The Heroes Project story of Operation Aconcagua is one that has held us transfixed since Tim Wayne Medvetz started reporting on the amputee climbs for the Live Your Adventure blog. But USMC Corporal Brad Ivanchan’s achievement of becoming the first double amputee to reach the summit of South American’s highest peak is pure inspiration, once again. Yet with all mountaineering expeditions, it’s not a success until you return alive. This final installment from Medvetz on Aconcagua, details the glory of the summit and the struggle to get back down safely. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
It’s 3:00 AM and we’re pulling out of Camp 3 to attempt the summit of Aconcagua. Our weather window is 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and it’s already brutally cold. Icicles-on-your-mustache kind of morning. Winds already blowing, but still manageable. For now. All of the remaining teams on the mountain are going for the summit too, so it’s crowded; four people have already died this season. Our weather forecast predicts blizzard-like winds hitting this evening, but we’ve come too far to turn back now. I’m climbing with USMC Corporal Brad Ivanchan, who lost both of his legs to an IED only eight months ago. By the time we make it back to these tents, it’ll be almost twenty-four hours from now. And we’ll have come far too close to being a few extra numbers on this year’s death toll.
Before we know it, it’s 4:00 PM, and we’re still two hours from the summit. Even on a normal day, four o’clock is the turn-around time. If you’re not on the summit by now, you’re done. So I have a serious decision to make. If our weather report is right, it’s about to get really dangerous up here. I look at Ken Sauls, my camera guy, who’s been on climbs all over the world. He’s done Everest three times. Badass climber. I look at our local guide Lucas, who’s six-foot-five, and has been on the Aconcagua summit twenty times. They both give me a look like this could get really ugly getting back to camp. I look at Brad, and I know he wants to keep going. He’s not ready to give up. I just can’t turn him around: he’s come too far since blown up 8 months ago. I decide if things take a turn for the worse, I’ll throw his legs down the mountain and carry Brad down on my back. Even then, I know we’re pushing the limits, but we’ve got a strong team and I’m confident we’ll be tough enough to make it back.
We keep climbing and make it to about an hour below the summit. There’s this French guy with the team ahead of us, and he’s just freaking out. The other guy on his team is yelling at him to turn around, but the guy’s just kicking and screaming. You can tell he has the altitude fever. He just isn’t there mentally.
I look at Brad and said, “That dude is gonna effing die if he keeps climbing higher.”
But the guy keeps going and ends up summiting. He passes us on his way down. That means we’re the only idiots left on the mountain. We are the LAST team up here.
We get to the last twenty steps just below the summit, and Brad realizes this is the moment that he’s been training so hard for. He makes it to the top and just throws his arms up, screaming, “I DID IT! I DID IT!”
For me, standing on the summit of Everest was nothing compared to what I felt at that moment. Not even a close second. Brad has overcome so much adversity to make it here, and he never once complained or tried to quit. I mean, it’s only eight months since he had both of his legs blown off in Afghanistan. He’s truly an inspiration and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little teary-eyed.
We take our pictures, and I dial Brad’s wife, Sarah, on the satellite phone. I hand it to him and say, “Someone wants to talk to you.”
He gets on the phone and just keeps telling her, “I did it…I did it.” And as moving as the moment is, I know that it’s about to get real serious here in a minute. We need to get the hell down the mountain “now.” It’s already 6:30 PM, and it gets dark at 8:00.
We start heading down, and at this point Brad’s been going strong for over thirteen hours. He’s just destroyed. And now he has to come down the mountain, which is the hardest part for amputees. He’s smoked. Barely any energy left, and about an hour into our descent, the weather prediction hits. Right on the money. The winds start picking up, and we get down to a traverse. For someone with two legs, it would take about forty-five minutes to get through the traverse, moving fast. It’s two feet wide—max, with a 45-degree angle drop. Ice and snow. Basically, you’re dead if you go down. You don’t want to go across at nighttime, especially not in high winds. We start to cross and I’m yelling at Brad. He’s falling down, getting up, and falling down again.
I’m yelling, “WE’RE GONNA EFFING DIE! YOU’VE GOTTA KEEP MOVING! MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!”
