The Heroes Project is an organization founded by Tim Wayne Medvetz that works with the veteran, soldier and military family communities to improve the care and protection of wounded vets through individual support, community empowerment and systemic change. At First Ascent, we first learned of the Heroes Project through our guide David Morton who volunteered his time to lead Medvetz and double-amputee, Iraq War veteran Noah Galloway in an attempt to summit 16,024-foot Carstensz Pyramid, the largest peak in Oceania. We chronicled this harrowing tale of struggle and determination in our Summer Outfitter Book, but through this story we also learned about the inspiring wider work of the Heroes Project and its mission to provide a wounded warrior the opportunity and support to successfully climb each of the Seven Summits.This climbing season, Eddie Bauer First Ascent will once again partner with the Heroes Project on the next step toward this goal, sponsoring an expedition to guide injured war vet, former EOD technician and double amputee Mark Zambon up Mt. Kilimanjaro via the challenging Lemosho-Whiskey route. Medvetz will be keeping us posted on the progress via regular audio dispatches on the First Ascent Facebook page, but in the first in a series of reports on the Killi Climb, he gives us his own inspiring back story and the story of this climb’s significance in his own unfiltered words. -EB Editor
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
OPERATION KILIMANJARO: Part 1
I woke up in the hospital on the morning of September 11, 2001, but not for the same reason as everyone else. Guess I never was too good at conforming. I’d had a motorcycle accident the night before. Broke my back, crushed my foot, cracked my skull, snapped my finger, and shattered my knee in half. The whole shebang. Ten surgeries later, the doctor told me I would never walk again. I told him that not only would I walk, but that I was eventually going to climb Mt. Everest. I’m sure he laughed when he left the room. They patched up my back with a titanium cage. Fused it all together like welding a frame on one of my Harleys. Ten screws and a plate in my left knee. Bolts holding my foot together. Two metal plates in my head, and a fused finger. I was like something out of a Frankenstein movie. But those next few months put me through more hell than the accident itself.
Nothing could have prepared me. Not my years riding with the Hell’s Angels. Not my time in prison, or my former job as a bouncer in NYC. Even the twenty Vicodins a day and whiskey didn’t help. I was going nowhere, living a pretty miserable life. And then I read Jon Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air. That story was a serious kick in the ass. I realized I could either grit my teeth and do something with my life or sit around poppin’ pills and feeling sorry for myself. It was time to make good on my word to the doc. I put down the book and bought an open-ended plane ticket to Nepal.
I can’t say the next five years I spent training and saving money were any easier. I lived in the Himalayas for that first year to train in the mountains. Had to sell my Harleys. No comforts of home. Just total isolation. In 2006 I tried climbing Everest for the first time, but had to turn around in plain sight of the summit. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I went back home and trained and saved for another long year. There were definitely times when it looked like it just wasn’t going to happen. But one year later, I went back and finally made it to the top. That experience changed me—not just getting to the summit—but the whole journey that had taken me there. And I wanted to share that with people. I wanted them to experience the same deep effect that the mountain had had on me.
So that’s how I started The Heroes Project. You don’t hear about all our injured vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, going through a lot of the same crap I had. It’s just not newsworthy anymore. And yeah, my injuries could have been scrapes and bruises compared to what these guys were dealing with. But still, I could relate. I got it in my head that I would climb each of the Seven Summits with wounded vets. Document all seven journeys and make a documentary to distribute to all Veteran’s Hospitals to spread inspiration. And once I get an idea stuck in my head, it doesn’t come back out easy.
I met Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon in August of 2011 at the Camp Pendleton Marine base. Mark was an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) technician in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. In May of 2010, he had to have several fingers amputated from the distal joints down. But this guy was one hell of a Marine. A month and a half later, he went back to his unit and they disarmed over fifty IED’s for their company. Saved a ton of lives. Then, in January of 2011, an IED with a ten-pound explosive charge hit Mark. Took off both legs above the knees.
So Mark was still in a wheelchair that first time we talked at Pendleton. I told him to give me a call when he got his new legs—that we’d climb a big mountain together. But I told him not to call unless he was serious. He called me the next freakin’ day. That October, we had our first training climb. It was so painful for him. Hell, it was painful just to watch him. That climb would have been tough for anyone, but Mark had no legs. And it sucked too, because his prosthetic legs just weren’t right for climbing. Yeah, he was moving fine on the fire roads, but the first steep pitch we hit—I mean, he just couldn’t get up. It was too steep, and his legs needed to be adjusted for climbing, not walking to the supermarket. I had to turn him around, because it took him thirty minutes to go thirty feet.
Through a lot of trial and error, we did end up getting Mark the right legs for climbing. That’s something most of us don’t have to think about when we’re checking things off from our gear lists. Alchemist 40 backpack…check; Katabatic tent…check; Karakoram sleeping bag…check; prosthetic climbing legs…check; allen wrenches…check; hydraulic oil…check. Huh?
With the new legs and a whole lot of training, Mark started improving—slowly. I couldn’t believe the amount of piss and vinegar he had (although he is a U.S. Marine, after all). We were up in the Southern California mountains every weekend. In the first few months, I would take a break on the trail and tell him to keep going. I’d shed a layer, eat a trail bar, take a piss, and after all that, I could catch up to him in minutes. We trained like that for eight months, and Mark just wouldn’t give up. The pain from my accident still kills me up in the mountains, but every time I started feeling sorry for myself, I’d just look at Mark and ask myself what the hell I was complaining about. I can tell you that today, if I take that same piss break and tell him to keep going, I can’t catch back up. And I’ve got two legs.
Hard to believe it’s time now for our Kilimanjaro climb. A lot of people like to talk about how of the Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is the least technical and the easiest. Yeah, that’s true—but what a lot of people don’t know is that Kili has only a little more than a 50% success rate. It’s almost 20,000 feet to the top with five different climate zones. That mountain will chew you up and spit you out if you don’t put in the training it takes.
It’s funny, because a lot of people thought The Heroes Project would take the “Coca Cola” (Marangu) route. It’s the easiest, most direct route. You can buy soft drinks along the way, sleep in huts, and get up and back in five days. A walk in the park compared to the route I have planned. Mark and I will be starting on the Lemosho route, connecting with the Whiskey route, and going up the infamous Barranco Wall. Then we’ll loop around the back side to reach the summit. I’ve never been one for that path of least resistance BS, especially not now. Last year, a normal day at work for Mark was defusing over a dozen bombs, and part of the purpose of The Heroes Project is to fill that void—to introduce vets to the adrenaline and healing that our mountains have to offer.
Think about it like this: a monk in the Khumbu once told me, “When you come to a fork in the road in life and you have two paths to choose from, always take the hardest one.” That’s what The Heroes Project is all about.
Stay tuned to www.facebook.com/FirstAscent for our regular audio dispatches from the mountain.
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