When we first joined forces with The Heroes Project for their attempt on Carstensz Pyramid, we were inspired by their story of empowering wounded veterans to the summits of the highest peaks on all seven continents. But on each successive mission, Tim Wayne Medvetz has impressed us with the powerful first-person stories of what the organization has accomplished for men who have sacrificed their limbs for our country.From reaching the highest points in Antarctica and Africa to their climb of Aconcagua this past spring, each personal achievement of these wounded warriors is one that has inspired so many of us, in so many ways. In honor of Memorial Day, all week long we’re running Tim’s series recap from their Operation Aconcagua climb with USMC Corporal and double-amputee Brad Ivanchan. It’s a powerful tale.
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
By the end of our trip, there would be five people dead on the mountain and one lying dead at our feet. My plan: summit the tallest peak in South America with a Marine who’d lost both of his legs eight months earlier. At nearly 23,000 feet, Mount Aconcagua is known for its deadly wind and ice storms and is the second tallest mountain of the Seven Summits. It has a success rate of only 30%. But if we made it to the top, USMC Corporal Brad Ivanchan would be the first double amputee in history to summit Aconcagua.
Brad was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1988. For as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be a Marine. In January of 2008, he shipped out to San Diego for boot camp, and within a few months of graduating, he was stationed with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines as a machine gunner. Within a year, his unit was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, where he spent seven months as a turret gunner providing security for Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams. Then in March of 2012, Brad was deployed to the deadly Sangin district of Afghanistan. He spent three months there as a machine gun squad leader, conducting day and night foot patrols.
On the night of June 13, Brad stepped on the pressure plate of a 12-pound IED. The blast blew off his right leg below the knee, and his left leg above the knee. Two days later he woke up in a hospital in Germany, and the reality of his injuries began to sink in. On June 18, 2012, Brad arrived at Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
So it was only about three months later when I met him on September 11 at The Heroes Project “Cycle for Heroes” event in Santa Monica. There, Brad saw the video of Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon, a fellow amputee, reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro. I think seeing that video was a huge inspiration for Brad. We talked there on the Santa Monica Pier, and when I asked him if he wanted to climb some big mountains, he accepted before I finished my sentence. Our first training climb was two days later, on Mount Baldy. Keep in mind that Brad had only gotten his prosthetic legs a week earlier. Brad was shocked that he was climbing so soon after losing his legs. And so was I.
A lot of people don’t have a good grasp of the dangers of Aconcagua. It’s the second tallest of the Seven Summits, but when they hear that it’s a non-technical climb, they assume it’s easy. Let me tell you: Aconcagua’s no joke. The first attempt on Aconcagua was in 1883, by a German geologist and explorer named Paul Güssfeldt. The first successful recorded ascent was led by Edward FitzGerald in 1897. Today, over 3,500 climbers attempt to summit Aconcagua annually; there’s only a 30% success rate, and several people die trying to make it every year. A lot of climbers underestimate the risk that comes with the elevation and extreme weather on Aconcagua. It’s almost 23,000 feet to the top, with temperatures down to twenty-two degrees below zero. And because it’s only 80 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Aconcagua gets blasted with intense wind and ice storms.
So knowing all of this, I asked Brad what his motivation was in doing the climb. He told me he’s doing it for himself—that he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone else. Honestly, I can’t understand how he does it. With most of the amputee war veterans I’ve trained with, there’s a healing process that starts to happen around six months after the injury. You realize that everything has changed, and then you go through some sort of depression, anger, denial and then maybe you eventually find hope and bounce back from it. But somehow Brad never went through that. He just went straight from the hospital to training with me, and I’ve never even once heard him complain.
I’ve honestly asked myself if the way he’s working through this is healthier or harder for him; maybe it’s better to go through that healing process first and then rehabilitate in the mountains. I really don’t know. But what I do know is that Brad has the determination it’s going to take to get to the top of that mountain. When the bodies start to hit the floor and the wind and ice start to hit and the people with two good legs are turning around, you can bet that Brad will still be heading up. That’s just Brad and that’s our United States Marine Corps, legs or not. So stay tuned, because this is going to be a hell of a ride.
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