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Airmen Climbing the 'Seven Summits' Highlight Mental Resilience

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When Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall starts to summit Alaska's Denali over Memorial Day weekend, he's expecting a range of conditions: hot sun on the mountain's lower half, cool temperatures toward the top, and one or two storms that include high winds, frigid temps and heavy snowfall — typical weather for this time of year.

When he descends the peak, he's hoping it'll be as the first U.S. service member to complete the Seven Summits Challenge — reaching the top of the seven tallest mountains on each continent.

Two bundled-up men hold an Air Force flag atop a peak covered in flags.
Everest Summit
Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, left, director of experiential education programs and honor education at the Center for Character and Leadership Development, poses for a photo with the Air Force flag at the summit of Mount Everest, May 20, 2013. Marshall was one of the primary leads for the Air Force Seven Summits team that traveled the world and climbed the highest peaks on each continent.
Photo By: Courtesy photo
VIRIN: 180128-F-D0439-0002A

Marshall won't be summiting North America's tallest peak alone. Four others — Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga, Air Force Maj. Marshal Klitzke and veterans Mark Schaffeld and Wesley Morgan — will join him in climbing all 20,310 feet of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley).

None of the men is a spring chicken — the youngest is 37 — but they're experienced mountaineers who are ready to prove what they're doing is about so much more than age and fitness. Each man has risen above mental, physical and social setbacks to get to this point. Their goal: to prove that connecting with Mother Nature fosters resilience in injured service members, post-traumatic stress sufferers and others who have experienced combat.

Meet the Team
Lt. Col. Rob Marshall: Marshall, 42, was an Air Force Special Ops pilot before joining the Air Force Reserve on active duty. A former Air Force Academy instructor, he now works on professional development.
Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga: Uberuaga, 42, is an active-duty HH-60 Black Hawk pilot who was a professional mountaineering guide during his days in ROTC.
Maj. Marshal Klitzke: Klitzke, 38, is a member of the Air Force Reserve on active duty as a flight instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Mark Schaffeld: Schaffeld, 55, separated from the Air Force after suffering a traumatic brain injury during a car crash. He's Uberuaga's cousin.
Wesley Morgan: Morgan, 37, is an Air Force veteran who separated as a captain.

The Start of a Movement

Marshall got the idea for the high-altitude feat after a tragic low. In March 2005, he was part of a training exercise in Albania and just happened to have a day off when an MC-130 cargo plane crashed in bad weather, killing nine of his fellow air commandos. Marshall helped organize and execute the search and rescue efforts.

"It really shook up my sense of mental health and resiliency because death was so close," he said. "It could have been me."

A woman bends down to put flowers in front of a large plaque.
In Memoriam
Greta Kothakota, the mother of deceased Air Force Capt. Surrender D. Kothakota, places flowers at the base of a plaque during a remembrance ceremony at the 7th Special Operations Squadron on RAF Mildenhall, England, March 31, 2015. The ceremony was held in honor of the 10th anniversary of the nine airmen who died when WRATH-11, an MC-130H Combat Talon II assigned to the 7th SOS, crashed in Albania.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Victoria H. Taylor
VIRIN: 150331-F-VG050-074A

The crash motivated him to look for healthy ways to raise morale across the force. From there, the Seven Summits Challenge was born.

"I realized no team — military or any other type — had ever tried to climb the seven summits," Marshall said, referring to the highest point on every continent. The peaks are Russia's Mount Elbrus, Everest in Asia, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Argentina's Aconcagua, Vinson in Antarctica, Kosciuszko in Australia, and Alaska's Denali. "I said, 'Let's get out there and start challenging ourselves physically.'"

Watch: Lt. Col. Marshall's mountaineering story.

Marshall and buddy Uberuaga had mountaineering experience, so they put out a call for other climbers. Service members from Alaska to Africa and Australia responded.

The climbers started with easy mountains to get the hang of it; by 2013, a core group of climbers had accomplished the Seven Summits goal. Marshall was the only person to be part of every crew, but he never got the chance to make it to his final peak.

"I was climbing Denali, and I got a phone call on the satellite phone from my Special Operations squadron saying, 'Hey, we've got to cancel your leave. We need you back immediately,'" Marshall recalled. "I said, 'Well, I'm one day from the summit. And they said, 'No. Duty calls.'"

So, that was that.

A man in a parka gives a thumbs up while on the peak of a snowy mountain.
Thumbs Up!
Air Force Maj. Marshall Klitzke gives the thumbs-up while climbing Mount Everest, one of the peaks of the Seven Summits Challenge.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-082A
A close-up of the face of a man in a beanie.
Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga
Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-083A

An Audacious Plan

Marshall wants to finish what he started this Memorial Day weekend. But, like everyone else, he and his teammates have jobs to get back to, so their plan is to deviate from the norm.

"In the past we've gone slow and siege-like, like heavy-duty expeditions with lots of gear and slower paces," he said. "But this climb with this group of airmen, we want to make this one light and fast and kind of give it that more agile approach."

