In the mountains, powerful stories often come in the form of triumph or tragedy. In the case of The Heroes Project’s mission to empower amputee USMC Corporal Kionte Storey to reach the summit of Mt. Vinson, the result was the former. With one less limb than the rest of us, Storey trained himself toward the skill and fitness to summit the highest peak on the world’s coldest continent. We can report, with great humility and great respect, that Kionte reached 16,050-foot peak and stood alone atop the summit of Mt. Vinson on January 18, 2013, becoming both the first amputee and the first African American to summit Vinson Massif. Inspirational, yes. Powerful, indeed. But unfortunately the story has a tragic side as well. After The Heroes Project team returned safely from the successful mission, the Twin Otter that had shuttled them to Union Glacier Camp crashed onto the ice of Antarctica with no survivors. It was a somber ending to such an uplifting story, but as Tim lays out so eloquently in his final reflection on the experience, our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and families of the pilot and crew who played a pivotal role in helping Kionte realize such an inspirational achievement. With the benefit of some distance, this is Tim’s final report on the highs and lows of Operation Antarctica.
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
I’m nearing the summit of Mount Vinson Massif, navigating a narrow knife ridge. There’s a half-mile drop on each side, and standing behind me is Kionte, a Marine with a prosthetic leg. It’s an unusually warm day, but there’s a huge storm front coming in that could potentially pin us down for weeks if we don’t make the summit and get off this mountain in time.
Because of the impending storm, we had trekked straight past Base Camp a few days earlier—up to Low Camp, where we only spent one day without any time to acclimate. The stretch up to High Camp the day before had nearly wiped Kionte out. Temperatures were decreasing, and the higher we climbed, the more he felt the effects of the altitude. But with weather conditions looking bleak, our only option had been to settle in at High Camp and leave for the summit the next day. We had all tried to get a good night’s rest, but that’s tough to do when it’s twenty degrees below zero and there’s wind battering your tent all night.
So there we were on this knife ridge, and Kionte was not happy; it’s tough enough to make it across when you’ve got two good legs. Inch by inch, we gradually made ground until we reached a wide expanse. I could see the summit clearly from where we were standing. It was only thirty feet to our right. I walked over to Kionte, and started untying his rope from his harness. That really freaked him out.
Immediately, he was like, “Tim—what are you doing? Don’t take my rope off.”
I said, “You made it.”
Kionte had no idea what I was talking about. “I made what?”
“You’re here. You did it.”
I said, “Look to your right.”
And then it hit him. He couldn’t believe he had made it. After I removed his rope, I took him by the shoulders and said, “Just remember, this isn’t about the war, your family, The Heroes Project, Eddie Bauer, or this film. This is about you. This is your moment, and no one got you here except you. So go take what’s yours.”
Kionte nodded and started his last thirty steps up to the summit. John Teal started to follow, but I held him back. I wanted Kionte to go alone. I told John that now he was going to witness first- hand why I had been doing this for the past two years. For climbers and mountaineers, it’s all about that moment when you get on the summit and have your picture taken—another notch in your belt; another photo for your trophy case.
But for me, now, it’s not about that notch or that trophy case anymore. It’s about watching someone else like Kionte take those last thirty steps to the top. So John and I watched Kionte go all the way up, but he didn’t react the way I thought he would. Most guys cheer and celebrate when they make it to the summit; Kionte just stood there quietly and looked out over the frozen landscape like a deer frozen in the headlights. It’s like he was trying to understand the reality of what he had just accomplished.
This was a twenty-four-year-old Marine, who in his short life had already spent three years fighting for our freedom, and had lost a leg while doing it. Kionte finally turned around and looked back at us, still not saying a word. He watched us for a long minute, and then his arms just went straight up. He started cheering and we all joined in, yelling up to the summit. In spite of everything that Kionte had been through, we were up on the top of that mountain yelling our lungs out. Life can get pretty screwed up sometimes, and I’m sure Kionte never imagined that he’d lose one of his legs. But for that one moment, standing on the summit, he had all of his limbs. He had conquered Mount Vinson.
While we hiked up to join him on the summit, I dialed his mom on the satellite phone, and handed it to Kionte when we got to the top. I told him, “Someone wants to talk to you.”
Kionte took the phone and realized it was his mom. He said, “I did it, Mom,” and the tears started falling. After he hung up, he took his Marine Corps flag out of his backpack and waved it in the air, overlooking the expanse of Antarctica.
After our celebration, we hiked back down to High Camp and spent the night there. We woke up the next morning to strong winds. It was time to get out of there. And quick. The storm wasn’t waiting for anyone. Once we made it to Base Camp, we took the Twin Otter aircraft back to Union Glacier, and boarded the Ilyushin that would take us to Chile. After a very long series of flights, I finally made it back to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the story wasn’t over.
Upon landing in LA, I found out that the Twin Otter plane that had transported us down to Union Glacier was missing. The next day, we got word of the tragic news: authorities had found the wreckage of the missing plane. It seems the plane made such a direct impact in the crash that no one could have survived. We were all absolutely shocked. We had just been on that plane, with the same pilot and the same crew members. The thoughts and prayers of The Heroes Project and the Eddie Bauer First Ascent team go out to their families and friends.
While the news cast a somber mood on the end of our trip, Kionte walked away from Mount Vinson with a feeling of hope. He was so inspired by the experience that he told me he’s going to continue climbing. He wants to hit all of the major summits, and inspire his brothers in arms along the way. Man, I love hearing that. I’m excited for Kionte to tell his story and take others with him on the next journey. There’s always danger when you’re climbing a major summit like Vinson, but there’s also a healing power in mountains and Mother Nature that nothing else can quite provide. And I think Kionte finally understands that now.
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