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Looking Back

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.