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Aiming High Despite Life's Lows

Making It

When outdoorsman Tom Whittaker lost a foot--and his livelihood--he didn't change his goals, just his plans on how to reach them.

October 08, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1998, Tom Whittaker braved a climb to Mt. Everest's 29,000-foot summit because people said he couldn't. He was 50 years old at the time and had a prosthetic foot.

"For me, Everest represented overcoming tremendous odds to achieving a dream," Whittaker said. "I realized my dreams had been sequential. Each had led to a more lofty goal. They led me to Everest."

Two decades before, on an Idaho highway, a distracted motorist had struck Whittaker's Volkswagen van head on, crushing both his feet and shattering his right knee.

At the time, Whittaker was a successful outdoorsman. He had emigrated from Britain to the United States to make adventure sports and education his full-time career. He had scaled Mt. McKinley and El Capitan, kayaked the Grand Canyon's white waters and climbed frozen waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies. There was so much more he wanted to do. He pleaded with surgeons not to amputate his feet.

But though the surgeons were able to save Whittaker's left foot, they told him that his right foot and kneecap were shattered beyond repair. They removed his patella. They amputated his foot. Whittaker was crestfallen.

"I lost my foot, my life savings and my means of making a living," Whittaker said. "Now I had to reinvent myself and come up with a new plan. I didn't come to the United States to live a small life. I came to do something big."

Whittaker moved into an abandoned apartment building and took the first job offered him. It was at a shoe store. Unable to afford a prosthetic, Whittaker crafted one from a cigar box and lashed it to his leg with an elastic bandage.

What hurt him most was his fellow outdoorsmen's reaction to his amputation. "They were devastated that this happened to me," he said. "But when I'd say, 'Hey, don't worry, I'm going to climb Yosemite Valley's 'Outer Limits,' it really embarrassed them. They'd shuffle about and lose eye contact. They believed I was in a delusional state."

Gradually, Whittaker returned to his outdoor activities. He kayaked down the Snake River in Idaho, crutches tucked in his boat. When he finally could afford a high-quality prosthesis, he resumed his backpacking, orienteering and spelunking activities. He also completed a master's degree in athletic administration and founded the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group to offer disabled individuals a chance to experience challenging outdoor activities.

When he felt ready, he traveled to Yosemite Valley to attempt the "Outer Limits," a formidable climbing zone near Highway 140 and the Merced River. His colleagues thought the idea preposterous.

"It was the most terrifying thing I had done in my adult life," Whittaker said. "Because as I stood at the foot of it, I realized, 'Here was the physical manifestation of all my hopes and dreams.' "

He made it to the top. Perhaps it was Whittaker's early brushes with skepticism that forged his steely "can-do" attitude. As a child, he was dyslexic and functionally illiterate, he said. His teachers beat him. His future looked grim.

"I couldn't pass any entrance exams to get into a decent school," Whittaker said. "I left the British education system as a ditch digger."

While working construction jobs during the day, he took evening classes, coached sports and built up his rugby skills. Eventually, his athletic talents gained him acceptance to the University of London, where he majored in physical education.

In 1976, he relocated to the United States to establish himself as a top-class outdoorsman. Though his 1979 auto accident sidelined him, it did not stop him. Nor did it prevent him from accepting a friend's challenge, 10 years later, to become the first amputee to reach Mt. Everest's summit.

"Once she'd suggested it, I couldn't think of anything else," said Whittaker, who now lives in Prescott, Ariz.

In the last 100 years, more than 150 climbers have died on Mt. Everest's slopes. Countless others have been repelled by the mountain's 100-mph winds, violent storms, wind-chill temperatures that reach 140 below zero, and oxygen-thin air.

Whittaker would have physical concerns as well: Without his kneecap, he had about 50% muscle function in his right leg, he said. And if his stump were to swell during the ascent and he was unable to reattach his prosthesis, there was a chance he might not make it down the mountain alive.

*

In 1989, Whittaker made his first Everest attempt. He reached 21,500 feet before turning back during a storm that took the lives of five people on other expeditions. In 1995, he attempted the climb again, coming to within 1,500 feet of the summit before wild storms buried his team's tents under 4 feet of snow and forced his retreat.

Whittaker vowed a final rematch with the mountain. This time, rather than be a team member, he aspired to lead an expedition. It would cost an estimated $300,000 for such an undertaking. Whittaker approached potential corporate sponsors. Again and again, he was rebuffed.

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