Conquered: 3 Academy graduates scale world's tallest peak

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Reaching the top of the world's tallest mountain was the most all-encompassing, incredible endeavor one Academy officer has undertaken.

Capt. Marshall Klitzke, an instructor pilot with the 557th Flying Training Squadron here, was away for 58 days, shed 28 pounds and trekked more than 44,000 feet to reach the top of the world, Everest's 29,029-foot summit in Nepal, May 20 with four of the six Airmen on his team, including a total of three Academy graduates, reaching the summit.

"The summit was an immense accomplishment, but you're only up there for 15-20 minutes," the 31 year-old Lemmon, S.D., native said. "It's really about the whole experience of Everest, such as getting through the Hillary Step (a 40-foot wall of rock and ice), enjoying the endless beauty of the trail, and hanging out with the guys at base camp. It's the entire climb that I'll remember, the summit being a highlight."

Klitzke said he was humbled by the immense support he received from his family, friends and squadron and said they brought him continual motivation during the climb.

"I thought about them going up Everest and carried that with me because I didn't want to let them down," Klitzke said. "It took me back to my previous climbs and experiences growing up, reminding myself, 'You're not going to quit- it's not an option.'"

Klitzke said it was through prior life experiences, particularly summiting Nepal's 22,349 foot peak Ama Dablam that strengthened him for Everest.

"When I climbed Ama Dablam, that was the most physically exhausted I've ever been," Klitzke said. "I learned so much from that mountain that I was able to apply it to Everest, and on summit day, I was very prepared."

Klitzke said the Sherpa guides were very resourceful during the team's climb. He described their culture as incredibly selfless, simple and respectful.

"They don't think anything of it, it's just the way they are," Klitzke said. "If you need help with something, they'll go out of their way to help you with a solution . They don't have plasma TVs, a sports center and Starbucks on every corner, and in a way, it made me envious because they don't have all the distractions that we get entrapped with here."

Climbing the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous stages of the southern route on Everest, was an experience Klitzke said he enjoyed.

"You have these ice formations that are just teetering on their corners and they defy physics," Klitzke said. "A 10,000 pound block of ice should be falling over. You're either climbing over it, under it or on top of it. Mountaineering wise, I'll probably never experience that again."

He said the beauty of the husky glacier was breathtaking.

"We'd usually head off at night and then the sun would begin to rise as we were getting through the icefall," Klitzke said. "If you're there at the right time and the sun is hitting it right, you just see deep blues, teals in the ice like you've never seen before. It was really beautiful."

Air Force CV-22 Osprey pilot and creator of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, Maj. Rob Marshall, said the team bonded every morning when they'd unfurl an American flag at each camp.

"On sunny days, we'd sit around the flag talking about the day's climb or listening to music on a solar-powered speaker," Marshall said. "We were all awfully proud of that American flag and took great pride in being part of something bigger than ourselves."

He said Klitzke was a huge asset to the team.

"His combination of excellent physical fitness and previous experience climbing in the Himalayas strengthened the team and helped mitigate our risk," Marshall said. "I especially appreciated his calm demeanor and sharp, yet soft-spoken, personality."

The team had to wait eight days to summit due to weather. Klitzke said the biggest challenge he faced on the mountain was finding patience.

"This mountain you had to be patient and take your time," Klitzke said. "You had to do the acclimation climbs because physiologically, you wouldn't be able to handle it. You had to retrace your steps over and over again. It's a climb that you know is going to physically hurt, it was tough and required a lot of endurance, but you just accept it and push through it."

Two climbers on the team, Capt. Colin Merrin and Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, turned back 2,000 feet from the summit due to a respiratory infection and potential frostbite, respectively.

"I was so proud of their smart risk-management decision, but it was a punch to the gut to know these two strong guys got a stroke of bad luck preventing them from going to the summit," Marshall said.

During his push to the summit, Klitzke burned approximately 15,000 calories in 36 hours.

"It was seven hours to the summit and a 4,000- to 5,000-foot elevation gain that day," Marshall said. "You're exhausted, you're not seeing straight, and you burn up every last free calorie. It takes you a good day and a half to recover."

The team reached the top of Everest at dawn. Klitzke said the view of the summit was magnificent and wishes every person could witness it.

"Pictures could never do it justice," Klitzke said. "You look out at the Tibetan plains, see the sunrise over it and view the whole world in front of you light up. It's a very humbling and gratifying experience, and it gives you a sense of how small you are. You're there for a short period of time but every second is worth the previous year of training."

Klitzke said Everest was a great experience but wouldn't attempt it again.

"It's such a consuming endeavor and I accomplished it," Klitzke said. "It's time for other things. I will always do mountaineering but I'm ready to move on to the next chapter."

Marshall said the Air Force Seven Summits team was the strongest on the mountain. He said they would have never been brought together or been so prepared if it wasn't for their shared military backgrounds.

"While other climbers struggled to deal with the unpredictable and often extreme conditions on the mountain, our teamwork, risk management, and determination, all skills emphasized in the Air Force, kept us in high spirits and health," Marshall said.

Marshall said it's no coincidence that four out of six of our Everest climbers were Air Force Academy graduates.

"The Academy and its mountaineering club planted the seed to seek new heights and find ways to improve the Air Force," Marshall said. "Our success is a testament to the importance of teaching life-long skills at the Academy and introducing Airmen to dynamic situations that foster real-time leadership. If I'm lucky, I'd like to return to Academy and help continue this great tradition of teaching future leaders."

Academy graduates on the team were:
  • Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a CV-22 Osprey pilot from Mercer Island, Wash., currently stationed at Bell Helicopter in Amarillo, Texas.
  • Capt. Marshall Klitzke, 31, a KC-135R Stratotanker pilot from Lemmon, S.D., currently an instructor pilot at the Air Force Academy.
  • Capt. Colin Merrin, 28, a GPS satellite operations mission commander from Santee, Calif., stationed at Schriever Air Force Base.
  • Capt. Kyle Martin, 29, a T-38/F-16 pilot from Manhattan, Kan., currently stationed at Langley AFB, Va.