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Archive for May, 2013

May 20-25: March to Civilization

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

Good Morning! Or, as they would say here, “Namaste”!

This blog post covers the end of our adventure here in Nepal. It’s currently 6pm on May 25th here in Kathmandu. Five of the six team members will fly out tonight and one tomorrow. That will get us all back during Memorial Weekend, which should buy us the time we need to shave, clean up, and get ready for uniformed work on Tuesday. It’s amazing how fast we’ll have gone from living in tents above 20,000ft to proudly wearing our USAF uniforms and rejoining our friends and colleagues at work.

After the big summit push on May 20/21, life changed quickly. The last of our energy reserves were spent, our bodies had been pushed to a new extreme, and now we had to go from 26,000ft (Camp 4) all the way to 9,000ft (Lukla Airport). The final descent from Mt. Everest is one of the most accident-prone parts of the expedition. Climbers are exhausted, but still must navigate steep slopes of ice and rock. There were many other climbers trying to work their way up to Camp 4 as we came down, which posed a problem- how to get around them safely. We would have to unclip from the sole safety rope, hold onto the ascending climbers, reach around them and clip back in behind them. It was a dance we performed many times and with great concentration, but it never got comfortable, as the ice/rock was so steep that a fall when unclipped would be catastrophic.

I personally like going uphill much more than downhill. In fact, I’ve been known to say I’d rather climb something twice than have to descend it. Descending the mountain is much harder on the knees, feet and joints than the slow pace of going uphill. But the team did a great job and quickly descended from Camp 4 (26,000′) to Camp 2 (21,300′) without issue. At Camp 2 we had our first chance to take on water and food since leaving for the summit the evening prior. They say the summit push requires ~12,000 calories, not to mention what was needed for the descent to Camp 2. I’d say our average caloric intake during the summit attempt was about 400 each (when it’s that cold outside, you can’t stop and have a picnic, so most of us ate some energy gel packets at our few breaks), so you can imagine how hungry/exhausted we all were.

Camp 2 was our first chance to check up on Capt Merrin and SSgt Gibson, who had descended before the rest of us. They were luckily doing quite well, given the huge disappointment of having to turn around. However, they both knew the decision was the right one and were proud of making such a difficult decision in a timely manner.

I’ll never forget when Capt Merrin told me he had to turn around. Capt Ackles and I were climbing up a steep pitch and caught up to him on a ledge. It was a bit of a blur of headlamps and other climbers navigating the narrow ledge where he sat, but just as I was about to reach him, I saw two boots sticking out from the snowy ledge- they belonged to a deceased climber that must have been frozen there for a few years. Colin wasn’t aware of the body at the time, so when he told me he had made the decision to return to Camp 4 due to his respiratory infection, I told him it was clearly the right decision, as there was a deceased climber 30′ from us that had likely failed to make such a critical decision. It was a heart breaking moment to know he wouldn’t continue up with us, but I was also terribly proud of him for making such a smart decision. I shake my head as I write this, thinking how tough that call must of been, yet how sure he was that it was the right one.

Anyway, Camp 2 was our opportunity to come together as a team again. Everyone was exhausted and dealing with pains from the previous 24hrs. But by dinner time, after lots of hot juice and snacks, people were regaining a little energy. That night was hard on a lot of the guys- many were up all night coughing. The dry, frigid air and heavy respiratory exerition of passing slower teams during the climb gave or aggravated coughs in most the climbers. In some cases, the coughs were The next morning (22nd) we all made it out of Camp 2 and climbed one last time through the Khumbu Ice Fall. It had been very active since we came through it on the way up- lots of ice had shifted/fallen and new crevasses were open. It was a reminder of the danger of the Icefall, but we also knew it was our last time having to expose ourselves to its unpredictable nature.

Finally back at Everest Base Camp, you’d think we’d break into celebration. However, we didn’t quite have the energy for a whole lot, plus I think all of us were a bit down b/c we didn’t get 100% of the team to the summit. The most we did to celebrate was to have one beer while standing around in our climbing gear, share some stories about the past 36 hrs, and then head to our tents to begin packing. This was also our last day with our Sherpas. As you can imagine, we all became pretty tight with them since we had spent the last few weeks climbing together. We said our goodbyes, gave them tips, and a few of us left them with climbing gear as a form of thanks and to help them upgrade their equipment to safer/more reliable gear.

