Mt. Aconcagua: mission completed

  • Published
  • By Sheila Rupp
  • Nucleus Journalist
Three people emerge over the peak of Mount Aconcagua - three people accomplishing a dream of setting foot atop the highest peak of South America. A large personal accomplishment but an accomplishment for a much larger force: the U.S. Air Force.

Capt. Rob Marshall, 1st Lt. Heidi Hofstetter and Justin Henkel reached the peak of Mount Aconcagua, Argentina, Feb. 27 at approximately 5 p.m. They left the United States Feb. 12 and made the long trip to Argentina.

Climbing as part of the U.S. Air Force 7 Summits Challenge, co-founded by Captain Marshall, a member of the 71st Special Operations Squadron here, the trio reached the peak and raised the Air Force flag. Mount Aconcagua is the third of the seven peaks the 7 Summits Challenge team seeks to complete in the name of the Air Force.

Captain Marshall founded the challenge with Capt. Mark Uberuaga of the 21st Special Operations Squadron at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, with the dream that Airmen would climb to the highest peaks of each continent. Several years after first meeting, their dreams are realistic goals that they are achieving with Air Force pride.

"The thing (the challenge) has grown arms and legs; it's really started to develop. With each peak completed it gets more and more real and hopefully soon, it'll start walking," Captain Marshall said.

Captain Marshall climbed with the 7 Summit Challenge team in July 2005 to reach the summit of Mount Elbrus, Russia, and in July 2006 when he and a team reached the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Lieutenant Hofstetter, a C-130 pilot stationed at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and Mr. Henkel, a former special operations intelligence officer, joined the 7 Summits Challenge for the first time in the Mount Aconcagua climb.

When the trio arrived in Argentina, they met up with their guides and more climbers in the city of Mendoza, where they acclimated to the city, time zone and elevation. The team expected the weather to be quite warm as it was summer for the region, but high winds and cold weather surprised them.

Preparing for the arduous climb, the group took day hikes and treks out of the base camp, Plaza de Mulas. Each day, groups of climbers would come down the mountain with bad news of failed attempts, poor weather and bad conditions. Captain Marshall said the bad weather never hurt the spirits of the group; they were still unwavering in their quest to reach the summit.

"We weren't really all that deterred, but we were still worried about the conditions - but even that made us even more determined to raise the Air Force flag," Captain Marshall said.

While at the base camp, Captain Marshall, Lieutenant Hofstetter and Mr. Henkel would practice what are called cache-and-carry runs - trips to move unessential gear up to higher points in the climb and coming back down to sleep, what Captain Marshall calls "climb high, sleep low." Weather wasn't improving much and they heard that a group of 10 climbers had to sleep in one tent because high winds had destroyed their other tents. A climber also went missing during their time at the base camp.

Luckily, the weather changed just before the challenge team, guides and group left in the push for the summit. The sun began to shine again, though winds were still high and the temperatures were still low, but the snow had stopped falling. During the first few days after leaving the base camp, the group spent a lot of time in their tents trying to keep warm and hoping the tents would hold up to the high winds. While spending two nights at the first camp, Plaza Canada, the group heard about two deaths up ahead. They moved on to spend one night at the Nido de Cóndores camp and one night at the Berlin camp, which was at 19,000 feet.

The night before the summit, Captain Marshall said the group couldn't sleep because of the high winds and building excitement. As the three roused on the morning they hoped to reach the summit, the sun rose high over the mountain and shone brightly. Captain Marshall said the three were ready to go long before the rest of the group and the guides let them go on ahead to begin their final push.

"I think it was because we were military but we were ready to go on time and when we took off, we stayed in front of the group the whole time," he said.

The temperature hovered around 10 degrees -- 20 degrees below zero when the wind chill was factored in. They reached the 22,841-foot summit at 5 p.m. on Feb. 27, 10 hours after leaving the Berlin camp. The Air Force climbers were the only members of the group to reach the summit. They unfurled the Air Force flag and proudly raised it. Despite being physically exhausted, an adrenaline-filled Captain Marshall still had to perform 50 push-ups in the name of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, raising approximately $200 for his push-ups alone.

SOWF provides college scholarships and educational counseling to the children of special operations personnel who are killed in training accidents or combat missions. During the Mount Aconcagua trip, the challenge raised approximately $3,000, which brings the 7 Summits Challenge total to more than $15,000 for SOWF.

After basking in the remaining sunlight and enjoying the views from the peak, the trio had to begin the long trek back down the mountain to get into camp before sunset.

"When you reach the summit, you're only half way done," Captain Marshall said.

The team returned to the United States March 5 successful in climbing the third peak of the challenge. Captain Marshall said that although definite plans for their next endeavor in the challenge can't be made at this time because of training schedules and operations, they hope to climb the remaining four summits by 2011.

Captain Marshall said the goal of the 7 Summits Challenge is to increase military morale, promote personal fitness and growth, raise awareness for a superb charity and let the American public see what sort of people are serving the nation in uniform.

Anyone interested in joining in on the next climb is welcome to take part. For more information, to see pictures of past climbs and read about the SOWF, visit