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, our first Heroes Project climb was with FA guide David Morton, who partnered with Medvetz and double-amputee, Iraq War veteran Noah Galloway in an attempt on 16,024-foot Carstensz Pyramid. This season we backed the Project again and sponsored Operation Kilimanjaro, an expedition to guide injured war vet, former EOD technician and double amputee Mark Zambon up Mt. Kilimanjaro via the challenging Lemosho-Whiskey route.
As first reported on the First Ascent Facebook, the team was successful and summited the highest peak in Africa. But the story of the climb goes much deeper than just the pictures from the peak. In his final dispatch from Operation Kilimanjaro, Medvetz explains the struggle, fortitude and strength of character he witnessed as Mark Zambon pushed to the top with prosthetic limbs and sheer determination. With the perspective of time and space, this is the final reflective report form Medvetz on Kili. -EB Editor
OPERATION KILIMANJARO: Part 3
By Tim Wayne Medvetz
We spent ten days on the mountain. By the end, we’d seen a case of high altitude pulmonary edema, numerous people coming down on oxygen bottles and another person had died. Sounds a lot like Everest, right?
I’m talking about Kilimanjaro.
We started our journey with a hectic drive through a washed out road, on our way to the beginning of the Lemosho Route. I was climbing with Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon, a Marine who’d had both his legs blown off by an IED in January of 2011. My goal was to get him to the summit of Kilimanjaro as a part of the Heroes Project (theheroesproject.org).
We’d been training together for eight long months, and Mark was ready for the challenge. While planning the expedition, my biggest decision had been choosing which route to take. Which way up would give Mark the best chance to succeed? Sure, he’d been training hard, but still, the man has no legs. The obvious choice was the Marangu Route–nicknamed the Coca Cola Route, because it’s the shortest, most direct path. When you go up that way, you can sleep in huts, eat in dining rooms, and buy cold Cokes and beer. It takes five days to get up and back that way.
But instead, I had decided to start out on the Lemosho route, connect with the Whiskey route, and go up the infamous Barranco Wall. Then we’d loop around the backside of the mountain to reach the summit. People thought that was a recipe for failure but hell, I like stacking the odds against these guys,that’s where the true rehabilitation starts. It was going to be one hell of a climb.
So Mark and I had a lot on our minds during that bus ride to the start of the Lemosho Route. Several times the bus had to be pushed through the mud. Finally, we signed in at the gate and headed up through dense rainforest. When we got to our first camp, a team of twenty-five Tanzanian porters was there to greet us. They were singing and dancing like crazy. It was a cool moment of two completely different cultures coming together to help one man achieve his dream. They didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them. Shit, most of them didn’t even speak English, and we sure didn’t speak Swahili. But for the next ten days we all came together to help one man get to the top of that mountain and give him a new journey in life climbing mountains which ever they may be. Everyone has there own mountains to climb and Mt. Kilimanjaro was now his.
That became the norm for our arrival at every camp. The Tanzanians would greet us, dance, sing and celebrate and we would join in, even our cameraman Ken Sauls would put the camera down and cut a rug (you ever see a Colorado hippie climber dance” It’s priceless). Our team pretty much took over every camp we went—so much so that when we arrived at a camp, all the other teams would come over to our tents just to see what was going on. A lot of them wondered how we were having that much fun. And that’s the thing that a lot of people just don’t get on big climbing expeditions. They’re all miserable, cold, and sore, and want a shower the whole time they’re up on the mountain. But that’s the point. If you can’t have fun, then why are you here?
Climbing mountains should be fun, even when it’s tough. It’s the journey–not the destination, right? Most people only have fun when they’re standing on the summit or back at the hotel drinking a beer. And I can tell you honestly that despite the pain and agony Mark experienced, he and I truly enjoyed every minute of that climb.
We set out on the Lemosho route the next day. It was tough going, but Mark was so motivated. We passed tons of climbers on our way up. At one point, I’m coming up behind our team, and I hear one guy say to his girlfriend, “We just got passed by a guy with no legs.” I kept my mouth shut, but man that was funny.
That’s what happens when don’t put in the training. You get passed by a guy with no legs. And I will tell you this, Mark put in the training. When we first started climbing back in October of 2011, he didn’t even have the right prosthetic legs for this stuff. The first few times we went up in the mountains around LA, I had to turn him around, because he was hardly moving. He’s come such a long way since then that i have a hard time keeping up with him.
We made it through the Lemosho Route and got to the Barranco Wall. This was the big one. My local operator in Tanzania, like everyone else, suggested we take a different route so that we wouldn’t have to go up the wall. But thats the purpose of The Heroes Project to push these guys past their own limitations and thats where the life change starts and its not going to happen fly fishing or golfing for the weekend. This was what he had been preparing for. The last eight months had been all about that wall. We’d watched endless YouTube videos of people going up, and we’d trained specifically for it. So when you see the photo of Mark standing on top of the wall–well to be honest, we could have ended the climb right there, because reaching the top of the wall was huge. A real hugging tearjerker moment for everyone.
Once we got past the Barranco, one of the biggest ego boosters for Mark was seeing a lot of people coming down; they couldn’t make it up, and that seemed to drive him harder. Mark actually got stronger and faster the higher we went. And that wasn’t true for everyone. People talk crap about Kilimanjaro, but the next day, that mountain reminded us just how tough she can be.
When we arrived at our last camp before the summit, there was a guide carrying an Indian woman down the mountain on his back. When she got to our camp, I gave her some hot fluids and a chair, but she was puking. You could hear the gurgling in her lungs–a clear sign of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Some of our porters helped carry her down, but we still haven’t heard if she’s alive or dead HAPE is no joke it will kill you. After that, our local Tanzanian guide got a call that another client had died a few hours earlier. There was just this sense of gloom that spread across the camp. It’s always hard hearing news like that. And this was all six hours prior to our team leaving for the summit.
But none of that discouraged Mark from going on. I guess when you’ve been blown up five times in a war, it’s all just a regular day at the office. We left for the summit at 2 am, and on our way up Mark continued to move faster, passing another dozen people who had just given up or weren’t fit enough for the last 2,000 feet to the summit.
At 9:30 AM, we reached the summit and had our final team song and dance at 19,341 feet. And when I say song and dance, I mean we had a friggin’ party. Except for the fact that white men truly can’t dance and believe me we proved that. (The Tanzanians got that whole African rhythm thing going on). For me, though, seeing Mark smile—that moment was a reminder of the healing power of our mountains. We were up there celebrating life in spite of hardships. For Mark, that moment was the culmination of eight painful months of training and 16 months from laying in that hospital bed thinking his life is over. When I’d met him a year earlier, he’d been sitting in a wheelchair at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. But he’d refused to give up, and now he was standing at the top of the highest mountain in Africa.
In the end, one injured war vet’s life is changed for the better. And so is mine. You never come back down from the mountain quite the same man you were before—especially on a climb like that. Seeing Mark summit Kilimanjaro has reminded me once again why I do this. And so The Heroes Project moves on, one soldier, one Marine, one vet at a time. Thanks to the Eddie Bauer First Ascent family for believing and supporting what we do. Stay tuned for our next expedition!
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