The snows of Kilimanjaro seem more of a fading memory than a visual icon these days, adding to the debate over climate change. Only a few patches appear on the most recent Google satellite image.
No matter. Immortalized by author Ernest Hemingway in a short story that became a classic movie, it still moves men and women to conquer the 19,341-foot mountain in the African nation of Tanzania.
Julian Torres, a 27-year-old retired Marine sergeant who grew up in Modesto, intends to master Kilimanjaro. Beginning his ascent Nov. 3, he expects to reach the summit Nov. 11 which, fittingly, is Veterans Day. And he’ll do so in a way that no doubt would have impressed “Papa” Hemingway himself.
Torres will climb Kilimanjaro on his prosthetic legs, his effort made possible by a nonprofit called The Heroes Project. Based in Los Angeles, it’s a nonprofit that trains veterans to reach new heights in life after suffering physically and emotionally devastating injuries.
I wrote about Torres in September 2010. In a matter of less than two months, he’d experienced the horrors of war, the exhilaration of 40,000 applauding fans and then the sadness of a friend and comrade’s funeral.
In July 2010, an improvised explosive device blew off both of his legs at the knees following a four-hour firefight against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. About 40 days after the explosion, he threw out a ceremonial first pitch strike from the seat of his wheelchair at a Washington Nationals baseball game in D.C. A few days after that, he went to Arlington National Cemetery to bid goodbye to one of his Marine buddies who had survived the bomb blast only to be killed in another firefight a few weeks later.
Torres then flew to San Diego to begin his rehab, learning to walk on prosthetic legs and dealing with everything that encompasses being a husband and father of two children while adjusting to life without his own legs. It has been a most difficult journey, as you’d expect. A couple of times since my 2010 column, I’ve chatted with Julian, who graduated from Johansen High in 2006. He respectfully declined to be interviewed for a follow-up column because he simply wasn’t ready. Understood. Everyone moves at his or her own pace. He spent a year learning to walk on prosthetic legs, trying out different types with different knee and ankle joints.
“I’m still learning,” he said Monday.
He’s still shy when it comes to talking about himself and his progress. At the same time, he’s thrilled that The Heroes Project in June began training him for the Kilimanjaro climb.
“I heard about (Heroes) from a buddy who’d climbed Kilimanjaro,” Torres said. Mark Zambon, also a double amputee, made the climb in August 2012 and is now an ambassador for the nonprofit. “I went to Mark and I said, ‘I know what it did for you, and I need something like it in my life.’ ”
Every day, a different hill with a different purpose: speed, endurance, steepness, altitude – you name it. But mostly, it’s about achieving more than what he did the day before. It’s about looking up at a 19,341-foot mountain and being totally determined to tame it. And it’s about all of the above – and going way up above – on the prosthetics that are now his legs.
Tim Medvetz, The Heroes Project’s founder, president and expedition leader, is among those training with Torres. The nonprofit has taken wounded veterans to the highest peak on every continent, Everest, Denali and Aconcagua (in Argentina) among them. Those climbs are difficult enough for those with their own legs. Doing so on prosthetic legs requires plenty of resolve and conditioning.
“He’s lost 35 pounds in the past 15 weeks, which is a lot when you don’t have legs,” Medvetz said. “He’s looking great.”
A crew will go along to capture the event in still photos and videos, posting them on social media.
The climb – in training, strategy and the end game – indeed has made an impact on Torres.
“It’s about defying our limitations,” he said. “I’ve just been so focused on one goal.”
That, being the very top of Mount Kilimanjaro, snow or no snow.
“Ernest Hemingway’s attitude was just like Julian’s,” father Ruben Torres said. “Live life to the fullest.”