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USAF 7 Summits Team wrap-up

Maj. Rob Marshall and Capt. Drew Ackles proudly display the Air Force flag on the summit of Mount Everest.

By Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson
920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

May 20th: It’s game time, and we are finally at the South Col ready to head for the summit. The weather says winds less than 15 mph, and I feel good. I try to rest and gather gear to make my pack even lighter since we have a large O2 cylinder to carry up with us…like a lifeline. It’s to the point where, even moving things around in your tent, leaves you gasping for air if you don’t have your mask up at the time.

My start time for my summit is around 7:30 p.m. This was decided to help us avoid the slow moving climbers, often from a specific country to remain unnamed, that can impede your progress up the mountain by moving in large numbers with few options to pass. As soon as I step out of the tent, I notice that we aren’t the only camp stirring. Multiple languages echo through the cold night, and I am concerned that everyone is leaving at the same time. I am the first of the Air Force team to leave and my suspicions are confirmed as I begin my climb up the Triangle Face.

Soon, I come upon a line of climbers moving extremely slowly. My climbing Sherpa, Mingma Tenzing, broke off to the right of the line of what has been referred to as the “zombies” and began passing on another parallel rope. I followed and we jetted past many climbers lined up back to back. The terrain we passed upon was difficult and exhausting and by the time I reached the front of the line of 30-40 climbers, I was destroyed from the effort.

After hours of climbing, we reached the Balcony (27,500 ft) and took a break. This is where Mingma switched one of the new bottles in his pack for the one in my pack. So I got a new bottle to ascend on and dropped the used one in my backpack for alter use as I descend. My hands had gone numb, so as I warmed them, I also ate and drank to replenish what I had spent on my passing of the “zombies”. I realized that I was much more tired than I had expected. As I rested, the “zombie” group reached the Balcony as well. By the time I got some food and water and warmed my fingers, the group had begun climbing again and I was stuck behind them. My Sherpa wanted to pass again, and normally I would have had the energy, but not this time. We were too high and I was beginning to feel more tired than usual. I was exhausted.

We climbed behind them for a while and I felt my toes going numb. After an hour of climbing on numb toes with no return of feeling, I told my Sherpa we may be done. I felt trapped between my body and the elements and I knew who should win. This is the place where I think people roll the dice. Not me. Not with an entire medical career and all my family waiting for my return as a whole man. I called over the radio and explained to Greg, the Base Camp manager, that I didn’t have the energy to pass twice, and I didn’t have the heat to safety behind them. He agreed it was the right decision. Once the call was in, my Sherpa says to me, “I’m sorry, Nick.” We both knew. We turned around and sat down next to each other at 28,200 feet and just stared off into the cold night. Emotions were raw for us both. After a few minutes I said, “C’mon, let’s go home.”

As we climbed down the Triangle Face, the sun made its appearance, as it did to those up higher than us. I heard the calls come through on the radio from my friends as they stood on top of the world, elated with life. My joy for them was mixed with sorrow. I stopped Mingma for a while as the sun showed me the beauty of a window seat in the death zone. I told him I wanted to sit and look for a minute because I would never see this again. It was the only moment I afforded myself since time in the death zone does more for giving it it’s name than anything.

Once back to Camp 4 at 26,000 feet, I got an hour to get my stuff together and rest. They often help people as you are wasted tired. Then they force you up and on your way to Camp 2. Guys sometimes lie in their tent and complain about how they’ve only been there an hour when in actuality they have been there four or five hours. It is a death trap to stay long. I asked if I could get another shot the next night to summit before I go down, but my request was denied. Not enough oxygen resources, and in truth, once you step above the balcony, it takes your body weeks to recover. When I finally arrived at Camp 2 that morning, it was evident to me that something was wrong with me. I was audibly wheezing and was too tired to even stand up and walk to my tent. When I finally got there, I tried to lie down, and I went into fits of coughing with a drowning feeling. It was obvious pretty quickly that I had HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema).