The next morning, May 22rd, we had breakfast, and hit the trail. Normally this would be a rest day, but we decided to start heading home. Capt Martin wanted to return to his pregnant wife and child, plus the rest of us wanted to limit the amount of leave we were using. So this team of battered climbers headed off on an ambitious nine hour hike up and down rugged trails to a mountain village called Phortse. Much of the hike was in a cloud fog, which kept us cool and helped soothe our heinous coughs. It was nice to see some green as we left the ice/snow behind and descending lower into the valley. Plus, the thicker air was a nice treat. However, the hard hike aggravated toe/foot/knee pains and we all realized the summit push had wiped out most our energy. We rolled into my climbing Sherpa’s trekking lodge just before sunset. Meeting his wife and son was the highlight of the day and they were great hosts for the night, even though we were pretty much zombies by the time the dinner of rice and lentil soup/potatoes came out.

That night was some of the first “good” sleep many of the team got- a bed, roof, and blanket can make a big difference. A few of us continued to struggle with coughs that would keep us up at night, but they were slowly subsiding. In the morning (23rd), we had a breakfast of one fried egg and some Tibetan bread, did a phone interview with the Seattle Times, and then said farewell to Dawa’s family. His wife, a wonderful soul, presented each of us with a traditional scarf that is meant to bring good luck and safe travels (photo attached). We visited the Khumbu Climbing School, which teaches Sherpas the critical skills necessary to safely work as climbing porters/guides among the Himalaya. Many of our Sherpa friends had been students or instructors there. Then it was time to press on with another long day of hiking.

We were moving slower this time than the previous day. Toenails were starting to come off, coughs were causing ribs to separate (terrible painful), and our bodies just ached overall. However, we knew we would recover faster in the thicker air and that getting back to a hot shower and clean clothes in Kathmandu would be a great reward. While the physical discomforts were significant, the natural beauty around us made the trip easier. Attached is a photo of part of the trail- Rhododendron trees were plentiful below Phortse and their beautiful flowers littered parts of the trail. Rivers that were just little creeks when we started this trek were now full of roaring rapids fueled by the melting snow and ice high above.

The team made it into Namche Bazar as our stomachs were growling loudly. We can’t eat a lot at once, b/c our stomachs have shrunk, but we have a huge calorie deficit to make up for… so eating was high on our minds as we pulled into this key mountain village. After food, hot drinks, some shopping, a visit to the pharmacy for cough medicine, and a little internet (we wanted to upload summit photos and the pushup video), we pressed on, leaving the warmth and comfort behind for a few more hours on the trail. It was a steep descent, but about three hours later we pulled into Phakding. The trails were now mud and rain-slicked rocks, with thicker vegetation all around. It was quite a change from the ice and rock we left 36 hrs ago.

I laugh thinking how we all looked at this point. It was about 8pm and everyone was spread out among some dining tables, waiting for food to come. It looked like a few would fall asleep sitting up. Our clothes were damp and muddy, beards were scraggly, and we were filthy overall. During dinner, we decided it was best to wake up at 2:30am and hike through the dark to ensure we arrived for our flight in time. The weather in Lukla had been bad for the last few days and there was a large backup of passengers/trekkers/climbers waiting for a flight to Kathmandu. If we missed our flight, we would go to the back of the line. Since we had been waking up at 3am up on Everest, we figured it wouldn’t be an issue to do it again. So we got a few hours of sleep and met for a breakfast of porridge and hot coffee. Our clothes were still wet from the previous day, but the thought of Kathmandu just a few hours away made it seem trivial.

The hike from Phakding to Lukla was fun for me. There’s something I like about walking in the dark, through sleeping villages, and getting the chance to see what’s going on when we’re usually asleep. Before we knew it, we had two dogs accompanying us and even had a goat follow us for a while. It took a lot of shooing and attempts to tie it up, but finally the goat got the idea that we didn’t want it to follow us. The dogs would run around in the dark like little scouts- a bit of entertainment for us as we picked our way through the mud and stones via headlamp.

Finally we arrived in Lukla. Our early departure worked out great- we were there 1.5 hrs before our flight, which gave us time to get a cup of tea/coffee and a bit more breakfast. With little sleep and food in the past 5 days, we were a bit stressed, but we knew once we were on the airplane we’d be fine. There was a bit of confusion regarding the flight and tickets, but soon we were in the small airport getting ready to board our flight. We lucked out- it was the first day of flyable weather in four days. However, our bags from Base Camp hadn’t arrived yet, which was disappointing. It’s never a good idea to fly out without all your gear, but in this case, we had little choice.

