BP: Do you think they take any inspiration from your personal experience with injury and rehabilitation?
TM: I’ll be honest, I don’t really talk about myself very often. Maybe in the beginning, when I first meet them and we’re getting to know each other, I’ll tell them a little bit of my story. But I’ll never say that my injuries in a motorcycle wreck are anything near what these guys went through and everything that comes with a war, everything you see every day in the battlefield. I’m not comparing what happened to me to what they went through and my injuries were nowhere near as severe. But, I can certainly relate to what it’s like to getting out of the hospital bed, throwing away the pain pills, throwing away the ‘woe is me, woe is me.’ That is the part that I relate to. And I know what it takes to get off the couch, to get out of the hospital, to tell the doctors to eff themselves, to take my recovery into my own hands. That’s what I can offer these guys in terms of relating to their experience.
BP: Having summited Everest once yourself, what would you say are the unique challenges of that particular mountain?
TM: You can train all you want for Everest—and Charlie and I have been all around the world doing that—but the one thing that it’ll throw at you that you can’t really prepare for is the mental aspect. You’re going to have that moment when you’re climbing and you’re going to have the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. The devil will be telling you, ‘listen, you made it to 25,000 feet. How many friends do you know that have done that? You can call it a day here. Let’s just turn around. No one will think twice.’ And that’s the moment when you have to shut that voice down. One more step, one more camp, one more ridge. It becomes more mental than physical and it’s having that strong fortitude to keep going. That’s what makes or breaks people on Everest and there are very few people that have what it takes.
And here’s the deal with Charlie: he comes out of high school, voluntarily joins the Marine Corps, gets out of boot camp, and then voluntarily, in the middle of a war, decides he wanted to be a bomb technician, one of the most dangerous jobs there is. And then he gets blown up and his foot’s so mangled that it needs 12 surgeries. Eight months later, he tells the doctor, ‘I don’t want my foot anymore, I want to be able to play out in the backyard with my daughters.’ He didn’t have to do that, but he said he wanted to. And then here I come asking him to climb Mount Everest. But as far as I’m concerned, with the decisions he’d already made prior to that, a guy with that type of mentality is already halfway to the summit. He has what it takes.
BP: At the risk of looking ahead, since there’s a big mountain to climb between now and then, what’s next up for The Heroes Project?
TM: What I can offer these guys returning from war and recovery from catastrophic injuries is more than just hiking to the Hollywood sign, or surfing, or fishing, or whatever. We’re always going up the biggest mountains in the world where people die. We just got back from Argentina where five people died this season and two guys died on our summit day. These climbs are long journeys: the six to eight months of training, the international aspect, the different cultures, the different climates. A lot of these guys have never even left the country except to go to war.
The problem, to answer your question, is that these mountains are expensive. Huge. The budgets on some of these climbs are well over $50,000, so in a perfect world we would take 50 guys on these climbs, but just can’t. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there have been over 43,000 injured vets. There are a lot of guys who could use a program like this but unfortunately we just don’t have the funds. What we can do instead is film these expeditions. Once all seven summits are done, we’ll put all that footage into a documentary and send it out to all the military hospitals, military bases, veterans’ organizations. By showing these guys climbing, we can affect broader change.
And it's not just veterans! Any handicapped person who wants to get out into the backcountry can see Charlie missing a leg climbing Mount Everest and be inspired. So we’ll continue to affect one guy in a big way and lots of guys in little ways.
In addition to leading The Heroes Project, Tim Medvetz is the star of Going Wild, in which he takes ordinary people on 3-day survival adventures off the grid. The season finale airs Monday 3/17 at 8 PM EST on Nat Geo Wild.