Since Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide David Morton first introduced us to Tim Wayne Medvetz and the mission of The Heroes Project, we’ve been humbled by their work and their drive. The organization works to empower injured vets to overcome their adversity by climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents. We’ve supported and tracked their efforts on Carstensz Pyramid and Mt. Kilimanjaro, but when we heard Medvetz and USMC Corporal Kionte Storey were heading to Antarctica to climb Mt. Vinson with sheer determination, a spare prosthetic, and duffels full of down, our first thought was, “Man, that’s going to be cold.” That was Kionte’s first thought as well. Now that they’ve returned safely, Tim’s first report gives us the backstory on what motivated him to pick Mt. Vinson as the objective and why he singled out Kionte Storey for this 20-below mission. –LYA Editor
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
I picture myself at the summit overlooking an empty, windswept continent that almost no one will ever see. It’s twenty below zero here at the coldest place on Earth, and I’m standing next to a Marine who lost his leg to an IED in Afghanistan two years ago. We’ve just made it to the top of the highest mountain in Antarctica, a place where only approximately 1,200 people in the world have stood since 1966. Well, not quite.
The reality is that I’m still in Los Angeles, where it’s a sunny sixty-five degrees and I could go down to the Sunset Strip for a cold beer and burger if I wanted to. There’s still a long journey ahead.
Just to get to Antarctica, we’ll take a plane from LAX to Dallas; from Dallas to Santiago, Chile; then to Punta Arenas, Chile (at the southern tip of South America). From there, we’ll take an Ilyushin II-76 aircraft the rest of the way. This plane was initially designed by the Soviet Union to operate in the extreme weather conditions of Siberia and the USSR’s arctic regions. We’ll land at Union Glacier, Antarctica, on a blue ice runway, where the plane won’t even be able to use its brakes because it’s so slick. All this to get to the base of Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica, at an elevation of 16,067 feet.
I’ve been training with Kionte every weekend for ten months to prepare for this expedition. It’s all part of The Heroes Project (Theheroesproject.org), an organization I started to take wounded soldiers, Marines, and veterans to the Seven Summits of the world. My own Everest summit experience taught me about the healing power that climbing a mountain like Everest or Vinson can have in the wake of an incident that leaves you with little hope. After a nearly fatal motorcycle accident in 2001, I was told that I would never walk again. But through years of pain and training, I finally made it to the top of Everest in 2007, and I learned something about myself. The goal of The Heroes Project is to give wounded soldiers, Marines, and veterans that same healing experience physically, mentally and emotionally that big mountains provided me. Most people were telling me I was lucky just to be alive—and that just wasn’t good enough for me. Nor should it be for these heroes.
USMC Corporal Kionte Storey was born in Stockton, California, on August 1, 1988. He graduated from high school in 2007 and joined the Marine Corps. After completing boot camp and graduating from the School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, CA, Kionte was assigned to his first duty station in Twentynine Palms, CA, with the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines. Kionte was then deployed to Haditha, Iraq, from August 2008 to February 2009 for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Then, in March 2010, Kionte was deployed to Afghanistan with his battalion. He was a team leader on patrol one early morning, clearing out a building with his squad. He was in the wrong place when an IED exploded. At the age of twenty-one, Kionte lost his lower right leg. His injuries were treated in Afghanistan before he was transported to Bethesda Medical Center in Virginia. There he received a Purple Heart and a Navy Achievement Medal with V Device for his service for this country.
But Kionte’s journey didn’t end there.
Kionte continued receiving treatment at the Naval Medical Center of San Diego. He was going through a depression phase when I met him. But he was trying to be more physical, to get out of his room and start his life again. So when I approached him with the idea of climbing a mountain, he said, “Yeah, why not?”
He told me early on that he wasn’t just doing this for himself. He’d seen a lot of injured guys coming in with no inspiration to pick themselves up, especially not inspiration from one of their brothers. So Kionte decided that he was going to do this for the thousands of his brothers in arms who are injured like him. And he’s going to need all of the determination he can muster when we’re moving up the coldest mountain on Earth at the bottom of the world, not to mention he only has one leg.
This time of year, it’s summer in Antarctica. There are twenty-four hours of sunlight, but the average temperature is negative twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Vinson’s climate is regulated by the polar ice cap’s high-pressure system, which creates fairly stable conditions. But high winds and snowfall are always a possibility when you’re only 746 miles from the South Pole. Knowing all of this, Kionte pulls me aside on one of our first training climbs. He says, “Tim, I have to be honest, I don’t like being cold. I mean I REALLY don’t like the cold.”
I say, “Look, let’s just put our cards on the table. I mean let’s be honest here. You’re a black man in a sport where almost all the other climbers are—and always have been—white. And that’s one of the many reasons I chose you for this climb. That’s what The Heroes Project is all about: taking you out of your comfort zone. I intend to put you in harm’s way. I want you to face your greatest fears. A Russian novelist once said, “only through suffering can we find ourselves…because that’s where the recovery begins”…. (It’s that suffering that we at The Heroes Project try to provide.) “And as an added bonus, there’s never been an African American who’s climbed Mount Vinson, especially not with one leg.” I think I noticed Kionte laughing just before he took that swing at my head.
So Kionte has an opportunity here to go down in the record books and inspire thousands of his injured brothers who have lost all hope in life. And no one will ever be able to take that away from him. Hell, it’s a goddamn Oprah Winfrey episode…. So stay tuned for Part 2 from the coldest mountain on Earth.
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