By Staff Sgt. Robert Cloys
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
(Editor’s Note: This is the final story in a three-part series highlighting Capt. Colin Merrin’s journey to Mount Everest.)
Months of training, extreme cold temperatures, intestinal illness, sleep deprivation, avalanches, limited oxygen at high elevations and a respiratory infection. These are the trials and tribulations that Capt. Colin Merrin, a 2nd Space Operations Squadron GPS operator, endured after setting foot in Nepal with the goal of climbing the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest.
Now home again in Colorado, Merrin has had time to reflect on the journey as well as his decision to turn around roughly 2,000 feet from the highest point on earth.
“The first time you really see the Himalayas, you’re just completely overwhelmed. These mountains… you’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before,” said Merrin, reflecting on his flight in to Nepal. “The Himalayas dwarf everything I’ve ever seen. I’ve been in the Andes, the Alps and all over Colorado. The Himalayas crush it all.”
The Himalayas weren’t the only thing doing some crushing. After Merrin met up with the rest of the U.S. Air Force 7 Summits Challenge Team, they were soon on their way to crushing the amount of time their Sherpa guides estimated each of their climbs would take to complete.
The warm up climb of Mount Lobuche, a 20,161-foot mountain near Mount Everest, took the team about half the time they expected. The team’s Sherpa guides were also taken aback by the team’s ability to stay mostly healthy in conditions that cause nearly 75 percent of visitors to get a bad cough within the first few days of arriving.
“I think that was around the point where people not associated with the Air Force started gravitating toward the Air Force guys,” Merrin said. “They seemed to really appreciate the teamwork and camaraderie that we had.”
Though the team had very little interaction before their trek to Nepal, they seemed to work well together and people were taking notice all across Mount Everest Base Camp.
The positive mood around Mount Everest changed quickly May 5. A Sherpa had died at Camp 3.
The 7 Summits Team was on a climb as radio chatter began to pick up about what had happened.
“The mood of the climb became really somber, really quickly,” said Merrin.
The death was a startling reminder of just how important safety precautions were for the team, even for the most experienced climbers. However, the dismal news wouldn’t stop the team from continuing toward their goal.
“I think the Air Force’s focus on safety has shifted in the past couple years to not necessarily be ‘if there’s something risky, we’re just not going to do it.’ It’s become more ‘if there’s something risky, we’re going to recognize it and we’re going to mitigate that to be as safe as possible,” said Merrin.
The team personified that risk-management idea during their entire trip, and ultimately, Merrin would use it to make a difficult decision on May 21 during the team’s final push to the top of Mount Everest.
Weather halted the team’s progress for eight days. On May 20, the team received the green light they had been waiting for. The final push had begun.
Almost immediately, things did not feel right for Merrin.
“Once I got to Camp 2, I knew something was wrong. I lost my appetite and that night, I had a fever,” he said.
The idea that summiting Mount Everest may be slipping away wasn’t one Merrin was ready to accept so easily.
“Being on Everest, I was kind of in denial a little bit,” he said. “I thought maybe I was just overreacting a little and that I’d be fine. From Camp 2 to 3, not only was I not climbing in the front with our guys, I was the last person to get there.”
The rest of the team also began to get concerned about Merrin’s health. During their next rest period, they tried to get his spirits up, kept him hydrated and get him prepared for the final two climbs.
“Really all I wanted to do was be in bed with some chicken noodle soup,” Merrin said jokingly in reflection. “But, I was at 24,000 feet trying to climb Mount Everest.”
The climb from Camp 3 to 4 was similar. Merrin wasn’t keeping up with the group and could feel it taking a toll on his body. With the summit roughly 2,000 feet away he felt that he had to give it a shot.
With only a few hours of rest before the team’s final push, Merrin set out with an hour head start.
Not meeting his climbing-time expectations again, Merrin sat down at 27,000 feet to make what he calls the hardest and easiest decision of his life.
“I’ll never forget when Captain Merrin told me he had to turn around,” said Maj. Rob Marshall, the 7 Summits Team Leader and co-founder. “Captain [Andrew] Ackles and I were climbing up a steep pitch and caught up to him on a ledge. It was a bit of a blur of headlamps and other climbers navigating the narrow ledge where he sat, but just as I was about to reach him, I saw two boots sticking out from the snowy ledge. They belonged to a deceased climber that must have been frozen there for a few years. Colin wasn’t aware of the body at the time, so when he told me he had made the decision to return to Camp 4 due to his respiratory infection, I told him it was clearly the right decision, as there was a deceased climber 30 feet from us who had likely failed to make such a critical decision. It was a heart breaking moment to know he wouldn’t continue up with us, but I was also terribly proud of him for making such a smart decision.”
In that moment on the side of the tallest mountain in the world, perched on a narrow ledge in the freezing temperatures as the headlamps of other climbers cut through the darkness in front of him, the decision was black and white.
“I could keep going and probably die or turn around and live. It’s not a hard decision to make,” said Merrin. “It’s [a hard decision to make] because you’re on Mount Everest. You really want to succeed with your team and you’re 2,000 feet away from the top of the world. You don’t want to turn around, but you have to.”
Merrin’s Sherpa guide broke down at the news that he wouldn’t be making the summit, but he was reassured that Merrin had already come to peace with the decision.
During the weeks at Everest Base Camp, a rare friendship had formed between the Air Force climber and the Sherpa guides. Merrin spent much of his time between climbs in Sherpa tents sharing tea with them exchanging stories and jokes.
Back home, his co-workers applauded his accomplishments and continued to support him just as they had his entire trip.
“Captain Merrin likely saved his own life and exercised tremendous presence of mind and near super-human self-discipline that day. He should be commended,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Ste. Marie, 2 SOPS commander. “The 2nd Space Operations Squadron is a family, and we take care of each other. The wingman concept is something we focus on hard and that concept goes beyond just having one person watching out for you. Colin had all of us backing him up and we were proud to do so.”
Although, in the end Merrin wasn’t able to walk away saying he made it to the top of Mount Everest, he did come away with some incredible stories and friendships, especially with his Sherpa guides.
“I feel like I made some lifelong friends and these guys are the strongest climbers in the world,” he said.
Too soon to say what his future with Mount Everest holds, Merrin knows that if he does go back to settle “unfinished business,” he has a group of Sherpa people, who have truly touched his life, eager to get him to the top.