Column: For former Hells Angel Tim Medvetz, no mountain is too high to climb, even Everest
The next time a burly man with a heavy beard and a gruff-looking exterior pulls next to you on his loud motorcycle, repress the negative thoughts and think of Tim Medvetz.
Medvetz is 44, lives in Hollywood and is a former Hells Angels biker. He is 6 feet 4, 250 pounds and fittingly played tight end in his high school days in Colonia, N.J. He has tattoos, huge biceps and a smile and manner that negates all the fear normally triggered by the other stuff.
He was a bouncer in New York City for eight years. He lived in Brazil for two years, where he learned how to be a mixed-martial-arts fighter.
Now he climbs mountains, the high ones. He has summited the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. It all began after he crashed his motorcycle on a Chatsworth street, going 100 mph.
“I was an idiot,” he says.
To put himself back together again, he needed more than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. His inventory of current body parts could be a commercial for U.S. Steel.
“Two metal plates and 20 screws in my head,” he says. “My back, a steel mesh cage between [vertebrae) L-1 and L-5. Right hand, two metal plates and 10 screws. Ring finger on right hand, fused. Left knee, eight screws. Left foot, 13 surgeries, seven screws, triple-fused.”
When the motorcycle stopped, Medvetz saw his left ankle resting next to his left ear.
“The doctor said I’d lose my left foot,” he says. “I told him that better not happen. There were four Hells Angels buddies in the hospital room, staring at him. Helped my chances. The next day, I woke up, looked for my left foot and saw toes.”
He also saw a room full of doctors that morning paying more attention to the television than to him. It was Sept. 11, 2001. His accident had happened the day before.
Medvetz spent four months in a wheelchair, then another year numbing the pain. With no direction forthcoming, inspiration arrived.
“I was sitting there with nothing to do,” he says. “Then the sun came through the blinds just right and settled on a book in a bookshelf. A girlfriend had given it to me. She was long gone and I hadn’t considered reading it. But there it was, Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air.’”
That was for me, and was a middle finger to doctors who said I wouldn’t walk again.
— Tim Medvetz, on reaching the summit of Mt. Everest
It’s a book about the tragic 1996 ascent of Mt. Everest, where a storm hit and eight died.
The day after he finished reading the book, Medvetz made plans to go to Nepal. He spent a year there, learning how to climb while living with the family of Sherpa Ang Chhiring.
When he first arrived in the Himalayas, equipment on his back, he was asked what was his climbing experience.
“I said I had made it to the Hollywood sign.”
In 2006, Medvetz was ready for Everest. It was more ready for him. He stopped 300 feet below the summit, running low on oxygen.
He made it to the top the next year, and says now, “That was for me, and was a middle finger to doctors who said I wouldn’t walk again.”
Both years, he was on a team being filmed by the Discovery Channel. He signed a release agreeing to be filmed, then never gave it another thought. Months after he returned in 2006, he was riding his motorcycle — he still rides one — on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He saw a huge billboard, advertising a Discovery Channel show that became the hit series “Everest: Beyond the Limits.” The climber in the ad was him.
“I almost fell off my bike,” he says.
Around that time, he saw a wounded veteran making a speech.
“He had been burned, lost limbs,” Medvetz says. “And he was talking about how proud he was to serve his country and how he would do it again if he could.
“I was like this,” Medvetz says, dabbing at his eyes.
Heroes Project, a nonprofit foundation, was born. Medvetz vowed to train and accompany wounded vets to the summit of the tallest, toughest mountains in the world. And he has, 12 by most recent count, and all 12 doing so despite the loss of at least one limb in combat.
The connection is inescapable. The man in a hospital bed near death on the day that triggered the Afghan War is now the healthy one, dedicating his life to those who have fought and come back severely scarred.
“I had never done anything for anybody in my life,” Medvetz says. “It was always just about me. Tim, Tim Tim . . .”
His first success was leg amputee Keith Deutsch, summiting 18,510-foot Mt. Elbrus in Russia in 2009. Medvetz made Deutsch go the last 50 feet on his own, no tether.
“Suddenly, I didn’t care about getting to a summit,” Medvetz says. “All that mattered was that he did.”
The one major summit that has rejected Medvetz and a wounded warrior partner is Everest, the world’s tallest peak at 29,029 feet. He took Charlie Linville, who lost a leg trying to defuse a bomb, to Everest base camp in the spring of 2014. But an avalanche hit and 16 sherpas died, including Chhiring. Medvetz canceled the climb, flew Chhiring’s body home, and stayed for four days of mourning.
This spring, he and Linville were back at base camp when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the Himalayas. Twelve climbers in a different area of base camp were killed. Tens of thousands of people around Nepal died. Medvetz called off the climb and took food and supplies into damaged areas.
Medvetz, rejecting the thought that Everest is trying to tell him something, will be back with Linville for a third try next spring. But before that, he will travel to Tanzania, leaving next week, with double amputee vet Julian Torres. They will seek the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,341 feet.
“Nov. 11 is Veteran’s Day,” Medvetz says. “That’s the day I’ll have Julian at the top.”
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