Capt. Rob Marshall prepares to ski down from the summit of Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia, with fellow Airman and mountaineer Capt. Mark Uberuaga, now with the 55th Rescue Squadron, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., after completing their first climb as part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge in July 2005. The U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge is an endeavor for Air Force members to carry the Air Force flag to the highest point on each continent and to be the first U.S. military group to conquer all seven peaks. Captain Marshall is a member of the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (Courtesy photo)
Capt. Graydon Muller poses at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, as part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge in July 2006. The U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge is an endeavor for Air Force members to carry the Air Force flag to the highest point on each continent and to be the first U.S. military group to conquer all seven peaks. Captain Muller and Capt. Rob Marshall will depart Nov. 24, 2010 to attempt the group's fifth summit, Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Captain Muller is a member of the 6th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Captain Marshall is a member of the 8th SOS. (Courtesy photo)
Capt. Graydon Muller (far left, standing), and Capt. Rob Marshall (far right, kneeling) pose at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, as part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge in July 2006. The U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge is an endeavor for Air Force members to carry the Air Force flag to the highest point on each continent and to be the first U.S. military group to conquer all seven peaks. Captains Muller and Marshall will depart Nov. 24, 2010 to attempt the group?s fifth summit, Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Captain Muller is a member of the 6th Special Operations Squadron. Captain Marshall is a member of the 8th Special Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Capt. Graydon Muller pulls a kayak across a field Oct. 28, 2010, at Hurlburt Field, Fla., to simulate pulling a supply sled in preparation for an upcoming mountaineering expedition to climb Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica. Captain Muller and Capt. Rob Marshall, a member of the 8th Special Operations Squadron, depart Nov. 24, 2010, to climb the 16,076 foot mountain as part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, an effort for Air Force members to climb the highest mountain on each continent. Captain Muller is a member of the 6th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff. Sgt. Stephanie Jacobs)
by Capt. Lauren Johnson
1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
11/22/2010 - HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- Two Hurlburt Field Airmen are putting the 1st Special Operations Wing motto to the test.
While most of their friends and colleagues are indulging in the family, food and football of the Thanksgiving holiday, Capt. Rob Marshall, with the 8th Special Operations Squadron, and Capt. Graydon Muller, with the 6th SOS, will be leaving behind the comforts of home for the austerity and isolation of Antarctica.
The Airmen will make the long trip to the world's coldest continent Nov. 24 with a goal of scaling Antarctica's tallest mountain, 16,076-foot Vinson Massif. It's a task for which they say the military, and specifically Air Force Special Operations Command's focus on physical fitness and the 1st SOW's "Any Time, Any Place" mentality makes them ideally equipped.
"We think it fits well with the military mindset," Captain Muller said. "There's a lot of teamwork involved in mountaineering, a lot of goal-setting, a lot of risk management."
The climb is part of a larger effort called the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, an endeavor for Air Force members to carry the Air Force flag to the highest point on each continent and to be the first U.S. military group to conquer all seven peaks.
"The Seven Summits is about Airmen setting a goal that some would think would be unobtainable and gutting it out to achieve it," Captain Marshall said. "It's about camaraderie and pushing each other to achieve new heights."
While this particular height is relatively low and the climb only moderately technical when compared to the others the group has already conquered -- Mount Elbrus (Asia, 18,510 ft.), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa, 19,340 feet), Mount Aconcagua (South America, 22, 834 ft.), and Alaska's 20,300-foot Mount McKinley - the area's remoteness, extreme temperatures and potential for hazardous winds make it uniquely challenging.
Vinson Massif is part of the Ellsworth Mountains, which rise majestically and menacingly from the icy Antarctic landscape. Largely due to its isolation, Mount Vinson was the last of the seven summits to originally be scaled. It was as recently as 1966 that an American team sponsored by the National Geographic Society first submitted the peak.
Even decades later, the Airmen said transportation remains an obstacle.
"Probably the most significant hurdle we ran into was getting to Antarctica and close to the mountain," Captain Marshall said. "There's only one commercial company in the world that flies you to Antarctica."
Their route will bring them by way of Punta Arenas near the southernmost tip of Chile, the closest landmass at more than 600 nautical miles away. After two days of preparations in Chile, the Airmen will fly to Antarctica's travel hub, Patriot Hills, the continent's only privately-owned arctic base. From there, they will take a ski-equipped turboprop Twin Otter aircraft to Vinson Massif's base camp.
"The other option was to ride a boat to the coast, then ski or dogsled to the mountain," Captain Muller said. "It's doable, but it takes so much more time."
The odyssey of traveling to the continent epitomizes the distinctive challenges -- and for some, the fascinations -- associated with the Antarctic adventure.
