Majs. Rob Marshall and Mark Uberuaga climbed the tallest mountains on each continent, and they learned through their experience that mountain climbing is good for a person’s physical and mental health. Now, the two Airmen are devoting their time to take ill or injured Airmen mountain climbing to enjoy those health benefits.
When two young officers created the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge Team eight years ago, they wanted to make history and pay tribute to fallen comrades through their love of the world’s most challenging peaks. Now that the team has conquered the highest summit on each continent, the focus shifts to introducing ill or injured Airmen to the therapeutic value of climbing a mountain.
A couple of months after the unofficial Air Force mountaineering team descended from Mount Everest, Majs. Rob Marshall and Mark Uberuaga led a pair of wounded combat controllers on a climb of Mount Rainier in Washington. They enjoyed the view of the sun rising above the summit while roped together, paused to read inspirational quotes and shared personal stories as they climbed long snow fields and glaciers to Mount Rainier’s 14,411-foot summit.
“I hope these mountaineering trips inspire Airmen to use the outdoors to challenge themselves mentally and physically,” Marshall said. “We all face a lot of stresses in our lives: deployments, injuries, family duties, personal relationships. . . The list goes on. But we can blast through these obstacles by giving ourselves a way to blow off steam in an exciting way like mountain climbing.
“Personally, I find time in the mountains to be the best way to relax my mind and sweat out my stress. We often refer to it as ‘the healing powers of the mountains’ because just stepping foot in the mountains makes life’s problems seem so small in comparison.”
After the team’s climbers reached Mount Everest’s summit on May 19, they became the first military team from any nation to reach the top of the highest mountain on every continent. They had already conquered Mount Elbrus, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Aconcagua, Mount McKinley, Mount Vinson and Mount Kosciuszko. After Everest, they needed a new challenge.
“Major Uberuaga, who co-founded the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge with me, suggested a new direction for our climbing program now that all seven summits have been reached,” Marshall said. “When we returned from Everest in May, he suggested that we keep the momentum up with a climb of Mount Rainier. He and I have been talking about a way to introduce more Airmen to mountaineering and the benefits found high in the mountains. So we decided to use Rainier as the first climb in our new project to take Airmen literally to new heights.”
The difficulty of climbing Rainier caught the novice mountaineers by surprise, as did the warm Pacific Northwest temperatures. But they were able to mix in some introspective moments with the strenuous physical challenge of climbing the highest peak in the continental United States, Marshall said.
“Our two wounded combat controllers had a great time on the trip and were psyched to reach the summit of Rainier,” he said. “It proved to be a more difficult climb than they had expected, but they pushed hard and overcame some significant physical challenges posed by their injuries to reach the top. Their excited reactions throughout the climb was a highlight for me.”
Marshall and Uberauga hope to take other wounded Airmen on similar climbs at least twice a year. The next one could be in Colorado, where many of the summit challenge team climbers met and discovered their love of mountains.
“Right now, we’re thinking about offering a winter climb of a Colorado 14’er (peak above 14,000 feet) or perhaps mix things up and teach people how to ice climb in Ouray, Colo.,” Marshall said. “We’re starting to toy with the idea of a ‘USAF 50 States Challenge,’ where we would organize hikes and climbs to take Airmen to the highest point in each of America’s states. It would be fun to end that with a climb of (Mount) Denali, the highest peak in Alaska.
“It’s not just about taking care of our own problems. These climbs are also about helping our fellow Airmen. It seemed to us that many Airmen had to turn to outside charities or organizations for these sorts of experiences. So Major Uberuaga and I decided we’d make these trips about ‘Airmen helping fellow Airmen.’ It’s the wingman concept in its most simple terms – using your strengths and skills to help a comrade in need.”