The base camp on the Nepal side of Mount Everest sits at just below 18,000 feet. At this extreme altitude, oxygen decreases by half, and climbers can become light-headed, get headaches, and feel weak. Climbers also risk acute mountain sickness, hypoxia, and fatigue, as well as pulmonary and cerebral edema.
The Everest Summit is at 29,035 feet, 3,000 feet above what is known as the “Death Zone” of mountain altitudes: the elevation level where the oxygen in the air is insufficient to support human life. It’s at this altitude WATM interviewed Tim Medvetz, not on the actual mountain but at his Equinox training center in Beverly Hills. Here, Medvetz and Marine Corps veteran Charlie Linville have been training in a simulated altitude chamber, working on stationary bikes at atmospheres replicating Everest Base Camp.
This week, Medvetz and Linville departed for Nepal to begin their summit of the world’s highest mountain. Linville, an Afghanistan veteran and father of two, had his right leg amputated below the knee as a result of an IED explosion. If he summits the mountain, he will be the first combat-wounded veteran to climb Everest.
“This is what we do,” Medvetz says. “We concentrate on one Marine, one soldier, one vet, at a time. We feel that we can make a larger impact on one guy’s life rather than making a little impact on a lot of guys’ lives.”
Medvetz is a former member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club and founder of The Heroes Project, a nonprofit with the mission to improve the care and protection of heroes through individual support, community empowerment and systemic change. One of the three ways they do that is the Climb for Heroes Initiative, supporting climbing programs for wounded veterans. The Foundation puts injured war veterans on some of the highest summits of the world.
“One of the greatest things I’ve found with climbing the big mountains is that it brings them back,” Medvetz says. “It gives them that feeling of being on the battlefield again without getting shot at, so it’s a real big positive effect.”
The pair use the Beverly Hills based altitude pod to prepare. They started at 5,000 feet, which is like a visit to Denver. A few days later, they go to 8,000. Then 12,000. Every few days they would simulate higher and higher altitudes to stave off altitude sickness. They also slept in altitude chamber “bubbles” at home. The effort physically shows. During my interview in the chamber at a simulated 18,000 feet, Medvetz’ blood oxygen saturation steadied at 90 while mine dropped to 85. At sea level, the average saturation level hovers around 96. After 45 minutes of talking, I felt lightheaded and loopy.
“That’s your body literally falling apart,” Medvetz said. “You can’t just go to Base Camp. You get headaches, fatigue, and general wooziness before you pass out. There are only three cures: descend, descend, descend.”
“I feel good this year,” says Linville. “There were so many nerves that were here before that are gone now. I’ve been working a long time to prepare for this.”
Tim Medvetz and Charlie Linville have known each other since before Linville had to have his foot amputated in 2012. Before that the Marine had 14 surgeries to try to repair the damage to his limb. That was the year Linville says his whole life changed.
“I called him [Medvetz] two hours later from the hospital that I was ready to train,” Linville remembers. “That drive speaks to Tim. I wanted to push myself as much as I could.”
The duo was set to climb another mountain, but the Marine didn’t feel like it was enough of a challenge. While at a fundraiser, he was speaking to a mutual friend. Linville told the friend that the mountain they were set to climb was okay but it wasn’t the challenge he was looking for.
“That’s when Tim came to the realization that I was the right guy for Everest,” Linville says.
This will be the pair’s third attempt to summit the mountain. During their first attempt, a serac, a huge ice tower, separated from the Khumbu Icefall during an avalanche and killed 16 Sherpas. Out of respect to the Sherpas who are well known in the climbing community, they cancelled the trip after reaching 22,000 feet.
“This is going to be my 5th time on Everest,” Medvetz says. “The first time we climbed it, we had 11 guys that died. The 2nd time, 13 guys died. But this was the first time 16 all died or buried at once.”
For the second attempt for Medvetz and Linville, they attempted from the north face of the mountain in April 2015. They arrived at the base camp and went into tents to get food. While they were there, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. The team, the Sherpas, and everyone else at the camp were stuck there. There, the damage was minimal, but 8,000 were dead with another 12,000 injured throughout the country. While most decided that they might as well press on to the summit, Medvetz and Linville didn’t feel right about it. As soon as the Chinese re-opened the road to Lhasa, the duo linked up with Team Rubicon’s Operation Tenzig, distributing food and first aid to villages in the Nepalese countryside that the Red Cross couldn’t access.
“Charlie was just like, boom, right at it,” remembers Medvetz. “We hit the road with gloves on, right to work. Patching kids up, patching old people up, and in the end, it was more rewarding to be on the ground helping this country than standing on the summit of Everest.”
Medvetz has put wounded veterans on almost all the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents, including Antarctica. Whether talking about Kilimanjaro to K2, the former biker believes the ability to overcome anything from a mountain to a war injury is all in your mind. He should, he survived a motorcycle accident in 2001 which left every bone in his body broken.
“I was a 250-pound Hell’s Angel who studied with the Gracie brothers in Brazil and was a bouncer in New York City,” recalls Medvetz. “And here’s this punk doctor telling me be lucky I’m alive, well you know, f*ck you. I’ll show you. Next thing I know I’m on a plane to Nepal and I’m going to climb Everest.”
It was the question “What are you going to do next?” that inspired the biker to help wounded veterans through the Heroes Project. He went to Balboas Naval Hospital in San Diego to meet someone to go on a climb with. Medvetz sat in the hospital for three hours, drinking coffee and watching wounded veterans, some missing limbs, come and go. He’d never seen anything like it.
“I pulled over off the 5 freeway at the first gas station and I must have smoked half a pack of cigarettes,” he remembers. “I decided I’m gonna do everything I can. I’m gonna make a difference. That’s how I started.”
Medvetz and Linville departed for their third trip to Nepal this week, April 6, 2016. Medvetz’
The Heroes Project has multiple fundraising events throughout each year, the first being “Climb for Heroes” in April, and another on September 11th at Santa Monica Pier. To donate to the Heroes Project, visit their website. But if you can’t make the events, the former biker has advice for both veterans and civilians.
“I guarantee you there’s some veterans in your local community,” he says. “Go shake their hand, man. Tell them welcome home and make them feel a part of your community. For veterans who want to do something like summit Everest or Kilimanjaro, convince yourself you can do something and you’re already halfway to the summit. Everything else will fall into place.”