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Surrounded by blowing clouds and the deep deep blue of the high altitude sky, three USAF 7 Summits Challenge climbers took a few more excited breaths. With just one more right turn around some loose scree and cold granite rocks, they came into view of their goal: the summit of South America's highest peak. The clock had just reached 5pm, signaling the 10th hour since starting at their ~19,200' high camp earlier that morning. Full of great enthusiasm, the U.S. Air Force members hugged and then proudly unfolded the Air Force flag atop the nearly 23,000ft Mt. Aconcagua. Their excitement at this great success in South America is captured in the photo above!
It had been an amazing two weeks leading up to that moment. From the beginning of the journey, there was much talk about the bad weather, with many claiming the '06/'07 season the worst in 20 years. As they worked upward through the Andes with an unaffiliated group of international climbers, stories of mishaps, bad luck, destroyed tents, and even deaths filtered down from the stormy peaks above. It was far from what the team hoped to hear, but they pressed on, determined to give 100% and that the rest would take care of itself. Luckily for team USAF 7 Summits Challenge it did.
On the 27th of Feb, the three team members on this trip hit the trail at 0700, quickly dealing with wind chills reaching -40F, but lucky to have clear skies and good health! Right away other climbers attached to the expedition were becoming delayed due to personal issues, so the Airmen helped to encourage and lead them, always keeping the timeline in mind. As the day progressed, they encountered numerous delays as climbers would slow and stop due to the effect of the altitude, cold temperatures, and lack of energy. As for the Air Force team members, they were all feeling well, but worried the delays might eliminate their ability to reach the summit in time.
At a critical juncture, once it was assured the other climbers could all safely descend with the help of guides, the Air Force climbers were given the green light by the lead guide to separate from the large group of exhausted climbers and press for the summit. Although the Airmen were sad to see their friends turn around, they knew it was the only safe option for them (you will make it next time!). The final 1500ft to the summit were steep and rocky, but the team’s focused training, mutual support, and a deep inner drive pushed all three to the top! After 30 minutes of summit photos, flag flying, and a record number of pushups (50 in less than a minute!), they descended down, reaching high camp two hours later. It was a fantastic journey and formidable accomplishment these Airmen will draw on throughout life.
The team dedicates this great event to all the men and women serving the nation as members of the US Air Force and to the families that have lost someone in the line of duty. We're proud and honored to be part of the USAF and to climb on your behalf!!