SEVEN! (UPDATE) - Group of Airmen conquers tallest peaks on every continent

  • Published
  • By Maj. Bekah Clark
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. (AETCNS)
They did it!

The Seven Summits Challenge team, a group of Airmen who dedicated themselves to conquering the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents, finished their quest. And they saved the tallest for last, reaching the summit of Mount Everest May 20.

Torch first reported on the team's quest in its January/February 2011 issue ("Seven Summits," pages 16-19), when the team had already conquered five of the seven peaks. Maj. Robert Marshall outlined the climbs and talked about the risk management measures the team had in place to make each climb as safe as possible.

An active mountain climber since he was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., Capt. Marshall Klitzke, a native of Lemmon, S.D., has felt at home in the mountains since he was a little boy. The Air Education and Training Command pilot joined the team for the Everest climb.

"My grandfather was from [Colorado Springs] so I had visited the area since I was little. He always took me into the mountains to hike or fish and that's when I fell in love with them," said Klitzke, an instructor pilot with the 557th Flying Training Squadron at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. "I've always felt very comfortable there."

The Seven Summits Challenge teamm is an independent group of Airmen who, through the sport of mountain climbing, aim to spread goodwill about the Air Force. The team also uses its efforts to support and raise money for wounded warriors.

The team is aptly named for its selfimposed challenge to climb the highest peak on each of the world's continents. 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.

According to Klitzke, who has also climbed Mount Rainier in Washington and Ama Dablam in Nepal, the group is the first military team to scale all seven and the first U.S. military team to summit 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 (Maj.) 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."

To prepare for the climb, Klitzke cites living in Colorado as a benefit.

"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 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 in country.

"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. 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. on May 20, they 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," he said. "It was pretty amazing getting to see the sunrise over the Tibetan plains and watch the whole world light up."

Now that he's climbed the highest peak the planet has to offer, 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."

"We couldn't be more proud of Klitzke and the team," said Lt. Col. Bradley Oliver, 557th FTS commander. "In addition to climbing Mount Everest, Klitzke 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."