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Peak Performance

Air Force Veteran Pete Solie realizes dream of climbing Mount Everest

By Monty Miller

Teetering on the edge of a cliff, along a 40-foot wall of ice and rock—hungry, exhausted and beyond freezing—Pete Solie struggles to breathe the thin, mountain air. His muscular frame clings to the slender rope tied to his waist and jagged rock and thick ice pressed against his body. His throat is dry and his face burns from weeks of exposure to harsh icy winds and below-zero temperatures. Inch-by-inch the now retired U.S. Air Force veteran descends the vertical wall, tightly gripping the rope and driving the spikes of his boots into the frost, when an ill-placed boot slips from the wall, jerking Solie’s waist upward, spinning him head-over-heels and slamming him back into the ice.

Ignoring the intense pain of impact, and sheer terror from the near-fall, the 44-year-old remains calm. Years of mountain climbing and military training have honed his survivor skills enough to handle this, and just about any, life-threatening situation. With a quick gasp for air, Solie summons enough strength to steady himself and muscle his upper body back up over his legs. Once upright, he takes another deep breath—as deep as possible anyway—and doggedly digs his boots back into the notorious wall of ice and rock, known as the Hillary Step. At 28,700 feet above sea level, the Hillary Step is the final major stepping-stone for those attempting to summit the Earth’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest.

Solie reached the peak of Everest—29, 029 feet above sea level—in the early morning hours of May 17, 2010, climbing up the mountain’s southeast route through Nepal.

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“It was pretty exciting,” he says. “The view from the summit was magnificent. You could see far up into India and well into Tibet and China. For a moment you are the tallest person on Earth.”

Solie’s journey to the top of the world began when he was a child backpacking through the mountains in and around his hometown of Billings, Montana.  Always outgoing and physically active, Solie decided to pursue a military career early on in life. Straight out of high school, he entered the Air Force Academy, and after graduating in 1989, entered the Air Force. There, he served for 20 years, retiring in May 2010. During his career in the Air Force, Solie,  married, served overseas, competed in marathons and spent as much time as possible trudging through the snow and slush on cold, distant mountains.

Among his proudest achievements during this period was climbing Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the the continental United States, and summiting 53 of Colorado’s 54 “14ers” – peaks higher than 14,000 feet.

“Pete is the only guy I would ever climb with on anything hard,” says Solie’s longtime climbing partner, retired airman Al Cox. “He’s an amazingly strong climber. Physically, he can take care of himself and be a rock for anybody who’s with him.”

As Solie’s skills as a mountaineer improved over the years, and he gained confidence in his abilities, he began looking for steeper challenges, eventually targeting Mount Aconcagua, located near the border between Argentina and Chile. It’s the highest peak in the America’s at 22,841 feet and the highest outside of Asia.

It was that climb, Solie says, that gave him the confidence to seriously consider attempting Everest. But, at that point in his life, it just wasn’t financially feasible.

So, he pushed the thought to the back of his mind, sitting on the idea until the fall of 2007, when a world-wide financial crisis turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The economies of the world were reeling and it was devastating for the mountain climbing industry. As the dust settled, Solie watched as the price tag for an Everest expedition plummeted.

All of a sudden, the goal of climbing the most intimidating mountain on Earth was within reach.

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“This thing kind of just kind of fell together,” Solie says. “I was approaching retirement and toying with the idea of climbing something beyond Aconcagua. Well, with the price being right, the timing working out and a good company leading the expedition—everything just seemed to work out.” Solie’s Everest climb began in late March 2010, when he met up with the expedition team near the base of Everest. Their first exercise was to climb to Base Camp at 17,500 feet, where they would spend the next 45 days. Base Camp is the first of seven camps on Everest, and is where climbers typically spend most of their time.

It was a long wait, he says, but the team made the best of it by working together, conferring with other climbers and taking part in acclimation climbs in order to adapt themselves to the harsh Everest conditions. When their turn finally came to tackle Everest, he says, the team was rejuvenated and ready to go. With their backpacks packed full of gear, the group hiked up the 1,500 feet from Base Camp to Camp 2, passing under enormous seracs, crossing over bottomless crevices hidden in the snow, and listening to the eerie sound of ice creaking and cracking below their feet.

Between camps 2 and 3, though, is where the team came upon its most intimidating challenge: climbing the Lhotse Face.  The Lhotse Face is a steep wall of blue ice located at 21,300 feet and stretching upward for 3,700 feet at a 40- to 50-degree angle, with occasional bulges up to 80 degrees. Climbers must pull themselves up the incline, using fixed ropes, while kicking their front points into the ice for balance. It’s not the most technically difficult part of the climb, but the Lhotse Face is extremely dangerous. One false move or misstep here can mean a climber’s life.

“It was definitely the toughest part of the climb,” Solie says. “At such a high altitude, it just takes so long to recover and you’re working so hard.”

After scaling the Lhotse Face successfully, the climbers continued the trek to the summit relatively unimpeded. Once at the top, Solie did what any self-respecting husband would do, he says. He placed a satellite phone call to his wife.

“I just told her that I had made it, I felt strong, and I was safe,” he says. “Then, I thanked her for letting me go.” While intense and unimaginably difficult, the climb wasn’t entirely a struggle between life and death, Solie says. There were some lighter moments, like when he painted the words “Go Air Force Beat Navy” in giant green letters on the back of his bright yellow jacket, only to run into a group of Navy Seals when he reached the summit.

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“It was a really funny thing,” Solie says. “I had no idea I’d run into those guys all the way up there.”

Now that he’s conquered Everest and retired from the Air Force, Solie says he’s entertaining the idea of going back to school and plans to eventually return to the work force. But, for now, he’s content working on home improvement projects and spending time with his wife while they start a family.

As for climbing Everest again, he sheepishly denies anything is in the works, but some aren’t so sure.

“You know, he first said no,” says Cox. “But I have a feeling that if the challenge ever presented itself, he’d consider it. And, well, if someday Pete felt like he could be the oldest guy to ever climb Everest, I’d say it would be yes.”

That record though, is currently held by a Nepalese guide, Min Bahadur Sherchan, who reached the summit of Everest at the age of 76. So, what’s this modern day mountain man going to do in the meantime?

“I told my mom, just to scare her, that I might go over Niagra Falls in a barrel,” he says. “But, we’ll see.”

Solie is a current client of First Command Financial Services, Inc.