I felt a great relief as we touched down in Kathmandu. I knew that once the plane safely landed, we had successfully survived our expedition to Mt. Everest. I could hardly remember starting the trip- it felt like ages ago and so much had happened between now and then. Thanks to our use of Risk Management and teamwork, we all made it through the last 60 days with hardly a scratch and 4/6 climbers on the Top of the World. The expedition was a HUGE success.

We’ve been able to highlight important Air Force values: teamwork, camaraderie, risk management, and physical fitness. From the buzz on Facebook, the insane amount of traffic on our website (it has crashed twice due to the amount of traffic and the server bandwidth had to be quadrupled!), and the excellent press coverage we’ve received, I think it’s safe to say our goal of doing something patriotic and positive has been reached and exceeded. I’m more excited about the success of this 7 Summits team than than reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. That was just a moment in time, but this project will hopefully continue to spread goodwill and encourage Airmen to find news forms of physical fitness and tools to boost resiliency and safety.

Ok, that’s it from Kathmandu. I’m not sure how this blog post got so long, but I hope it was informative and painted a good picture of our last few days. We leave for the airport soon and most of us should be back in America by Sunday the 26th. Much of our luggage is still missing, but it is too late now to do anything about it now. Getting our feet back on American soil is what we’re focused on now… can’t wait to be back in the country we love and fight for, and to see the people there that make it such a great home.

“Climb High, Fly Low”

Rob


Flower lined trail from Phortse to Namche


Capt Marshall Klitzke receiving good luck scarf from Yanjeen, Maj Marshall’s climbing Sherpa’s wife


Maj Marshall and Yanjeen


The USAF 7 Summits Challenge team’s first meal back in Kathmandu. From left to right: Capt Drew Ackles, (Roger- an Everest climber that joined us for the meal), Capt Marshall Klitzke, Maj Rob Marshall, Capt Kyle Martin, SSgt Nick Gibson and Capt Colin Merrin.

Beaten down, but not broken

Friday, May 24th, 2013

We had hoped Rob might be able to post a new blog last night, now that the team is back in Katmandu. We may see one later tonight (once everyone wakes up in Nepal), but for now we can at least report that everyone has made it back to some semblance of a normal existence. The team hiked 40 miles in 18 hours to catch their flight, proving that the promise of a hot shower is strong motivator, even when your body is beaten down by weeks of living at high altitude, restless sleep, and limited appetite. Rob reports that they are a pretty sorry looking group. (Except for the beards, of course…those are looking good, with Nick Gibson and Marshall Klitzke bordering on world-class!) They will no doubt feel better after a few days of sleeping in a real bed and breathing thicker air.

We’ll keep you posted as the team makes it’s way back to the States. We hope to arrange for the team to get out to some Air Force bases to tell their story to fellow Airmen, and they may even get some invites from major media outlets to tell a good-news story for a change. But whatever the news coverage, we always owe a big debt to all of you who followed this epic journey here on our blog, and cheered on the team!

Here’s a picture posted earlier to our Facebook page, of Rob, Kyle, Drew and Marshall at Base Camp after the climb. As you can see from the smiles, the bodies may be hurting, but the spirits are strong!

Base Camp with beer

The Long Road Home

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

The team is on the road home. They were all eager to depart the barren world of Base Camp for greener pastures. You can still track their progress on the GPS tracking link; they are making good time down the Khumbu valley. After all they have a plane to catch! Rob was able to send out the photo below, taken with his iPhone at Camp 4 on the South Col. Summit photos were on another camera, and he promised to send those as soon as he could download them and send them out.

Although their spirits are high, the weeks at high altitude have taken their toll. Rob is still battling a bad chest infection and hacking cough, and many of the team have sunburn, bloodshot eyes, and cracked or bleeding toes. As Rob put it “the mountain put up a good fight.” Everyone made an effort to pack on some pounds before this trip, and most have lost 11-17% of their body weight….40 lbs in Kyle Martin’s case. They are all struggling to hold their pants up.

The team will spend the night in the town of Phorste, and Rob has promised more photos tonight if he can get them out.

