By: Andrew Giangola
February 02, 2017
ANAHEIM, Calif. – Professional bull riders are often described as the world’s toughest athletes.
It’s no surprise, then, that humanitarian mountain climber Tim Medvetz, who will be honored before the PBR’s Celebrate America event Saturday night in Anaheim, California, says he professes great respect and admiration for the stars of the PBR.
Now helping combat-injured veterans by taking amputees to places most able-bodied people could never go, the former Hell’s Angel knows a thing or two about gritting out excruciating pain to push a battered body beyond its limits and reach audacious goals.
Medvetz doesn’t claim to fully relate to what the vets have gone through on the battlefield. But he knows what it’s like to be severely injured and then caught in a downward spiral of despondency and depression.
Fifteen years ago, Medvetz had been racing his Harley though the San Fernando Valley when he was hit by a truck. Doctors used two metal plates and 20 screws to repair his cracked skull. During a nine-hour operation, they bolted titanium netting to his shattered back and used more plates and screws to save his leg and finger.
An adventurous kid from New Jersey who had always been on the move wasn’t expected to walk again.
He’s now climbed the seven tallest mountains on each continent, each time with a combat-wounded Veteran he’s trained and mentored as part of the unique therapy The Heroes Project offers.
Before finding his calling, Medvetz had been spiraling out of control. Recuperating from the bike wreck, he was alone in his one-bedroom apartment, binging on Vicodin and whiskey.
Of all things, a paperback best-seller would set in motion a chain of events that would completely change his life.
Medvetz spotted a copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air on his shelf. He read the book, which chronicles a hiking tragedy on Mount Everest, and couldn’t stop thinking about how hard it would be to climb that unforgiving mountain, which is exactly what he needed to do.
A month later, Tim would sublet his Hollywood apartment and book a one-way ticket to Nepal.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, he lived with a group of Sherpas, eating their food, soaking in their culture, and physically preparing to conquer Everest. He spent four years training and scaled the world’s tallest mountain twice. (One climb can be seen in the Discovery Channel’s 14-part series, Everest Beyond the Limit, one of the network’s all-time highest rated shows; Medvetz is now working with his agent at WME on a film documentary about conquering the seven summits).
Medvetz had proven to himself he was once again a world-class badass to whom the phrase “you can’t do that” does not apply.
Now it was time to share his epiphany. Just as mountain climbing had helped him kick the booze and pills and find a new purpose, it could help others overcome the fallout from nearly catastrophic injuries.
“Climbing mountains is a selfish sport; everyone in your life is secondary to that mountain,” Medvetz said. “I realized it’s not just about me. It was time to do something for someone else.”
Last time, it was a book. Inspiration now came from a television program.
One Veteran’s Day, Tim caught a TV news report from Arlington National cemetery featuring disabled and disfigured veterans.
“These guys were severely wounded and didn’t regret a single day of their service,” he explained. “They’d go back tomorrow if they could. I got all choked up and immediately related to that difficult journey of coming out of the hospital and trying to reclaim your life.
“My injuries were nothing like what these guys experienced. But I knew I could help them through the challenge of mountain climbing. I went down to Balboa Naval hospital, met a few vets and said, ‘Let’s go climbing!’”
Present that kind of outrageous dare to a group of sidelined adrenaline junkies, and there’s bound to be a few takers.
“The guy with the eager attitude is already half way to the summit,” Medvetz said. “It is the one who believes in himself, even if missing a limb or two, who will be successful.”
Unlike foundations aiming to help a significant number of people, Medvetz wanted to go big to make a giant impact on one individual at a time. He intuitively knew that truly transformative rehabilitation – the kind that allows physically broken soldiers to reclaim their lives – only comes in going back into harm’s way.
“A Marine used to lead his men across a battlefield, and the next thing, he’s in a wheelchair feeling sorry for himself,” Medvetz said. “These combat vets have to throw away the wheelchair and get back in the bullseye, relying on their guts and strength to make their own way. We don’t hike up to the Hollywood sign; we go to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro or Everest. It’s extreme, and that’s why it works.”
High up on those icy rocks, amid harsh and unpredictable weather, danger is clear and present; death comes with the territory.
On Mount Everest in 2014, a 10-story chunk of ice fell and killed 16 Sherpas. Medvetz was on the mountain behind the group that tragically perished.
On Alaska’s Mt. Denali, Medvetz and a wounded vet watched a climber unclip his rope to urinate. His sled of gear began to slide toward the edge. The climber dove for it and slid right off the ledge into the precipice, plummeting 1,000 feet to the ground.
Two years ago, after conquering the highest summit in South America, Medvetz and a double-amputee vet were caught in a ripping winter wind as they descended the 22,000-feet peak. They spotted a reflection and a flash of color– a climber’s back pack. Closer up was a man down on the ground. Medvetz carefully stepped down the trail to help.
“I took his goggles off, and started slapping his face,” he said. “He was dead.”
The 16 veterans Medvetz has helped thus far knew that even with the most careful preparation, any climb could have turned into a suicide mission. Taking on risky uncertainly is the key ingredient for conquering their fears and anyone else’s private skepticism.
“Train them for six months, and then bring them to a mountain they can die on,” Medvetz said. “High altitude climbing is miserable. It’s pure suffering. You’re freezing and you’re starving. You’re aching. Your body is withering away. The journey of getting up there will change someone’s life.”
That’s exactly how it played out for Isaac Blunt, a double-amputee Infantryman in the Marines, who climbed Australia’s tallest mountain and will be honored with Medvetz on Saturday at the Honda Center.
Blunt grew up in a military family in a small town in Wisconsin. All he ever wanted was to become a Marine. He was sent into the center of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Three months into his deployment, he stepped on a pressure plate I.E.D and lost his legs above the knees, four fingers, and an eye.
He was 20 years old. It felt like his life was over.
For several years, Blunt suffered through depression. He had all but given up when Medvetz and The Heroes Project came calling.
Due to the severity of Isaac’s injuries, Tim chose the lowest of the seven summits, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. But he also booked winter, the most challenging season. And he planned to take the hardest route up the mountain.
Considering Blunt’s injuries, this climb was Mount Everest, Medvetz reasoned.
Indeed, the slow, daunting journey to the top was miserable and precarious.
Moving through dense underbrush covered in snow, Isaac’s prosthetics dug into his stumps. Every small step was a painful fight.
He pushed ahead, hour after hour, inches at a time.
And then harsh weather moved in: a complete whiteout blizzard, with 60 MPH winds and zero visibility. For two days, the climbers hunkered down to wait out the storm. When it finally cleared, there was still a painful 400-foot vertical climb to the summit.
Getting to the top was the hardest thing Isaac Blunt had ever tried. And then he stood at the continent’s highest point on two prosthetic limbs, looking out at the vast landscape below through one eye.
And what he really saw was that nothing in life is outside the realm of his indomitable will.
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