Colin Merrin called to Base Camp on the radio and told them what was going on with me. I took medication to help treat my condition and slept on oxygen that night, and the subsequent descent to Base Camp the next day. I felt my condition improve quickly with descent. I also felt certain that it had played a role in my fatigue on summit day. This helped me feel somewhat more reassured about my decision to turn around. As an Air Force pararescueman, when you are used to working in the rescue profession and caring for others, you must be aware of the circumstances that entail you rescuing yourself. I once cared for a fellow SCUBA diver while on a dive who was panicking and threatening to dart for the surface from 140 ft. I made sure nothing happened to him, but I was so focused on him that I myself ran out of air ten feet below the surface. I got lucky that time, but forgot the cardinal rule that you never let yourself become a second victim. Now my summit attempt was over and I had to find a way to deal with the emotional ripple effects of that.

Editor’s Note:
While Staff Sgt. Gibson was shy of summiting Mt. Everest by 829 feet, the USAF 7 Summits Challenge Team as a whole “…unfurled the stars and stripes and the Air Force flag on the summit right after 5 a.m. in Nepal,” according to retired Col. Rob Suminsby, co-founder of the Seven Summits project. USAF 7 Summits Challenge team climbers consisted of: Maj. Rob Marshall, Capt. Andrew Ackles, Capt. Marshall Klitzke, Capt. Colin Merrin and Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson. To put it in perspective: If you took a running track and ran one lap, that is ½ a mile, therefore 829 feet is less than 1/6 of a mile and would take the average person 2 minutes to run. Making it just shy of 829 feet below the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, is still an amazing feat by most standards.

Along with Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, Capt. Colin Merrin also had to turn back from the summit due to illness. “The Air Force Safety Center has been a strong supporter of this effort,” said Suminsby. “These guys (Gibson and Merrin) deserve a huge amount of credit, as they made one of the toughest decisions a climber can make, turning around short of the summit. Both made a good decision to turn back. The team was committed to safety throughout the process, and their actions are shining examples of how to do the right thing even when it’s disappointing and not easy. A lot of people have been willing to sacrifice fingers or toes to reach the summit, but this team defined success from the outset as bringing everyone back in one piece.

” As a reserve pararescueman and a physician assistant medical student at Emory University, Gibson, the only enlisted climber, acted as the USAF 7 Summit Team’s medic during the two month-long climb, and according to the USAF 7 Summit Team leader, Maj. Rob Marshal, he, “quickly earned a reputation as the go-to medic for everybody within earshot, especially at the higher camps where medical support is much harder to come by. In addition to treating cuts and abrasions, ‘Gibby’ has administered potentially life-saving treatments to climbers suffering symptoms of HAPE and HACE. This no doubt establishes some kind of record for the highest altitude work ever done by a USAF PJ. We are super proud to have him on the team!”

PHOTO: Maj. Rob Marshall and Capt. Drew Ackles proudly display the USAF flag on the summit of Mt. Everest.

Information courtesy of USAF Seven Summits Challenge blog. For more information, see the Seven Summits website, Seven Summits blog and Facebook page. You can also visit the 920th Rescue Wing Facebook page. The USAF 7 Summits Challenge is not officially sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force. It is a team of military members acting unofficially, and with no DOD financial assistance, to spread goodwill about the U.S. Air Force.

Seven Summits Challenge Update

By Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson
920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

In this blog entry, Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, a U.S. Air Force Reserve pararescueman and physician assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick AFB, tells his story about the journey to the top of Mount Everest with his fellow Airmen. The team of six Airmen are on an independent 50-day journey. For more information, you may read Gibson’s previous blog post.

Photo of the Black Pyramid formation on Mount Everest.

April 22: Today we got up bright and early at 3 a.m. and packed up to hike into the icefall for the first time. While we are only going in about halfway and then turning around, we are all a little jittery over the known dangers that the icefall holds. We planned to go to what is called the “football field” and then return back to camp. I had my Sherpa, Mingma Tenzing II, with me and we got within 30 minutes of the football field before heavy fog turned us around. This was our first experience after practicing earlier with ladders across the crevasses. As long as you focus on your crampons and the ladder, and not what lies beneath, it’s fine. Easier done at night under headlamp than during the day when it’s hard not to notice the deepening blue of the dense ice beneath you. I was pretty exhausted by the time we returned, however as the sun surfaced from the horizon, the beauty of the icefall revealed itself almost as an explanation of the danger toll. The mystery of the icefall no longer hangs over us.