Marshall, Nick, Colin, Rob, and Drew at Camp 4 on thre South Col, 26,000'

Marshall, Nick, Colin, Rob, and Drew at Camp 4 on thre South Col, 26,000′

Everest Voice Update

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

A voice check-in by the Everest '13 team. Press the play button to hear how the team of Airmen are doing- it might be an update from the wounded warriors, trekkers, or summit team.

Return to Base Camp

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The team reached Everest Base Camp last night (about 10am Nepal time), after their final crossing of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. When they first arrived here on their trek six weeks ago, the air at 16,500′ seemed very thin, and the camp was teeming with climbers. By now, many of those climbers have packed their bags and begun the long journey home, leaving base camp a smaller, quieter place. Within a day or two, Rob, Kyle, Nick, Marshall, Colin and Drew will begin that trek as well. This time, it will be a relatively gentle downhill hike for these guys who have acclimatized their bodies to extreme elevation. After six weeks in a world completely devoid of vegetation, surrounded by ice and rock, they will relish the lush surroundings of the lower Khumbu. And of course, they will return to such luxuries as an internet connection, so they can catch up with the many friends and family who have been following their progress. Let’s give them a warm welcome back to the world.

photo

20 May: Update from Camp 2

Monday, May 20th, 2013

It’s really annoying to find a missed call on your cell phone and realize you missed a call from Everest! Nonetheless, Rob did check in this morning (early evening in Nepal) to confirm that all six climbers were back at Camp 2 and chilling out in the comparatively “thick air.” Most of them had developed nagging coughs, not unlike the Khumbu cough, but exaggerated by breathing extremely dry air and oxygen. They may even elect to spend one more day resting before making the final descent to Base Camp through the icefall..there is certainly no need to rush, and the icefall is a demanding section that requires everyone to be on their A game. They will be trying to rehydrate and force down some food…Rob reported that most of them only consumed about 300 calories on the long day of the summit push. And of course, they’ll be allowing sore knees to recover a bit, after a long 8000′ descent in a single day!

We hope everyone will stay tuned, as we expect to get some photos from the team within a few days. Traffic on the website caused it to crash this morning, and we apologize for that…but we certainly appreciate all the interest!

Climbers in the Khumbu Icefall.

Climbers in the Khumbu Icefall.

Safely at Camp 2

Monday, May 20th, 2013

The team completed their descent all the way to Camp 2, almost 20 hours after they departed from the South Col for the summit. (And recall they got little if any actual sleep at Camp 4, so they mush have been really spent by the time they arrived.) After a good night’s rest, they will descend one last time through the Khumbu Icefall to Everest Base Camp, where they will pack up and begin the trek back to civilization. By “civilization” of course, we mean “wi-fi”, and we all look forward to seeing the photos from the final push up the mountain.

Yesterday’s website traffic reached almost 12,000 hits, and we thank all of you who so closely followed this climb. Hopefully as the word of the accomplishment spreads, the team will receive even more widespread recognition. Hundreds of people climb Everest in a typical year, but these guys did it for all the right reasons: to promote esprit de corps in the Air Force, to honor their fallen comrades, and to raise awareness of risk management in saving lives and preventing injury. Please continue to spread their positive message to others!

Camp 2.

Camp 2.

Back at Camp 4

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Rob checked in about an hour ago to report that the team was just below the Balcony on descent.  The team were among the first dozen or so to summit today, so on descent there were many climbers still ascending, but at a slower pace.  The team is taking their time and being patient, as they have to work around people on the fixed ropes.  Rob said he had managed to drink some tea on the Balcony (enjoying the view, no doubt) and was feeling reinvigorated by that.  Since there is still plenty of daylight, the team plans to rest briefly at Camp 4 and rehydrate, and then descend the fixed ropes on the Lhotse Face to Camp 2.  Rappelling down the face will be much easier than climbing up, but they will have to wait for an opportunity as other climbers will be making ascents to Camps 3 and 4.  Still, getting down lower will greatly improve their chances of good night’s rest.  The air down at 21,000’ should feel like a day at the beach compared to the summit!

 

Those who have followed the USAF 7 Summits Challenge know that the team has a tradition of doing pushups on the summit of each peak they climb, and this was no exception.  Rob Marshall knocked out an incredible 30 pushups in 30 seconds, at 29,000’, without oxygen!  (That might just earn him a waiver from his annual PT test.)

