Tom Whittaker

see also
Jim Wickwire
IMAX Everest
Ed Viesturs
How high is Everest?
Everest '98


Overcoming Everest
Disabled Climber Tom Whittaker Reflects

Whittaker on the South Col of Everest, 1989
© Jeff Rhoads
Hercules didn't have anything — except perhaps a second foot — on Tom Whittaker, the first amputee in history to climb Mount Everest.

For sure, the two men had a similar approach to strength training. Hercules carried a calf on his back and as it grew into a full-sized cow, the mythical Greek became bigger and stronger. Tom Whittaker hauled his daughter Lizzie around in a pack on his back.

Before his first attempt on Everest in 1995, the three-year-old toddler weighed a scant 25 pounds, but by the time Whittaker left for his most recent and successful try in May 1998, Lizzie was a more grown up six year old and weighed twice as much. Most mornings, he and Lizzie headed out for a training session on Little Granite Mountain, one of the steepest peaks near the Whittaker home in Prescott, Arizona. As Lizzie grew, so did Whittaker's strength, stamina and determination to conquer the highest mountain on the planet.

"For me as a disabled person, climbing Mt. Everest was hugely more of a challenge and more important to me than it would have been if I was able bodied..."

Whittaker's commitment to climb doesn't differ much from that of other climbers getting ready to take on one of life's biggest challenges. He trained on treadmills and used free-weights in the gym to build strength and cardiovascular endurance, he tried to maximize his nutritional gains and supplemented his diet in preparation for the muscle mass he was sure to shed while acclimatizing and climbing in the world's thinnest air.

He knew how to do it because he'd been there before. A life-long climber, Whittaker has to his credit first ascents from the Yukon territory to Mexico. One might say it's all pretty typical stuff for other experienced climbers, except Tom Whittaker was heading off to the Himalaya with only one of his God-given feet. An auto accident cost Whittaker his right foot and lower leg bone several years ago.

Whittaker climbing
© Jeff Rhoads
But both his career and his avocation is tied to mountains. Whittaker teaches the next generation of professional mountaineers and guides as an instructor at Prescott College, but he serves as an inspiration for people worldwide who are in some way physically disabled.

"First and foremost, I'm a mountaineer," he says. "Secondly, I'm disabled."

Everyone who climbs Everest is motivated by a host of reasons, not the least of which is to exorcise some kind of mountaineering demon from their lives. When Tom Whittaker stepped atop Chomolungma on May 27th, 1998 he unloaded his burden, and that of many others, when he collapsed in a heap just below the summit cone. "I did it for everyone who wanted me to do it and for everyone who didn't want me to do it," he said. "For me as a disabled person, climbing Mt. Everest was hugely more of a challenge and more important to me than it would have been if I was able bodied."

"Why is it not irresponsible for a Caucasian to do something like this or for a male to do something like this or for a woman to do something like this?..."
Whittaker says some people claim it's irresponsible for a disabled person to even attempt something as grueling as an ascent of the world's highest mountain. Whittaker disagrees. "Why is it not irresponsible for a Caucasian to do something like this or for a male to do something like this or for a woman to do something like this? Why does it have to be especially irresponsible for a disabled person? There's a mindset in society that society should take responsibility for disabled people. Well, if you take responsibility for things, it's like you treat them like a child or like a pet and you tell them to sit and stay and you go and actualize your life and you take responsibility by limiting the options of that person." Whittaker's dream was not quashed, despite having only one foot.

Whittaker's prosthesis is a fairly simple assembly of metal and hard plastic, built in such a way that he has the ability to "flex" the rubber-bottomed metal plate that acts as the foot. Whittaker says his $3800 appendage, designed by California-based Flex-Foot, is fitted with a special crampon. It acts like a kitchen spatula that springs back and flexes when the cook puts pressure on the handle. He walks with barely a limp, and says the device actually gives him an edge over other climbers on steep ice inclines because he's able to get a more solid purchase without calf and ankle fatigue.

Khumbu Icefall:
nine ladders tied together
click to zoom
© Todd Burleson
Descending on loose snow, shale or ice is much more difficult with the prosthesis than it would be for a two-footed climber, though, which made for tense times moving through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall near Everest base camp. Just as with most Everest expeditions, Whittaker's success was uncertain until he actually stepped up onto the summit. Illness and bad weather had forced him away from the summit twice. He fought off an intestinal bug, and raced against an impending tropical storm that blew clear of the Himalaya at the last minute.

On another occasion, he and some Sherpa abandoned their climb to help a doctor from another expedition who had fallen into a shallow crevasse and was left by his teammates, whose judgement had become impaired, he said, by summit fever.

"There are so many dreams, there are so many aspirations and there’s so much money tied up in it," he said. If the doctor hadn’t gotten caught up the crevasse, Whittaker says, "he’d have gone a full vertical mile. And his teammates did not come to his assistance. They basically kept on climbing, and myself and three Sherpa went to his assistance and got him sorted out and shortroped him back onto moderate terrain. When we were quite sure he could get back under his own power to his own tent, we let him be." [click for rebuttals to Whittaker's account]

This is a perfect example, Whittaker says, of the growing problems associated with the commercialization of climbing Mt. Everest. "The pressures placed on the guides to give their clients the results that they've paid for creates pressures," he says. He's critical of people who have no business being on Everest without the body of knowledge they need to make informed decisions in the absence of a guide. The guide could become lost or killed, as was the case in 1996 when two of mountaineering's most celebrated guides, Seattle's Scott Fischer and New Zealand's Rob Hall fell victim to the mountain.

"Descending on loose snow, shale or ice is much more difficult with the prosthesis than it would be for a two-footed climber..."
"The reason that some of Hall's clients died was because they were absolutely in the wrong place at the wrong time," Whittaker says. Above 24,000 on Everest, he says, there's no time to expend emotional energy thinking about other people, even while you're passing the bodies of Hall, Fischer and others along the route. "To know they're up there on the mountain is sobering, but at the same time, you're focusing so hard on what you have to do to get the result that you're trying to achieve" that you can't think about it.

Tom Whittaker's mission was a success, thanks in part to his wife, Cindy, who led the expedition into Everest base camp and managed the first disabled ascent of Everest, billed Everest Challenge '98.

Whittaker is in the process of establishing a foundation for disabled people who dream of accomplishing something major in their lives, even if it's nowhere near Nepal. He's committed to changing the attitude of both able-bodied and disabled people alike so that everyone can make a valuable contribution to society.

With the world's tallest peak behind him, Tom Whittaker can go back to hauling Lizzie around on his back, a lighter, but certainly more precious bit of cargo.

Mark Moran, Mountain Zone Correspondent
(Mark Moran works for KJZZ in Phoenix)

*Click here for rebuttals by other climbers involved with the 1998 Everest climb in question.

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