By Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 01, 2006
ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, ENGLAND (AFPN) -- Guided by moonlight and headlamps to the crater rim of Mount Kilimanjaro, two men worked their way around the 19,300-foot rocky summit. As they reached the summit marker July 16, the sun finally cracked the horizon, treating them to a spectacular view of Africa coming to life.
Eight others, led by those two men's enthusiasm, passion and experience, successfully climbed to the mountain's peak as well.
"Climbers on Mount Kilimanjaro only have a 50 percent success rate, so getting all 10 of us up there was quite a feat," said Capt. Rob Marshall, a 67th Special Operations Squadron pilot and one of the two who led the group.
The other leader is 1st Lt. Mark Uberuaga, a 21st SOS pilot. They both are on a mission to take the Air Force and American flags to the highest peaks in each of the world's seven continents as part of their Seven Summits Challenge.
Along with flying the flags atop the world's highest points, the two are using the challenge as a way to raise money for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation which provides college tuition money for children of fallen special operations troops.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the second peak to be checked off their list. The two climbed Russia's Mount Elbrus by themselves a year ago. After returning from the first trip, they started looking for others to join their quest.
This time, they were joined by Lieutenant Uberuaga's father, David, a superintendent at Mount Ranier National Park; Captain Marshall's sister, Edie; Capt. Heather Healey, 16th Air Force vice commander's aide-de-camp; Capts. Ryan Wilson and Nichelle Brokering, 351st Air Refueling Squadron pilots, and Capt. Jaime Rivas, a 48th Aerospace Medicine Squadron aerospace physiologist at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England; Capt. Christina Stack, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.; and 1st Lt. Graydon Muller, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.
The ascent wasn't the usual snowy climb. The team trekked through the rainforest before tackling a rocky trail along the Machame Route. The journey ended with a 45-minute walk through snow and volcanic rock that led to the summit.
"The weather on our night of ascent was excellent," Captain Marshall said. A bright, half-moon lit the rocky, sandy path and helped them on their way.
"With tens of thousands of stars overhead and the glow of the summit's glaciers beckoning us, we slowly made our way from camp (at 15,000 feet) to the 19,000-foot crater rim in less than six hours," the captain said.
The climb spanned seven days, and the team members chose their route carefully to help them adjust to the altitude.
"All 10 of us started out together and finished together. That was the biggest deal for all of us," Captain Rivas said. "It was such a team effort the whole way, and we were a big family at the end."
The New Orleans native said she'd never done anything like this before, and she didn't consider herself a hiker, mountain-climber or even the "outdoorsy" type.
"The group went a little faster than me," she said. "Most of the team are from Colorado or Seattle and have more mountain-climbing experience. I went a little bit slower, but when I got to the top, I was able to share the moment with everybody."
Reaching the top was an emotional experience for the two leaders.
"I was pretty overwhelmed with happiness when I reached the summit," Lieutenant Uberuaga said. "I was just so proud. My father was up there with me, and it was the first time we'd ever climbed a mountain together."
After learning only 50 percent of climbers reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the team was determined to make theirs a 100 percent success.
"Our guides told us there were two certificates given out after the climb: green for those who made it near the mountain's top, and gold for those who actually made it to the summit," Captain Marshall said.
"They would then say, 'Green is for girls; gold is for men.' But we told them, 'No, you don't understand. You don't know the people you're climbing with. We're all going for gold. We're all reaching the summit!' And we did," he said.
"I think the climb ended up being a little easier than I expected, but then again, I attribute that to the team effort and the motivation I drew off the rest of the team," Captain Brokering said. "The encouragement and motivation came from all directions."
One of the reasons mountain climbers start their ascents late in the day is that it takes an average of six hours to get to the top, and climbers can experience the sunrise.
"I say, if you looked up in daylight and saw what you had to climb for the next six hours, there's no way you'd want to climb it," Captain Rivas said.
When the team started its final climb to the summit, it was pitch black. They had to walk single file behind their guide.
"We had to take one step and breathe then another step and breathe," Captain Rivas said. "It was like meditating. An hour would go by, and you'd have to take a break."
Once they reached the summit, the group finally got to fulfill its goal, they flew the Air Force and American flags on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
"I think one of the proudest parts for me was when we unfurled the flags," Captain Marshall said. "Everyone with us was so excited and kept jumping up and down, wanting to hold the flags themselves. People really connected to the fact that we were both American and Air Force members."
Once the flags had been flown, Captain Marshall and Lieutenant Uberuaga still had one last mission to accomplish. They'd been sponsored by Tech. Sgt. Jim Gary, 21st Special Operations Squadron, to do push-ups on the summit.
"He sponsored us for $1 a push-up, to a maximum of $100," the lieutenant said. "We made sure we did more than 100 between us. Rob and I knocked out more than 80 between us, and my dad did 20."
Though still not sure of the final figure raised for the foundation, Captain Marshall said they are sure they surpassed their financial goal of $10,000.
"We each made a point of trying to raise $1,000, and we all reached way over that," he said.
"The success of this climb really underlines that this is a very positive challenge, and it highlights the kind of people that are in the Air Force," the captain said. "The majority of our group were Air Force members, and we had pilots, academic instructors and physiologists.
"This success is because of the type of people the Air Force attracts," he said. "They're fit, not afraid of a challenge, and are willing to put themselves in a situation where they could possibly fail, but overcome the challenge and succeed."