On May 19, the U. S. Air Force Seven Summits team reached Mount Everest, the highest point of the world, 29,035 feet. This success marks the first time a team of military members from any nation has reached all seven summits: Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, and Mount Everest in Nepal.
The team included:
Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a CV-22 acceptance pilot from Mercer Island, Wash., currently stationed at Bell Helicopter in Amarillo, Texas.
Capt. Andrew Ackles, 29, a TH-1N instructor pilot from Ashland, Ore., and 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.
Capt. Kyle Martin, 29, a T-38/F-16 pilot from Manhattan, Kan., currently stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, 36, a Reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.
“Fifty years after the first American boots stood on top of the world, the first American military team has followed in those footsteps,” said retired Col. Rob Suminsby, USAF Seven Summits team support. “The team unfurled the Stars and Stripes and the U.S. Air Force flag on the summit right after 5 a.m. in Nepal.”
Though unable to make the journey themselves, Suminsby and Maj. Mark Uberuaga, co-founder of the USAF Seven Summits project, supported the team at home by keeping the blog updated and relaying key messages to friends and family members of the team.
“We were all on this journey with them. The day they took off for the summit we received 12,000 hits to the website,” said Uberuaga. “The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, commented on one of the blogs a couple days prior to the summit attempt. The team knew the entire Air Force was rooting for them. I know they carried that with them to the top.”
The 7 Summits Challenge began eight years ago when Wrath 11, an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130H ‘Talon II’ crashed in Albania in March 2005.
“Rob and I had been planning a climb of Mount Elbrus in Russia, which is the highest point in Europe, before the crash,” said Uberuaga. “We decided to dedicate the climb to our fallen friends. It was something we could do to honor them and it helped us deal with the loss.”
As the planning continued, Marshall and Uberuaga decided to launch an effort to climb all of the seven summits to raise funds and awareness for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that provides full scholarship grants, as well as educational and family counseling, to the surviving children of special operations personnel who lose their lives in operational or training missions.
Two of the climbers, Capt. Colin Merrin and Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, turned back before the summit due to illness and concerns over frostbite.
“These guys deserve a huge amount of credit, as they made one of the toughest decisions a climber can make, turning around short of the summit,” said Col. Suminsby. “Both made a good decision to turn back. The team was committed to safety throughout the process, and their actions are shining examples of how to do the right thing even when it’s disappointing and not easy. A lot of people have been willing to sacrifice fingers or toes to reach the summit, but this team defined success from the outset as bringing everyone back in one piece.”
Key to the team’s success was including risk management in the planning and execution process. All members of the team are trained in risk management and use the principles in their day jobs and while mountaineering.
“The Air Force Safety Center has been a strong supporter of this effort,” said Suminsby. “They recognized early on that this is an opportunity to promote a risk management mindset in all Airmen.”
Learn more about this effort by going to USAF 7 Summits Challenge at http://www.usaf7summits.com/