Peak Performance

As a student in Ashland High School, Andrew "Drew" Ackles often slipped away to climb Pilot Rock and other outcroppings in the Cascade Mountains.

"I climbed all the big rocks I could find up in the Greensprings, then transitioned to larger and larger things — Mount McLoughlin, Thielsen, Hood, Rainier," the 2001 graduate says, referring to the highest peaks in the Cascade Range.

Ackles, 30, says he climbs because of the physical challenge, the adventure and the insight it gives him on life.

"In general, you have creature comforts," he says of lounging on a sofa or grabbing a snack from the fridge. "But when you are mountaineering, you embrace discomfort. When you get down off that mountain, you really appreciate the things you have."

Now, the Air Force captain and helicopter instructor pilot is about to challenge the mother of all peaks.

Ackles is one of six airmen who will climb 29,035-foot Mount Everest in April and May as part of the Air Force 7 Summits Challenge.

Beginning in 2005, the team, all volunteers climbing on their own time and paying their own way, took on the challenge of climbing the seven highest summits on the seven continents. When they plant American and Air Force flags atop Mount Everest, they will have accomplished their mission.

Their goals are to honor fellow servicemen and women who have died in war and raise funds 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.

Once they summit Everest, the members are expected to be the first military team in the world to climb all seven of the high peaks as well as the first U.S. military team to climb the mountain's highest peak, said Capt. Bryan Bouchard, a national Air Force spokesman based in New York City. As it happens, Bouchard, 35, is a 1995 graduate of North Medford High School.

"The airmen involved in this are using their own time and their own funds to pursue this while balancing their family lives and military careers," he says.

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

"You have a group of airmen doing something brave to honor others and raise awareness and funds for a foundation that helps the families of those killed while serving their country," he says.

The airmen have an unblemished history of safety and success, a tribute to their training in risk mitigation, mission planning and working together, Bouchard adds.

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, 2005. Argel was among a group of classmates who frequently went rock climbing while attending the academy in Colorado Springs.

Since 2005, the team, which consists of about two dozen service men and women, has been knocking off the world's greatest summits like they were so many dominoes.

Consider the six highest peaks on six continents climbed so far:

  • Mount Elbrus, Russia, 18,481 feet, July 31, 2005.
  • Mount Aconcagua, Argentina, 22,840 feet, Feb. 27, 2007.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, 19,339 feet, July 16, 2007.
  • Mount Denali, Alaska, 20,320 feet, June 11, 2008.
  • Mount Vinson, Antarctica, 16,077 feet, Dec. 9, 2010.
  • Mount Kosciuszko, Australia, 7,310 feet, Oct. 3, 2011.

One of Argel's classmates and team co-founder, Maj. Rob Marshall, 34, a special operations pilot, will lead the Everest climb. Marshall selected Ackles as one of the six team members who will challenge Everest. Ackles was among the climbers who ascended Denali with Maj. Mark Uberuaga, the other team co-founder.

Although it may not be as technically challenging as some shorter peaks, Everest is a difficult ascent because of its altitude and severe weather conditions, says Ackles, a University of Portland graduate, majoring in finance.

"Everest is really more of a test to contend with altitude," he says.

However, with any high peak, there is always the potential for the unexpected to occur, he says.

To decrease the chance of mishap, they will have the best gear available and be fully prepared in every way possible, including researching the weather, he says.

"You have to take in account the safety factor when you climb any mountain," he says. "If you take the proper steps and prepare correctly, you can mitigate the risks and do something that is dangerous.

"We all have pretty strong backgrounds in technical climbing, all have a lot of experience in different aspects of climbing," he adds.

Ackles is stationed at Fort Rucker, an Army base in Alabama, and doesn't have any mountains in the region to climb to keep in shape.

"I think the highest elevation is about 320 feet, so my training now is mostly in the gym," he says.

He also has a wooden sled that he loads with sandbags and drags several miles for a good workout.

"The neighbors stare sometimes," he acknowledges with a chuckle.

But he and other team members are dead serious about being in top form for their climbs. Weather permitting, they do memorial pushups at the summit to honor their fallen airmen and demonstrate they have energy in reserve for the descent.

"When you are on top, you are only halfway there," Ackles says.

All of the team members have been saving their money and leave time for the Mount Everest climb this spring, he says.

Ackles, who intends to summit other mountains in the future, says the challenge of climbing to the roof of the world has his sole attention now.

"There are a lot of mountains out there I'd like to climb," Ackles says. "But right now there is Everest."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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