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Face of Defense: Instructor Pilot Conquers Mount Everest

By Bekah Clark
12th Flying Training Wing

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colorado Springs, Colo., June 14, 2013 – An active mountain climber since he was a cadet here, Air Force Capt. Marshall Klitzke, a native of Lemmon, S.D., has felt at home in the mountains since he was a boy.

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Air Force Capt. Marshall Klitzke, an instructor pilot with the 557th Flying Training Squadron at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., poses for a photo at the summit of Mount Everest, May 20, 2013. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"My grandfather was from [Colorado Springs], so I had visited the area since I was little,” he said. “He always took me into the mountains to hike or fish, and that's when I fell in love with them. I've always felt very comfortable there."

Klitzke, an instructor pilot with the 557th Flying Training Squadron here, climbed Mount Everest with six other Air Force members, reaching the summit May 20.

The airmen all are members of the Seven Summits Challenge team, an independent group that aims to spread goodwill about the Air Force through the sport of climbing. The team also supports and raises money for wounded warriors.

The team is named for its self-imposed challenge to climb the highest peak on each continent. Since 2005, the team has scaled Mount Elbrus in Europe, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount McKinley in North America, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, and finally, signifying the completion of their goal, Mount Everest in Asia.

Klitzke, who also has climbed Mount Rainier in Washington and Ama Dablam in Nepal, said the group is the first military team to scale all seven and the first U.S. military team to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The Mount Everest climb was the only climb Klitzke did with the group.

"A buddy of mine, Kyle Martin, and I have climbed together since we were cadets," Klitzke said. "He put Rob Marshall, a V-22 pilot and the co-founder of the group, in touch with me. Rob offered me a spot on the team for the Everest climb due to my previous experience climbing in the Himalayas."

Klitzke cited living in Colorado as a benefit in preparing for the climb.

"Physically, you have to condition yourself, and living in Colorado you have the benefit of having the mountains in your backyard," he said, also crediting military training with his and the team's success.

"In the military, you're constantly dealing with and working through problems, and it gives you that edge for how to push through challenges," he said. "It goes back even to my basic training at the academy. That life experience in the military really bears true on the mountain -- sometimes you just have to push through, put your head down and focus on putting one foot in front of the other."

That training aside, Klitzke is quick to acknowledge the risks of the sport, especially on a mountain as perilous as Mount Everest.

"You're always very conscious about how it is such a long ordeal, especially with the elements you're dealing with," he said. "You're living on rocks and ice for a month and a half, so something as simple as spraining your ankle has huge ramifications."

Maintaining physical health and stamina for the summit push, which according to the team's blog takes on average 12,000 calories to complete, is vital.

"You're [at such a high altitude] that your body has to burn so many extra calories just to continue to exist," he said. "I lost about 28 pounds from the time we landed in country to when we finished the climb."

The group spent about 50 days to accomplish the climb. "It took two weeks just to hike to the base camp," Klitzke said. "Once you're there, you have to acclimate, so you go up part of the mountain several times before the summit push. While we were there, we estimate that we climbed more than 44,000 feet total.

"You go up to Camp One and come back to base camp, then up to Camp Two and back down, then up to Camp Three and then back down,” he continued. “This basically triggers your blood to create more red blood cells so that you can maintain safe blood oxygen levels."

Once the group acclimated, it took about four days for the summit climb. At 4:30 a.m. May 20, the team reached the summit.

"You spend almost two months getting there, and even though you only get 15 minutes to take everything in, it is absolutely worth it," Klitzke said. "It was pretty amazing getting to see the sunrise over the Tibetan plains and watch the whole world light up."

With that challenge complete, Klitzke has his sights set on medical school.

"While mountaineering will probably always be a part of my life, I have a passion for trying to help people, and I feel like I have a lot of ability to do that," he said. "So my next goal is to become a pilot physician."

The experience of a lifetime wouldn't have been possible without the support he received from his commander and squadron, Klitzke said.

"They were nothing but supportive before, during and after the climb,” he added. “I'm really thankful for all of the encouragement and support they gave me."

"We couldn't be more proud of Marshall and the team," said Air Force Lt. Col. Bradley Oliver, 557th Flying Training squadron commander. "In addition to climbing Mount Everest, Marshall is an instructor in all three of our aircraft and is an exceptional officer. I hope his next dream of going to medical school is realized."


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