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Face of Defense: Airman Scales Mount Everest

By Air Force 1st Lt. Jonathan Simmons
Air Force Space Command

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., June 22, 2010 – Colorado Springs' Pikes Peak towers 14,115 feet above sea level, but one member of Air Force Space Command had his sights set higher -- about 15,000 feet higher.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Solie acclimates while standing at Mount Pumori Advanced Base Camp, with the Mount Everest summit pyramid over his left shoulder. Solie reached the summit May 17, 2010. Courtesy photo

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

Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Solie, the 43-year-old chief of the command’s space safety division, reached the summit of Mount Everest on his ancestral Norwegian Independence Day of May 17 after nearly two months of climbing with a team of 15 other clients.

"I was anxious and excited," Solie said of beginning his climb after a seven-day trek to Everest Base Camp. "The first time I saw the mountain was jaw-dropping."

Solie arrived at the base camp, about 17,600 feet above sea level in Nepal, on April 7. He had climbed 53 of Colorado's 54 peaks that are 14,000 feet and higher – known as “14ers” -- and South America's tallest mountain, Aconcagua, in preparation. Even with that level of experience, Solie described the trek up to the world's highest peak as an epic challenge.

"At roughly five and a half miles high, it was like climbing four 14ers consecutively stacked on top of each other, with a bag over your head as you climbed the last one," he said.

The more dangerous part of the climb, he said, was near the beginning, through the Khumbu Icefall between base camp and Camp 1. The icefall is a massive, flowing glacier with shifting blocks of ice that crack, fall and crush unpredictably. This made situational awareness critical, the colonel said.

"Saving energy to descend safely was also of vital concern," he added. "Approximately 80 percent of the over 200 fatalities on Everest [have] occurred during descent."

For Solie, climbing Mount Everest has been a dream he's had from childhood.

"I grew up hiking and climbing in Montana," he said. "It's been a goal of mine since high school. I've wanted to go to space and climb Everest, and have been saving for the trip since college."

Both the expense and the physical rigor of the trek called for extensive preparations, but for Solie the physical preparations were just a bit of a surge from his regular physical training routine. The preparatory surge included running the Air Force Marathon, along with a mid-winter trip across the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Solie also tried to gain some body fat to be spent during the expedition, pounds well used during the climb.

"I was only able to put on about 5 pounds as I continued to exercise," he said, noting that he lost 10 pounds during the expedition.

Solie said he feels accomplished, but humble, about his expedition to the highest point on Earth.

"People shouldn't say 'Wow,’" he said. "What I did is within most people's potential. It's a matter of not resigning yourself to weaknesses and not self-imposing limits."

As a member of Air Force Space Command’s safety staff, Solie said, his mindset is to evaluate, mitigate and take calculated risk.

"My expedition mates and I made our climb safe by being physically and mentally prepared, using the proper gear, and studying the weather forecasts," he said. "Knowing what the jet stream was doing was critical when deciding when to push for the summit."

For some, conquering Mount Everest is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but Solie plans to climb it again when he's 77 years old to become oldest person to climb the mountain, a record currently held by Min Bahadur Sherchan of Nepal, who was 76 when he climbed. "I gained tremendous confidence and zeal for life from this experience," Solie said.

The two-month Mount Everest trek was Solie's last act on active duty, as he entered terminal leave just prior to his grand adventure. He said he has nothing but gratitude for his 25 years with the Air Force, and offered advice to his fellow airmen: "Be fit, help save the planet, and be happy."


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