Tom Whittaker, amputee mountaineer, sets his sights on the roof of the world

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, May 1998

Everest, the Really Hard Way
Tom Whittaker, amputee mountaineer, sets his sights on the roof of the world
By Jonathan Hanson

You can talk to Tom Whittaker for hours and not once will he refer to himself as "walking-impaired," "mobility-challenged," or even "differently abled." A professor of adventure education at Arizona's Prescott College who lost his right foot and kneecap in 1979 when a drunk driver slammed into his car, Whittaker has little patience for politically correct euphemisms — and even less for the idea that the handicapped should be coddled.

Whittaker, 49, was an accomplished mountaineer before his accident (he summited Mount McKinley and has several first ascents to his credit on both rock and ice). Since then little has changed, except that his sock budget has been halved. This month, accompanied by five other climbers — two of them Everest veterans — Whittaker plans to make the first ascent of the world's highest peak by a disabled climber. Can he do it? He nearly has already. In 1995, he accompanied Australian mountaineer Greg Child and three others to 27,500 feet on the difficult North Ridge, in the process becoming the first amputee to exceed 8,000 meters. But he was forced to turn around when it became clear that his slow pace over the rocky route wouldn't get him back to the high camp by dark. He still carries a piece of summit rock brought down by Child, who told him, "Tom, I want you to put this back for me."

This time Whittaker will attempt the South Col, hoping that its greater cover of snow and ice will offer smoother going for his prosthesis, a carbon-fiber design weighing only 2.5 pounds, half the weight of the previous version. Even with that added boost, however, he will have to overcome a 50 percent loss of muscle function in his right leg. Moreover, he will continue to suffer from the circulation impairments common to all amputees — a problem that tends to be greatly exacerbated by extremes of cold and elevation.

In light of this, and considering the 20 deaths on Everest over the last two years, a dispassionate observer might ask whether Tom Whittaker really belongs on the mountain. Does his disability effectively place him in the same class as the paying clients whose inability to handle conditions led to tragic results in 1996? And is it possible that Whittaker could be irresponsibly burdening his companions? Child, among the world's most respected high-altitude climbers, thinks not. "Tom's a climber and always has been — he just happens to have lost a foot," he explains. "That hasn't reduced his skill or experience. His decision to turn around in '95 was very difficult, but it proved his determination not to endanger his companions."

Whittaker's resolve to climb without an inappropriate fixation on the summit may stem, at least in part, from his unique motivation. He says his real goal has less to do with standing atop Everest than with transforming the way people think about physical disabilities. To aid him in this effort, the expedition's progress will be chronicled on an interactive Web site by means of daily satellite logs, with links to more than 100,000 schoolchildren in grades four through 12. Whittaker hopes that following his efforts will encourage these kids to view disabilities — his own and others' — as "just another example of diversity, like gender or race. Most adults distance themselves from the handicapped, but we can use the kids' natural curiosity to foster a more healthy acceptance, instead of just sweeping us under the rug of society."

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