AHS grad closing in on Everest

An elite U.S. Air Force mountain-climbing team that includes an Ashland High School graduate is now making forays out of its base camp on Mount Everest as it prepares to climb to the roof of the world.

Capt. Andrew "Drew" Ackles, 30, a 2001 graduate of Ashland High School, is one of six airmen who will attempt to climb the 29,035-foot Mount Everest in mid-May as part of the Air Force 7 Summits Challenge.

In a post on the team's website Monday, team leader Maj. Rob Marshall indicated the group was ascending the Khumbu Icefall to Camp 1 at 19,900 feet on Tuesday. The group planned to spend two nights at that camp before climbing to Camp 2 at 21,000 feet for two additional nights of acclimatization, he added.

"Conditions permitting, the climbers will ascend to tag Camp 3 at 23,500 feet before returning to (base camp) for a few days rest," he wrote.

Their base camp in Nepal is at 17,598 feet above sea level, making it more than 8,000 feet higher than the top of Mount McLoughlin overlooking the Rogue Valley.

Climbers typically take breaks at different high-level elevations to reduce the danger and severity of altitude sickness.

In a Mail Tribune interview earlier this year, Ackles, who is a helicopter instructor pilot when he isn't scaling mountains, said he climbs because of the physical challenge, the adventure and the insight it gives him into life.

"In general, you have creature comforts," he said of our everyday lives. "But when you are mountaineering, you embrace discomfort. When you get down off that mountain, you really appreciate the things you have."

Although it may not be as technically challenging as many high peaks, Everest is a difficult ascent because of its altitude and severe weather conditions, said Ackles, a University of Portland graduate who majored in finance.

Team co-founder Marshall, 34, a special-operations pilot, selected Ackles as one of the six team members who will challenge Everest.

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 effort was launched 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 entire team, which consists of 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.

Ackles was among the climbers who ascended Denali with Maj. Mark Uberuaga, the other team co-founder.

Ackles is stationed at Fort Rucker, an Army base in Alabama.

When they plant American and Air Force flags atop Mount Everest and descend safely, they will have accomplished their mission.

After they summit, it is believed, they will be the first military team in the world to have climbed all seven of the high peaks, as well as the first U.S. military team to climb the world's highest peak, according to Capt. Bryan Bouchard, a national Air Force spokesman based in New York City.

Bouchard, 35, is a 1995 graduate of North Medford High School.

Although it is not an official Air Force-sanctioned project, the effort obviously reflects well on the service, Bouchard noted.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first human ascent and descent, with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the top on May 29, 1953.

In May of 2007, Brian Smith, a 1988 graduate of South Medford High School, reached the top of Mount Everest. He is the son of Larry and Linda Smith of Jacksonville.

Brian Dickinson, a 1992 Rogue River High graduate, achieved a solo summit of Mount Everest in May 2011, during his own quest to climb the seven summits.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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