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Trekking to Namche: Meet the team!

The USAF 7 Summits team arrived at Lukla airport after a flight from Katmandu yesterday, and today we begin the trek to the village of Namche Bazaar at an elevation of 11,286’. Namche is the largest town in the Khumbu Valley, and is the first stop along the route to Everest base camp. The team will spend several nights here to allow everyone’s body to acclimatize to the thinner air. It wasn’t long ago that some of us were living near sea level!

Careful management of altitude acclimatization is one of our primary concerns on this climb. The past two decades of high altitude mountaineering in the Himalaya have produced a wealth of information about how the human body responds to altitude, and we will be relying on that knowledge to keep everyone safe as we move higher into the Khumbu.

We hope all the folks following this blog are excited by this project to carry the USAF flag to the summit of Everest. If you’d like to know a little more about us, here’s a little background to help you get acquainted with the team.

The team travelling to Everest Base Camp consists of three groups of Airmen. Six climbers will actually venture above base camp with the goal of climbing the highest mountain on earth. They will be accompanied on the trek to base camp by three Wounded Warriors, who aim to demonstrate the resiliency that helps Airmen rebound from their injuries and take on major challenges. Finally, four trekkers will accompany the team as far as base camp, to lend their support to this historic effort.

The team leader for the Everest climb is Maj Rob Marshall, one of the co-founders of the USAF 7 Summits Challenge. Originally from Mercer Island, WA, Rob is a 2001 US Air Force Academy (USAFA) grad, who grew up tackling classic Pacific Northwest peaks like Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. When he moved on to Colorado, he joined the USAFA Mountaineering Club and began chalking up Colorado 14ers, knocking out 27 of the state’s 54 14,000’ peaks before graduating. Shortly after graduation Rob made his first visit to the Himalaya, where he trekked to Everest Base Camp, a fateful encounter that planted a seed that later took root as the USAF 7 Summits Challenge. In 2005, while stationed at RAF Mildenhall, he met a fellow special ops pilot and Washington native, Mark Uberuaga. Mark’s dad was a ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park, and Mark was already an accomplished mountaineer. They began climbing together in Europe, and together they conceived of the 7 Summits project as a way of boosting morale and raising money for military charities.

Rob is currently stationed in Amarillo, TX, where he serves as the CV-22 Acceptance Test Pilot at the Bell plant. The flatlands of the Texas panhandle are not the optimum place to train for mountain climbing, so Rob has made frequent trips to northern NM and CO, in search of the thinnest air he can find.

Captain Colin Merrin of Santee, CA is a GPS Operations Mission Commander at Schriever AFB, CO. Colin is an avid rock climber, with 5.12 and 5.13 difficulty climbs to his credit. Like Rob Marshall, he is a USAFA grad (’06) and an alum of the USAFA Mountaineering Club, with 13 Colorado 14ers on his climbing resume, as well as 22,840’ Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest point in South America.

Colin has the distinct advantage of living and training at the higher elevations of the Colorado front range, and Captain Marshall Klitzke shares that benefit. Marshall, a KC-135 pilot currently serving as a T-41 instructor pilot at the Academy, just met Colin a few months ago as they began preparations for Everest. Originally from Lemmon, SD, Marshall admits that he didn’t know much about climbing when he arrived in CO. As he puts it, “My friends and I would read the classic reference book, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, and that weekend we’d be hanging off some crag and encouraging each other with “Yeah, that looks like the picture in the book.” In addition to climbing 16 of the Colorado 14ers, Marshall recently completed summits of two peaks in Nepal over 20,000’.

Far from the mountains of CO, the remainder of the team has had to make do with training opportunities on the east coast. Capt Kyle Martin, a classmate and climbing partner of Marshall Klitzke, is an F-16 pilot currently flying T-38s as an Adversary Air asset at Langley AFB, VA. Originally from the “Little Apple” of Manhattan, KS, he had his first taste of the mountains on a Boy Scout trip to CO. Like so many of his 7 Summits teammates, he wound up at USAFA and was drawn to the Mountaineering Club, spending many weekends with a pickup truck full of friends and climbing equipment, exploring the mountains in search of adventure. These days, he’s just as likely to be accompanied by his wife, Kelly, who he met while climbing in Japan.

Like Marshall, Kyle has travelled to Nepal before, summiting three peaks there, including 22,484’ Ama Dablan.

Capt Drew Ackles grew up in Ashland, OR, with volcanic peaks such as Mt Shasta (14,179’) practically in his backyard. The pull of the mountains landed him a college job working on Mt. Hood, where he summited ten times. Drew has also summited Mt. Rainer in WA five times, from three different routes, and has climbed Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. As a TH-1H helicopter instructor pilot at Ft. Rucker, AL, he has had to travel far and wide to find something that takes more than 10 minutes to climb!

Right next door to Alabama, in Atlanta, GA, SSgt Nick Gibson is studying to be a Physician’s Assistant at Emory University. As well as being a climber, Nick serves as the team’s medic, a role he ironically set out to avoid. The son of two USAF medics, his Dad a flight surgeon and his Mom a psychologist and military family life counselor, Nick had initially vowed “no military and no medicine.” The events of 9/11 changed all that, and Nick answered the call to serve and found himself training as an AF Pararescueman (PJ). After five years on active duty and several combat deployments, he joined the Alaska ANG, where he honed his climbing and rescue skills in the big mountains. Now assigned to a Reserve unit at Patrick AFB, FL, Nick has spent the past couple weeks out west, acclimatizing to the higher elevations and making final preparations for Everest.

In the next couple days we’ll introduce you to the Wounded Warriors and Trekkers who are accompanying us to Base Camp. We’re psyched to have these great people hiking along side of us!

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