Face of Defense: Airmen Aim for Antarctic Climb

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Two Air Force cap­tains have set their sights to con­quer Antarctica’s high­est mountain. 

Capt. Rob Mar­shall, with the 8th Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Squadron, and Capt. Gray­don Muller, with the 6th SOS, will depart here tomor­row en route to the world’s cold­est con­ti­nent, with the goal of scal­ing the 16,076-feet-high Vin­son Mas­sif. The cap­tains believe that their task dove­tails with the Air Force Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Command’s focus on phys­i­cal fit­ness and its mot­to: “Any Time, Any Place.” 

 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Air Force Capt. Rob Mar­shall pre­pares to ski down from the sum­mit of Mt. Elbrus, the high­est peak in Rus­sia, with fel­low air­man and moun­taineer Capt. Mark Uberu­a­ga, now with the 55th Res­cue Squadron, Davis-Mon­than Air Force Base, N.M., after com­plet­ing their first climb as part of the U.S. Air Force Sev­en Sum­mits Chal­lenge in July 2005. The chal­lenge is 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. Mar­shall is a mem­ber of the 8th Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Squadron at Hurl­burt Field, Fla.
Cour­tesy pho­to
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“We think it fits well with the mil­i­tary mind­set,” 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 the U.S. Air Force Sev­en Sum­mits Chal­lenge, where­by Air Force mem­bers endeav­or 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,” Mar­shall said. “It’s about cama­raderie and push­ing each oth­er to achieve new heights.” 

Air Force climbers have con­quered Asia’s Mount Elbrus, at 18,510 feet; Africa’s Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, 19,340 feet; Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, 22,834 feet, and Alaska’s Mount McKin­ley, at 20,300 feet high. Antarctica’s remote­ness, extreme tem­per­a­tures and poten­tial for haz­ardous winds make the endeav­or unique­ly challenging. 

Vin­son Mas­sif is part of the Ellsworth Moun­tains, which rise majes­ti­cal­ly and men­ac­ing­ly from the icy 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. 

The cap­tains said trans­porta­tion remains an obsta­cle to this day. 

“Prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant hur­dle we ran into was get­ting to Antarc­ti­ca and close to the moun­tain,” 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 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,” Muller said. “It’s doable, but it takes so much more time.” 

Antarc­ti­ca is a land of extremes. South­east from the continent’s high­est point is the world’s low­est exposed ele­va­tion, the Bent­ley Sub-glacial 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. 

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 cap­tains met with Dr. (Maj.) Michael McBeth, the 6th SOS’s flight sur­geon, who has sev­en years of med­ical expe­ri­ence work­ing with per­son­nel in a wide range of envi­ron­ments to include cold weath­er, and Tech. Sgt. Tom­my Ward, a 6th SOS 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,” 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 cap­tains 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. 

“The spe­cial train­ing the medics have been through was extreme­ly use­ful,” Muller said. “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.” 

Embrac­ing the prin­ci­ple of “train like you fight,” the cap­tains have 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,” Mar­shall said. 

The train­ing is the final piece of a puz­zle the Sev­en Sum­mits team has been build­ing for sev­er­al years. 

“You need a lot of expe­ri­ence to go to Antarc­ti­ca,” 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 Air Force moun­tain climbers won’t be alone. Once in Antarc­ti­ca, they will join 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,” 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. 

But beyond the glo­ry of achiev­ing a daunt­ing task, 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 9/11,” Mar­shall said. “We’ll be plac­ing a plaque on the sum­mit in their memory.” 

The cap­tains’ expe­di­tion is expect­ed to take two to three weeks. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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