Aiming High…On The Ground

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Marshall skis down from the summit of Australia's highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, in October 2011 with an Air Force flag flying from his pack.

Air Force Major Rob Marshall needs more hours in the day.

When the V-22 Osprey pilot isn’t flying, remodeling his bathroom, helping the Red Cross, speaking at schools, or working out, he’s running a first-of-its kind challenge to climb the highest peak on each continent.

Next April, Marshall, a 34-year-old Special Operations pilot with several combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, will lead a group of seven Airmen on their most impressive mission to date— to scale Mount Everest.

The bid for the top of the world would wrap up the U.S. Air Force 7 Summits Challenge. The group hopes to make history as the first military team to climb each continent’s highest mountain — and the first U.S. military team to conquer Everest.

The Mercer Island, Wash. native and long-time mountaineer—who bagged 27 peaks as an Air Force Academy cadet—first considered an Everest attempt while visiting the mountain’s base camp in 2001 shortly after graduating from the Academy.

“I had this strong intuition that I needed to come back and climb Everest one day,” he says. “But, it needed to be for a reason bigger than just personal conquest.”

The reason came in 2005 when an Air Force MC-130, call sign Wrath 11, crashed in the Albanian mountains, killing nine, including several of Marshall’s friends. “Wrath 11 hit close and shook me up,” he recalls. “I volunteered to ascend the mountains to search for survivors, but ended up helping coordinate the recovery. I felt powerless… every bit of me wanted to get up that mountain to help. I found out later there was no chance of survivors.”

Two months after Wrath 11, two of Marshall’s Academy classmates, Capt. Derek Argel and Capt. Jeremy Fresques, died in an Iraq crash, along with three other airmen.

These losses drove Marshall to find a way to help his fallen friends’ families. “Remember walking around a track to raise money for your school or charity? Well, I decided to take it vertical. For every thousand feet we climbed, we’d ask people to donate to the college education of these kids.”

So, the Air Force 7 Summits Challenge was born, and the team has tackled six of the seven summits—Russia’s Mount Elbrus, Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, the U.S.’s Mount McKinley, Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, and Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko—and countless others in training. Team members mark their accomplishment with memorial pushups, in honor of their fallen friends, on each summit. So far, about 25 men and women have climbed with the team since the challenge began, and they’ve raised more than $60,000 for military charities like the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

Though not funded or officially sanctioned by the Air Force, the military and climbing worlds seem to converge somewhat smoothly for the team. Marshall, who’s currently stationed in Amarillo, Tex., said commanders generally support the project thanks to the team’s intense planning and risk-mitigation process.

“Mountains are excellent leadership laboratories,” Marshall says. “We get to work in small teams in extreme conditions. Climbing takes a combination of leading and following to survive together.”

And, sometimes these worlds collide. “I was on Mt. McKinley 24 hours from summiting when my unit told me via satellite phone that I needed to return immediately for a deployment,” he says. “Had to leave my team and haul ass back to base.”

With luck, the realities of military life won’t interrupt the climb of a lifetime for the seven Airmen who’ve committed to the Everest summit attempt and are training at their bases across the country. The Everest team includes:

— Major Graydon Muller, 33, a UH-1 and Mi-17 instructor pilot from Duvall, Wash., stationed at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
— Captain Andrew Ackles, 29, a TH-1N instructor pilot, from Ashland, Ore., stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala.
— Captain Marshall Klitzke, 30, a KC-135R pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.
— Captain Kyle Martin, 29, an F-16 instructor pilot and mission commander from Manhattan, Kan., currently flying T-38s at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
— Captain Colin Merrin, 28, a Global Positioning System satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
— Staff Sergeant Nick Gibson, 36, a reserve pararescueman and physician-assistant student from Gulf Breeze Fla., stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

Recently, Marshall announced Chad Jukes, 28, of Ridgway, Colo., featured in the documentary High Ground — about 11 wounded warriors climbing Nepal’s 20,000 foot Mount Lobuche — plans to join the team.

“Chad is aiming to become, what I believe will be, the first U.S. serviceman with a combat-caused amputation to climb Mount Everest,” Marshall says. “Several other wounded warriors and supporters also plan to trek with us to Everest base camp this spring.”

“Climbing these peaks is my way to deal with the pain and sadness that sits in my stomach from the losses of friends and colleagues,” Marshall adds. “I use physical exertion and time outside as my way to blast depression and sadness. After just a day hiking trails on the outskirts of town, I come home refreshed, reenergized, and looking forward to getting things done. If it wasn’t for this, I think the bad experiences would get the best of me. I hope that through this challenge we can help other military members use the outdoors and adventure sports to improve their emotional health.”

Yes, Major Marshall is a busy man, and he’ll get busier as April approaches. But as John Muir noted, “the mountains are calling and I must go.” Same for Marshall and his team.

Major Brandon Lingle served as a public affairs officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and now is at Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or U.S. government.