 

The track is  now showing them back at Camp 4.  Please keep your thoughts and prayers with the team as they continue the descent.

Camp 4 on the South Col. Photo courtesy of www.alanarnette.com

Camp 4 on the South Col. Photo courtesy of www.alanarnette.com

Looking Back

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

The team has begun its descent from the summit of Mount Everest, and while the climb is far from over, we want to take a moment to reflect back on the long road to this achievement.

The USAF 7 Summits Challenge began eight years ago, at RAF Mildenhall. Then-Capt Rob Marshall, co-founder of the Challenge, had been working and living with one of the fallen crew members of Wrath 11, an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130H ‘Talon II’ that crashed in Albania in March of 2005. Rob and the other co-founder, then-Capt Mark Uberuaga, had been planning a climb of Mount Elbrus in the Caucus Mountains of Russia, the highest point in Europe. They decided to dedicate their climb to their fallen comrades, and use the climb as a way to clear their heads and deal with the loss of their friends. As they progressed in their planning, they eventually decided to launch an effort to climb all of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. In addition to this symbolic first climb, the team also began raising funds and awareness for military charities that would support the families of the fallen airmen.

With the Seven Summits now squarely in their sights, they developed the vision for the newly formed USAF 7 Summits Challenge: “We climb to promote camaraderie and esprit d ’corps among US Airmen and to highlight the Air Force’s focus on personal fitness and growth.” Over the intervening years, others joined the effort for various climbs as the team ticked off summit after summit: Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mt. Aconcagua in South America, Mt. McKinley in Alaska, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, and Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia. The intent was never for any single individual to climb the Seven Summits, but rather for an ever-changing team of USAF climbers to carry the USAF flag to each of these peaks. Managing these expeditions around conflicting TDY schedules and combat deployments wasn’t easy, but they kept at it.

The entire Challenge has unfolded during a period when the USAF, and the nation, has been at war. The idea of building resiliency, the ability to deal with adversity and loss and come back stronger, has shaped the team’s thinking more and more over the years. Everyone who has climbed as part of the team has shared the sentiment that the time spent in the mountains is good for the human spirit, and the idea of inviting Wounded Warriors to join them on the trek to Everest Base Camp was born out if that sentiment.

For the Everest climb, the team also seized on the opportunity to add another aspect to their mission: using their climbing to promote the Air Force vision of Risk Management, not just on the job, but off-duty as well. All of the USAF Everest climbers have been trained in Risk Management, and use it every day in their primary jobs. But they also live and breath RM in their mountaineering, and here was a chance to promote that mindset among all Airmen. The AF Safety Center has been a strong supporter of this effort, and you can expect to hear more about this climb in the future as they continue to promote the idea of “off-duty” RM.

Many people have asked about the future of the USAF 7 Summits Challenge. Will they make plans for other peaks, or a return to some of the Seven Summits? For now, it’s too early to tell. No single team member has climbed all seven summits, and no doubt a few of them still itch to finish their personal bucket list. Certainly the team hopes that others will set their sights on distant peaks just as the Challenge founders did, as a means of honoring their comrades, and staying strong in the face of adversity.

Rob Marshall, on a ski descent of Mt Elbrus, the first climb of the USAF 7 Summits Challenge.

Rob Marshall, on a ski descent of Mt Elbrus, the first climd of the USAF 7 Summits Challenge.

On the Summit: 29,035′

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Just received the call we’ve all been waiting for from Maj Rob Marshall, leader of the USAF 7 Summits team, reporting that he and three other team members reached the summit of Mount Everest at approximately 0520 Nepal time. Fifty years after the first American boots stood on top of the world, the first American military team has followed in those footsteps. They report very cold temps and windy, but not a cloud in the sky. They will unfurl the Star and Stripes and the USAF flag on the summit, and we’ll post that photo just as soon as we get it.

Two of the climbers, Capt Colin Merrin and SSgt Nick Gibson, turned back earlier. Colin had been fighting a respiratory infection and just didn’t have the energy reserves to summit safely, and Nick was risking frostbite in his toes. 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. Both made a good decision to turn back, and they are already safely back at Camp 4.

Spread the word to all your friends and fellow Airman: the USAF flag is flying from the highest of the high ground!Summit Tracks