U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) — Four Air Force Academy graduates may be busy preparing to climb the world’s highest peak in May, but they haven’t forgotten where mountaineering first began for them: here, climbing Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks as cadets.
A team of six seasoned Air Force mountaineers; currently stationed in Colorado, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Virginia; will venture on a bold, 50-day journey, encountering frigid temperatures and demanding conditions, to stand atop Mount Everest’s 29,029-foot summit. They will be the first American military team to attempt Everest and if successful, the first military team to have climbed each continent’s highest mountain.
“They call it the ‘third pole’ — the North Pole, South Pole and Everest,” Capt. Marshall Klitzke said. “There is no other landmass higher that you, as a human being, can challenge yourself on. It’s all aspects: the physical, the mental and the spiritual. Your success depends on so many variables: weather, timing, chance and preparation. Just having the experience to attempt it is the ultimate test.”
The group will meet in Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 26 to begin an acclimation period that will include climbing Nepal’s 20,000-foot peak, Lobuche.
Klitzke, a 30-year-old KC-135 Stratotanker pilot and flight instructor here, visited Nepal last fall to climb the 22,349-foot peak, Ama Dablam, with Capt. Kyle Martin, an Academy graduate stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va., who will also scale Everest.
“So far it’s been the pinnacle of my mountaineering,” Klitzke said. “I feel like it’s given me the credentials to go after Everest.”
Klitzke’s passion for climbing developed in 2001, while he was a cadet at the Academy, and began regularly climbing the state’s “fourteeners,” skiing, camping and rock-climbing with friends.
“We were always in the mountains,” Klitzke said. “Since then it’s stuck with me. In mountaineering, everything just kind of slows down, you’re very much in the moment and everything else in life just kind of fades away.”
Capt. Colin Merrin, 28, a GPS satellite operations mission commander stationed at Schriever AFB, Colo., is another Academy graduate who will join the team. Merrin’s resume of peaks include Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, Mount Blanc and Mount Aconcagua.
“I want to climb Everest to be a part of something truly amazing,” Merrin said. “Being an avid mountaineer, this was an opportunity that I could not turn down. I had heard about the team for years and knew that it would be a tremendous honor to be a part of such an elite group of climbers tackling the highest mountain in the world, and most importantly, supporting the ideals that the Seven Summits Team represents.”
The risky, ambitious quest is part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, a tax-exempt organization created in 2005 by special operations pilot Maj. Rob Marshall. The organization strives to honor service members who have lost their lives in the line of duty by leading teams of Airmen to the summit of each continent’s highest peak.
“What we want people to learn is that anything they’re good at, whether it’s climbing a mountain, running marathons, playing music or designing Web pages, they can find a way to use their skills to make the world better, whether it be promoting the Air Force or promoting the charity,” Marshall said.
The organization has raised more than $60,000 for charities such as the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the That Others May Live Foundation. The team has conquered six of the summits; Everest is the final mountain.
“You’re not going to find anybody on our climb that isn’t in excellent shape and passionate about this,” Marshall said. “The trip requires lot of money and time. They’re all experienced climbers and two thirds of the team are Academy grads.”
Marshall, a 2001 Academy graduate, said it was through his participation in the Academy’s mountaineering and explorer’s club that heightened his love for climbing. He scaled 27 peaks as a cadet. Marshall also plans to honor his tradition of doing push-ups on the summit.
“My goal is to see how many I can do in a minute,” Marshall said. “I started doing push-ups on Colorado fourteeners as a cadet. It’s fun to think that I’ve done them on every mountain peak since being a freshman.”
The team’s physical preparation for Everest has included regular gym training and heavy backpacking each week. Marshall said he’s also encouraged the team to swim, to get a full body work out and practice controlled breathing to prepare them for the use of bottled oxygen on Everest.
“The incline in Manitou is my personal beast,” Klitzke said. “I try to do that about twice a week and climb fourteeners. I’m pretty lucky with the elevation in Colorado Springs already being pretty high.”
Marshall, 34, will lead the pack up Everest. He said the group will move at a slower 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.
Marshall is aware of the risks that come with mountaineering. In 2008, when Marshall’s team climbed North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, the group was tent bound for seven days after being caught in a heavy blizzard.
Being patient, reading the weather correctly and making the right risk management decisions will be important, Marshall said.
“I think the biggest risk we’re going to face on Everest is, ‘How do we manage our team’s schedule to avoid crowds but still give ourselves the best chance to get to the summit?’” Marshall said.
Klitzke said he hopes his mission to the top of the world will empower cadets.
“Hopefully they will see beyond their four years here, see what’s available and what they can accomplish in the Air Force and outside of it. It’s amazing when you set big goals and tackle them — what you can bring yourself to do.”
It’s important for people to know that the Air Force is comprised of people who pursue their passions with an interest of improving themselves, Merrin said.
“Climbing Everest doesn’t necessarily change the world, but it creates an awareness that we are capable of outstanding feats,” Merrin said.
On the team are:
· Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a V-22 Osprey pilot, from Mercer Island, Wash., stationed in Amarillo, Texas
· Capt. Andrew Ackles, 29, a TH-1N instructor pilot, from Ashland, Ore., stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala.
· Capt. Kyle Martin, 29, a T-38 Talon pilot, from Manhattan, Kan., stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
· Capt. Marshall Klitzke, 30, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy.
· Capt. Colin Merrin, 28, a GPS satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Schriever AFB, Colo.
· Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, 36, a Reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick AFB, Fla.