Analy, West Point grad sets sights on Mount Everest
Her parents will tell you that Elyse Ping Medvigy was a delightful baby but a tough one to keep in a crib.
“She’s always been a climber,” said her dad, Gary Medvigy. The Sonoma County judge and U.S. Army Reserve major general likes to relive the rigorous hike up Yosemite’s Half Dome that he took with his nimble daughter when she was 8.
Today, the 26-year-old Ping Medvigy, a 2007 graduate of Sebastopol’s Analy High and 2012 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, trains to ascend Mount Everest. If she and the team of four succeed, the expedition planned for spring of 2016 will achieve several firsts.
It would be the first-ever cresting of the Earth’s tallest mountain by active-duty soldiers and the first by a combat amputee.
On the ascent team is retired Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes, who wears a prosthesis since he lost his right leg below the knee to a roadside bomb in northern Iraq nine years ago.
“He’s a very experienced climber,” said Ping Medvigy, an Army first lieutenant currently assigned to Fort Carson in Colorado. “He’s in phenomenal shape; he has no trouble keeping up.”
Also on the team are army officers and West Point graduates Harold Earls and Matt Hickey. Journalist Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm” and director of the acclaimed combat documentaries “Restrepo” and “Korengal,” will chronicle the climb on film.
Ping Medvigy, who grew up in Sebastopol, views the adventure as an opportunity to move her climbing to the next level, to improve awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and raise money for wounded and potentially suicidal veterans.
The documentary by Junger is likely to focus much on Jukes, who also suffered brain damage in the blast near Tikrit and has struggled with PTSD.
“He wants to prove he’s overcoming it,” said Ping Medvigy, who met Jukes and fellow climbers Earls and Hickey for the first time when they trained on Mount Rainier in August. She left Washington state with a sense that all three men are climbers she can rely on.
“When you’re roped up, your life is literally in your teammates’ hands,” she said.
Her own record includes ascents of Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Russian’s Mount Elbrus, at 18,510 feet the tallest mountain in Europe. Left to her own devices, she would be setting her sights next on the Himalayas’ 26,906-foot Cho Oyu.
“Everest wasn’t my first choice, I’ll be honest,” she said. “It’s very commercialized, it’s very expensive.”
But when she heard about the planned ascent by Army officers and veteran Jukes, she contacted leader Earls to ask if there was anything she could do to help. They spoke about her climbing experience and Earls invited her to join the team.
“This is the only opportunity I’ll get in a while to climb the Himalayas,” she said.
While the Army is supportive of the attempt, it is not sponsoring or underwriting it. The climb is being organized by the nonprofit U.S. Expeditions and Explorations, or USX.
Earls and Hickey founded USX to create “audacious, challenging and groundbreaking expeditions” for veterans and active military personnel, and to involve vets in research that could improve their lives and those of others.
USX has created a crowdfunding appeal at classy.org/events/2016-usx-veteran-everest-expedition/e57295. It seeks to raise more than $107,000 for the Everest climb and vows to donate any surplus funds to efforts to aid wounded vets and protect them from suicide.
For the Sonoma County parents of Ping Medvigy, her involvement on the team is a source of both pride and trepidation.
Retired attorney Christine Ping is a hiker who has delved a bit into climbing, cresting Kilimanjaro and trekking to a base camp on Everest. At the latter, she said, “We passed an awful lot of memorials to climbers who didn’t make it.”
Especially in the wake of recent tragedies on Everest, Ping is naturally concerned about her daughter. But, she said, “She loves climbing and she does very well at it.”
“She’s always been this way,” the conflicted mom said. “There is no keeping her down.”
The Everest climb amounts to just the latest of many steep challenges taken on by Ping Medvigy. She did well at West Point and last year saw combat in Afghanistan. She was told she was the first woman to serve on the battlefield as a fire support officer responsible for calling in artillery or aerial firepower.
“It was probably my favorite job I’ve had so far in the Army,” she said. Her military experiences and those of her father played a role in inspiring her 20-year-old sister, Riley, to win an appointment to West Point, where she’s currently in her third year.
Ping Medvigy’s current assignment in Colorado is fortuitous because the Rockies are in her backyard for training for the attempt on Everest. She said she’s always happy when she’s climbing high up.
“It’s just you and the mountain,” she said. “I find it very tranquil.”
Tranquility, she knows, is not an attribute often associated with Everest. The climbing Army officer said she’s well aware that though she and her team will work hard, prepare and plan, they cannot control the conditions that may come to exist between them and the summit at 29,029 feet.
“We show up well trained,” she said. “We do the best we can.”
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and email@example.com. On Twitter?@CJSPD.