April 24: I am writing this from Camp 1 (19,900 feet) as we all recover from a long day through the icefall. This morning felt much better than the previous half-trip we made. I am relived to be past the West Shoulder with its overlooking dangers. The tent is getting hit by midday sun and is almost unbearably hot! What a contrast to the cold temperatures at night. We are finding any way we can to pass the time as our bodies adjust to the low pressure at this height. Colin, one of the other Air Force guys, has his Sherpa pitching snowballs at him that he swings for the fences on with a shovel. Books are very popular, although it can be difficult to read about the “cold beer and pizza” that the characters consume within the pages. Often, though, it eventually turns back to swapping stories from adventures on deployments or training. This bond becomes the only glue that survives any temperature the mountain provides. After tomorrow night, it is on to Camp 2 and 21,300 feet!

icefall

April 27: We are enjoying our only full day at Camp 2 (21,300 feet). The air makes it difficult to want to do much but sit around and read or nap. The point of these rotations aren’t to do much anyway, but to simply be at that altitude. Many of us have begun battling the cough, which makes laughing at each others’ jokes a dangerous thing, ha ha! One of the climbers, not part of our group, has become ill and was showing very low oxygen saturation levels. Other happenings in camp have given me an opportunity to care for this climber and exchange information with the physicians at the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) at Base Camp. They have established a good care plan for the climber that we are implementing with good results. We are all going to descend tomorrow morning back to Base Camp for some much needed recovery time. This is the highest I will carry my good Nikon camera due to the weight and the desire to have maximum focus on climbing. I am very pleased with the images I have been able to capture and look forward to using them in my exhibit show in Atlanta when I return!

April 30: I am finally back to the Internet here in Gorek Shep! I got very little sleep the last night in Camp 2, but the trip back down to Base Camp went well. I could feel my strength returning as I got lower. I went in to the HRA to follow up on my patient and see about getting treated myself for my cough. The patient made it down, slow, but fine to Base Camp and is doing much better. Best medicine in these mountains is almost always descend, descend, descend. While my oxygen saturation was around 90%, I am starting some antibiotics (second course of the trip) for an upper respiratory infection. I have between four and seven days rest to make sure I am healthy for rotation two. This time we will spend a night at Camp 3 (24,000 feet). This is the highest we will go without oxygen. The next rotation after that will be our summit bid and we will sleep on oxygen upon arrival to Camp 3 on that trip. I feel strong today and slept like a rock last night! I am so grateful for the support of my family, friends and all those who’ve been so supportive of this expedition. Please, let’s not forget that our veterans are climbing their own mountains of recovery from injuries, physical and mental, and while we can’t climb for them, our support could be the oxygen that means all the difference in reaching their summit. Please engage and support you veterans!!!

PHOTO: (top) Early morning photo of Mount Everest from Camp 2 walking to Camp 1. The black pyramid formation is on the left. A team of six active-duty Airmen is currently on their way to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. (Courtesy photo) (bottom) Airmen descend a three-part ladder in the Khumbu Icefall. (Courtesy photo)

Information courtesy of USAF Seven Summits Challenge blog. For more information, follow the team’s progress on the Seven Summits website, Seven Summits blog and Facebook page. You can also visit the 920th Rescue Wing Facebook page. The USAF 7 Summits Challenge is not officially sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force. It is a team of military members acting unofficially, and with no DOD financial assistance, to spread goodwill about the U.S. Air Force.

Seven Summits Challenge

By Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson
Patrick Air Force Base

In this blog entry, Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, a U.S. Air Force Reserve pararescueman and physician assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick AFB, tells his story about the journey to the top of Mount Everest with his fellow Airmen. The team of six Airmen are on an independent 50-day journey. For more information, read Airmen make progress in bid for Everest.

