Academy grad, wingman prepare for Antarctic climb

  • Published
  • By Capt. Lauren Johnson
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
An Air Force Academy graduate is one of two Airmen assigned to Hurlburt Field, Fla., who are putting the 1st Special Operations Wing motto to the test.

While most of their friends and colleagues are indulging in the family, food and football of the Thanksgiving holiday, 2001 Academy graduate Capt. Rob Marshall, with the 8th Special Operations Squadron, and Capt. Graydon Muller, with the 6th SOS, will be leaving behind the comforts of home for the austerity and isolation of Antarctica.

The Airmen will make the long trip to the world's coldest continent Nov. 24 with a goal of scaling Antarctica's tallest mountain, 16,076-foot Vinson Massif. It's a task for which they say the military, and specifically Air Force Special Operations Command's focus on physical fitness and the 1st SOW's "Any Time, Any Place" mentality makes them ideally equipped.

"We think it fits well with the military mindset," Captain Muller said. "There's a lot of teamwork involved in mountaineering, a lot of goal-setting, a lot of risk management."

The climb is part of a larger effort called the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, an endeavor for Air Force members to carry the Air Force flag to the highest point on each continent and to be the first U.S. military group to conquer all seven peaks.

"The Seven Summits is about Airmen setting a goal that some would think would be unobtainable and gutting it out to achieve it," Captain Marshall said. "It's about camaraderie and pushing each other to achieve new heights."

While this particular height is relatively low and the climb only moderately technical when compared to the others the group has already conquered -- Mount Elbrus (Asia, 18,510 ft.), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa, 19,340 feet), Mount Aconcagua (South America, 22, 834 ft.), and Alaska's 20,300-foot Mount McKinley - the area's remoteness, extreme temperatures and potential for hazardous winds make it uniquely challenging.

Vinson Massif is part of the Ellsworth Mountains, which rise majestically and menacingly from the icy Antarctic landscape. Largely due to its isolation, Mount Vinson was the last of the seven summits to originally be scaled. It was as recently as 1966 that an American team sponsored by the National Geographic Society first submitted the peak.

Even decades later, the Airmen said transportation remains an obstacle.

"Probably the most significant hurdle we ran into was getting to Antarctica and close to the mountain," Captain Marshall said. "There's only one commercial company in the world that flies you to Antarctica."

Their route will bring them by way of Punta Arenas near the southernmost tip of Chile, the closest landmass at more than 600 nautical miles away. After two days of preparations in Chile, the Airmen will fly to Antarctica's travel hub, Patriot Hills, the continent's only privately-owned arctic base. From there, they will take a ski-equipped turboprop Twin Otter aircraft to Vinson Massif's base camp.

"The other option was to ride a boat to the coast, then ski or dogsled to the mountain," Captain Muller said. "It's doable, but it takes so much more time."

The odyssey of traveling to the continent epitomizes the distinctive challenges -- and for some, the fascinations -- associated with the Antarctic adventure.

Antarctica itself is a land of extremes. Southeast from the continent's highest point is the world's lowest exposed elevation, the Bentley Subglacial Trench, which descends 8,200 feet below sea level. Approximately 98 percent of Antarctica's landmass is covered by a vast sheet of ice which measures, at its thickest, more than 15,000 feet. This frozen sheath gives Antarctica an average elevation of 6,100 feet above sea level, the highest of all seven continents. Because its perimeter is defined by ice, the continent roughly doubles in size during the winter.

Despite its topography, though, Antarctica is considered a desert. The interior receives less than two inches of precipitation every year, qualifying it as one of the driest places on earth. The base camp of Vinson Massif accumulates only about 18 inches of snow every year. It is also the coldest, averaging around negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the month of November, and, thanks to gravity-driven katabatic winds, the windiest continent.

Captains Marshall and Muller admit that the thought of entering Mother Nature's untamed lair is a bit intimidating, but say their experience in AFSOC has helped prepare them for operating in such harsh conditions.

The Airmen met with Dr. (Maj.) Michael McBeth, the 6th SOS flight surgeon, who has seven years AFSOC medical experience working with special tactics personnel in a wide range of environments to include cold weather, and Tech. Sgt. Tommy Ward, a 6th SOS independent duty medical technician and paramedic, who recently returned from a training course in high-altitude medicine.

"We primarily discussed altitude illness and recognition of symptoms, prevention and self-treatment, as well as safety of the member and providing care and assistance to teammates," Major McBeth said. "We also discussed frostbite recognition and treatment, which was one of the things they were really concerned about due to the extreme cold of this environment as compared to some of their other climbs."

The medics also provided the Airmen with individually-tailored travel medicine kits and training on how to administer treatments for both minor issues and more serious conditions such as altitude-related illnesses.

"I've seen people get ill or die from either being ignorant or not recognizing or understanding altitude sickness, which then leads to a more complicated medical condition like high-altitude pulmonary edema (where the lungs fill with fluid) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain)," Captain Marshall said. "But it's hard to get to a state of altitude sickness when you know what you're looking for and know about the medical causes."

"The special training the medics have been through was extremely useful," Captain Muller agreed. "They obviously have a wide range of experience with all kinds of environments. At the 6th SOS we almost always have people spread across the six populated continents, so our medical team is constantly ready for anything."

His position in the 6th SOS offered another advantage for Captain Muller as well. As an incoming member to the squadron, he recently participated in the Combat Aviation Advisor Mission Qualification Course through the AFSOC Training Center here.

According to the course director, Vincent Milioti, the training is roughly a year long and is designed to equip special operators to deploy, operate and survive in a variety of environments fulfilling missions in foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency operations and unconventional warfare. The curriculum covers areas such as advanced survival skills, small unit tactics, land navigation, mission planning, advanced communication and tactical combat casualty care.

"It's a broad range of skills that you might use as a military member deployed to an isolated area," Captain Muller said, adding that the physical demands of the course were specifically beneficial in his off-duty pursuits. "It put me in the best shape of my life and incidentally prepared me quite well for the climb."

Embracing the principle of "train like you fight," the Airmen have also been stair climbing with 60-pound backpacks and towing a weighted kayak to simulate pulling a supply sled.

"I think it's awesome you can train for a 16,000-foot arctic mountain living in Florida at sea level when it's 70 degrees in November, purely using the facilities available to us on base," Captain Marshall said.

The training is the final piece of a puzzle the Seven Summits team has been building for several years. Other key pieces seemed to recently fall into place.

"You need a lot of experience to go to Antarctica," Captain Marshall said. "The fact that we had two experienced climbers stationed together who could handle the funding and the schedule; it was too good an opportunity to pass up."

The Airmen won't be completely on their own, however. Once in Antarctica, they will be joining a group of fellow mountaineering enthusiasts eager to scale Mount Vinson's summit.

"We ended up getting support from a mountaineering mentor, who happened to be going down to Antarctica at this time," Captain Marshall said. "He basically said, 'team up with me!'"

The mentor, Phil Ershler, has conquered the Seven Summits and was half of the first husband and wife team to accomplish the feat.

If all goes well, he may soon be part of another first as the Air Force Seven Summits team passes a critical milestone in their mission to climb all seven peaks.

But beyond the glory of that looming accomplishment, and what will perhaps be a greater driving force in the captains' success than their training and preparation, is a humble reminder of what unites them as AFSOC personnel, Airmen and U.S. servicemembers.

"(The Seven Summits) has become a tribute to the U.S. servicemembers who have fallen in battle since (Sept. 11, 2001)," Captain Marshall said. "We'll be placing a plaque on the summit in their memory."

Once the Airmen begin their travels, the expedition is expected to take approximately two to three weeks.