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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Wounded Veterans Tackle World's Highest Peaks

An interview with The Heroes Project founder Tim Medvetz, who is preparing to guide a wounded Marine up Mount Everest this spring.

by: Trent Knoss

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[courtesy The Heroes Project]
[courtesy The Heroes Project]

Tim Medvetz knows a thing or two about comebacks.  A former Hell's Angels motorcycle rider, he suffered catastrophic injuries in a 2001 crash. During his rehabilitation, Medvetz took up an interest in mountaineering and went on to summit Everest in 2007.  Two years later, he founded The Heroes Project, a non-profit organization that has successfully guided wounded military veterans up the tallest peaks on six continents.  

This spring, Medvetz and 28-year-old USMC Staff Sergeant Charlie Linville, an Iraq and Afghanistan vet who lost his leg in a 2011 roadside bomb explosion, will attempt to climb the seventh: Everest.  BACKPACKER caught up with Medvetz to discuss mental fortitude, camaraderie, and the ways that mountaineering can fill the void in a veteran's life.

Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and punctuation.

BACKPACKER: You and SSgt. Linville just got back from some climbing in Argentina. How’s the training been going?

Tim Medvetz: Well, the steak and the wine were good! [laughs] No, it’s been going great. It’s been a long journey this past year training with Charlie. We’ve been everywhere from Mexico to Ecuador to the Andes to the Sierras and it’s been a lot of work, but he’s polished up and ready to go. We’re in the homestretch just weeks before we leave for Nepal. Now we’ve got to hope the weather gods are in our corner and that we’ll be standing on the summit of Everest.

BP: Walk me through the timeline for your Everest bid.

TM: We have our last fundraiser on March 23rd and then two days after that it’ll be a sendoff party. We have to be there on the 29th, but I like to get my crew there a little bit earlier and drink all the bad water and eat all the bad food and get acclimated to that stuff before heading to the Khumbu. Usually that’ll be April 1st, and then I’ll be with the whole team and we’ll get up to Lukwa and then we’ll start our trek into base camp. Before base camp, we re-route to a little peak next to Everest called Lobuche and use that as an acclimatization climb because it’s over 7,000 meters. After we come down, we’ll get into base camp and then start making climbs up to the higher camps, setting up high camps, and hopefully we get our weather window sometime in the middle of May.

BP: How are SSgt. Linville’s spirits right about now? Is he pretty excited?

TM: Charlie is, yeah. He retired from the Marine Corps about six months ago after losing his leg a little over a year ago now. So here’s an EOD [Explosive Ordinance Disposal] tech, Hurt Locker kind of guy, where every day on the job was defusing 30 to 40 bombs. When you have that as your daily job, and then its taken away from you and you’re retired and living in Boise, Idaho, it’s kind of hard to fill that void.

So with the climbing I’ve been offering him, he has that adrenaline back, he has that camaraderie. Working with a team like a platoon, going out on missions, leaving for the summit at midnight, making sure you’ve got all your gear—your crampons, your ice axe, your carabiners, your harness, all the gear it takes to climb a mountain. Like when you’re leaving at 1 o’clock in the morning to go defuse a bomb in the middle of the night, it’s making sure you have your clips, your grenades, your M60. The similarities are filling in that void. Coming from him, and from the other guys I’ve taken up mountains, they’ll tell you that mountaineering is the closest thing to going into battle.

BP: How does your relationship with these men develop over time?

TM: I don’t look at them as just guys that I select. They become really great friends of mine. Every single weekend of the past four years, I’ve been in the mountains with these guys. I’m based out of Los Angeles and the majority of them are from the Camp Pendleton-Balboa hospital, which is in San Diego. So they’ll drive up here to the mountains in San Bernardino County. You spend all this time in the mountains with them and that’s a lot of alone time. You’re climbing and hiking for hours on end and basically talk about everything from A to Z. So my relationship with them is just like anybody who goes on a climb. You summit a big mountain with someone, it’s something you take with you. You have that bond. BACKPACKER readers who go on 7-day treks in the backcountry know that. It doesn’t matter if it was 20 years ago in the Sierras or the PCT or wherever. It’s just something you never forget and you’ve got a friend for life.

BP: When the going gets tough up there, how do you help these men overcome those inevitable moments of doubt?

TM: Basically you’re asking what I do to give them a kick in the ass?

BP: [laughs] Yeah, that’s about right.

TM: I mean, I’m always reminding them of why they decided to take on this climb and who they’re climbing for. I’m reminding them that this is bigger than them. This is not a selfish thing you’re doing, you’re climbing for someone else and that’s the big motivator. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Once a soldier, always a solider. And you’ve never lost that. Just because you’ve lost your limbs doesn’t mean you’ve lost who you are as a Marine. I’m always constantly reminding them of their rank. That really keeps them going. You can see their eyes light up and think, ‘wow, you’re right, I am still a Marine. Just because I don’t have legs anymore doesn’t change that.’

A lot of times, I’m actually acting as a drill sergeant and saying, ‘let’s go Staff Sergeant, suck it up, get moving!’ [laughs] Which is kind of hard for me, because I’ve never been in the military. I just want to remind them, because most of these guys are so passionate, and if you ask them if they’d go back to Iraq or Afghanistan and get back on the battlefield, all of them would jump at the chance in a heartbeat. None of them regret what they’ve done for their country.

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