Antarctica itself is a land of extremes. Southeast from the continent's highest point is the world's lowest exposed elevation, the Bentley Subglacial Trench, which descends 8,200 feet below sea level. Approximately 98 percent of Antarctica's landmass is covered by a vast sheet of ice which measures, at its thickest, more than 15,000 feet. This frozen sheath gives Antarctica an average elevation of 6,100 feet above sea level, the highest of all seven continents. Because its perimeter is defined by ice, the continent roughly doubles in size during the winter.
Despite its topography, though, Antarctica is considered a desert. The interior receives less than two inches of precipitation every year, qualifying it as one of the driest places on earth. The base camp of Vinson Massif accumulates only about 18 inches of snow every year. It is also the coldest, averaging around negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the month of November, and, thanks to gravity-driven katabatic winds, the windiest continent.
Captains Marshall and Muller admit that the thought of entering Mother Nature's untamed lair is a bit intimidating, but say their experience in AFSOC has helped prepare them for operating in such harsh conditions.
The Airmen met with Dr. (Maj.) Michael McBeth, the 6th SOS flight surgeon, who has seven years AFSOC medical experience working with special tactics personnel in a wide range of environments to include cold weather, and Tech. Sgt. Tommy Ward, a 6th SOS independent duty medical technician and paramedic, who recently returned from a training course in high-altitude medicine.
"We primarily discussed altitude illness and recognition of symptoms, prevention and self-treatment, as well as safety of the member and providing care and assistance to teammates," Major McBeth said. "We also discussed frostbite recognition and treatment, which was one of the things they were really concerned about due to the extreme cold of this environment as compared to some of their other climbs."
The medics also provided the Airmen with individually-tailored travel medicine kits and training on how to administer treatments for both minor issues and more serious conditions such as altitude-related illnesses.
"I've seen people get ill or die from either being ignorant or not recognizing or understanding altitude sickness, which then leads to a more complicated medical condition like high-altitude pulmonary edema (where the lungs fill with fluid) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain)," Captain Marshall said. "But it's hard to get to a state of altitude sickness when you know what you're looking for and know about the medical causes."
"The special training the medics have been through was extremely useful," Captain Muller agreed. "They obviously have a wide range of experience with all kinds of environments. At the 6th SOS we almost always have people spread across the six populated continents, so our medical team is constantly ready for anything."
His position in the 6th SOS offered another advantage for Captain Muller as well. As an incoming member to the squadron, he recently participated in the Combat Aviation Advisor Mission Qualification Course through the AFSOC Training Center here.
According to the course director, Vincent Milioti, the training is roughly a year long and is designed to equip special operators to deploy, operate and survive in a variety of environments fulfilling missions in foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency operations and unconventional warfare. The curriculum covers areas such as advanced survival skills, small unit tactics, land navigation, mission planning, advanced communication and tactical combat casualty care.
"It's a broad range of skills that you might use as a military member deployed to an isolated area," Captain Muller said, adding that the physical demands of the course were specifically beneficial in his off-duty pursuits. "It put me in the best shape of my life and incidentally prepared me quite well for the climb."
Embracing the principle of "train like you fight," the Airmen have also been stair climbing with 60-pound backpacks and towing a weighted kayak to simulate pulling a supply sled.
"I think it's awesome you can train for a 16,000-foot arctic mountain living in Florida at sea level when it's 70-degrees in November, purely using the facilities available to us on base," Captain Marshall said.
The training is the final piece of a puzzle the Seven Summits team has been building for several years. Other key pieces seemed to recently fall into place.
"You need a lot of experience to go to Antarctica," Captain Marshall said. "The fact that we had two experienced climbers stationed together who could handle the funding and the schedule; it was too good an opportunity to pass up."
The Airmen won't be completely on their own, however. Once in Antarctica, they will be joining a group of fellow mountaineering enthusiasts eager to scale Mount Vinson's summit.
"We ended up getting support from a mountaineering mentor, who happened to be going down to Antarctica at this time," Captain Marshall said. "He basically said, 'team up with me!'"
The mentor, Phil Ershler, has conquered the Seven Summits and was half of the first husband and wife team to accomplish the feat.
If all goes well, he may soon be part of another first as the Air Force Seven Summits team passes a critical milestone in their mission to climb all seven peaks.
But beyond the glory of that looming accomplishment, and what will perhaps be a greater driving force in the captains' success than their training and preparation, is a humble reminder of what unites them as AFSOC personnel, Airmen and U.S. servicemembers.
"(The Seven Summits) has become a tribute to the U.S. servicemembers who have fallen in battle since 9/11," Captain Marshall said. "We'll be placing a plaque on the summit in their memory."
Once the Airmen begin their travels, the expedition is expected to take approximately two to three weeks.
