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Our New Project: The USAF 50 Summits Challenge

September 20th, 2015

America has more adventures awaiting you than you can experience in a lifetime. Each time you lace up your boots and head into the nature, you take a step towards a healthier mental and physical state.  So we figured, why spend a ton of money and time heading overseas for outdoor adventures when we can lead trips right here in our own beautiful land.  That also means more military members and their families will be able to take part in these life enhancing experiences.  After climbing the famed Seven Summits of the world, we have moved on to a new project, the USAF 50 Summits Challenge.  The goal: get Airmen to the summit of each state’s highest point and boost healthy coping skills.

This project has been going on for a little over one year and has been a great success.  If you are interested in taking part in a hike of your state’s highest point, or perhaps you want to help support the program, then visit www.USAF50Summits.com.  We are also on Facebook and Twitter!

Team on Summit

US Airmen proudly stand together on the summit of Mt. Hood, Oregon’s highest point. Aug 2015.

Summit Group Photo

US Airmen pose with the American and USAF flags at Washington DC’s highest point. June 2014.

Your Turn: How you can join the team!

September 8th, 2013

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Over the past eight years, the USAF 7 Summits Team has been a constantly changing set of faces…a pick-up team of dedicated folks who wanted to get out and be  apart of something special.  A lot of people have asked us, “How can I get involved?  How can I join the team?”  Here’s your chance.


With the group’s new focus of “Airmen Helping Airmen”, we want to introduce more Airmen to the healing power of the mountains…especially those who may be dealing with the stresses of combat deployments or injuries, or stresses at home.  Getting outdoors, working up a sweat, and reaching a summit is good for the soul.  If you’re the kind of person who already knows that, we’d like you to join of effort and carry that message to others.  And the good news is, you won’t have to save up the airfare to Nepal; you can do it much closer to home.


The original goal for the team was to carry the USAF flag to the highest point on each continent, and that’s been accomplished.  In just a couple weeks, Majors Rob Marshall and Mark Uberuaga will present that flag to the AF Chief of Staff, Gen Mark Welsh.  We’d like all of you to be part of the new effort, and carry an AF flag to the highest point in the 50 states.  If you’re stationed at Eglin or Dover, that’s OK.  Just get together a group of Airmen and make a fun day of it!  If you’re at Beale or F.E. Warren, then you’ll need to plan and select your team a little more carefully.


We’re here to help.  Over the next month or so, we will reorient this website to the new project (while keeping an archive of the 7 Summits climbs), and we’ll use this site and our Facebook page to help you connect with others who want to join you.  What we need from you is what we know Airmen have in abundance:  enthusiasm, organizational skill, and leadership.  Get out there and make it happen!  Email us at: usaf7summits@gmail.com, or message us on FB, and let us know where you are and what summit you’d like to do.  All we ask is that you send us short trip report and photos so we can share it here on the website.  Get after it!

Rainier, Part 5: A Long Way Down

September 6th, 2013
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The team on the rim of the summit crater

We reached the summit at about 0830, and spent about 90 minutes enjoying the views, taking photos, doing pushups, and signing the summit log.  By the time we headed down the mountain, we’d already put in a long day, and we had a long, long way to go yet.  Descending was easier on the lungs, but not necessarily the legs.  And as the sun softened the snow, we had to contend with a route that was quickly turning to the consistency of a snow cone.

Traffic jam at the crux pitch

Traffic jam at the crux pitch


By 1100 we were back at the crux pitch, and while we’d made great time on this section on the ascent, on the descent we ran smack into a traffic jam.  Between the steepness and the sloppy snow, some of the rope teams ahead of us were clearly flummoxed as to how to get down safely.  Driving our axes into the snow for an anchor and sitting on our packs, we cooled our heels for over an hour and a half waiting our turn to rappel down.  Fortunately, the weather was nice and we were even able to get a cell phone signal, allowing Rob to make a quick blog post from 12,600’!


When at last the traffic jam cleared, Mark quickly set up an anchor and belayed the members of our team down over the short pitch.  In no time we were back at the top of the Cleaver, and making our way down over the mixture of snow and rock.   We used extra caution, knowing that the effects of fatigue made a slip or fall more likely.

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Nearing the base of the Cleaver, with Ingrham Glacier in the background.


By about 1500 we were back at Camp Muir, facing the daunting task of striking camp, repacking our loads, and descending another 4,600’ to Paradise.  A couple hours later, we hoisted packs that despite the absence of food and stove fuel seemed every bit as heavy as they had two days earlier!  The long trek down through the Muir Snowfield was a slog, to say the least.  But our delay high on the mountain had at least one silver lining:  by the time we’d reached the snowline, the late afternoon sun was bathing the meadows full of wildflowers in perfect light.  You couldn’t ask for a prettier memory of Rainier.


