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Reserve pararescueman aims to climb Mt Everest

  • Published
  • By By Tech. Sgt. Anna-Marie Wyant
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Gibson has spent most of his life in Florida, one of the flattest states in the nation with its highest natural point reaching 345 feet -- the lowest high point of any state in the U.S. While he loves the sunshine state and calls it home, Gibson has always had a desire to reach higher ground.

As a teenager, Gibson said he began reading books about mountaineering, an activity he could only imagine doing at the time.

"I think you always want to dream about things that are out of the ordinary for you, so I always wanted to go to the mountains and explore something different," said Gibson, who has spent most of his life living near beaches.

Now a pararescueman with the 308th Rescue Squadron, part of the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick, Gibson's former idea of something "different" has become almost ordinary for him. As a pararescueman, or PJ, it is part of Gibson's job to be skilled at mountain climbing, plus SCUBA diving, skydiving, and providing life-saving paramedic aid in any environment.

Aiming high

Gibson has always been someone who sets high standards and goals for himself. His next goal is the highest of them all -- 20,035 feet high to be exact. Gibson will be using his mountaineering and medical skills to climb Mt. Everest with a team of Airmen from various bases across the nation in May. The team, which consists of five active duty Air Force officers and Gibson, will attempt to summit the world's highest peak as part of the U.S. Air Force Seven Summits Challenge.

"The vision of our Challenge is for U.S. Air Force members to carry the American and USAF flags to the highest point on each continent, ending atop the highest point on Earth. In doing so, we will be the first team of active duty American military members to reach the summit of Mt. Everest and the first team of military service members from any nation to reach all of the famed seven summits," according to the USAF Seven Summits Challenge website.

Gibson has not participated in any of the previous climbs on each continent, which included Mt. Elbrus, Europe; Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa; Mt. Aconcagua, South America; Mt. McKinley, North America; Mt. Vinson, Antarctica; and Mt. Kosciuszko, Australia. The sum of summit altitudes is a whopping 104,367 feet. The final peak on Mt. Everest, Asia, is an extremely challenging climb for even the most experienced mountaineers. At this point, the highest summit Gibson has reached is approximately 14,500 feet.

"What I'm bringing to the table is not altitude experience; my background brings other things to the table," said Gibson, who is currently attending a master's program to become a physician assistant. "I feel comfortable in the mountains, and I feel good with my technical rescue work."

Gibson is a bit of an anomaly on the team that will be climbing Everest; he is the team's first and only Reservist and enlisted member, the oldest Airman in the group and only member with formal, high-level mountain medical training. Because of his medical background, he will serve as the team medic for the trip. Maj. Rob Marshall, USAF Seven Summits team lead, said the team is ever changing as due to members' deployments, temporary duty assignments, and other scheduling or funding conflicts. He said he is proud to have Gibson on the team for this final and most arduous challenge.

"As a PJ, (Gibson) knows how to tough through bad weather, rapidly changing conditions, and other obstacles and not give up," Marshall said. "His training makes him an asset."

Marshall said That Others May Live Foundation is working to raise funds to send three wounded warriors -- two PJs and one combat rescue officer -- to trek up to base camp with the Seven Summits team. He said the team plans to depart for the Everest base camp on April 1, and he hopes they will reach the summit by May 15. During that journey, Gibson will be one of the only first responders. There are medical personnel at base camp called "Everest ER", but Gibson will be addressing most of the team's medical issues, especially above the 17,600-foot base camp.

"PJs tend to be fit, outdoorsy, they excel in any environment, and they have that grit and determination," Marshall said. "(Gibson) has all of those traits, plus his (physician assistant) background. He's comfortable with hands-on medical, ropes, mountain rescue ... hopefully we don't need that but it's nice to have. We're glad he's on the team."

Discovering a new path

Gibson's medical background runs deeper than his PJ and physician assistant schooling; he comes from a family of healthcare professionals. Both his parents started out as active duty Air Force medical officers, switched to the Reserve, and practiced medicine as civilians. Also, Gibson's older sister recently completed her doctorate in physical therapy.

