Moving Mountains – Times Publications, August 2009
Crammed into a tent, just 1,500 feet from the summit of the world’s highest peak, Tom Whittaker and his climbing team wait for the skies to clear to complete their arduous expedition to the top of the world.
By now, the three mountaineers and two Sherpa climbers have already spent more than a month at or above 21,000 feet on the northeast ridge of Mount Everest, and the extreme conditions are taking their toll.
The mountaineers have grown weak from a lack of oxygen and long hours climbing. Whittaker, 47, has shed more than 35 pounds since the trip began, leaving him gaunt, his eyes sunken. For five days and nights, he has anxiously monitored the weather for signs of improvement. With each passing day, he dies a little.
For Whittaker, an amputee who lost his right foot in a car accident, the expedition is not only an incredible challenge, it is potentially historic. This is his second attempt in seven years to become the first disabled man to reach Everest’s summit.
At around midnight, the snow settles and the mountaineers strap on their oxygen tanks and climbing gear to begin the risky ascent to 29,035 feet.
Their headlamps scan the darkness for a way through the strata of limestone that presents a series of steep, slick ramps up the mountain.
But as Whittaker attempts to dig his spiked prosthetic into the icy rock, for the first time in the expedition he begins to struggle. His artificial foot slips against the slippery limestone, the exertion rubbing the end of his amputated leg raw.
After three difficult hours, he comes to the realization that he is holding back his team and jeopardizing the lives of his climbing partners, including his old friend Greg Child. As he scrambles in the darkness, his thoughts are of his life back in Arizona – his wife and two daughters, his career as an educator, and everything he could lose if he continues to climb.
“I was 1,500 feet from the summit of Mount Everest and a world away,” Whittaker recalls. “I was moving too slowly, and I realized that if I went on I would reach the summit late in the day and may never make it back. At that stage, I had to make a decision. I was going to give up the summit, but I was going to live.”
Whittaker clips himself out from the tattered rope that attaches him to Child and the other climbers and tells them to continue on without him. The Sherpas accompany Child to the top of the peak, while Whittaker heads down the mountain, consumed by the bitter disappointment.
A few days later, at base camp, the two friends are reunited.
Inside Whittaker’s tent, Child shakes him affectionately by the shoulder. “You should have never made it as far as you did, but against all odds you did it,” Child tells him. “If you want this thing bad enough, I really believe you can do it.”
Then, Child gives him a gift.
“Whittaker,” he says as he drops a small piece of rock into his hand. “I picked this up on the summit. I want you to put this back where I got it.”
Tom Whittaker’s inspiring journey to complete that challenge and reach the summit of Mount Everest would take several more years and an unwavering determination to become the first amputee to stand on top of the world.
A lifelong outdoorsman who spent his life climbing, kayaking, skiing and sailing, Tom Whittaker’s life appeared to hit rock bottom on Thanksgiving Day 1979.
Shortly after completing his master’s degree at Idaho State University, he was hit by a drunk driver who swerved into his lane and collided head-on with the car he was driving.
For five days in the hospital, Whittaker fought for his life.
He had suffered multiple fractures in both legs. Severe injuries to both of his feet and knees resulted in the removal of one of his kneecaps and the amputation of his right foot.
“I was lying like a broken bag of bones in my hospital bed,” Whittaker says. “My friends would sit at my bedside and weep.”
Although Whittaker’s body was broken, his adventuring spirit was not. He vowed to climb again and set his sights on a steep, 150-foot extreme rock climb known as the Outer Limits in Yosemite Valley, California.
“I would tell these guys I was going to go back within two years and do this climb,” he says. “They would just get all embarrassed and change the subject. It was obvious in their minds that I was not only physically messed up but I was also delusional.”
Undeterred, Whittaker painstakingly put his life back together. Through intense physical rehabilitation, he not only learned to walk with a prosthetic foot, but he learned to climb.
Two years later, as promised, he found himself standing at the base of the Outer Limits. But as he tied the rope to his harness, Whittaker realized he was terrified.
