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Climbing Europe’s tallest mountain on prosthetic legs

Chammas, now 32, has no memory of the accident itself, but he does remember being in a “dream realm that felt like hell for an eternity” while lying unconscious in the hospital. 

A few weeks after he was released from the hospital, Chammas connected with The Heroes Project, a non-profit organization that gives wounded veterans the chance to complete life-changing expeditions. On August 10, 2019, Chammas became the project’s first-ever civilian Hero when he summited Mount Elbrus in Russia. At 18,510 feet, it’s Europe’s highest mountain. 

“I knew that if I didn’t have a big aim after my accident, I would be in a very vulnerable position,” he says. “If you are not working towards something, the downward spiral happens very fast.” 

Chammas worked with James Taylor, a Tier 3 trainer at Pasadena in California, for six months to prepare for the climb. “He was pretty deconditioned when he first came in, so we started with high reps and low weights to get his mechanics and movement patterns right,” says Taylor, adding that lower-body moves took priority. 

Furthermore caught up with Chammas ahead of the ninth annual Cycle for Heroes event at Santa Monica Pier to talk about his expedition and what’s next. 

How were you first introduced to The Heroes Project?

One of my childhood friends knew someone who works at the organization. She shared my story with her team and asked if they could help. I was still stuck in bed but knew I wanted to start hiking again; I need to be moving or I get anxious. I was lucky after my accident not to experience any super negative emotional thoughts as I have a good support system of family and friends, but I also didn’t give myself the chance to enter a dark place.

How did you prepare for Mount Elbrus?

I started doing three strength sessions a week with James in February 2019. I’d always get there early to walk on the treadmill and stretch for an hour before and after. We started with a lower-body routine of banded hip exercises and isometric holds like glute bridges and clam shells. We progressed to functional moves like bodyweight squats, suitcase carries, and leg presses. If I were to fall during the expedition, I would need to get up from the ground. Burpees were really important for training that movement pattern. 

Our main upper-body exercises were bench presses, shoulder presses, pull-ups, and dumbbell and TRX rows. The loads increased and peaked right before the trip.

I also swam a mile a day. My pool is freezing, so the cold water was good for recovery. Plus, we did hikes on Mount Baldy in California with Tim [Medvetz, The Heroes’ Project founder] and on San Jacinto Peak in Palm Springs, which has 10,833 feet of elevation gain.

How did all that training change your body? 

Before the accident, I did a lot of hiking and swimming but zero strength training. I noticed a huge difference in muscle mass after working with James. I honestly think I am in better shape now than I was before my accident, both physically and mentally. I feel stronger all around.

What was the expedition like? 

We were in Russia for two weeks. We stayed at a base camp for one week to acclimate to the elevation. We’d climb to a certain height, come back down, then go higher the next day along the same route. I was kicking ass and didn’t think I’d have any issues with the higher elevation. But once we were ready to tackle the summit and we set out at 16,000 feet, it was immediately really tough. 

The trail was narrow, icy, and rough. It was terrifying and I had to lean against the side of the mountain for balance.

Your right leg is amputated above the knee and your left leg, below it.

The uneven amputation makes balance a challenge. Trails are rarely completely flat, so if the path slants down to the left, like it did on the expedition, it’s more difficult. There are a bunch of little things that make a huge difference in terms of hiking technique that I didn’t need to think about before. My prosthetics had to be adjusted constantly, so we needed to adapt to that as well. For support, I used forearm crutches that have different attachments depending on whether you’re in dirt or snow.

Speaking of snow, did the weather hold up? 

It did. The most dangerous thing about Elbrus is that it can get very windy, but we lucked out. There was snow the whole time with a high of ten degrees Celsius [fifty degrees Fahrenheit], but the wind stayed below five miles per hour.

Did you have a low point during the hike?

When we reached the saddle between two summits of Elbrus, where everyone takes a break before the final ascent, I started feeling the effects of the altitude. I felt incredibly tired and weak, had a headache, and began questioning myself, which is rare for me. That was around 17,500 feet and we had another thousand to go. 

How did you break out of that mental state? 

It was only about five minutes until I told myself: ‘You might feel like shit, but you are not going to give up. You might die, but you are not going to give up.' I interrupted my negative thoughts before I could entertain them for too long. Once I started moving again, I felt much better. There were four other people on my team. I saw a bit of concern on their faces, but I trusted them to make the right judgment.

And then you reached the summit. 

Yes. It was great. There were about fifty people there clapping, cheering, and singing. We stayed at the top for about half an hour, then started the descent. The whole summit push took about eighteen hours, eleven to get up, then seven to get down.” 

Did you have any revelations during those eighteen hours?

I learned that with persistence, discipline, and vision, no goal is out of reach.

What’s next for you? 

Originally, we were meant to climb Asia’s highest volcano, Mount Damavand in Iran. We weren’t able to because of the political situation, so there’s talk of attempting it next year. I was a product photographer before my accident and I haven’t been able to work since, but I believe working in this type of philanthropy could be my new career path. In the end, I hope my story can open up doors for other people in similar situations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

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