Day 1 / May 28
Air Force Lt. Col Rob Marshall, Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga, Air Force Maj. Marshal Klitzke, veterans Mark Schaffeld and Wesley Morgan, and Matt Wheat – a civilian videographer who was added to the team to document the journey -- flew to Anchorage, Alaska.
Day 2 / May 29 - The team drove to Talkeetna, Alaska, at the base of Denali. They were supposed to fly to the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip to begin the trek, but bad weather meant they were staying with park rangers that night.
Day 3-5 / May 30-June 1
The team took an early-morning air taxi to the glacier, which most climbers consider the mountain’s base camp. They quickly cached (a mountaineering term for stored) food and extra supplies for their eventual return. Then, the trek officially began as they started skinning (uphill skiing) up the mountain on skis and snowboards.
Day 6 / June 2
Thanks to a storm with heavy snow, 20 mph winds and bad visibility, the team took a day off. This included resting, a little skiing for exercise, taking care of ailments and equipment repairs, and melting lots of snow for drinking water.
“Everybody had at least 2 liters of water, but, generally, we were drinking more like 3 liters a day at a minimum, and that doesn’t include all the water you need for your dinner,” Marshall explained.
Aside from protein bars, oatmeal and peanut butter, most dinners were freeze-dried to keep their packs light. They obviously needed a lot.
“We were generally consuming about 3,000 calories a day,” Marshall said.
Day 7-8 / June 3 & 4
The group continued their push up the mountain.
Day 9 / June 5
They made it to what the group considered its base camp at 14,000 feet.
Day 10 / June 6
Another rest day. When they weren’t doing some of the previously mentioned off-day activities, they used their time to put up ice walls around the tents to keep snow accumulation down.
“We took two saws … and we just sawed into hard snow. It makes these perfect blocks,” Marshall said. “We would build the walls to be about 3 feet tall.”
Day 11 / June 7
There was a good weather window, so they took advantage by caching more food, fuel and equipment further up the mountain to break up the load. To do this, they left their sleds and heavy packs behind and worked their way to 16,500 feet to a flat ridgeline called “the balcony” along a steep route known as the Upper West Rib. There was just enough space for their supplies and two tents.
“I did what we call ‘breaking trail,’” Marshall explained. That’s when they have no trail to follow and have to navigate deep sections of fresh snow and crevasses.
“I’m in the very front, and we have two ropes of three – you’re roped up the whole time,” Marshall said. “That way, if you fall into a crevasse, your rope will catch you, and the other two climbers can get you out. The other team of three is on a separate rope, and they can come assist if necessary.”
After marking where the crevasses were and storing their supplies, the group skied back down to 14,000 feet.
Day 12 & 13 / June 8 & 9
Bad weather forced two more down days.
Day 14 / June 10
Good weather returned to restart the climb, but plans were changing. Park rangers told them their initial return plan – skiing back down to their base camp via a steep slope called the Messner Couloir – was a no-go due to bad conditions.
“Now, we have to carry enough gear to climb all the way back down the regular climbing route,” Marshall said. “That meant a lot more gear.”
With the extra supplies in tow, they headed back to the balcony. Carving a small patch into the icy, snowy ridgeline, they pitched two tents and camped for the night.
Day 15 / June 11
Blue skies meant it was time to push to the summit. Despite starting at 9 a.m., a lot slowed them down, including too-soft snow that collapsed under their feet.
“Usually, if you’re the last guy, you’re in great shape because everyone’s kicked steps into the snow and ice, and it’s like walking up stairs,” Marshall explained. “But, in this case, every step crumbled; therefore, for the person behind you, it got worse and worse.”
That evening, they hit a wall of what Marshall called “blue ice,” which required ice-climbing tools they didn’t have. It was frigid, and there was little to no sunlight. What should have been a 30-minute climb took about four hours.
“We did have a few climbers fall, including a few big falls,” Marshall said. “If anybody had hesitated, it could have gotten very, very dangerous.”
Day 16 / June 12
By the time they made it to 19,500 feet and got off the Upper West Rib, it was 1:30 a.m. on the 12th, and the real trouble was just beginning. Some of the climbers were dealing with frozen feet, while another collapsed and had to be airlifted off the mountain (click on the below story for details).
The Aftermath: After the rescue, the men were so exhausted that Marshall said they almost decided not to do the summit. It would take three more hours to reach the top, then three back, plus 10 more hours to climb back to their base camp. Plus, they would be carrying extra gear they would have to distribute that was left behind by the airlifted climber. In the end, four of them made the push, with the exception of Shaffeld. He chose to rest his frostbitten toes and prepare for their long journey back down.
“We cried. We were really emotional,” Marshall said of the separation. “The summit was so close, but he decided the safest thing was to put all of his energy into getting back down.”
The Summit: About three hours later, the remaining four men made it to the top. For Marshall, summiting meant he was now the first U.S. service member to complete the Seven Summits Challenge.
“It was really emotional. It felt like a great relief,” said the lieutenant colonel, who climbed his first of the seven summits 16 years ago. “If it wasn’t for the Seven Summits Challenge and my time spent outdoors, I don’t think I would have gone through all the combat experiences and come out as healthy as I am today.”
As for a celebration? They hugged, they inserted the American and Air Force flags into the ground, and then they did what had become a summiting tradition: pushups. Twenty pushups to commemorate 20,310 feet climbed and to honor fallen airmen and their crew members who weren’t there with them.
“And that was it,” Marshall said. “We were really tired and knew we had to get back down.”
It was still morning, so the rest of their day was spent reuniting with Shaffield and making the difficult trek back to their base camp.
“I would climb uphill any day over downhill,” Marshall stressed.
Day 17 / June 13
After hours of downhill climbing, they made it back to their base camp at 14,000 feet. They debriefed rangers on the mountaintop rescue and had medics check out the climbers' ailments, which all turned out to be superficial.
Meanwhile, two of the men climbed another 2,500 feet back to the balcony to retrieve their skis and other gear they’d left behind.
Day 18 / June 14
Saying goodbye to base camp, the five men reattached their backpacks and sleds, skiing 7,000 feet back to the Kahiltna Glacier airfield. The conditions were so bad that Marshall said they occasionally had to take off their skis and hike down steep, icy slopes.
“We had a lot of falls on our skis due to the sleds and conditions. It wasn't much fun.”
The journey ended as it began: in good spirits; with pride in the entire crew – including the rescued climber – for having made it up the toughest part of the mountain; and in awe of the beauty surrounding them. “Mark Shaffield hid a bottle of Scotch at the airfield,” Marshall said. “He surprised us with the bottle, and we all had a sip of celebratory Scotch.”
Day 19 / June 15
After a few hours of sleep, the men boarded a flight off the glacier, landing back at Talkeetna around 10 a.m. The best part of their return? The rescued climber, who had recovered, was there to greet them with hot breakfast sandwiches and a case of beer.
“This seventh summit took a lot of extra energy. It was definitely harder than Everest,” Marshall said. “I’m just grateful that when things got tough, we had so much experience and skill and tools to handle whatever came up.”
A week after their return, Marshall said he and the others had mostly recovered, although he didn’t remember being as tired after his previous climbs.
“I must be getting older,” he joked.
Now that his major climbing expeditions are behind him, he’s turning his attention to another challenge.
“I can use that same focus and determination for promoting more resiliency-boosting experiences for service members and their families,” he said. “I’m in it for the long haul.”