“Fear was parallelizing my arms and my legs,” he says. “But as I started the climb, I began to get into my rhythm, and I felt it come together. Finally, I reached the ledge and clipped myself off.”
Looking down from the top of the climb he was suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of empowerment.
“I realized it was defiance. Nobody was ever, ever, ever going to tell me what I’m capable of doing,” he says. “That was the first step. By summiting the Outer Limits, I proved to myself that I could dream as big as I dared to dream, and Everest is the biggest dare a mountaineer can dream.”
Less than a decade later, Whittaker would do battle with Everest for the first time.
THE FIRST CLIMB
It is the spring of 1989, and raging storms are thrashing through the Himalayas. This climbing season, seven people have already perished on Everest, and the mountain still holds several lives in its icy grasp.
Trapped in a glacial basin at 21,500 feet, Whittaker, his climbing partner, Andy Lapkiss, and their Sherpas fight for their lives.
Fierce blizzard winds tear through their camp, as the heavy snow buries their tents. The mountaineers periodically take turns shoveling themselves from the rising snow to avoid suffocating inside their tents.
Food and supplies are dwindling, and conditions are becoming deadly.
As the batteries die on their radios, the mountaineers hear fading, desperate cries for help from the climbers on other expeditions. Five Polish mountaineers have died in an avalanche, and another, badly injured, lays marooned with his dead teammates.
“We were hearing people dying, basically, on the mountain,” Whittaker recalls. “There was nothing we could do about it; we were fighting for our lives where we were. There was no way we could help.”
After five nights trapped in the glacial basin, the snow and wind temporarily subsides.
In the pitch dark, with improvised snowshoes cut from plastic packing cases, they make a desperate bid to escape the mountain’s wrath.
For the next eight hours, in the Arctic cold of a Himalayan night, the mountaineers wade through the waist-high snow. Beneath their feet, camouflaged by snow, yawning chasms of ice crisscross their path.
“We were trudging through desperate conditions, from mid-thigh to waist-deep of snow,” Whittaker says.
At mid-day, staggering with exhaustion, they arrive at what had been their lower camp, only now it has vanished without a trace. The storm has deposited ten feet of snow on the mountain’s floor; four feet below the soles of their boots lay the tops of their tents.
In deteriorating weather conditions, they have no option but to continue down the mountain. As they march through the snow, the minutes crawl like hours. Whittaker’s prosthesis designed for ascending rock and ice is small and sinks deeper into the packed snow. The pain has become excruciating.
Headlamps search the darkness, reflecting off the glistening snow that over the years has entombed the bodies of dozens of perished mountaineers along the trail, a grim reminder of the mountain’s allure and lethal dangers.
Finally, through the darkness, Whittaker sees a pinprick of wavering light.
Several Sherpas from their base camp have risked their lives in an attempt to find them.
Reunited with their base team, together they head back down the trail. At 9 p.m., after 16 tortuous hours, the weary mountaineers reach base camp.
The teammates have barely escaped with their lives, and Whittaker has been profoundly changed by the experience.
“What I realized is that I’m a mountaineer who happened to be disabled; I wasn’t a disabled person who was trying to climb the mountain,” he says. “I came back from Everest that first time, knowing I could climb the mountain.”
After nearly losing his life on Mount Everest in 1989, Whittaker tried to forget his goal of standing on top of the world’s tallest summit. He embarked on a doctoral studies degree, started a family and became a professor in Adventure Education at Prescott College. Still, he says, he couldn’t shake the desire to finish what he had started.
“I tried to basically give it up,” Whittaker says. “But I found myself up in Prescott on a September evening lying back in a hammock, looking up at the stars, dreaming about going back to Everest.”
Whittaker’s second, unsuccessful summit bid in 1995 only made him more determined to try again. For three years, Whittaker carried the piece of rock his friend had brought back from Everest’s summit. It was time to put it back.
