Ain’t no mountain high enough; Senior NCO tackles Mount Everest

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kirby Turbak
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

“I’ve been asked, ‘what are you training for?’ I’m training for life.”

In the spring of 2018, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Amber Houston, 39th Wing Staff Agency superintendent, combined her passion for travel and fitness by climbing to South Base Camp, Mount Everest.

A dangerous feat, climbers are evacuated by helicopter due to avalanches, physical exhaustion, broken bones and more, making the journey no easy task.

“To get to the starting point of Everest, you have to take a 15-person propeller plane with taped up windows,” said Houston. “Then, the airport you land at has the most dangerous landing strip in the world. The end of it goes off the side of a cliff.”

One at the starting point, Houston’s group of five would trek through rocky areas, barren of any plants or animals. Freezing cold winds would cut through them and their only warm meals consisted of noodles and vegetables.

To maintain wellness while climbing, Houston’s group had to rest for two separate days to prevent exhaustion and fatigue as well as to allow their bodies to acclimate to the thinning air.

Even with time to adapt, Houston experienced altitude sickness, the rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation.

“[When] you get up to a certain level, you start losing oxygen and functionality in different parts of your body,” Houston explained. “The most common thing people get are headaches, which I got. I took medicine and drank a lot of water but I still had headaches every day; some days it was excruciating.”

The journey to South Base Camp, Nepal, became more challenging the higher she went; she realized that due to the lack of oxygen, her brain function was not where it should be.

“I wouldn’t react as fast to things,” Houston recalled. “When people would ask me questions, it’d take a few seconds longer to process.”

After nine days against the elements, climbing higher into thinning air, she reached South Base Camp, over 18,000 feet above sea level.

“My immediate feeling was incredible accomplishment,” said Houston. “And then quickly to ‘I can’t wait for my hot shower waiting for me in Kathmandu.’”

On her way down, Houston felt her response time come back and her headaches fade away, but could still feel how much of a toll the trip did on her body.

“I could feel how tired my body was coming down,” said Houston. “When you’re going down you lose that adrenaline and know your journey is coming to an end.”

Houston felt that, while there were many physical challenges to climbing on Mount Everest, it was more of a mental challenge that she had to continuously motivate her way through.

“You can do anything you want to do,” said Houston to herself during her journey. “If you want to do it, you’ll find a way to do it.”

Houston acknowledged that the journey increased her physical and mental resiliency beyond her past limits.

When faced with obstacles in life I now look beyond it,” said Houston. “[I] am so much more focused on the goal.”

The climb was just the start, Houston doesn’t plan to slow down on challenging herself.

“Going to Munich for Oktoberfest doesn’t seem enough anymore, now I have a couple goals,” said Houston. “One is to hike in the Andes Mountains in Chile and Argentina and do the half marathon that actually takes place on the Great Wall of China, see Machu Picchu and then hike Kilimanjaro in Africa.”

As a leader, she doesn’t keep her motivation to herself; she uses that mindset to motivate others as well.

“I want to show people that you can do anything you want, and I always try to set the example,” said Houston. “I’m never going to tell someone to do something that I’m not willing to do standing right next to them.”

Houston wants Airmen to be innovative, bold and fearless in their careers and personal lives and hopes that she can motivate them to do so.

“I’d challenge anyone to do something out of their norm, get out of your bubble and do something amazing,” said Houston. “Once you do something, no one can take that away from you; that’s your success.”