Conquering the climb with Mark Zambon

Marquette native Mark Zambon served six combat tours in the Middle East as a bomb disposal technician.

During his tenure he was involved in five explosions – three within the confines of a vehicle and two on his person. After recovering from the loss of the distal joints on two of his fingers, Zambon signed up for his sixth tour as a way to say thank you to a friend and teammate who died in Iraq in 2007.

It would prove to be a fateful decision.

“I knew they needed experienced team leaders,” Zambon said, “and I was like, ‘This is a way for me to say thank you back to the community that Mike came from, by going back and deploying again, so I took another team up, trained them as a team leader, and hit the ground running in Sangin, Afghanistan, a real dangerous area. We kicked some butt, but halfway through the tour, unfortunately had a bomb detonate under my legs – 10lbs of homemade explosives – took off my legs then and there.”

Quick action by his team saved Zambon’s life, and while his tour may have been over his journey was anything but.

Zambon was approached by Tim Medvetz, leader of the Heroes Project, one summer at Camp Pendleton while watching Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band.

He said, “Tim comes up to me, and I’m in my wheelchair, and he’s a former Hell’s Angel, like 6’5″, as big as a house and eclipsed the sun over my shoulders like, ‘Hey, man, you ever climb any mountains?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, just got back from Telluride, Colorado, we climbed a 60ft rock face.’ He said, ‘No, dude, like a real mountain?’ And I said, ‘Like Kilaminjaro?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, like Killy!'”

He took the weekend to consider the offer before calling Medvetz with his answer.

“The short term suffering of putting up with so much pain, and the cold, and prosthetics – and basically figuring out a new ability that I temporarily had lost, in terms of hiking and walking, after losing my legs – that short term suffering would be far outweighed by the long term benefit of accomplishing a feat that many able-bodied people can’t do.”

Thus, Zambon scaled Mt. Kilaminjaro and buried the dog tags of two fallen friends.

In addition to climbing the mountain Zambon has competed in a couple of triathlons as the swimmer and even got to the point where he was invited to train for the 2016 Summer Paralympics.

“But then in July, on a breaststroke, the bicep tendon in my left shoulder blew out on the swim stroke and I’ve been healing it since,” he said.

While 2016 is on hold, there’s still hope to compete in the 2020 games.

And Zambon’s list of achievements don’t end there: he’s taken up writing, will appear on the new National Geographic show The Raft, he has participated in the Dakar rally race and the list goes on.

With so much behind him, Zambon has advice for those thinking about taking that potentially life changing step.

He said, “Whenever I think there’s a lot of risk involved, and the reward is also equally or greater so, and you see from my story, taking on the risks of such a thing as training for and climbing Africa’s 19,000ft plus Mt. Kilaminjaro, an incredibly risky bit, but the product of that is so many doors open that enable life, and fulfillment, and purpose. Grab it by the bootstraps and go for it, man. You’ve only got one life to live. What do you really have to lose? If you’ve got your dreams in sight, you can idealize your world or where you want to be in it, then go for it.”

With the right drive and inspiration you can take that step, and climb that mountain.