March 28: We are sitting here in the Los Angeles international terminal waiting to board our flight to Hong Kong. This will be my first leg of two weeks of traveling to get to the Mt. Everest Base Camp (EBC). It’s something that you are not only choosing to do, but paying huge sums of money for, and that carries a level of danger with it. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, but there is so much more involved than just climbing. We have a goal that was set a decade ago to inspire Air Force members. We have a chance to bring attention to our brothers and sisters who struggle with the effects of combat and long deployments who need our help. We have our three wounded warriors who are trekking with us to Base Camp who are an example and inspiration to others suffering from scars, visible or not. Finally, we have the sense of adventure that comes with doing something that challenges every cell of your body and every element of determination within your soul.

I have no doubt in my mind that this expedition will test my will and have me relying on my friends and teammates. I will still miss my girlfriend. I will still want to comfort my family. I will still find myself feeling behind my classmates at Emory University. By definition, though, this is a calling. I go into it knowing that the climb isn’t about the summit, but the summit is about the climb.

April 4: So much has happened since my intro blog, but it’s time for me to bite the bullet and give a recap, so that we are all caught up. We left L.A. and had a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong, which was a first for me. We took a tour of the city and ate some of the local cuisine. We boarded our flight for Kathmandu ready for a solid night of sleep. 

We arrived in Kathmandu late in the night and slogged through the customs process. As soon as we left we were swamped by people trying to carry our bags, recognizing us as an expedition. I even had one guy bring me aside and act as though he wouldn’t give me my bag back until I gave him a tip. We loaded up and headed to the Hotel Tibet. Over the next couple days we saw some sights in Kathmandu, including where they hold very public cremations of their dead. It was hard to even take pictures, although I was assured they expect it. 

We boarded our plane the next morning to Lukla. I think we were all nervous about this flight. I’m sure the five or six pilots we have amongst our team were going crazy seeing as they weren’t in control of the aircraft — watching the mountain tops fly by around us, towering as we flew right into a valley with no escape. Consistently considered the most dangerous airstrip in the world, Lukla had us all in disbelief as the pilots throttled down when we came into a runway that began at the edge of a cliff and ended into the side of a mountain. At the bottom of the lead edge cliff is the remains, both aircraft and human, of those flights that misjudged in bad weather, too remote to recover.

Once we taxi into the small airfield, we unloaded and assembled. While waiting for the next flight with the rest of our team, we had cake and latte (something I didn’t expect). We loaded up our packs and hit the trail. It felt so great to be finally taking physical steps towards Everest! Lukla is at about 9,300 feet, so we went slow and took our time. We had just gone through a quick jump of over 5,000 feet! 

April 13: After several days of trekking through various towns and across many suspension bridges, we have arrived at Everest Base Camp!!! Everyone in our group got some sickness that, while common among trekkers, has never been this bad. I believe only two in our group of nearly twenty escaped it. It took me out for a couple days, but I bounced back and recovered in time to catch up with the group.

We stayed a couple days at Lobuche Basecamp, where we will return in a few days to climb Lobuche itself as an acclimation climb. That climb will put us at just under 20,000 feet.  I am now spending time at the 17,600 foot Everest Base Camp. This place is like a city! There are tents along the glacial moraine as far as you can see. We had to leave six from our group at Lobuche Base Camp to recover from the bug, but they will join us shortly. Right now it is just a struggle for those of us who are healthy to even breathe at times! The icefall looks beautiful and ominous at the same time. 

USAF Seven Summits Team

April 16: We’ve been in EBC now for a few days, and we’re leaving this morning for Lobuche again. We’ll spend a day there and then up to Lobuche Advanced Base Camp, where we will sleep until 3 a.m. At that point we will get up and gear up to climb Lobuche false peak at 19,700 feet. This will be great for us to shake out our gear some more, and it means one less trip through the unpredictable icefall up on Everest.

