marshall never imagined he would be where he is now.
 
He never imagined he'd be slipping through fully-armed military checkpoints at the Georgia-Chechnya border. He never thought he'd be joking in Swahili with passerby en route to the Kilimanjaro summit, or sharing steak and wine with native Argentineans. He never considered raising $500 doing pushups at 23,000 feet.

Now, with just a year to go, Captain Marshall not only has the desire, but the motivation and the support to scale the world's highest peak.

Now, he can finally imagine standing at the top and looking down.

(Editor's note: To learn more about the USAF 7 Summits Challenge see www.usaf7summits.com). 

Watch the video on the USAF 7 Summits Challenge