12/13/2010 4:05:01 PM ET I think is it really sad reading the comments that some people out there think that climbing for a cause is a selfish act. If you want to look up the reason, do a Google Search on Wrath 11. We have all lost friends in the war at least Rob and Mark decided to turn that pain into a drive to bring awareness to Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Many of our friends who died left children behind trying to help them in a small way through the SOWF is the least we can do to honor our comrades in arms. As part of the 7 Summits Team I am personally offended that you feel obliged to desecrate the work that Rob and Mark have accomplished. Do a little research before you disgrace yourself by posting misinformed comments. Ohh and just so you know, Rob and Graydon successfully climbed Vinson Massif. Congratulations and great job guys
Justin Henkel, Chantilly NOVA USA
11/30/2010 12:30:50 PM ET It would have been nice if the story would have divulged that it was personal leave and expenses paid by the member. Now we just have to get Tops in Blue in ABU's and to the AOR.
jg, CONUS for now
11/29/2010 7:47:12 AM ET Before everyone turns this around on me, the article does not mention that the climbers use save their own leave and do this one their own time expense their own resources to fund their climbs etc. I was commenting on the article before everyone else chimed in with the rest of the story. If one needs to vent, send it to the writer who left all these details out.
11/24/2010 10:01:37 AM ET Wow. Shawn you are clearly a small insecure bitter man. You are getting angry over people raising money for charity Using their OWN time and their OWN money inbetween their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. You have no freakin' clue. These people have lost best friends in war. Don't lecture them on what they do in their free time. Clearly all you do in your free time is try to poke at people. That's a great contribution buddy. Go back to your cube and think about anything you've ever done to contribute to society. Won't take long I'm sure.
Mike, Tucson AZ
11/23/2010 1:57:59 PM ET jg Shawn etc- I have climbed with the USAF 7 Summits team before and wanted to chime in on your comments before anyone else makes misinformed statements.The Airmen that take part in this unoffical team pay for it with their own money and use their own time. They wanted to find a unique and physically challenging way to build up esprit 'd corps among Airmen and spotlight the great things you can achieve through the Air Force. No other group of US military members have ever attempted anything like this and so far it's been a huge success.I'd like to invite you plus anyone else that reads this to contact the team and join them on their next climb. The whole idea is to bring Airmen from all walks of life and push each other to the top. I think getting you out of your cubicle and into the mountains would do you good. As for giving a hand in Afghanistan I can tell you both have done their time in both AFG and Iraq working outside the fence in places most AF folks never go.
11/23/2010 12:02:48 PM ET I saw these guys speak at the local Outdoor Recreation center a few years ago. They are funding these climbs fully out of pocket and using their own leave. How many people do you see saving up time-money just to promote the Air Force and support a worthy charity? I was pretty psyched when I saw their video with the AF Flag all over the world. Rather than complain about a group of our fellow Airmen stepping up and showing their love of mountains and the Air Force, why not start your own charitable program? If I didn't have a bum knee I'd be climbing with 'em that's for sure. Good luck to the climbers. They make the Air Force proud.
11/23/2010 11:35:22 AM ET Ok for the sake of argument I understand the extreme training challenges and sacrifices our Special Tactics folks go through. And when you go to the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge Website which is a commercial site and not hosted or acknowledged officially by the USAF, it shows all the members and their great accomplishments to the Air Force. Again if its on their own time without utilizing any USAF resources, PEACE and congrats on their awesome achievements. The story doesn't disclose that. P.S. Lastly some of these climbs take months, not weeks to actually accomplish, think about it.
11/23/2010 9:41:05 AM ET Shawn, I really hope your post is sarcastic. Who says these guys are pilots? How do you know they are not Combat Rescue Officers or something of that nature? Do you know the mission of the 1 SOW? Those guys train their tails off and do great things for the mission. They deserve a trip like this. Sounds like you really love your desk job. If you are military, why don't you cross train into something more demanding? If you are a civilian, I hear Blackwater is hiring. Maybe that could work out for you to get that sweet diving trip. I am down.
Some Dude, VA
11/23/2010 9:11:29 AM ET How about instead of jet setting around the world skiing for a paycheck on the company dime....you come give us a hand in Afghanistan
jg, CONUS for now
11/23/2010 9:07:53 AM ET To answer your question Shawn, they are using personal leave. I was stationed with Capt Marshall when they started this and he is a good guy with an honest personality. This is being done on his own to honor personal friends he lost. Been going on for about 5 years now. Why do you have to put a negative spin on a good story? You have issues. I'm sorry you only have to work 10 hours a day in an office. BTW- I am not a pilot. I am in a support field, and he is one that always showed his appreciation for what we do.
11/22/2010 4:07:29 PM ET I read the story and went to the site. I feel obligated to make the post and ask the question. I wonder if they are using personal leave for all this or actually using the duty day and getting paid? I have an Idea...Ill visit all the exotic beaches of the world, go scuba diving, and do it in the name of the Air Force. Of course, Ill bring a flag and donate all funds received to the Fisher House. Anyone else in? Unbelievable. As I sit in my cube 10 hours a day for the greater good. I wish I was smart enough to come up with that scam. P.S. When these Pilots are climbing mountains, who's flying?