Survivalist and mountaineer Tim Medvetz has climbed the world’s highest mountains — including Mount Everest — twice. As founder of the Heroes Project, he guides injured war veterans, many of them amputees, to lofty summits that even the able-bodied rarely attempt. But Medvetz’s biggest challenge yet may be dealing with the civilians who are the subjects of the three-part series, “Going Wild,” which premieres on Nat Geo Wild on March 3.
In the episodes, some unlikely candidates embark on a three-day expedition through unforgiving terrain filled with dangerous wildlife: a male workaholic couch potato, a woman who’s lost her self-worth and passion for life, and a couple whose marriage is collapsing under financial and family pressures. Through it all, they complain, cry and want to quit. But Medvetz, a combination coach and tough-love taskmaster, pushes them to face their fears and their problems.
A former Hell’s Angel from New Jersey whose near-fatal motorcycle crash was a wakeup call to turn his own life around, Medvetz is a persuasive motivator, and his wilderness newbies emerge from the journey of self-discovery transformed in some way by his one-man intervention. Here, he tells us how it all came to be.
MNN: How did 'Going Wild' come about?
Tim Medvetz: It wasn’t my idea. I’d been taking wounded veterans to mountains around the world and got an email with a little teaser, a trailer of what the show would be like — not a far stretch from what I'd been doing for the last four years. It was just kind of perfect. There was no auditioning or any of that stuff. It was just like, “This is what I do … I’m the real deal.” That’s how it started.
How were the participants selected?
There was a casting agency, and the family members would write in, “Help my husband.” They go through a rigorous testing before, including medical checks, because I’m putting them into a real-deal situation.
How did you choose the locations?
In the three episodes, I wanted to cover different types of environment, mountaineering, snow glacier, ice, then jungle, and desert. There’s not much jungle in America, aside from Florida and Louisiana, and they didn’t want to go for it, so we ended up doing the Owyhee Valley [in Oregon], which was pretty close.
What were your biggest challenges?
Convincing the people to stay with me in the middle of nowhere at nighttime without a tent and a sleeping bag when the production people went back to the hotel. [The crew] are hiking out about an hour to get to the nearest road and they’re driven back to the hotels, and these people were not. But the only way I would do this was is if I was completely unsupported with no help from the production crew — they’re just following along. But it’s an ordeal [for these people] when the crew is eating Subway sandwiches and we’re drinking water out of the creek.
Were there any scary close calls?
Definitely. With the couple, in the Owyhee Valley in Oregon, it’s one of those canyons where there’s no trail, no footprints, it’s completely off the grid. We must have run into 100 rattlesnakes. We woke up in the morning and I found fresh cougar track maybe 30 feet from where we were sleeping on the canyon floor, completely exposed. He was stalking us in our sleep.
Did you have a medic on standby in case there were injuries?
Yes. In the desert episode, every day it was hitting about 110 degrees, and our medic had to be helicoptered out. Heat exhaustion. Literally just collapsed.
Who’s tougher in these circumstances, men or women? And who’s tougher to deal with?
Men are tougher for sure. The woman was a handful, but in the end she was my favorite because she overcame and endured. And she wasn’t afraid to tell me how she felt about me.
What do you see as your role on the show?
My role is to show them what they’re really capable of. People don’t believe what the human body/spirit is capable of until they’re put in a situation. I’m just the bus driver. I’m taking them to that place and when they’re ready to throw the towel in I’m saying, “Hang in there a little bit longer. You’re capable of this.” Most of us are working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, six days a week with one day off and on that day doing laundry, sitting on the couch, going to the movies. So we never get a taste of Mother Nature. We get so wrapped up in all the technologies and fast food and social media. As a society we’ve really become weak. You don’t realize it until you get off the grid, where your phone doesn’t work and there’s no WiFi, no nothing. It’s just you and Mother Nature.
What do you get out if it?
I get paid to go have fun in the mountains. For me it’s a dream gig because this is what I’d do anyway. I live in Hollywood and love the city life, but every weekend I drive — we’ve got three mountains over 10,000 feet within an hour from Hollywood. I travel about six months out of the year. I was in the Andes in Argentina for the last four weeks and before that, in December, in Ecuador.
Yes. I’m actually getting our next guy ready for Everest. We leave in four weeks. Every weekend for the last four years I’ve spent in the mountains with these wounded veterans. You don’t just go and climb the highest mountain int the world. You have to prepare and train for it.
When and why did you start the Heroes Project?
I started the Heroes Project because when I got off Everest I needed to fill the void of what I do.
What do you do after Everest?
Mountaineering and climbing mountains is an extremely selfish sport. You’re gone for months on end climbing mountains that people die on every year. I wanted to do something that wasn’t so selfish, and do it for someone else. There are worthy causes around the world but we’ve got a lot of problems here in America that need fixing. Let’s fix our own house first before we go and fix the world. So since 2010 we have climbed every highest mountain on six continents with six different amputees. This trip to Everest will complete the Seven Summits. We’ve filmed it all and we’re going to release the footage to Walter Reed hospitals and veterans’ organizations.
Is working with these vets your proudest accomplishment?
Yes. It’s more of an accomplishment when you do something for someone else.
Have you followed up with any of the participants in “Going Wild?”
I received a really beautiful letter from the couple, saying, “These three days have literally saved our marriage and thank you so much.” I spoke to the guy just a couple of weeks ago. Last year he worked on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day and this year he didn’t. He was with his wife and kid. We outfitted all of them with $1000 worth of camping gear and he took his family camping.
What about the woman, Michelle Blackwell?
We have not spoken. I don’t know how she’s doing.
Are you planning to do more episodes? Any locations in mind?
I would like to take the show international. When you throw an international element into it, you’re involving other things like culture and traditions, which have a huge impact. All our climbs with veterans are international. Most of these guys have never left America except to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, and that element is really transformative.
Are there any mountains you haven’t climbed that you want to?
I’ve never been up to the Hollywood sign, if you can believe that.
Any other goals? Do you have a bucket list?
Real simple: I want to buy my mother a house in L.A.
Do you have a family?
No, that’s why I can do the things I do — I don’t have a wife and kids. I’m looking for a girl in L.A. who doesn’t have a headshot.
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