For the past two weeks, we’ve been recounting the stories of our guides and athletes who were in Nepal during the catastrophic earthquake that shut down the Everest climbing season and devastated the country. Tim Wayne Medvetz, founder of The Heroes Project—an organization we’ve backed since 2012—was targeting the summit of the world’s tallest peak as the final climb in his organization’s mission to empower wounded amputee warriors up all of the Seven Summits. Medvetz, who was turned back with USMC Staff Sergeant Charlie Linville when the climbing season ended tragically and prematurely in 2014, was on the north side of the mountain when the 2015 earthquake hit. Their mission immediately changed course to helping a country in chaos. This is Tim’s report and reflection on the tragedy, the relief effort, and where The Heroes Project goes from here. —LYA Editor
Words and Images by Tim Wayne Medvetz
It’s not just an American Project. It’s a Human Project.
For the second time in two years, I’m on a beach in Thailand trying to piece everything back together and figure out what the hell just happened on Everest. Once again, my team and I shouldn’t be alive. Others weren’t so lucky. More than 8,800 people lost their lives in Nepal. The avalanche killed 19 on Everest alone. The deadliest day on the mountain in history. But those are just numbers and facts. They don’t tell you how it felt to be there.
So now I’ve got pen and paper in hand, swinging on my hammock, trying to sum it all up, and I honestly don’t know how to start or what to say. I’ve seen people die on mountains before. That’s just part of climbing. I saw people die on Everest last year with the avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall. I lost my good friend Ang Tsering Sherpa to that avalanche. But this was different. I don’t know. Maybe it seems crazy going back over and over again, tempting the mountain like that. Tempting fate. I can’t explain it exactly.
I can still remember coming off the summit of Everest in 2007 and not knowing if I would make it down alive. My right hand was broken. I was scaling ropes with just one hand, straight drop-offs on either side. No fuel left in the tank. Oxygen cylinder was empty. I swore to God that if he got me off the mountain alive, I would never come back to Everest again. I don’t know if it was God, but I survived.
A few years later, I made a new pact. This time, it was with myself. I was going to take wounded American veterans up all of the Seven Summits. By 2009, I had founded The Heroes Project and taken six different amputee Marines and soldiers to all of the Seven Summits except one: Everest.
Even when USMC SSgt Charlie Linville and I started training for Everest for the first time back in 2013, the thought went through my head that the climb might be too much of a risk for someone missing limbs. I ignored the feeling and we went to Everest in 2014, and we managed to survive that tragedy. So you can imagine that after last year’s events, I had my work cut out for me convincing supporters of The Heroes Project not to give up on Charlie’s dream and the foundation’s dream of getting to the Seventh Summit of the world. While we tried raising the money, I stepped up Charlie’s training so that he would be even more prepared once we made it back to the mountain. In light of the previous year’s avalanche at Base Camp on the South Col route, I decided that I would take the team up the North Face of Everest instead via Tibet. At the time, I couldn’t have known how life-altering that decision would be once we were up on the mountain and the s**t hit the fan.
When Charlie and I made it to Kathmandu, our first order of business was a somber one. We flew to the Everest region of Solo Khumbu to attend the puja of the first-year anniversary of my good friend Ang Tsering Sherpa’s death. That occasion was a stern reminder for me and for Charlie of how dangerous the journey ahead would be. Not that you ever forget it. The danger of Everest is always there. But it’s different when you’re mourning the loss of a close friend who died on the mountain, doing the same thing you’re about to do.
Three days later, we flew to Lhasa, Tibet, and started our drive to the North Face Base Camp. When we arrived at Base Camp, we sat down to eat lunch in our tent and Charlie was feeling good about the climb. He was ready to tackle the mountain this time and finish what we started the year before. And just like that the earthquake hit, without any warning. We all ran out of our tents, and yaks were falling down and there were avalanches all around us. Charlie was still in the tent, trying frantically to put on his prosthetic leg as the earth shook. It was hard for us to know right then how much of a tragedy the earthquake was going to be, but we knew it was bad. The thing was, we were safe in the open tundra of the Everest North Face Base Camp.
I let our Sherpas use our sat phone to call their families in Nepal. When they finally got through, they found that all of their homes were destroyed. Most of their families were alive and safe, except for one of our Sherpas. He found out that his mother didn’t make it out of her house in time before it collapsed and killed her.
We were trapped at Base Camp. The road back to Nepal was destroyed, as were all of the border villages. The road back to Lhasa was closed. There was no way for the Sherpas to get back home and be with their families. I can’t imagine not being able to be with my family or say goodbye to my dead mother. The morale of the whole team was so low, and we just sat around helpless that entire night. The calls kept coming in on the sat phone: 1,000 dead…2,000…3,000…8,000. Mass destruction over the entire country. Then we started getting news from the Everest South Col Base Camp: 4 dead…7…10…19. It was just chaos over there with our climbing community and our friends. A war zone. And we were safe on the North Face without any way to help them.
