For years, the summit seemed out of reach, and not because Charlie Linville hadn’t trained hard enough.
A Marine Corps veteran at 30, Staff Sgt. Linville was no stranger to adversity. The Boise, Idaho, native was a high school freshman when his father was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. In 2007, having completed infantry training, he was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, just two weeks after the birth of his first daughter with his high school sweetheart, Mandi.
Linville charged on, getting promoted to corporal and training in explosive disposal. In 2011, he was in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, working with a new team to disarm IEDs when a buried device blasted him into the air. He landed in the blast crater – alive, but severely injured.
In addition to a traumatic brain injury and an amputated finger, the explosion left Linville with a crippled foot. Resistant to more than a dozen surgeries, it plagued him until he decided to have it surgically amputated in 2013.
“Every day was just pain and pain killers,” Linville told CBS, “and eventually I made the decision to have it amputated below the knee.”
It was this resolve that would catch the attention of Tim Medvetz, a former Hells Angel biker who runs the Heroes Project, a nonprofit that helps injured veterans climb mountains. And with Medvetz’s help, it was this resolve that made Linville the first combat amputee to reach the summit of Mount Everest on Thursday.
In a news release, the organization announced Linville’s triumph as the first person to reach the 29,035-foot summit with a prosthetic.
The expedition had been, as Linville’s wife Mandi put it to the Idaho Statesman, “unfinished business.”
Three years ago, Charlie Linville joined the Heroes Project after meeting Medvetz, who knew right away that Linville was a climber.
“Out of all of the military branches, he enlists in the Marine Corps,” Medvetz told CBS. “Then he gets out of boot camp and decides, ‘I’m going to start defusing bombs, one of the most dangerous jobs in the Marine Corps.’ Then he tells the doctor, ‘Cut my leg off.’ . . . I’m like – that’s the guy. That’s the guy.”
“You don’t make those decisions in your life,” Medvetz said, “without being strong here [in the head] and here [in the heart]. And you can ask anybody, interview anybody who’s climbed Everest and they all have that same attitude.”
For Linville, taking on an expedition to Everest was about fighting the specters of military combat.
“I was looking for something to completely change myself and really get rid of the demons that were created from war,” he told KBOI.
Members of the Heroes Project undertake grueling physical training, culminating in a climb with Medvetz as their guide. Last year, he climbed Kilimanjaro with retired USMC Sgt. Julian Torres, who lost both of his legs to an IED blast in Afghanistan. The journey and its successful conclusion were a testament to human resilience against all odds. This was Medvetz’s mission, and these were his people. Lindville would be next.
The strength and determination that Medvetz sensed in Linville from the start proved crucial as planned climbs were halted year after year, due to circumstances beyond their control.
In 2014, the first year they attempted Everest, the two were 20,000 feet up at Lobuche Peak when they got word that an ice avalanche had swept down the mountain, killing 16 Nepalese Sherpa guides. The attempt was postponed until last year, when an even deadlier disaster struck.
Medvetz and Linville were once again making their way up Everest when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, causing 8,500 fatalities and ending the climbing season. The earthquake triggered an avalanche that in turn killed more than a dozen Everest climbers and injured more than 50.
With each cataclysm, Mandi grew more worried.
“I’ve been with this guy since I was 15,” she told the Statesman. “He’s not a person who starts something and doesn’t finish it. I knew year one, OK, he’s going back. Year two was higher anxiety. I knew it wasn’t going to be finished for him until he actually got to try.”
Then came year three.
“My lucky number is three,” Mandi said. “This was the last year, no matter what. I wanted him to go out with a bang and get what he deserved – closure to this long, arduous task.”
Linville and Medvetz had been training since last spring. They trained for six hours every day, cycling for two hours daily at a simulated altitude of 17,000 feet. In the last two months before they embarked, they slept inside a chamber that emulated oxygen levels at 18,000 feet.
On April 17, Medvetz’s team, including Linville, arrived at Everest Base Camp. Briefly delayed by a snowstorm, they reached the Advanced Base Camp on May 2.
This time, the cards fell into place. Favorable weather conditions were drawing climbers to the world’s highest peak for the first season in two years.
Earlier this week, Linville, Medvetz and company left for the summit. On Thursday, they arrived.
Back home in Boise, Mandi had spent the night anxiously checking the weather on the mountain. At 9:30 a.m., she got the call that her husband made it.
“It’s time to go into celebration mode,” she told the Statesman. “I’m going to throw him the biggest freaking party.”
The Thursday news release from the Heroes Project noted that the team, which was also the first to summit the mountain’s north face this season, was “healthy and safe and currently descending the mountain.” As of early Friday morning, it was not clear if Linville and the rest of team had, in fact, returned from the summit safely.
It was a coda three years in the making for Linville. The sky was the limit for the combat amputee, and he had reached it.
“Can’t get any taller than Everest, you know?” Linville told CBS before he started climbing in April, laughing. “There is nothing else.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Yanan Wang