The past couple days have been great here at EBC! Yesterday we had a Puja, a blessing of us as climbers and our climbing gear. It was an amazing experience. We threw rice onto the ceremony, and the Sherpas rubbed flour into our beards to symbolize living to an old age and having many children. I met my climbing Sherpa named Mingma Tenzing Sherpa. He is twenty years old and has summitted Everest three times!! That’s not counting two turn-arounds for weather. I gave him a USAF pararescue beret flash as a reminder that we are climbing this mountain together as brothers. He was very excited when I gave it to him as were the other Sherpas around him. Well, off to Lobuche!

April 19: Now I am at my final stop on my way back to Everest Base Camp. Three days ago we left EBC to do our first acclimatization climb up Lobuche to its east summit. The day before we left, visited the Everest emergency room, a small clinic tent put together by the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA). They have other clinics in the valley, but Everest ER is the highest. It is manned by physicians from all over including one from Nepal. These people are the top providers in the field of high altitude medicine and do a great deal of treatment with very little. I was very impressed with how they took time out of their day to sit down and talk with us about medicine as a physician assistant student.  We also had a veteran and a fourth-year medical student who trekked in with us who were a part of this great discussion.

We headed to Lobuche Base Camp and then on the next afternoon to the Lobuche Advanced Base Camp. Once there, we caught some dinner on the rocks and watched the mountains reveal themselves one last time before the sun dipped. We crashed early and then woke up at 3 a.m. so we could summit early in the day. This climb was another personal altitude record for me at around 20,000 feet. I was feeling ill that morning because of the climb but gutted it out to the summit. We got some great photos and were able to get out the flags of those that helped make this happen. If all goes as planned, I should be pulling these flags out on the summit of Mt. Everest in about a month!!!

Camp at night

PHOTOS: (top) Part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summit team smiles for a group photo in front of a Himalayan mountain range in Deboche, Nepal. A team of six active-duty Airmen is currently on their way to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. (Courtesy photo) (bottom) The tents of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summit team are illuminated at night at a base camp near Mount Everest. A team of six active-duty Airmen is currently on their way to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, to support resilience, raise money for charity and commemorate their fallen. (Courtesy photo) 

Information courtesy of USAF Seven Summits Challenge blog. For more information, follow the team’s progress at http://www.usaf7summits.com and at http://www.facebook.com/pages/USAF-7-Summits-Challenge. The USAF 7 Summits Challenge is not officially sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force. It is a team of military members acting unofficially, and with no DOD financial assistance, to spread goodwill about the U.S. Air Force.

Mountains

 By Senior Master Sgt. Kathleen McCool
Air Force Recruiting Service

While on an aircraft recently my seven-year-old son pointed out the window and asked me what was below. As I replied “mountains” he got a strange look on his face and said “that’s funny, they don’t look so tall from up here.” Senior Master Sgt. McCool

As I reflected on what he said I realized his statement mirrored my career. As I was looking ahead at each challenge I faced, the mountains appeared so tall, but as I climbed them and looked back down I discovered they weren’t as tall as I thought they were.

My first “mountain” came on the morning of Aug. 3, 1995, when my dad drove me to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Phoenix, Ariz. I can remember it as if it was yesterday — standing under the fluorescent lights outside the building. The fear that had been building over the last year in the Delayed Entry Program was now staring me in the face. I was leaving home for the first time to attend Basic Military Training (BMT). The “mountain” seemed enormous and I almost begged my dad to take me back home, but his words of encouragement were the reason I was able to walk into the building that morning and survive the next six weeks of basic.

It wasn’t until three years later when I returned to BMT that I realized the “mountain” didn’t seem so tall. These experiences continued throughout my career as a health services apprentice, a member of the base honor guard, a military training instructor and here in recruiting duty. I have been fortunate to have many mentors and peers along the way who made the climb much more enjoyable. As you face mountains, find someone to help with your climb and know that someday you will be able to look back on each “mountain” in a different light.

Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Kathleen McCool (right), Air Force Recruiting Service recruiter screening team superintendent, counsels a prospective recruiter. She was recognized as the Air Education and Training Command senior noncommissioned officer of the year for 2010. (courtesy photo)