I guess you could say my decision to take the Northeast Ridge Route was the right one in the end, but it didn’t feel good being unable to help our fellow climbers for the second year in a row. Only a year earlier, Charlie and I watched from the Lobuche Peak on our acclimatization climb as the avalanche poured down the Khumbu Icefall. Now, at the North Face Base Camp, we felt helpless all over again. But that didn’t change the fact that I still had every intention of getting Charlie to the summit.
Twenty-four hours after the first earthquake, we held a puja ceremony with local monks and the Sherpas’ morale was uplifted, knowing that the monks would make things better and bless us with safe passage up Everest. We prayed with the monks for four hours and finished the ceremony by drinking some rakshi (local moonshine), and everyone was feeling happier. We discussed the possibility of still climbing the mountain. We were still standing there with the monks, talking about this plan, when a second earthquake (7.4 magnitude) hit. One of the monks fell to the ground and everyone was running for safety once again. I just thought, this can’t possibly be happening.
Word started coming in again…more deaths, more devastation to the people of Nepal. Then news from the Chinese mountaineering organization in Beijing that more earthquakes were on the way. The world that we lived in was falling apart. More earthquakes or not, the majority of the climbers on the North Side still wanted to climb the mountain. I mean, we were safe and sound on the North Side and no one died or got hurt, so why not climb? But in the end, I thought to myself, how can you possibly stand on the summit and celebrate victory amidst all the thousands of people who have died? I mean, really, can you imagine a summit photo of Charlie standing on top of Everest on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter while the bodies are piling up in Nepal. Would that really be a true American hero?
The decision was simple, and I didn’t need the Chinese mountaineering organization or anyone else to tell me the mountain was officially closed. Sorry, but that was an easy decision. Operation Everest needed to turn into Operation Help Nepal. So once the roads to Lhasa opened back up, I took the team back down and flew to Nepal. We joined efforts with Team Rubicon, who deployed thirty-five vets, nurses, and doctors to help with the relief efforts in Nepal.
We spent days driving to different villages far away from the streets of Kathmandu. I’ve never seen so much death and devastation in my life. We delivered over 300 kilos of food and medicine. I think it’s fair to say that in light of recent events, The Heroes Project has taken a new turn with our mission statement. All heroes of the world need our help, even if it’s just the small amount we were able to offer in Nepal. In the end, it’s not just an American project. It’s a human project.
Watching Charlie and our film crew join in with the efforts, and seeing that they weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, was an empowering feeling in the midst of so much pain. It wasn’t a major stretch seeing Charlie in action there in Nepal compared to what he used to do over in Iraq and Afghanistan, protecting and saving people’s lives. Watching my film crew members, Cherie and Kazuya, put down their film equipment and help, it wasn’t about the film or getting Charlie to the summit. It was about being a human being and helping your fellow man. I couldn’t have been more proud to be a part of such a great team and organization.
So where does The Heroes Project go from here? I’m absolutely the most stressed I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t start this foundation to get anyone killed, and it’s a heavy load for me to weigh all of the risks. It’s a huge decision to have on your shoulders, especially times like these when nature reminds us of the real dangers of our mountains. The fact of the matter is—and I said this to Charlie before the Everest climb the first time around in 2014—people will DIE this year on the mountain. That’s a fact. That’s all part of climbing Everest. People will die. It happens every year. And so to imagine climbing Everest again with Charlie for a third attempt and God forbid something happens to him, to imagine having to come back to the States and tell Charlie’s two daughters that their father is never coming back home, and then I have to call Eddie Bauer and the thousands of Heroes Project supporters and tell them they just supported an expedition that killed an American war hero—that’s enough to make you run away to this beach in Thailand and never come back. I’ve spent these last weeks stressing about where to go from here.
Some people are critical of taking on the risks of climbing a mountain like Everest, and I get it. Sure, I could take our injured war vets on a fishing trip or climb a small mountain in Colorado. I could take them skiing or show them how to surf. But I’ve seen it firsthand and I fully believe that to truly heal these guys, you have to put them back in harm’s way, back to the battlefield that changed their life forever. You see a guy that just got his legs blown off, but what you don’t see is the badass Marine he was before he got injured. Toughest guy in the world. Walks around with an M-16 on his back. He’s on top of the world and then boom!—next thing you know, his leg or his arm gets blown off. People tell him he’ll never be active again. He’ll never see the battlefield again. How is he supposed to feel like a Marine after that? How is he supposed to feel like a man again?
When The Heroes Project trains wounded vets and takes them to one of the Seven Summits, it’s different than anything else. It’s a journey to accomplish something that only a few people in the world will ever do. And it’s the epic journey getting there that matters—not just the summit. That’s the recovery process. Giving these veterans that feeling back.
So off the hammock and back to America. Decision is made. Charlie and I are going back to Everest next year with The Heroes Project. We’re 100% going back. No hesitation in my mind or Charlie’s. Spring of 2016, we will be back on that mountain. It’s just one of those things where you say what you do and you do what you say. You base your life on risk versus reward, right? And the reward for Charlie and the thousands of injured veterans is much greater than the risk. Stay tuned, and Godspeed to all who were lost in Nepal.
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