Green Beret Summits Mount Everest
At age 13, when most young boys are chasing soccer balls, baseballs and footballs, Karim Mella began chasing a dream.
“I decided to go to Everest in 1982…a long time ago. I said ‘I’m going to climb that mountain.’”
Nearly 30 years later, Mella fulfilled that ambition, reaching the top of the famed peak May 21.

By: By Tech. Sgt. Heather Kelly - 8/15/2011

  • Green Beret Summits Mount Everest
    Master Sgt. Karim Mella (right) displays the American flag loaned to him from the Post 911 Foundation atop of Mount Everest May 21. Mella is the first Dominican to climb Mount Everest. Courtesy photo.
  • Green Beret Summits Mount Everest
    The view from near the top of Mt. Everest. Photo by Master Sgt. Karim Mella.
At age 13, when most young boys are chasing soccer balls, baseballs and footballs, Karim Mella began chasing a dream.

“I decided to go to Everest in 1982…a long time ago. I said ‘I’m going to climb that mountain.’”

Nearly 30 years later, Mella fulfilled that ambition, reaching the top of the famed peak May 21.

The Dominican Republic native and U.S. Army Master Sgt. with Special Operations Command began climbing mountains in 1987.

“My first high mountain was Pico Bolivar in Venezuela, I was 19-years-old,” he said. “I did that during my summer vacation in my sophomore year of the naval academy. After that I fell in love with mountaineering. Before that I was just doing a lot of trekking through the mountains in the Dominican Republic.”

After graduating from high school, he attended the Dominican Republic naval academy, spending two years as an ensign before immigrating to the United States, where he joined the U.S. Army.

“When I came to the United States, I started doing rock climbing, eventually going back to mountaineering.  I started doing high mountains like Aconcagua, Huascaran, McKinley, Kilimanjaro, Kenya and Mount Denali in Alaska,” he said.
His motivation to mountain climb, Mella explained, is a combination of many things.

“One is to be out there in nature, another is you go there because of your efforts,” Mella said. “It’s not like you can take a car and drive there; you have to fight and work to get to the top. And the view is just amazing; it basically shows you how small you are in the big scheme of things. Some people think they can take over the world in a day but we’re so insignificant - the mountain shows you that.”

Although he had successfully ascended high mountains before, scaling Everest presented some unique training challenges.

“I compete in Iron Mans and triathlons, training for those prepared me for the mountain,” he said. “Swim, run and bike with just a few changes here and there, but for Everest I also had to do stairs.”       

When referring to “stairs”, Mella does not mean the Stairmaster machine at the local YMCA. 

“I received permission to train in the 43-story Bank of America building in downtown Tampa. I would climb it three or four times depending on how fast I would do that day. That was a part of my weekly training for Everest,” he said.

Training solo, Mella maintained the routine for six months.

Throughout the rigorous training, Mella remained injury-free, allowing him to set off for the two-month expedition March 27, joining a team of 26 in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Mella met with two other Dominican climbers and they formed Team Excelsior, the first Dominican expedition to the top of the world. At their arrival in Nepal, Excelsior joined International Mountain Guides for the expedition.

The team had to trek for two weeks before reaching base camp. In the approach, Sgt. Mella experienced a cold and stomach flu that lasted five days. The second time, his illness put him out for six days. Recovery at that altitude is very slow, he said.

“It’s something you can’t do anything about, but I never let that get to my head,” Mella said. “I just concentrated on doing everything I had to do to recover: getting medicine, resting, getting fluids, that was my main job.”

Throughout the journey, the original team had divided into several groups. When a member of the group falls ill, the team progresses on. Mella had to catch up after he recovered.

“In the end, I was only one day behind my original group. My climbing partner was with me and the two of us made up the third group. When the group in front of us went to summit, there was a big storm and some of them had to be rescued. One suffered frostbite. They had a really bad time on the mountain.”

Once he reached the summit, Mella said the climb, the suffering, the hard work, the two months away from home and all the cold was worth it.

“The feeling I got when I got to the summit, I could tell you but it really wouldn’t describe it,” he said. “It’s a surreal experience, seeing the curvature of the earth and where you’re standing, that’s priceless.”

In addition to his gear and supplies, Mella carried something else with him along the journey to the top of the world.

“The American flag that I took was a loan from the Post 911 Foundation,” Mella said. “It will be returning to New York for the 10-year memorial at Ground Zero.”

The Post 911 Foundation is led by veteran first responders, military veterans, and local community organizers to provide direct support to those serving the nation in battle and emergency response services.

According to the foundation, the “Follow the Flag” campaign strives to inspire those in need through the symbolism of the American flag. To demonstrate there is no place on earth too remote or too challenging for military and first responders, the flag flown over Ground Zero the morning after September 11 was with Mella when he ascended the peak.

Although the original team was made up of 26 people, only 19 made it to the summit. One member died and the rest abandoned the expedition.

When a fatality occurs, Mella said maintaining focus is critical. 

“As a climber you have to shield yourself from events like that, you cannot carry that tragedy with you on the mountain, because you can end up like that,” he said. “If your mind is not with you in the mountain, it’s very dangerous. When that happens you feel really sorry and bad, in some ways it’s like combat: you need to put it aside and continue the mission, in an expedition it’s no different.”

“When you are up there and see all the mountains and ridges around, you really look inside and say ‘I’m nothing, I’m not even a mark.’ That really makes you think about what you are experiencing and what you are looking at and seeing.”

While Sir Edmund Hillary may have been the first to ascend the mountain in 1953, Mella became the first Dominican to successfully reach the top of the peak.  The feat garnered him many accolades when he arrived home. Only one other member of Team Excelsior successfully made the ascent.

“After our return from Everest, we met the President of the Dominican Republic during a small ceremony at the National Palace,” he said. “I also received a plaque from the Dominican Navy's Chief of staff and my Dominican Republic Naval Academy class. It was a huge honor.”

Humbled and invigorated by the experience, Mella said his next journey will take him to the world’s second-tallest peak.

“I would like to do K2 next and would definitely like to go back to Everest,” he said. “Now I feel like I want to do it again to enjoy it and savor the moment even more. It’s another goal of mine.”

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