Cadet mountaineers grow as friends, leaders
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 2nd Class Alyssa Hargis, one of the cadet Mountaineering Club, leaders, ascends the climbing wall in the Cadet Fitness Center Jan. 18, 2024. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Trevor Cokley)
By Randy Roughton
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – During Cadet 2nd Class Alyssa Hargis’s first trip with the U.S. Air Force Academy Mountaineering Club, she conquered her first 14,000-foot summit on Torreys Peak. The 14,267-foot peak in the Arapahoe National Forest is the highest point on the Continental Divide and considered a “welcome-to-the-team trip” for freshman cadet climbers.
Rewards beyond the adventure
In the past three years, Hargis enjoyed Mountaineering Club trips ranging from Red Rock Canyon Open Space in Colorado Springs to some of the most challenging summits the Cascade, Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain ranges have to offer. Most recently, club members enjoyed ice climbing and summited 14,158-foot Mount Sneffels in Ouray, Colorado, in January. Along the way, they developed leadership skills and secured friendships that last far beyond the adventure.
U.S. Air Force Cadet 1st Class Maya Mandyam climbs Ice Falls during a visit to Ouray, Colorado, Jan. 13, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Cadet 2nd Class Alyssa Hargis)
Facing fears and developing leaders
“I always say the Mountaineering Club is the best opportunity the Academy has to offer,” said Hargis, one of the club’s cadet leaders. “We teach people how to face their fears and get out of their comfort zone in some of the most beautiful places on earth.”
Mountaineering allows cadets to practice their climbing skills in a safe and controlled environment. Club trips include rock and ice climbing, hiking and backcountry skiing. Cadets also develop leadership, problem-solving and teamwork skills. No mountaineering experience is required to join; the club provides the experience and the gear. Cadets-in-charge and more experienced cadets are responsible for ensuring trip success and the group’s safety.
“Cadets get several leadership opportunities through the club,” said officer-in-charge Maj. Christopher Patterson. “There are always skills for the more experienced cadets to teach the greener members, as well as formal opportunities such as leading climbing teams, planning our outings, and even helping to manage our budget. We know that the sports we do are inherently risky but instead of shying away from them we are intentional about mitigating those risks as best as possible and making a conscious decision to accept the risk or back off from the objective. It’s a mentality that directly relates to Air Force operations.”
Then-Cadet 4th Class Braden Helpling, Cadet 4th Class Ben Cometto and Cadet 2nd Class Michaela Donahue head toward the Torreys Peak summit in 2022. (Photo courtesy of Cadet 2nd Class Ben Cometto)
Helping teammates reach the top
On the last morning of their Ouray trip, Hargis, Cometto and a teammate put their leadership and teamwork skills to the test. They were joined by Cadet 2nd Class Zakary Adama. This was Adama’s first mountaineering trip. They visited a frozen waterfall beneath a bridge outside the ice-climbing area where they practiced rappelling on the canyon. Cometto explained, demonstrated and enabled Adama as he set up the anchors before his descent.
The more experienced cadets worked together to guide Adama’s successful downward climb into the frozen canyon.
“It was really cool to see that development over the weekend,” Hargis said. “I think that’s what really matters about this team—the growth and the trust.”
‘Doing cool things in beautiful places’
Since Cadet 2nd Class Ben Cometto joined the club during the Academy’s Blue Rush club recruiting event when he was a freshman, he has considered it “one of the best decisions” he’s made as a cadet to date.
“The main benefit for me has been the people,” Cometto said. “Most of my best friends are on this team. This makes the club trips fun, especially when we are doing cool things in beautiful places. The club has also been a great introduction to the world of mountaineering.”
Mountaineering alumni in action
Former club members and officers-in-charge have taken their love of mountaineering to new heights, even after graduating from the Academy. In 2013, then-Maj. Rob Marshall and Capts. Marshall Klitzky and Kyle Martin, all former club officers in charge, summited 29,000-foot Mount Everest. They were the first military team to attempt to climb Everest.
In more recent years, cadet mountaineers searched for, and in some cases, found lost hikers in the Rocky Mountains. In 2018, club members received the Red Cross Hometown Heroes Award after they rescued two climbers from the 14,274-foot Torreys Peak in blizzard conditions.
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 2nd Class Austin Curtis, a member of the cadet Mountaineering Club, ascends the climbing wall in the Cadet Fitness Center Jan. 18, 2024. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Trevor Cokley)
For more photos of the Mountaineering Club, see Flickr.