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Hometown Heroes: Air Force Academy cadets rose to challenge of rescuing lost hikers

March 6, 2018 Updated: March 8, 2018 at 2:38 pm
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The Air Force Academy Mountaineering Club at the summit of Torreys Peak before rescuing two hikers lost in the whiteout. Photo courtesy of Lt. Col. Robert Marshall.

Matthew Olsen, a freshman at the Air Force Academy, didn't set out to climb his first fourteener thinking he and his fellow cadets would be heroes.

Until he and the seven other cadets and three officers in the USAFA Mountaineering Club stumbled upon two lost, panicking hikers on their way down from the 14,274-foot summit of Torreys Peak in late October during a whiteout in below freezing temperatures.

Then, it became the only option.

"I went from being the one who needed encouragement ... to the one needing to set aside my immediate needs to save two people in danger," said Olsen, who, along with the rest of the USAFA Mountaineering Club will be honored March 15 at the American Red Cross Colorado Springs Hometown Heroes Dinner. "I couldn't just think about getting back to the warm car anymore."

The hikers were tourists who'd become lost when their climbing guide, a local, had gone ahead of them, disappearing into the fog of the snow about 30 minutes before the cadets found them, said Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, the officer in charge of the club.

They had no food, water, shelter, maps or GPS, and were wearing ripped jeans and light jackets. Though not yet hypothermic, by Marshall's standards, they were "exhausted, panicking and on their way to hypothermia."

With sunset fast approaching and the storm far from lifting, the hikers could have been in real danger of not surviving the night.

"In the moment, I didn't see us as heroic," said Cadet Dominic Calhoon, a sophomore. "These guys just needed help, and we were prepared enough to help them."

The rescue was another chapter in the cadets' real-world leadership training.

"From the first day of basic training, you're taught that to care for yourself and to succeed you need to help others," Calhoon said. "Those lessons were tested on Torreys."

For Marshall, who has summited Mount Everest and was the head of the Mountaineering Club when he was a cadet at the academy, the climb, the summit and the rescue are the type of experiences no professor can duplicate in the classroom.

"This is not the classroom. This is in nature where there are real consequences," Marshall said. "And that's what you have to learn as an officer.

"This is why these cadets were accepted into the Air Force Academy, this is why they are fit to serve this nation."

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The American Red Cross Hometown Heroes awards recognize outstanding humanitarian contributions by southeastern Colorado residents, companies and organizations. Recipients will be honored at a fundraising banquet March 15 at The Broadmoor. Visit redcross.org/local/colorado

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