By the time we dragged into the parking lot at Paradise and dropped our packs for the last time, it was nearly 8 pm.  The visitor center had already closed for the day, and only a few tourists were milling about.  But all of them treated our arrival with a good deal of deference and respect.  Almost 2 million people a year visit the park, but only a tiny fraction of that number actually climb the mountain.  It felt good to be in such company.

The long road home.

The long road home.


Next up:  Your turn.

Rainier, Part 4: Summit Day

September 5th, 2013


When my watch started beeping at 2330, I was a little surprised that I’d actually fallen asleep and caught a few hours of decent rest.  With three of us in a small tent, getting dressed by headlamp was a challenge.  Once outside, we were greeted by a clear, starry sky and a brilliant full moon that almost made headlamps superfluous.  Mark, Rob, and Graydo were already up and had the stoves going, serving up “hots” for coffee, hot chocolate, and oatmeal.  We hydrated as best we could and topped off two liters of water each, and stashed it in our packs.  Without sleeping bags, pads, and food to carry, our loads seemed light…roughly 20 pounds of water, extra clothing, and emergency gear.


Gearing up for the summit climb, as the headlamps of other teams mark the route.

We donned crampons, tied into our respective ropes, checked radios between rope team leaders, and slowly headed off into the darkness at 0100.  With overnight lows just below freezing, the route was firm and crunchy, and our crampons were biting the snow reassuringly.

The Disappointment Cleaver, or “DC” route, crosses the top of the Cowlitz glacier and climbs steadily over a rocky rib called Cathedral Rocks, eventually reaching Ingraham Flats, site of another camp with just a few scattered tents.  With the first 1000’ of vertical behind us, we stopped here for a short rest and hydration break.  With our bodies generating plenty of heat from the exertion of the climb, most of us wore just a thin base layer and a soft-shell jacket.  As soon as we stopped, though, we threw on puffy down jackets to trap that warmth and keep our body temp up.


Sunrise at 12,500'

Sunrise at 12,500

From our rest stop, we ascended just a bit further up the Ingraham glacier, crossing one major crevasse that had an aluminum ladder spanning the three-foot gap.  Unlike ladders on Everest, this one had been considerately equipped with a small piece of plywood, sparing climbers the need to peer into the abyss.  Soon we were inching our way along a narrow ledge at the base of the Cleaver.  With the flood of moonlight illuminating the glacier far below us, the exposure was enough to keep our attention focused inwards, on the rocks.  The winding route up the prow of the Cleaver was slow going, with crampons scraping over bare rock as we felt for handholds by the light of our headlamps.  Eventually we moved to the left, back onto the security of snow, and reached the top of the Cleaver just as the first streaks of dawn appeared in the eastern sky.



After another short rest, we headed up across a vast snowfield towards a steep wall of ice.  While most of the climb could best be described as “a long walk in the snow”, the short section above us promised some excitement.  A short pitch of 60-70 degree snow and ice topped out on a serac, where a narrow snow bridge led across to safer ground.  A fixed rope offered a little extra security, and we attacked the pitch with gusto.


Dawn heads up the crux pitch.

Dawn heads up the crux pitch.

By the time we’d all passed this crux point, it was fully daylight.  As we traversed around the eastern flank of the mountain, the winds picked up slightly, but all the same the temperatures remained comfortable as we passed the 13,000’ mark.   Far below, morning fog hung in the lush valleys of the park, a stark contrast to the world of snow and ice we were transiting.



Crossing the snow bridge

Crossing the snow bridge

After thirty minutes of switchbacks up the 35-40 degree slope and one more rest stop, we began to pass teams on the descent, who had started even earlier than we had.  They offered us words of encouragement and we replied in kind with congratulations of their successful summit.  Sooner than I had dared to hope, we were cresting the lip of the caldera at Guide Rocks, and shedding our packs before exchanging high-fives and backslapping bear hugs.  All that remained was a quarter mile traverse of the caldera, and a short climb up to the true summit at 14,411’.  We posed for the usual variety of summit photos before knocking out pushups in honor of fallen comrades.  Our two wounded warriors were all smiles.  I thought of one of the quotes Rob had read to us two days earlier:


“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”  –Rene Daumal


Doug and Brian would return to work in a few days with a new perspective, that of one who knows what is above.  They would never gaze up at “the Mountain” in quite the same way, regarding it merely as a distant landmark.  Instead they would feel, as we all would, a personal connection to the mountain.  They would know what was above.


