Vail Veterans Program helped save Charlie Linville, who became the first military amputee to summit Everest
EDWARDS — Charlie Linville wasn’t really looking for peace, but he found it at 22,000 feet, roped to the world’s tallest mountain.
He was about to become the first military amputee to summit Mount Everest.
Millions of small painful steps led him to this huge step:
• After joining the Marines after high school,
• After stepping on a bomb in Afghanistan,
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• After years of surgery and a voluntary amputation,
• After lifting his soul from some dark, dismal places,
• After years of training,
• After two failed attempts in 2014 (avalanche) and 2015 (earthquake) he was pursuing the summit.
He kept telling himself he wasn’t going to climb Everest, even while he was climbing Everest.
“There I was at 22,000 feet, roped in, and the peak opened up in front of me. That’s when it became real,” he said. “All the work I had put in was coming to fruition, all the pain, all the suffering I was about to shed. All the demons of war I’d been carrying on my shoulder, I was about to shed them all.”
He did it for himself, his wife, his two daughters and for all his supporters.
And he did it for all the naysayers, those who kept saying he can’t do this or he can’t do that.
“Well, I’ll show you!” Linville said. And he did.
Their summit window opened, and on May 19, 2016, he reached the top of the world.
“I sat down and I cried,” Linville said. “I took mementoes from fallen brothers to say thank you for their sacrifice. I figured that’s as close as I could ever get to them. It was close to Memorial Day, so it was a way to say ‘thank you’ to every single veteran who has ever served in the military.”
He carried footprint molds of his two young daughters to the top of Everest. He was still misty-eyed behind his goggles when he pulled them out for a quick picture.
“I was at peace. I couldn’t’ believe where I was in the world and what I’d accomplished,” Linville said.
He gets notes and messages from other veterans who tell him they were inspired by his story, that they’re now walking three miles a day, or they’re back on their bike or they’re doing what they need to do.
“Now I’m going around to help other guys realize that their lives mean everything,” Linville said.
More than one mountaintop
Everest wasn’t Linville’s first mountaintop experience.
“For me, it all circles back to the Vail Veterans Program and showing me how much I could do with my life,” he said.
Linville and Dan Riley helped Vail Veterans Program founder and CEO Cheryl Jensen host a group in Red Sky Ranch, which is another of those full circle things because that’s where Linville first played golf, two months after he voluntarily had his leg amputated.
“He has climbed many mountains, including the biggest in the world. He’s a great skier and a great guy,” Riley said.
Riley said that the day before Linville had his leg amputated, he held a going away party for it.
“He also got a pedicure, and made sure his toenails were painted bright pink so the doctor knew for certain which leg to take off,” Riley told the laughing crowd. “On his toenails, he had the surgeon’s name written on each of his toes.”
“I wanted no confusion,” Linville grinned.
One Marine’s story
Linville joined the Marines right out of high school.
“We were in two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to serve my country and be part of the best fighting force there is, and that’s the United States Marine Corps,” Linville said, grinning at an Army veteran and saying, “Sorry T.J.”
He started in the Marine infantry, and soon found his specialty.
“I got to work with the crazy guys who take apart bombs for a living. They walk out, stand over something designed to kill people, and they take it apart,” Linville said. “Me being who I am, I said, ‘That’s the job I want to do!’”
And so that’s what he did, taking care of roadside bombs and explosive hazards.
On Jan. 20, 2011, he stepped on one. His friends snapped what they call Paddy Snaps. There’s one with this story that shows him smiling at a couple missing fingers.
“It’s to make sure that no matter how bad an injury was, we still have something to laugh and smile about,” Linville said.
His Paddy Snap was snapped by a couple buddies who had their own Paddy Snaps taken for the same reason as Linville.
Boom! Everything changes
“You’re serving your country, doing your job and you love it. Then one day things go boom and your life changes,” Linville said. “You end up in a military hospital. You’ve now gone from a strong Marine or Army soldier to a guy who’s in a hospital, withering away, and you’re asking yourself questions like ‘Who am I? Am I worth anything anymore? Can I do this? Can I do that?’ You’re on the edge of an abyss.”
Doctors can tell you how long your physical injuries will take to heal, but there are all the emotional issues that go with it.”
Those invisible injuries are as much a disability and influence as missing a limb, Riley said, who’s missing both legs above the knee. It’s tough to communicate what PTSD is, Riley said, except for this …
“If you go to Afghanistan or Iraq or any other war and you don’t change, you were probably wrong going in,” Riley said.
Not a statistic
Linville said he was ready to become a statistic.
“I went through constant pain and multiple surgeries, with no end in sight,” Linville said. “My life was miserable, and the doctor said this was the best I was ever going to be. I couldn’t stand for more than five minutes without being in excruciating pain. I was on heavy doses of Oxycontin every day, which made me a zombie, which made me hate myself. I was ready to take an exit. I had a wife and two daughters. I wasn’t a father to them and I wasn’t a husband to my wife.”
He was in Vail for a Vail Veterans Program ski week and had a mountaintop experience.
“There’s so much more I can do,” Linville said.
He chose to have his limb amputated, and was back in Vail for the Vail Veterans Program’s summer golf outing two months after he had it done.
“I realized I had to set my goals, and it had to be more than just getting out of the house every day,” Linville said.
One day, he set a goal that took him way out of the house.
“I want climb Mount Everest,” Linville told people.
Most of those people told him he couldn’t do that. But Linville is a Marine to his very marrow.
“That didn’t resonate well with me,” he said.
He trained eight hours a day, seven days a week.
“I knew if I took a day off, I was going to stay in my house and not leave, and not accomplish my goal,” he said. “I made sure I got up every day to prove to myself and the 200 amputees in that hospital that life isn’t over.”
You can do whatever you want to do. It’s all a matter of how strong you are up here,” Linville said, pointing to his head.
In his rollercoaster life, he’d gone from being a Marine to a wounded guy to a guy climbing the tallest mountain in the world. Even that took multiple tries.
He made it to Everest Base Camp in 2014, just in time for the avalanche that killed 60 Sherpas. He didn’t make the summit. Nor did anyone else.
He fell into a funk that lasted about six months. He finally decided to try again in 2015 and started to train.
He was back in Everest Base Camp, when the first earthquake hit Nepal, killing led thousands of people. He did what Marines do — he helped people, going to Kathmandu to dig people out of rubble and accompanying doctors and others to remote areas to deliver food and medical supplies.
He continued to work out, but more for himself and his family than for anything in particular. Early this year his phone rang and a friend asked, “Hey, it’s 2016, you want to go?”
So he went to Everest. That’s where his peace was waiting.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.