The day Charlie Linville had his leg amputated, all he could think about was climbing Mount Everest. That was in 2012, after doctors had been trying to save the damaged leg for a year. Linville had been an explosive ordnance disposal tech in the Marine Corps until an IED sent him home from Afghanistan.
The plan to climb Everest came the day before the amputation when Linville met Tim Medvetz, founder and head of a veterans' organization called The Heroes Project. The Heroes Project had been leading vets up some of the highest peaks in the world since 2009, and Medvetz told Linville about his plans to climb Everest.
The next morning, fresh off the operating table, Linville asked his wife to call Medvetz.
"My phone rings, and it's Charlie, all morphined out," Medvetz said. "He's telling me on the phone I'm his guy, and he can do this. That was the moment I knew he was the guy to climb Everest."
Medvetz and Linville attempted the ascent in 2014 and 2015, but failed both times. Last week, the pair left for Nepal to make their third bid for the summit of the world's highest peak. They'll climb the mountain from the north, from Tibet, as opposed to the more crowded south route up the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal. The party hopes to summit in late May.
Linville won't be the only U.S. veteran on Everest this spring. Also climbing up the north face is Chad Jukes, an EOD tech veteran who survived a roadside IED in Iraq but, like Linville, lost his leg.
Jukes was wounded in 2006 while serving in the Army. He's climbing with USX, an organization founded last year to involve veterans, as well as active servicemen and women, in scientific exploration and research. The expedition to Everest is the organization's first large-scale project. Jukes will be on the mountain at the same time Linville is and also hopes to make the summit in May. Both left the U.S. last week to begin the long haul for the mountain.
"There's no race to be the first to the top," said Matt Hickey, a co-founder of USX. "Both Chad and Charlie are living proof that veterans can go on to do huge things after their service."
Of the roughly 1,000 people who attempt to climb Everest every year, about 500 of them walk on the summit. Relying on a prosthetic to scale Everest comes with a unique set of challenges, and if Linville and Jukes make the summit they'll be the first combat amputees to do so.
"I think the biggest concern is frostbite," Hickey said. "[Jukes] knows full well that it's not worth losing anymore of his leg trying to get to the summit of a mountain, and if there's any risk of that he's decided to turn around."
For most amputees, cold temperatures can cause phantom limb pain and a tingling sensation. To prepare his prosthetic for the sub-zero temperatures on Everest, Linville wrapped it in weatherproof insulating foam.
Another major challenge will be balancing on one leg and compensating for the amputated leg in snow and on ice—post-holing through deep snow is extremely difficult with a prosthetic. Climbing the north face of the mountain spares the men from having to traverse the Khumbu Icefall, a crevasse-filled section of glacier that's been the scene of deadly avalanches the past two years. Ladders tied together to form makeshift bridges are most commonly used to cross glacial crevasses, and both men will almost certainly have to cross ladders at some point during their climb.
Neither team has contracted a commercial guide service for the climb. Instead, both are making the attempt with a private guide and contingent of Sherpa porters. Both teams include cameramen to document the expeditions and experiences of wounded vets undertaking lofty goals.
Therapy through high adventure has proven beneficial to returning vets, and both the Heroes Project and USX aim to enable wounded warriors through overcoming adversity—in this case, negotiating the altitude, cold, and snow of Everest.
"I can relate to what it's like when a doctor is telling you you're never going to do this or that again," Medvetz said, who survived a 100-mile-per-hour motorcycle crash that left him nearly paralyzed, fully depressed, and addicted to painkillers . "And so, my theory is if you really want to cure these guys, you have to put them back in harm's way again. So I bring them to mountains that people die on every year."