Doug and Brian on the summit, 14,411'

Doug and Brian on the summit, 14,411′



Rainier, Part 3: Training Day

September 4th, 2013
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Sunrise over Camp Muir

We awoke to another glorious day.  Despite cramped tents, thin air, and low temperatures near freezing, everyone slept pretty well after the long hike up to Camp Muir.  The prospect of a day to train and acclimatize, without having to carry a pack, was appealing.  A bright sun rapidly warmed the camp as we set about making breakfast.  Properly fueled with coffee, hot chocolate and eggs, we were ready for our training day.  Mark’s previous experience as a guide on Rainier was immediately evident, as he walked us though the basics of traversing snow and ice slopes with crampons and an ice axe, and taught the essential skill of self-arrest in the event of a fall.  When crossing glaciers or steep terrain, climbers rope together for safety.  If one person falls, every member of the rope team executes a self-arrest, anchoring the rope team.  It’s the wingman principle in action.

After lunch, we strapped on crampons and ventured out onto the Cowlitz Glacier, maneuvering around crevasses and getting the hang of rope management and moving as a team, four people on each rope team.  Eventually we worked our way to the lip of a large crevasse, a gaping crack in the glacier spanning fifteen or twenty feet across and plunging fifty feet or more down into the belly of the beast.  Here we set up and anchor to practice rescue techniques, in the event we should need to haul someone out after a fall.  Doug, one of our wounded warriors, graciously volunteered to take the sharp end of the rope, and was soon lowered down into the ice.  Setting up a pulley system to haul someone out takes some time, and Doug was a trooper as he dangled on the end of a 10mm rope while we got organized.  Across the crevasse, a group of three park rangers were practicing the same drill, and keeping a watchful eye to make sure we knew what we were doing.   With our trusty guides, they needn’t have worried.

Supper came early, as the whole team turned in by 8 pm in order to grab as much rest as possible before our 2330 wakeup call.  With adrenaline flowing and thoughts of what lay in the darkness above Camp Muir, it was a restless evening.

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Dinner time at camp. The start of the Disappointment Cleaver route crosses the rock outcropping in the distance.


Tomorrow:  Summit Day.





Rainier ’13, Part 2: The hike to Camp Muir

September 3rd, 2013

As promised, Saturday dawned bright and beautiful, portending near-perfect weather for our climb.  We met up for breakfast at the Whittaker Bunkhouse…not because it’s owned by the famous twin Whittaker brothers (Jim was the first American to climb Everest), but because it’s pretty much the only game in town in Ashford.  One cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito later, we were ready to load up the gear and head up to the Visitors Center at Paradise.  Brian Wadtke’s wife and a friend (both Airmen as well) joined us to make the hike as far as Camp Muir.  Named for the famous naturalist John Muir (who founded the Sierra Club), Camp Muir hugs the flanks of Rainier at 10,000’, a 4.5 mile and 4600’ climb from the parking lot at Paradise.  Ambitious park visitors make the hike to the top of the Muir snowfield as a day trip, and this outpost of a few stone buildings and a large tent city serves as high camp for the majority of climbers who attempt the summit.

Graydon 3

Mark shoulders his 50+ pound pack.

After distributing stoves, fuel, food, tents and snow pickets, everyone’s pack was tipping the scales at 50 pounds or more.  We shouldered our loads and walked the short distance from long-term parking up to the visitor center, stopping to fill water bottles and pose for a team photo.  Rob got the group in the right frame of mind with a couple quotes from a well-worn book he’s carried since his days as a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch.   My favorite, from the aforementioned John Muir:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

With that bit of inspiration, we headed up the trail.

As you might expect on a sunny Saturday in July, the trail was crowded with everyone from casual tourists out for a stroll among the wildflowers to a few dedicated skiers heading up to the snowfield to bag a few summer turns.  Our heavy packs with ice axes lashed to them made our intentions pretty obvious.  We encountered snow within an hour’s hiking, and from that point on were on snow almost continuously.  Despite the surroundings, it was shorts & t-shirts weather, and sunburn was a much bigger worry than frostbite.


Graydon 4

The team at Paradise Visitor Center.

After six hours of steady uphill climbing, we struggled into Camp Muir, shrugged off the heavy packs, and began digging out snow platforms for our tents, overlooking the Cowlitz Glacier.  A snow slope is improvised furniture waiting to happen, and in no time we had hacked out a kitchen counter with room for two stoves and two cooks, and soon Rob and Graydon were serving up a delicious dinner of tuna noodle casserole.

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Slogging into Camp Muir after a long hard climb.


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Graydon and Rob in the kitchen







As the sun set, we enjoyed spectacular views of Mt Saint Helens, Mt Hood, and the other peaks of the Cascades.  A few ambitious souls scaled up Muir Peak in the moonlight, before turning in for some well earned rest.

Graydon 8

Moonrise over Muir Peak


Rainier ’13: Part One–A Plan Comes Together

September 2nd, 2013


(By Rob Suminsby, Rainier ’13 team)

If you haven’t checked out the link in the previous blog post to Jason Truskowski’s great article about the Rainier climb, please do!  Jason was an avid supporter throughout the Everest Expedition, and he hiked most of the way to Camp Muir on Rainier in order to tell the story of the team’s new direction.  Herewith, an expanded trip report on Rainier 2013…read on!

