By Paul Fattig
A tropical storm boiling up in the Bay of Bengal has temporarily delayed an effort by an elite U.S. Air Force mountain-climbing team to begin its ascent of Mount Everest.
The team, which includes Ashland High School graduate Capt. Andrew “Drew” Ackles, was supposed to depart base camp for the peak on Monday, but snow from the storm moving into the Himalayas has apparently delayed the start by one or two days, according to an Air Force spokesman in New York City.
“Nothing they can’t overcome and, of course, safety and risk management in this endeavor is number one as with any military operation,” wrote Capt. Bryan Bouchard in an email to the Mail Tribune on Tuesday.
The team’s target date for reaching the summit is Saturday, although that is flexible, Bouchard indicated.
Ackles, 30, a 2001 graduate of Ashland High School, is one of six airmen attempting to climb the 29,035-foot Mount Everest as part of the Air Force 7 Summits Challenge.
However, the Air Force is no longer in direct contact with the team because of the difficulty of communicating with the climbers.
“As someone who grew up in Southern Oregon, it’s great to see a fellow product of the Rogue Valley represent the Air Force in such an exciting and inspiring manner,” noted Bouchard, a 1995 graduate of North Medford High School.
“These folks have dedicated years of their lives to this country through their service, and now have dedicated their own time and resources to another worthy cause,” he said. “For the rest of their lives, they’ll look back on these climbs over the past several years and be proud of their accomplishment and the awareness they brought to their cause.”
Formed in 2005, the all-volunteer team, climbing on its own time and paying its own way, took on the challenge of climbing the highest summits on each of the seven continents to honor fellow servicemen and women who have died in war.
They also are raising money and awareness for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that benefits the families of fallen special-operations troops. Thus far, the team has raised more than $60,000 for military charities.
The team formed after Air Force Academy graduate Capt. Derek Argel was killed with several other airmen when a plane went down in Iraq on Memorial Day in 2005. Argel was among a group of classmates who frequently went rock climbing while attending the academy in Colorado Springs.
The team, which includes about two-dozen servicemen and women, has climbed to the top of the highest peaks on six continents: Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Denali in Alaska, Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.
A helicopter instructor pilot, Ackles was among the climbers who summited 20,320-foot Denali, along with Maj. Mark Uberuaga, one of the team co-founders.
In a post on the team’s website Saturday, leader Major Rob Marshall, 34, a special-operations pilot who selected Ackles as one of the six team members who would challenge Everest, wrote of their readiness as they waited for good weather at base camp, 17,598 feet above sea level.
“After nearly 45 days of this expedition complete, we are mentally and physically ready for our shot at the top of the world,” he wrote, adding, “It looks like our summit window won’t be for a few more days, so we’ll have to relax and stay ready.”
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first human ascent and descent of Mount Everest. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the top on May 29, 1953. The first American to reach Everest’s summit was Seattle resident Jim Whittaker, who climbed it on May 1, 1963.
Brian Smith, a 1988 graduate of South Medford High School, climbed Mount Everest in May of 2007. He was followed by Brian Dickinson, a 1992 Rogue River High graduate, in May 2011.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.