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May 20-25: March to Civilization

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”


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.

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