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Atop a Colorado ‘14er’: Cadets save 2, find confidence

MountaineeringBy Staff Sgt. Charlie Rivezzo, Dec. 1, 2017

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Cadet mountaineers encountered more than they anticipated Oct. 28 when they found themselves leading two lost hikers down Torreys Peak in near subzero temperatures and white-out conditions.

Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, officer-in-charge of the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Mountaineering Club, said the two disoriented men were in a “bad way.”

“They were woefully unprepared for the conditions,” he said. “They had lost the trail and weren’t sure how to get down the mountain. They had no flashlight, map, GPS rescue beacon or shelter.”

The mislaid hikers’ jeans were torn and soaked from the snowfall. They had no food and little water, and with sunset approaching, toed a dangerous line between life and death.

The group of eight cadets and three officers were on their decent from mountain’s 14,274-high peak, when they spotted the lost men, gave them extra clothing and led them back to the trailhead near Loveland Pass.

“This was an absolute save,” Marshall said.

The group’s 10-hour climb up and down the Colorado “14er” was challenging enough without the responsibility of taking care of the lost hikers, said Cadet 4th Class Jackson Trent.

“On my ascent up the mountain, I was scared out of my mind and I had no experience whatsoever,” he said. “But, coming back, the confidence we built up in ourselves drove us to help these guys out.”

It was just hours before the save that the combination of weather and terrain pushed the cadets to their limits.

“Two hours before we summited I didn’t care if we made it to the top … I was not having a good time,” Trent said. “I started getting into my own head and had to be talked through some near panic attacks. They [the officers] told me not to think about the summit or my fears, and just focus on the five meters around me. That’s all I thought about on my way to the top.”

Scaling the peak was not a quick affair, as many of the cadets had yet to climb a 14er.

Trent said the group encountered situations and challenges that forced the novice mountaineers to lean on each other.

“Being on the mountain puts things into perspective for you,” Trent said. “When you’re feeling that panic and placed in a dangerous situation, you really have to be on top of your game and focus. You learn that panicking is not going to help you get out the situation any quicker.”

Marshall said many lessons learned on the mountain can’t be found in a classroom or textbook.

“What they learned in this ascent is so foundational to be an Airman and a leader,” Marshall said. “It serves as the absolute bedrock foundation for being cool under pressure, high situational awareness and confidence … but also realizing you have to be humble because the mountains will humble you every time.”

Atop the peak, Marshall asked the cadets to reflect on their accomplish, “Think about you making it up here, and when the going gets tough at the Academy, remember this moment … realize you can tackle any challenge if you do it with good teamwork and then break it up into sections.”

Cadet 4th Class James Lambert said there is a confidence boost when you summit a mountain.

“You feel like you’re on top of the world, no pun intended,” Lambert said. “You say to yourself, ‘dang, we just conquered this mountain,’ and you gain so much life experience from this one scenario.”

Marshall, who has summited Mt. Everest and several other tallest mountains on Earth, said the club’s goal is to push people’s limits.

“We always talk about Warrior Ethos here at the Academy,” he said. “But there is only so much talking about it before you have to go out there and practice it. Mother Nature is a really good teacher and she will always find a way to push your limits.”

Lambert added that his experience in the club has shaped his perspective at the Academy.

“This club gives you an opportunity to take a step back from the bustling of everyday life,” he said. “This was by far the greatest experience I’ve had here in terms of growing as a leader and pushing myself beyond what I could do.  Coming back from that [Kelso Ridge], there isn’t much that fazes me anymore in day-to-day life.”