Somewhere in the brown shrublands of northern Texas, there’s a man running down the road, sweating, passing brown fields and miles of pan-flat prairie.
Pull up and ask him what he is doing, and he will tell you something crazy: “I’m training to climb Everest.”
You look around. Grasshoppers. Cows. Hills measured in inches. Suuuuuure you are, man, you think. And I am preparing to drive to Pluto.
But this guy is serious. He is Air Force Major Rob Marshall, and he’s training to finish off a capstone achievement in the climbing world, the Seven Summits—an ascent of the highest peak on each of the world’s continents.
“When I graduated the Air Force academy in 2001, I took my time off and I went to Nepal and I hiked to the base of Everest,” Marshall tells TakePart. “When I stood there I got this really strong feeling like I should return.”
Now 34 and living in Amarillo, Rob is the founding member of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge, an initiative originally aimed at generating good buzz about the Air Force and highlighting the benefits of a military lifestyle.
The group quickly turned into a charity effort. Now it climbs to support the Special Operations Warrior Foundation—a group that pays for school tuition for kids who lose a parent in the special forces.
“We’ve raised over $50,000 for them in the last six climbs,” Marshall says. “We’d like to raise another $50,000.”
Since 2005, Marshall’s group has knocked off all but one of the official Seven Summits, starting at Mt. Elbrus in Russia and topping off most recently at Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia. Now, their sights are set on the biggest, baddest most dangerous of them all: Everest.
Despite his climbing prowess, Marshall is still an active-duty airman first. He’s a test pilot for the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. That means he goes where his assignments are, and he gets a new one every three years or so. That’s why he’s training to scale the planet’s highest peak in that hotbed of mountaineering challenge… Amarillo, Texas.
“Basically, during the weekdays, I just do your typical cardio and weight lifting,” he says. “There is a rock climbing gym in Amarillo that I’m a member of.”
Yup, a member of a rock climbing gym in Amarillo. That’s how you prep for Everest as an Air Force pilot. And believe it or not, this is actually better than the resources he had at his disposal for his fifth climb, when Marshall trained for the highest peak in Antarctica while living in Florida.
From Amarillo, Marshall has somewhat close access to the high peaks of Colorado, which he drives to for practice whenever he can get time. In Florida, he had to prep for the world’s coldest, driest climate from a sun-soaked park in the tropics. He did it by running with a heavy backpack and dragging a kayak with a concrete block in it.
Marshall says the group is aiming for a 50/50 split with donations between their own costs and dollars that go to the Warrior Foundation.
Continuing the tough-as-bomber-plane-rivets theme of their Summits effort, the group also doesn’t just scale the world’s highest peaks, the get there and then do pushups. Not even kidding. There’s video of it.
They climb, they get to the top, and then they rip off a few dozen, just to show they still got something left in the tank, Marshall says.
“It’s our way of saying ‘we’re not just regular climbers, we’re military climbers.’ We do it to show, if it were a few feet higher, we would keep going.”
Show of Force
The seven mountaineers who will head to Everest for the final climb of the Summits challenge are all active-duty Air Force members, stationed everywhere from Afghanistan to West Africa. The group includes Capt. Graydon Muller, Capt. Andrew Ackles, Capt. Colin Merrin, Capt. Kyle Martin, Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, and Capt. Marshall Klitzke. Each team member is an accomplished climber, with major peaks scaled.
Another major challenge for the final climb is logistical.
Marshall points out that his group is not officially sanctioned by the Air Force. They do what they do on their own and with their own money and vacation time, he says. For this climb, the costs run into the tens of thousands apiece. They are required to hire a guide service, Nepali Sherpas, to help them and spend enough time at high altitude to practice and acclimatize before they setting out for the peak.
The cost puts a dent in the fundraising efforts, but Marshall says the group is aiming for a 50/50 split with donations between their own costs and dollars that go to the Warrior Foundation.
At this point, Marshall’s team has its climbing permit and has put down the money needed to secure an expedition. That just leaves climbing the highest and most dangerous mountain in the world.
“Safety is our number one driving factor in everything we do,” Marshall says, noting the notorious lethality of the upper reaches of Everest, which each year claims the lives of climbers. Marshall insists their climb will be safe and conservative, and not overzealous. Still, a trek of such proportion is nerve-jangling.
“I’m apprehensive sure,” he says, “but I’m more excited than apprehensive.”
For now, Marshall’s looking at a little over seven months of training before heading to Nepal. So if you’re headed through Amarillo and see a man training harder than it looks like he needs to, wish him luck.
Do you find mountain climbing adventurism unnecessarily risky or inspirational? Evaluate the pros and cons in COMMENTS.
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Ben Murray has been a frontline correspondent for Stars and Stripes and a producer on The Deadliest Catch. A normally calm person, Ben gets all kinds of fired up by abuse of power and ignorance in high places. To keep from igniting, he writes about these topics and more and does his best to keep the profanity out of it. But every once in a while... earmuffs, kids.