The stories we’ve been told by Heroes Project founder Tim Wayne Medvetz are consistently strong and powerfully inspiring. But the recap from their recent climb of Aconcagua, where the organization empowered double amputee and USMC Corporal Brad Ivanchan toward the summit of South America’s highest peak, is the best one yet.Collectively, the organization is one that we strongly support due to its work focused on supporting wounded warriors and recent amputees to the challenge and struggle of high-altitude mountaineering. But, in this case, it is their story of climbing Aconcagua, one prosthetic step at a time, that has kept us completely transfixed. In honor of Memorial Day week, this is part two in the series. –LYA Editor
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
Twenty-two days from now, I’ll be in 80 mph winds at midnight, traversing just below the summit of Mount Aconcagua, staring into the eyes of a dead climber, screaming “WE’VE GOTTA GET DOWN NOW! WE’RE GONNA EFFING DIE!” Lying next to me in the snow is Brad Ivanchan, a Marine who will be the first double amputee to summit Aconcagua if we make it. But today, we’re just getting started. We have no idea what’s in store.
Our Aconcagua expedition started with a flight into Mendoza, Argentina. Now we have an hour drive ahead of us, to Los Penitentes—a ski resort near Mendoza. That drive alone takes you up 5,000 feet into the Andes, where the Aconcagua trailhead starts.
When we get to Mendoza, we find out that an avalanche has just taken out a half-mile stretch of the high road. So we’re completely stuck. We can’t even get to the mountain. We’re stranded in Mendoza for three days, and it’s Carnival—so everything is closed. There’s nothing to do except eat, drink, and sleep, and I’m not complaining.
Finally we get to Los Penitentes, spend the night, and get up early the next morning to start our climb. It’s Valentine’s Day, and we all load up on pack mules. Very romantic: riding mules and spending the night in a tent with Brad on Valentine’s Day in the Andes is not what I had in mind. Normally you’d spend three days hiking up to Base Camp, but I’m afraid to blow out Brad’s legs with a long hike before we ever even get to the climbing. So we’re on these mules, and Brad’s never been on a horse post-injury, much less a jackass. He’s a little freaked out, not to mention we’re taking these mules around winding switchbacks with straight drop-offs. But he takes to his mule like a fish to water. Did I mention his mule’s name is Christina?
At one point, he looks over at me from the back of Christina and says, “Is this really happening? I’m on a mule in the Andes Mountains eight months after my accident?”
I realized that at that point, the recovery was already done. The trip was done. For most guys, that moment happens on the summit—but for Brad, his recovery process was never normal. He never went through the depression, denial, pill-popping phase. And he had already felt the restoring powers of the mountain before we ever made it to Base Camp. It says a lot about Brad, and it says a lot about the Marine Corps too.
We gain another two thousand feet on the trails, and make it to a Halfway Camp. We spend two days there, and three days at Base Camp before finally making it to Camp 1. One thing I don’t want to take any chances with is altitude sickness. Before this climb, Brad has only been up to eleven thousand feet in the Sierras. I don’t care if you’re in the best shape of your life, legs or no legs: when you get up to fifteen thousand feet, some people start to fall apart. So I have some big concerns about how Brad’s going to react now that we’re gaining some serious altitude. This is the second tallest mountain of the Seven Summits, after Everest. And because of Brad’s injuries, the acclimatization process I planned for us is a little different than what you’d normally see.
Usually you’d go up to Camp 1, then go back down to Base Camp; then you’d go to Camp 2 and come back down to Camp 1, and then Base Camp. Then you’d hit all the camps up to 3, and come back down to Base before summiting. That would typically take twelve to fourteen days. But with Brad, and guys with injuries like his, coming back down the mountain is very painful. It’s really easy for them to blow out their legs, not to mention the mental anguish they are put through with that kind of pain. So I didn’t want to come back down the mountain unless we absolutely had to.
We spend three days at Camp One, and a couple days at Camp Two. That’s when the weather takes a turn for the worst. I mean it’s just nuking up there. We’re getting blown around by these insane winds, and it just keeps deteriorating. It gets so bad that finally I tell the guys—including Brad and the rest of our support team—we have to get off the mountain. I’m afraid we’re going to wake up in the middle of the night and our tents will just be shredded.
We’re fifteen days into the climb at this point, and now I have a really difficult decision. Do I risk staying at Camp Two and holding out, hoping that we’ll get a weather window? Or do we come down and risk blowing out Brad’s legs before going back up for a summit attempt? A weather report comes in that there’s a clear weather window the next morning, so all of the other teams decide they’re going to go for it. But I know they aren’t ready. They aren’t acclimated yet to go that soon. Not a good idea. But a lot of people are going to risk it just because the window’s so short. You have to keep in mind that once you go for the summit, even if you don’t make it, you’re done. You don’t go back down to Base Camp and try again. You’re done. Come back next year, see ya.
So I’m thinking, we’re only at sixteen thousand feet—that’s another seven thousand feet to go, and Brad hasn’t even been up to Camp 3 yet. We only have six days left on our permit before we have to get off the mountain, and this might be our only shot. My local guide tells me we might not get another shot. But I didn’t start this foundation to get anyone killed or hurt. I tell the guys we are going down, and Brad’s super bummed. He knows that even if we get another window, it’ll be very painful for him to go down to Base Camp and climb all the way back up again. But I’ve made my decision.
We go back down to Base Camp, and half of the teams are already pulling out. The end of the climbing season is the beginning of March, and today’s March 1. Base Camp started out as a big bustling city, but now it’s like we’re the only guys who didn’t get the memo that the show’s over. The only good thing is that at least we’re in thicker air, getting better food. We have our own tents and we can get some rest. At this point, we’re eighteen days in, and our permit expires in four days. The weather’s not getting any better. But there’s a report showing a weather window for eight hours on March 8—four days from now. The winds are supposed to drop down to 30 mph for the first half of the day, which is still crazy at 23,000 feet. If we don’t make it down in time, we’ll get blasted by 80 mph or more winds in the evening. But that’s our window if we have any chance of making summit. I make the decision: “We’re gonna go for it.”
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