He gets up and takes a few more steps, then falls again. The wind is so strong now that we can’t even hear each other yell. It’s blasting us at about 80 miles per hour at this point. I’m six-foot-five and 250 pounds. Never in my life have I been knocked down by the wind, but that wind blew me over. Literally. It hit me and knocked me down, and if I had been standing on a knife ridge, I would have been blown off the mountain.
I get up and just keep yelling at Brad, “YOU’VE GOT MORE IN YOU! WE’VE GOTTA GET OFF THIS TRAVERSE!”
This goes on for four hours in the middle of the night. Finally we get to a rock where we get a little break from the wind. Brad sits down and takes a break. I look down and see this reflector up ahead, motionless: I finally realize it’s a climber. Ken, Lucas and myself unclip and climb down to where he is.
We start shaking him and yelling, “Yo—get up man!” Nothing. Pull back his glasses. DEAD. Checked his pulse. DEAD. It was the French guy from earlier. There was absolutely nothing we could do, except save ourselves.
It’s 11:00 PM, well below zero degrees, and we all have frost all over our faces. Brad is yelling, “IS HE DEAD?”
I said, “YEAH, HE’S DEAD, AND WE’RE GONNA DIE TOO IF WE DON’T GET DOWN. NOW GET UP AND MOVE!”
Brad gets up. Now he’s motivated. He’s moving fast on pure adrenaline. And now the winds really pick up. It literally gets so bad that all four of us lock elbows and huddle together while we walk so we don’t get blown off the mountain: this is the real deal.
We get to the end of this traverse on a ridge, and drop down to the other side—and the wind instantly stops. We can breathe and hear each other talk. But we’re gonna have to come back down to the other side in another half hour, so this is just a rest break before it hits again. We’re still three hours away from our camp. This is a life-or-death situation. I mean absolutely nuts.
We just keep pushing and pushing, and the wind hits again. We keep pushing. It’s 2 AM and we see the tents in the distance. Brad is running on fumes. I don’t know how he’s doing it. I’m smoked and I have two legs. I honestly don’t know how he’s still going. Just pure piss and vinegar. Pure adrenaline.
Finally we get down to the tents, and my tent is shredded to pieces, just hanging on by a couple of rocks. We left camp at 4 AM yesterday, and now it’s 2 AM.
We finally get the tent tied up, and climb in. Amongst all that chaos of the wind outside, I look at Brad and say, “That was freaking awesome!”
I ask him if he was scared up there. He said no, and I said, “Really? ‘Cuz we all were.”
Brad said that when he was in Afghanistan on night patrols, they’d load up all their gear and ammo and go out on patrols at one in the morning with the team. And he said, “I finally got that back on this climb. And the reason I wasn’t scared was because in the Corps, I’d look at my guys before a patrol, and I knew that if anything went down, they would all take a bullet for me. And I knew that on the mountain, it was the same way. I knew that any one of you guys would have carried me down if you had to, and that’s why I wasn’t scared.”
When we made it back to the States, I asked Brad to write about his experience on Aconcagua. This is his letter to me:
I never could have fathomed when I woke up in a hospital bed last June without my legs that I would be standing on the summit of the highest peak in South America less than nine months later. Before this journey, I always thought that people wanted to climb mountains because of the challenge they posed. And initially, that was my reason as well. But I have come to the realization that for me, Aconcagua wasn’t just a notch on my belt, or something that I could brag about later in life. It healed me, both mentally and spiritually. It gave me something back that a man can only find on far-off battlefields or high desolate peaks. A sense of purpose as well as camaraderie. A sense of purpose in showing that no matter what life may throw my way, I could still overcome and conquer it; and a sense of camaraderie with my team that I have only found in combat. There is no way I would have been able to accomplish this alone. That’s for sure. All in all, I found that making it to the summit wasn’t as important as my journey along the way. I only hope that I can take this experience and in some way heal and inspire others, and show them that there are truly no bounds to what the human spirit can achieve.
USMC Brad Ivanchan
So that’s another summit down for The Heroes Project and First Ascent, and another life changed by the healing power that only a journey to the top of a big mountain can provide. Stay tuned for the next climb, because we’re nowhere even close to slowing down.
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