"I'm very proud of my parents, proud of what they did and the sacrifices they made," Gibson said. "It's a good feeling to carry on a family tradition like that."

Initially, however, Gibson wasn't particularly interested in medicine or the military.

"Actually I always said I would never go into the military," Gibson said. "At the time I wanted to forge my own path, and I did, and it led to the Air Force."

At one point he thought geology was his true calling, and he thought he might pursue a Ph.D. in it. While he was working on his undergraduate degree at Central Washington University, he had second thoughts about spending his life studying volcanoes. He had been following his dream of mountaineering in Washington and was a talented collegiate swimmer. He said he wanted to use those skills do something to help others, but he couldn't think of a career that would bring it all together. Thankfully, the old adage 'father knows best' rang true.

"My dad asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I wanted to do something that has extreme training ... I wanted to use my abilities for something that helps people, that has an intensity to it, that few people can do. He said, 'sounds like you want to do pararescue.' It was hard for me to imagine my father could know from one conversation what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Gibson recalled.

Answering the call

At the time his father first mentioned it, Gibson did not know much about what pararescue entailed and what PJs did. After doing some research, he became more interested in becoming a PJ, but it took a world-changing event to help him make his final decision. On Sept. 11, 2001, he made his decision.

"I was still going back and forth on joining (the Air Force), and then I just felt like when 9/11 happened, that was a call to our nation and I wanted to answer it," Gibson said.

After earning his bachelor's degree he answered that call, and he started the long road to becoming a PJ, a road that entailed approximately three years of training. After an initial assignment at Hurlburt Field, Florida, his second assignment brought him to one of the best places to learn new mountain skills -- Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, Alaska.

Although he did not realize it at the time, the search-and-rescue and mountain skills training Gibson did with his unit in Alaska -- specifically in the Alaska Range, home to Mt. McKinley, also called Denali -- would help prepare him for one of the most challenging tasks he will face: climbing Everest. Although he did not reach the summit of McKinley, Gibson is confident his training in the mountains of Alaska will serve him well as he makes his way up the highest peak in the world.

Raising awareness

Bring part of the first all-military team to summit Everest is a big deal, but Gibson remains modest and makes an effort to shift the focus away from himself. As a PJ -- and eventually physician assistant when he graduates in December -- Gibson strives to help others. This occasion is no different. Gibson sees his upcoming adventure as a once in a lifetime opportunity, but he is not doing it for fame or accolades; he sees it as a means to raise awareness about medical problems plaguing his brothers and sisters at arms, especially after deployments.

"We lost more veterans and military members to suicide than we lost in Afghanistan last year," Gibson said. "We are fighting battles still back here whether that war is still going on or not."

Gibson said as he started to become aware of veterans healthcare issues -- specifically severe depression, post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries and suicide ideation -- he wanted to make a difference and make others aware of the problems that need to be addressed in order to effectively help veterans facing these issues. As a PJ, Gibson is trained to treat life-threatening physical injuries. Oftentimes, many emotional or mental wounds are left undiscovered and untreated.

"We're rescuing people, but we, as a nation, have to follow through," Gibson said. "We still have a lot of work to do helping guys deal with what they've had to see, deal with or experience ... having the civilian practitioners recognize these problems and know where they're coming from, know the kinds of questions to ask and know the kind of help is extremely important."

That others may live

Gibson said his Reserve unit, university, friends and family have been very supportive of his goal. He said he is still raising funds for his journey and has been very appreciative of the donations he has received. He plans to spend some time training in Colorado and New Mexico to prepare him for his voyage up the world's highest peak.

As Gibson climbs Everest, he will not be thinking about seeing his picture in the newspaper. He will not be thinking about getting his name engraved on a plaque. He will be focusing on keeping himself and his teammates safe during the journey, and even as he descends from the highest point on the planet, he will continue to aim high in all he does. In both his military and civilian careers, he lives true to the pararescue motto and continue to do the things he must do, that others may live.

To learn more about the 920th Rescue Wing, Air Force Reserve Command's only combat search-and-rescue wing, visit their website, Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter.