Early into the summer of 2011 I came across a picture of a double amputee (one leg above the knee and one leg below the knee) on his attempt to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. I found the image incredibly inspiring and realized that I suddenly had the urge to climb my own mountain. I never considered mountain climbing before, but then again, I had never considered most other things that I’ve done in my life and have done well. So, from that moment on I set out to find my way to and up a mountain. How does one do that? after all, I had no idea where or who to turn to for research or guidance so I decided to do what most of us do these days to find an answer and that is Google. For several weeks I entered random searches on “mountain climbing”, “amputee mountain climbing”, “wounded warrior mountain climbing,” so on and so fourth. Since I wasn’t real sure what I should be looking for, I chose not to settle for the first site I come across. I did however, come across one website that was consistently popping up on my searches and it was the website of Tim Wayne Medvets and The Heroes Project. He was the first person I emailed and as luck would have it, he was the only person I had to reach out to as Tim called me a day later. Tim’s vision for his organization was to take 7 injured veterans and for each of them to climb one of the 7 summits of the world.
Usually, when I meet/speak with someone in a business setting I try to remain professional and somewhat reserved. But, for some reason, I was feeling extra cocky the first day that I spoke with Tim . So, when we discussed the possibility of The Heroes Project taking me on one of their climbs I proclaimed, “I want a mountain and I need a real challenge, nothing easy, I want to be tested.” I said it as though I were interviewing Tim, Luckily, it worked in my favor. Tim called me just a few days later and informed me that I was chosen by the board as a climber and he added that it was my arrogance that he liked. I later found out that there was a plan to take a veteran with a visual impairment to Carstenzs Pyramid in Indonesia because it is one of the most technically challenging of the 7 summits. It is not to say that being blind would make it an easy climb, in fact it would be very difficult, but, at the time that was the plan for the climb. Tim liked the idea of pushing the limits and when he mentioned taking me, a double amputee, he was told it was a bad idea. One of the many things Tim and I have in common is that when we are told that we can’t do something we have to prove that it can be done. Tim felt as though I was the perfect candidate to take on Carstenzs Pyramid and that is how my journey to the mountain began.
From the moment I made the decision to pursue this goal, I knew that I had to step up my training. The time I spent at the gym was good enough for the races I entered but for such an intense climb I needed to get to the next level. I have always loved fitness and pushing myself in the gym but, I always knew that having someone train me, push me and challenge me would elevate me to that next level. A few years earlier, I had met Sean Dickson, a Special Forces Soldier that had become the owner and trainer at Combat Fitness Training Facility in Hoover, AL. Sean is a fierce competitor who knows how to push others. Whether someone is just looking to get into better shape, compete or in my case, climb a mountain in a way that has never been done before, Sean is able to design that perfect plan. Like a scientist splitting atoms, Sean is an expert in his field and takes every training session extremely seriously.For that reason, I decided to join CFTF and have Sean train me.
I still knew that I needed more than just more strength and endurance training, I needed to spend time tied to a rope, hanging off the sides of rocks to simulate my mountain. Luckily, I found First Avenue Rocks in Birmingham, the only rock climbing gym in the area. I decided to stop by the facility one day, the minute I walked in,I was greeted by a man named Joe Ortega. I began to explain to him all about my up coming trip, that I needed someone to help me quickly and safely learn to climb and more importantly, do it for free because I did not have the funds to pay for the training. It turned out that Joe- the owner, was once a medic in the Army and his father was a Veteran that served in the 101st just like I did. Joe had no problem telling me,”We’ll do it!” I was very excited with how well everything was coming together. Joe began taking me to climb in places I never knew existed in Alabama, and helped me become a decent climber. The last piece of the puzzle was Biotech Limb and Brace which as always are dedicated to making sure my legs are able to handle my intense training and ready for my climb. Biotech has also become a very critical sponsor helping me purchase some of my expensive climbing gear.
We are set to climb this November and I cannot wait. I want this climb now, more than I could’ve ever imagined. I want it for myself, to inspire others, specifically for anyone that has been told they couldn’t do something. But, something deeper is at the heart of my climb. A close friend of mine, Ethan Biggers, whom I served in Iraq with both in 2003 and again in 2005 was shot 2 months after I was injured and was in a coma when he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. Where I was recovering. I became close with his wonderful family and was crushed a year later when I got the phone call with the news that he had passed away. When his sister Liza heard I was going to climb a mountain she called their brother Matt and told him of my upcoming trip. Matt made a plaque in Ethan’s memory and asked me to place it atop Carstenzs Pyramid, it has now become the ultimate reason for pushing myself daily.
I don’t want to climb this difficult mountain, I need to climb this mountain. I know when I reach the summit it will be emotional, after all a lot is being poured into this climb. Not only by myself in training, but by my sponsors who believe in me, the memory of Ethan and all those incredible men that I served with and who are not here with us anymore, those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. I can’t and I won’t let those men down, I believe that nothing pushes the human body more than that. All that is left to do before the climb is to train like a machine!
– All images are courtesy of Ellie Marks