To get to base camp, which is at 14,000 feet, the group will spend a few days "skinning" their way uphill using adhesive, snake-like skins on their skis and splitboards. The skins allow them to travel uphill and have hair-like grips that keep them from going backward. Along the way, they'll have to deal with potential sunburn and the possibility of overheating from carrying about 90 pounds of gear.

A man stands holding a tether near the top of a snowy mountain peak.
Mountain Climber
Air Force veteran Wesley Morgan poses while working his way up a snowy Peruvian mountainside.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-084A
Three men embrace for a photo on a mountainside.
Mountaineer Pose
From left: Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga and veteran Mark Shaffeld pose together on a mountain ridge.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-085A

After a few days of rest at base camp, they'll begin the increasingly frigid 6,000-foot climb to the summit. Marshall said most climbers go up the West Buttress, but they plan to take the more technically challenging Upper West Rib, which requires axes and crampons (spikes that attach to a climber's boots). They'll carry their skis on their backs, so once they've reached the top, they can pop them on and ski down the Messner Couloir, a long, steep shoot of snow that goes all the way back to base camp. 

Sounds easy …. right?

"That's why we picked people that had significant experience not just mountaineering but also backcountry skiing and skiing on technical terrain," Marshall said.

The most audacious part? They're hoping to go from base camp to the summit and back within 24 hours.

"Most people would break it up and go up to, like, 17,000 feet [3,000 from base camp], spend the night and then summit," Marshall said. "We're still toying with the idea of doing this all in one long day."

A man walks in front of a ladder bridging a snowy crevasse. A second man crosses the ladder.
Everest Crevasse
Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall teeters over a ladder that's bridging a snowy mountain crevasse during a climbing expedition to the top of Mount Everest.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-086A
A rope and a boot sit near the edge of a snowy crevasse.
Snowy Crevasse
Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga looks down upon a snowy crevasse he must cross during a mountain climb.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-087A

Overcoming Challenges

But — as all climbers know — they're at the mountain's mercy, so they have several backup plans in case that doesn't pan out. The key is to stay flexible.

"I think the biggest challenge will be trying to quickly acclimatize to the mountain's altitude and be healthy enough to do this 24-hour push to the summit and back," Marshall said. "It's a lot to go from 14,000 to 20,000 feet. That's a very big day in high-altitude mountaineering."

Uberuaga is the most experienced mountaineer of the group, but he may be facing the biggest challenge. When severe pain and breathing problems led to several trips to the emergency room last summer, doctors discovered his vertebrae were breaking. It was unclear why, but eventually that issue led to a serious staph infection. So, in December, Uberuaga had to undergo complete spinal reconstruction. Surgeons replaced two of his vertebrae with titanium. They even had to deflate one of his lungs and cut out a rib, Marshall said.

A man in a hospital bed looks toward two medical professionals, one of whom is on a computer.
Hospital Help
Doctors go over their findings with Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Uberuaga ahead of spinal reconstruction surgery in December 2020.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-088A

"The tasks of organizing and training for [big goals] gave me something to focus on, to distract me from the daily challenges, and to keep my morale up," Uberuaga said.

His recovery went well. He stayed active to prep for the May climb and was pretty quickly given the greenlight by doctors to begin heavier training. By the end of February, he had climbed a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado and skied down from the summit.

"The smile on his face when he was up in nature, in the sunshine with mountains inspiring him to live a full life — that's the magic," Marshall said.

Two men hike along the ridge of a mountain's peak as other mountains loom in the background.
Balancing Act
Air Force Maj. Marshall Klitzke and another mountaineer balance along the summit of a snowy mountain peak.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-079A
Six men pose with a U.S. flag in front of a craggy mountain.
Mountaineer Pose
Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall holds the U.S. flag while posing with a group of mountaineers at base camp for Mount Everest.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-089A

Physicality— and Mental Health

Support from Air Force leadership for the Seven Summits Challenge led others to kickstart their own military resilience outdoor programs over the years. The draw has been as much about mental health as about physicality.

"What we're really finding is this sense of being in the wild — it lets you let go of all the pent-up fears," Marshall said. "It's definitely saved my life many times over."

He equates the climbs to a deployment because participants are meeting in an environmentally challenging area to work together.

"I think that's what makes our military climbing teams so successful and strong. We all have this great ability to form high-functioning teams on short notice, tackle great adversity, celebrate, and then spread back out across the nation," Marshall said. "That's the expeditionary mindset of the military, and mountaineering is just a perfect peacetime simulation of it."

Several men standing on a mountain are backlit by the sun and more mountains.
Snowy Pose
With the sun at their backs, Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall and several other Air Force mountaineers pose in their gear on a snowy mountainside.
Photo By: Courtesy Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall
VIRIN: 210524-O-D0439-080

At this point in Marshall's life, he said his main goal is camaraderie.

"The experience is becoming more and more important, and the summit [is] less and less important to me," he said. "If we make it to the summit, that would be wonderful — and I would want to do that, but safely."

It's also about getting others to find their happy place.

"Everyone struggles," Marshall said. His advice? "Find your medicine — the thing that makes you click and tick and glow and helps you bounce back from adversity; that is one of the single most important things in life."

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