On Everest, with Fewer Socks

Outside magazine, May 1995

On Everest, with Fewer Socks
By Paul Kvinta

When and if Tom Whittaker reaches 27,000 feet on his Everest expedition this month, he won't be worrying about oxygen supply. "I'll be too busy trying to keep my stump healthy," he says. Whittaker, 43, lost his right foot in a 1979 auto accident. Hence the stump--and the reality that his push to become the first amputee to summit Everest rests largely on its reaction to extreme altitude. "Nobody's sure what'll happen in reduced gravity," says Whittaker. "Will my leg swell? I don't know."

Whittaker, who has summited Mount McKinley, climbs with the help of a spatula-shaped prosthesis called the Flex Foot, to which he attaches a crampon. But he has to remove the device while he sleeps, in order to let the skin on his leg breathe; if his stump swells overnight on Everest, he may not be able to reattach his foot in the morning. "If your crampon breaks, you're screwed," he says. "But if you wake up and can't put your foot back on, you're really screwed."

Whittaker and partner Greg Child will be taking on the notoriously cold and windy North Ridge. If he summits, he hopes that his accomplishment will be noticed. "This will change people's take on disability," he says. Meanwhile, his wife, Cindy, sees the missing foot as a plus when he ventures into the frostbite zone: "He only has five toes to worry about."

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