We’ve backed the efforts of The Heroes Project since we first heard about their efforts to empower wounded warriors climbing with prosthetic limbs up each of the Seven Summits. The organization is the brainchild of Tim Wayne Medvetz, and its broader mission is working with veteran, soldier, and military family communities to improve the care and protection of wounded vets through individual support, community empowerment, and systemic change. But the story of their latest objective—supporting USMC Corporal Kionte Storey in his mission to summit Antarctica’s Vinson Massif—struck a special chord with us. Maybe it resonated due to the brutally cold, remote nature of climbing in Antarctica, or maybe it was the power of watching Storey train in completely unfamiliar environments with one less limb but an excess of determination. But whatever the reason, we remain riveted by their story and their mission—encapsulated in Tim’s second unvarnished report on Operation Antarctica.
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
I’m headed for a frozen wasteland the next morning, and somehow I come down with the flu. I’m there in my hotel room in Puntas Arenas, Chile, checking my gear list: Peak XV down jacket, Katabatic tent, Karakoram 30 degree sleeping bag, etc. Everything’s set to go for the coldest place on Earth. But all I really want to do is get in bed and have a bowl of my dad’s chicken noodle soup.
I’d spent ten long months of preparation with USMC Corporal Kionte Storey, who will potentially be the first African American to ever summit Mount Vinson Massif, the tallest mountain in Antarctica. Not to mention that he’ll be the first to make it to the summit using a prosthetic leg. Flu or no flu, I was ready to be by Kionte’s side whether we made it to the summit or not.
It would be me, Kionte, my buddy John Lansing Teal and our cameraman Ken Sauls. A lot of my friends, family, and supporters of The Heroes Project tell me that they’d love to come on climbs with us, and I love that they say that. In the end, most of those people will write a check, or hit “like” on the Heroes Facebook page, send out a tweet or put an “I support our troops” bumper sticker on their car. And don’t get me wrong—it’s all great stuff. The thing is, though, as much as people tell me they’d love to come on a climb, when it comes down to it, no one’s actually there waiting at the trailhead.
But John was that guy. He wanted to be personally involved in the recovery of our wounded vets, and he did something more about it. Duff McKagan (guitarist of Guns N’ Roses) was another one of those guys who was waiting there at the trailhead. Duff was a big part of Kionte’s journey to Vinson Massif; he even climbed with us on one of our training climbs to Mount Rainier. And that’s what I want. I want more people to get personally involved in the journeys of these wounded vets, whether it’s coming on a climb or coming out to one of our events.
I met an injured vet a year ago, and he pulled me aside and told me that he felt like America had all but forgotten about them. Well, I can tell you firsthand that Duff McKagan and John Lansing Teal clearly haven’t.
So from the hotel room in Puntas Arenas, I get in contact with the pilot who will be flying us to Union Glacier, Antarctica in the morning. He tells us that the current weather patterns between the tip of South America and Antarctica are way too windy to fly; we won’t be able to leave the next day as planned. Secretly, I’m relieved. I run for the closest pharmacy with a mad craving for a Z-pack. I’m still feeling like hell.
The next day, the pilot tells us the same thing: weather’s too bad to fly. This goes on for three days. Finally, at the end of our third day in Puntas Arenas, the pilot calls and says there’s a 90 percent chance we’ll be taking off the next morning at 4 a.m. So I take all the guys out to a local restaurant in town to celebrate our last night before Antarctica. We all eat and have a good time, but hit the sack around 10 p.m. By 4:45 the next morning, we’re all in the back of an Ilyushin II-76—a Russian military cargo plane—and we’re not up in the air for more than fifteen minutes before we all start feeling sick. I’m not kidding—without warning we all start puking our guts out and squirting out the other end. Food poisoning. And let me tell you, there ain’t no fancy bathroom on a Russian cargo plane. We had a bucket in a closet.
So we land at Union Glacier, where it’s 20 degrees below zero, and everyone’s sick and throwing up with 100-degree fever. We make it to the camp at Union Glacier, and a doc there gives us all antibiotics. I tell Kionte to get some rest while I set up the tents in 50-mile-per-hour winds. Everyone’s too sick to take the Twin Otter plane up to Base Camp. We end up staying at Union Glacier for three days. That’s how bad the food poisoning was. And the whole time I’m getting weather forecasts, and watching the window for our summit bid get smaller and smaller. There’s a massive storm coming in six days, so we have four to five days max to summit.
By our third day at Union Glacier, everyone’s finally feeling good enough to take the Twin Otter plane up to Base Camp. As soon as we get there, I get the weather forecast again. It’s not looking any better. I tell the guys that we don’t have time to stay at Base Camp. So we load our sleds and packs, and start heading up to Low Camp. Let me tell you one thing about Antarctica—there are no Sherpa, yaks, or pack mules to carry your gear. Your Sherpa, yak, and pack mule is YOU. You’re the one pulling the sled behind your back, all the way up. And Kionte’s doing all of this with a prosthetic leg.
By the time we get settled at Low Camp, we have a three-day window remaining to summit. Normally you’d want to acclimate to the altitude by climbing to High Camp, then coming back down for a night at Low Camp. But with the storm on the horizon, we have to keep moving. So the next day we wake up early and hike up a 45-degree headwall. It’s a brutally long day, freezing cold, and Kionte and John really take a beating. I think it’s the first time they’ve gotten a good taste that this mountain is no joke.
I’ve ridden Kionte pretty hard about everything for our ten months of training. Honestly, I was pretty mean to him a few times, because I wanted him to be prepared. Stuff like gear lists, training climbs, strength training, and making sure he had the right equipment—there were a couple times I really got on his case. He must have been having flashbacks to the worst drill sergeant he had in boot camp (well, I am from New Jersey). But I think on this stretch up to High Camp he’s realized that it’s been worth putting up with my harassment for ten months. When push came to shove up on that stretch, he was ready for it. And when it comes time for the summit tomorrow, he’s going to need every bit of that training we’ve put in.
We finally make it up to High Camp, and Kionte and John are totally wiped out. We all are. Our schedule is so screwed up at this point, but that’s the way it has to be if we have any chance of making it to the summit. You can’t mess around with storms on Vinson. There is no search and rescue crew, and a proper hospital is at least a week away.
We have one day of good weather left, so we’ll spend the night at High Camp, and attempt a summit the next morning. We’re all hurting. But we’ve come way too long and fought way too hard to turn back now. And hey, this is what The Heroes Project is all about. If we make it to the summit tomorrow, Kionte will go down in the record books and another vet’s life will be changed. So stay tuned for news from the top.
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