For his final Everest expedition, Whittaker served as team leader, raising the $350,000 in necessary funds and assembling a team of experienced mountaineers, including two of his colleagues from Prescott College, Angela Hawse and Gareth Richards, along with two cameramen who would document the feat.
“The thing that I was most proud about was that I was the leader of the expedition,” Whittaker says. “I climbed the mountain on exactly the same terms of any able-bodied mountaineer there. I did it on my own abilities.”
AGAINST ALL ODDS
As Whittaker traverses the slopes of Mount Everest for a third time, he is optimistic about reaching its summit.
The ominous clouds that have formed overhead have passed, and despite contracting severe bronchitis just three days prior to his departure, Whittaker is moving swiftly up the mountain.
Although Hawse and Richards left a few days ahead of him, at his current pace Whittaker is likely to catch up with them at their high camp soon.
After three long, difficult days of climbing as he approaches the top of the south summit, he notices what looks like a headlamp tumbling down the mountain in the darkness. As he nears, he sees a glimmer of light shining from the side of the mountain.
A mountaineer from another expedition has fallen from the slopes and landed in a crevasse, narrowly avoiding a vertical mile drop off the face of the mountain. Aside from a few broken ribs, the man is alive but shaken and in shock. Whittaker and his Sherpa spend an hour rescuing him.
For Whittaker, the experience is jarring.
“It derailed me,” he says. “I had been standing around in the Himalayan night for a long, long time getting this person back to where he needed to go. I was fatigued. I now realized I was not mountaineering in a decisive way.”
He is unable to go any further. The lack of oxygen is taking its toll, and his lungs are filling with fluid. The doctors think Whittaker is suffering from pulmonary edema, which could kill him within hours.
“I told these guys that I couldn’t go on and that I had to go back,” Whittaker recalls. “My Sherpa looked at me like I was crazy. Again at 27,000 feet, I turn around from Everest and head back down.”
Dispirited, the mountaineers head back to base camp together. Once there, Whittaker recovers and pleads with his Sherpas for one more chance; they agree to support his summit bid once more. The next morning, Whittaker and the Sherpas head back up the slopes.
Seven days later, they reach the high camp. As the sun sets, they move into the death zone. At this point, each breath is laborious, each step excruciatingly difficult. Twice Whittaker loses the crampon on his prosthetic foot.
Nine hours later, after scaling a 30-foot wall of sheer rock, Whittaker achieves what many in the climbing world claimed was impossible. Against overwhelming odds, after three failed attempts and a decade of planning, Whittaker hoists himself onto the summit of Mount Everest.
Bundled in his red coat, an exhausted Whittaker slinks down, removes his oxygen mask and quietly utters, “Who’d have thought it.”
“Who’d have thought that a guy, ten days before he turned 50, can all but climb Everest twice in the same amount of time as an able-bodied person could climb it once,” Whittaker says. “It was incredible.”
Whittaker takes the rock his friend had given him three long years before and tosses it on the peak.
“Greg, this is for you,” Whittaker says, his voice breaking with emotion. “I took care of business.”
LIFE AFTER EVEREST
Today Whittaker is a motivational corporate speaker who strives to empower others to conquer their own personal mountains.
He continues to climb and has established several groups dedicated to changing the way the world views people with disabilities, for which he was honored for by Queen Elizabeth II at a royal inauguration.
Most recently, he co-created the Call to Duty Foundation, a group to help transition war veterans suffering from combat related trauma back to the society they fought to protect.
Whittaker says he often reflects on his expeditions to Everest. But it isn’t the mountain that he misses; instead, it’s the people he met along the way that he says he truly cherishes.
“I don’t have any unfinished business on Everest. The gladiatorial contests against these inert objects are less important to me than the places these mountains sustain,” he says with tears in his eyes. “These are not on the mountain; these are in the villages around the mountain. That’s where it all is. That is the part of this story that I love.”
For information on the Call to Duty Foundation or Tom Whittaker’s other charity organizations and speaking engagements: