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By Emily Klinkenborg, Peterson-Schriever Garrison
/ Published September 24, 2021
A mountaineer descends from the Denali summit in Alaska, June 12, 2021. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Space Operations Command public affairs officer, individual mobilization augmentee, became the first and only servicemember to complete the Seven Summits Challenge at the summit of this climb. (Courtesy photo)
The U.S. Air Force Seven Summit Challenge Team stands at the peak of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia, with members of the Royal Australian Army and Air Force, Oct. 3, 2011. The members of the U.S. Air Force team changed regularly, but as the team lead, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Space Operations Command public affairs officer, individual mobilization augmentee, (6th from the left) was always a consistent member. (Courtesy photo)
U.S. Air Force Maj. Colin Merrin, Space Delta 2 – Space Domain Awareness director of staff, (center) shares a meal with Sherpa guides at the base camp of Mount Everest, Nepal, May 2013. Merrin has climbed several impressive mountains including Mount Rainier, Washington, Aconcagua in Argentina, and the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc of the Alps in Europe. (Courtesy photo)
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall, Space Operations Command public affairs officer, individual mobilization augmentee, (3rd from the right) and U.S. Air Force Maj. Colin Merrin, Space Delta 2 – Space Domain Awareness director of staff, (2nd from the right) stand amongst the six U.S. Air Force Seven Summit Challenge Team members at the base camp of Mount Everest, Nepal, May 2013. The team members varied at each summit during the challenge due to mission requirements of the Air Force. (Courtesy photo)
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rob Marshall and USAF Maj. Colin Merrin, two mountaineering experts from the USAF Seven Summits Challenge Team, are scheduled to speak during Wingman Day, Oct. 7, 2021.
Wingman Day, a USAF tradition held twice a year, aims to strengthen unit morale and build resilient leaders. The Seven Summits Challenge consists of climbing the highest peak on every continent – a feat that requires a great deal of resilience.
The USAF team started the Seven Summits Challenge in 2005 with Mount Elbrus, Russia, and completed the challenge in 2013 with Mount Everest, Nepal.
“The challenge was to take the Air Force and American Flag to the highest point on every continent,” said Marshall. “The idea was never for me to climb all seven summits, it was originally just to get a team together to do it.”
The members of the USAF Seven Summits Challenge team changed regularly, but as the team lead, Marshall was always a consistent member. Marshall summited six of the seven peaks with the team, but was not able to join the team in Alaska for the Denali climb in 2008.
“No one was able to completely build their schedules around the climb. The needs of the Air Force came first,” said Marshall. “Our goal was to be inclusive, so if somebody wanted to come on a climb a few years into the challenge, we would welcome them.”
In May 2021, Marshall set aside time to finally climb Denali, making him the first and only servicemember to complete the Seven Summits Challenge.
Marshall currently serves in the USAF Reserve as individual mobilization augmentee for Space Operations Command Public Affairs, at Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado, and also supports the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley SFB, Colorado. Most of his career, however, was spent on active duty as an Air Force special operations pilot.
Marshall said the impact of completing the challenge helped shape his life off the mountain as well, and attributes his lessons learned to a phrase he coined: ‘active resilience’.
“Active resilience, to me, is regularly and repeatedly building your resilience through intentional challenge,” said Marshall. “It doesn’t have to be a tall mountain.”
The goal of finishing a book within a week or waking up early every day to run are just some of the smaller ways Marshall continues practicing active resilience in his daily life.
“Those little challenges are what keep me sharp – what keeps my mood positive and healthy,” said Marshall.
Marshall initiated opportunities throughout his career to pass on his knowledge of the outdoors and unique ways of overcoming adversity. He also served as a business and leadership instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and focused on growing the academy’s mountaineering program into one of its largest clubs.
“That was my favorite opportunity to teach young men and women – future Guardians and future Airmen – how to reach the summit of a peak in all kinds of conditions, and how to grow personally and professionally from it,” said Marshall.
Merrin, another member of the USAF Seven Summits Challenge team, will be sharing his experiences at Wingman Day as well.
Merrin was on the team when they completed the challenge with Mount Everest in May 2013. He recalled many climbers operating with blinders on – experiencing life in a bubble – with only one objective in mind: getting to the summit.
“Sure, we were there to climb the mountain, but there were so many neat things along the way that you could pick up and take away from it,” said Merrin. “That’s the case for any goal that you set out to do. It doesn’t have to be mountains.”
Merrin is currently the director of staff for Space Delta 2 – Space Domain Awareness at Peterson SFB. He first heard about the team in 2008 when he was stationed in Montana.
USAF Maj. Andrew Ackles, a member of the team and friend of Merrin’s, reached out to invite him on the 2008 Denali climb, but a scheduling conflict hindered Merrin from joining. Merrin kept in touch with Ackles in hopes that another opportunity would arise.
Over the next few years, Ackles and Merrin climbed several impressive mountains together, including Mount Rainier in Washington as well as the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc of the Alps in Europe. Merrin also went on to summit Aconcagua, Argentina – one of the Seven Summits.
By late 2012, the team was starting to plan the Mount Everest climb. Ackles offered up Merrin’s name to Marshall, and in early 2013, Marshall set up an ice climbing trip in Ouray, Colorado, to examine Merrin’s skills.
“They had a lot of people interested that didn’t have any mountaineering experience. So they had to be selective about who they brought on the team for safety reasons,” said Merrin. “After that, (Marshall) was like, ‘oh yeah, this guy is definitely coming’.”
Merrin’s motivation to join the Mount Everest climb was not because it was one of the Seven Summits or the highest point on Earth. It was what the USAF team stood for that inspired him to accept the invitation.
“There are plenty of mountains that are fun to climb and great to experience,” said Merrin. “But it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down to be a part of that team.”
Despite Merrin feeling physically fit and mentally capable to conquer Mount Everest, a respiratory infection forced him to stop climbing at 28,000 feet during the final push to the summit. Merrin contracted the illness after sharing his water with someone who needed it.
“I think that has changed me quite a bit, as far as how I approach goals in general,” said Merrin. “Life is really about experiencing a broad range of things. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Merrin said that the journey to the many personal summits in life may not always go according to plan, no matter how much we prepare, but for the aspects that are outside our control, the only decision we can make is how we choose to react to them.
Marshall and Merrin’s advice to others is to deconstruct a problem into smaller pieces rather than look at it as a whole. Much like they conquer mountains, the two mountaineers say life’s problems are best solved one step at a time.
“The summit isn’t the end-all be-all and that’s a hard lesson to come by,” said Marshall. “When I was younger it was all about getting to the summit and now, it’s very cliché, but the journey is what’s important. You can’t climb Mount Everest in a day.”
Units will have an opportunity to hear more from Marshall and Merrin at the Peterson HUB on Peterson SFB, Oct. 7, 2021.