After the successful Everest summit, the USAF 7 Summits co-founders Majors Rob Marshall and Mark Uberuaga had seen an amazingly ambitious project through to completion.  But the question kept coming up in Blog comments and emails:  “What’s next?”  And lots of Airmen wanted to know, “How can I get involved?”

The 7 Summits project began with the aim of promoting camaraderie and esprit d’corps among US Airmen and of highlighting the Air Force’s focus on personal fitness and growth.  As time went on, the team became more closely involved with efforts to help wounded warriors, culminating in the inclusion of three AF wounded warriors in the trek to Everest Base Camp.   Both Mark and Rob wanted to build upon that foundation, and reach out to both wounded warriors and more generally to Airmen who could benefit from the experience of mountaineering.  Mark used to work as a professional guide on Mount Rainier, and he and Rob quickly decided upon a late July climb there as a perfect way to launch the new effort.

The word went out via email, Facebook, and this website, and we quickly assembled a team of twelve climbers, including two wounded warriors, Staff Sgt. Brian Wadtke and Master Sgt. Doug Neville, combat controllers from the 22nd Special Tactics Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.  If you’ve ever been to JB Lewis-McChord (on a clear day, that is), you know how Mount Rainier dominates the skyline.  These two Airmen decided to join the team and prove that their combat injuries would not get in the way of their desire to stand on the rim of that 14,410’ giant.  The rest of the team was made a diverse group: current and former Airmen, civilian friends, male and female, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties.  Most of us had little or no previous climbing experience, trusting that our rope-team leaders Rob, Mark, and Graydon Muller (a veteran of Denali and Mt Vinson) would teach us all the skills we needed.


Disappointment Cleaver route on Mount Rainier

Disappointment Cleaver route on Mount Rainier

We all converged on Seattle on Friday, 19 July.  I’d flown over Rainier many times before, but as I peered out the window on the descent into SEATAC, it suddenly looked like a much more serious mountain.  Moisture-laden storms rolling in from the Pacific drop a huge snowpack on the Cascades, crowning Rainier with a year-round cap of ice and snow, which feeds glaciers flowing in all directions.   It made me question for just a moment the sanity of this endeavor.

At baggage claim, I caught up with Rob and Dawn, a USAFA classmate of Rob’s who now works as a physical therapist in San Diego.  An hour later we’d loaded all our gear into a rental car and were on our what to the tiny town of Ashford, the western gateway to Mt Rainier National Park.

The rest of the team had already arrived, and we were greeted with cold beer and burgers on the grill.  Even though most of us were meeting for the first time, it took no time to form fast friendships as we sorted gear on the deck, breathed in the smell of pine and cedar, and enjoyed a cool evening with the promise of great weather for the morning.

Burgers are up!  Rob, our ER doc from Boise, ID

Burgers are up! Rob, our ER doc from Boise, ID

Rainier Success! What’s Next: “50 Summits Challenge”

August 29th, 2013

With the Mt. Rainier climb a big success (see article link below), what’s next for the USAF 7 Summits Challenge?  Well, we have some pretty exciting stuff in the works.  Most notably, we are formulating a new project we will likely call the “USAF 50 Summits Challenge”.

The project’s goal would be similar to the 7 Summits Challenge in that we want Airmen to get outside and reach the summit of peaks!  However, this project won’t involve expeditions to far flung corners of the Earth.  Rather, our goal will be to get the Air Force flag to the summit of the highest point in each of the 50 states.  In doing so, we will work to promote resiliency, camaraderie, and esprit d’ corps among Airmen.

Organizing 50 climbs would be overwhelming, so we will be looking for help from Airmen all over America.  Once the Challenge begins, we will be looking for motivated climbers and outdoorsy Airmen to head up a trip to the highest peak in their state.  So stay tuned and be a part of history!

Climb High, Fly Low,

Maj Rob Marshall


Photos from Summit Day

July 22nd, 2013

We are currently stuck in a traffic jam at 12,800ft. Some climbers so uncomfortable with steep part that they panic and get stage fright. Sooo, the good news is that I have my first cell phone signal of the climb, hence this blog update!

All climbers are healthy and well. Some were pushed to their limits, but thanks to teamwork and perseverance, they overcame fears/comfort zones and made it to the top. It was a very powerful moment as all embraced and high-fived on the summit.

Now to get down!

Attached are photos for your enjoyment. More to come when we consolidate them in Ashford.



Sunrise on glacier

Traffic jam. Argh!

Success! Mt Rainier Summit Shot.

July 22nd, 2013

The USAF 7 Summits Team / Climbing for Warriors- success on Mt Rainier! 0915PT July 22. Airmen climb to help fellow Airmen. GO AIR FORCE!