Tom Whittaker, amputee mountaineer, sets his sights on the roof of the world
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Dispatches, May 1998
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
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
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
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
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