The Heroes Project: Corporal Carlos Torres

He finds peace and quiet atop the world’s tallest peaks.

When Corporal Carlos Torres was 21 years old, he deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines. While on tour, he stepped on an IED, losing both of his legs. That was in 2011.

He hasn’t let being a double amputee hold him back. In March of this year, Torres cycled across the Andes before setting out to climb the highest active volcano in the world, the 22,600-foot Ojos del Salado (or Eyes of Salt, after the large eye-shaped salt lagoons on the mountain's slopes) on the Argentina-Chile border. To prepare, he worked with Josh Meltzer, personal training manager at Equinox La Costa in Carlsbad, California. “I trained him like an able-bodied individual,” Meltzer says.

The trek was arranged by The Heroes Project, an organization that gives wounded veterans the chance to complete life-changing expeditions. It also hosts the annual Cycle for Heroes event, now in its eighth year, which will take over the Santa Monica Pier on November 10.

Furthermore caught up with Torres ahead of the event to talk about his attempt to summit the world’s tallest volcano, what The Heroes Project means to him, and what's next.

What was the hardest part of recovering after Afghanistan?

The biggest thing was leaving my wheelchair and getting used to the prosthetics. It took me a month to learn how to maintain my balance and feel confident in them. I was also on lots of pain medication and decided to stop taking them because I found myself getting addicted.

Why was it so important to you to stay active?

I was able to do things like hand cycling, surfing, skiing, and wheelchair basketball. Whenever I stopped I would just sit on the couch being depressed. Sports and recreational activities are great for the mind.

How did you train for the hike up Ojos del Salado?

I climbed Mount Baldy in California, a five- or six-mile hike up to 4,192 feet, every Saturday with my guide, Chris Simpson. Sometimes we would do overnight trips or go to San Jacinto Peak in Palm Springs, which has 10,833 feet of elevation gain. About two months before the hike, I started cycling with Tim Medvetz [the founder of The Heroes Project] and strength training with Meltzer. In a typical session, we’d do 4 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps of these moves: hex bar deadlifts, loaded squats, and hollow body holds to supermans. For stability, we’d do rows, chops, and curls to overhead presses from a half-kneeling position.

Break down the expedition for us.

We flew into Mendoza, Argentina. In the first section we biked across the Andes into Chile, then along the coast and the Atacama Desert. It took us about three weeks to cover 1,000 miles. We camped out while we rode and a truck followed us with gear. I rode a Trek 920 terrain bike but added mountain bike pedals with spikes to help me maintain my foot position. Then we rested for a few days at a hotel before taking a truck to the base of the volcano. Once you hit 10,000 feet, there are cabins where you can take shelter. We gradually moved up from there to acclimatize to the elevation. We’d do a two-hour hike, stay at altitude for 30 minutes, then return to the cabins. On the first day, we reached 18,000 feet, which was the highest I’d ever been. We ultimately got up to 20,000 feet after an eight-hour trek before having to abort the climb and turn around because of the snow. Our local guide didn’t recommend for us to keep going. It would have been dark by the time we reached the summit and the weather could have turned at any moment.

What was more draining, the bike across the Andes or the hike up the volcano?

They both had their challenges. Biking, it was saddle time, because we’d start at 6 a.m. and keep going until 6 p.m., riding 50 to 75 miles a day. The Andes were peaceful and scenic but the Chilean coast was hilly, which was a surprise. The hardest part about the hike was altitude. It sucked the wind out of me. I got severe headaches, lost my appetite, and couldn’t sleep. I was slow-moving the whole time. In the first attempt, I started at a quick pace but I only lasted 30 minutes before I had to stop, get water, and lower my heart rate. After that, I slowed my pace and shortened my stride. The other issue was my prosthetics, because I felt like I was dragging extra weight on my feet the whole time, which was pretty miserable.

Why are The Heroes Project and its expeditions so essential for veterans?

It has changed my life. Before, I was always go, go, go. Now I have a different perspective and I make sure I enjoy what I’m doing. A lot of vets who have been involved in The Heroes Project have benefited from going out and experiencing the peace and quiet of whatever mountain it is we’re trying to climb. When coming back from the injuries we’ve sustained, I feel it’s something that we all need. We’re surrounded by the support of hospital staff, friends, and family but we never get that time to ourselves to take everything in and think about what happened to us.

What’s next for you?

I just finished my GEDs and now I want to get an economics degree. I’ve also been doing landscape work and found that I love working with plants. I’ve thought about farming and beekeeping, too. If I get my degree, I’ll be the first in my family to do so. That’s pushing me forward.

Would you ever do another Ojos del Salado-level climb?

I would say no, but I also said no to this climb initially, so who knows? The whole time going up Ojos, I thought, “I'm done. There’s no way I could do this again.” Once I got back down and had a warm shower and a great meal, I thought it wasn’t so bad and maybe I could do it again.