Amputee talks about reaching Everest summit |

Amputee talks about reaching Everest summit

Susan Wood
Tom Whittaker on the fixed lines of the Lhotse Face - one vertical mile to the South Col at the base of the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest. Provided by Jeff Rhoads

Mountaineer and motivational speaker Tom Whittaker has taken the meaning of overcoming adversity to new heights.

Five years ago, the disabled Prescott, Ariz., man climbed to the roof of the world with severely injured knees and no right foot. It was amputated following a 1979 car accident that changed his life on Thanksgiving Day.

On Monday at 6:30 p.m., Whittaker will tell his story and share his dreams at the Lake Tahoe Community College Theatre as the keynote speaker for Multicultural Awareness Week, May 17-21.

The son of a Welsh army officer, Whittaker worked as a rig diver in the North Atlantic and a night club bouncer in Gibraltar.

But mountaineering remained his passion.

He’s climbed the Matterhorn, the sheer cliff of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley and lies one peak shy of completing the highest summits on seven continents, a pursuit Utah’s Snowbird ski resort Chief Executive Officer Dick Bass made famous.

Whittaker only lacks Mount Vinson in Antarctica to fulfill the list.

With a team of a dozen people including a Sherpa pack crew, Whittaker, 55, made his third attempt of the highest mountain of the world at 29,028 feet with doubt staring him in the face. It took two months to establish four camps and reach the summit.

“Not more than once a day,” Whittaker said of how often his ability and will came into question. “But quitting was not an option.”

At more than 29,000 feet, Mount Everest presents challenges that are insurmountable to many climbers. Many can be fatal.

He survived a major storm that prompted him to abandon his gear 8,000 feet from the summit on his first expedition in 1989. Though barely escaping with his life, he vowed to return.

In 1995, he came to within 1,500 feet of the summit before turning back. On returning to base camp, world-renowned climber and buddy Greg Child handed him a stone picked up on the summit and insisted Whittaker go back to place it on top one day.

Even with altitude sickness and a storm that flattened Camps 2 and 3, the third time was a charm for the Wales native.

He attributes much of his success to attitude and a lightweight prosthetic flexible foot.

“Unlike ’89, I realized I’m a mountaineer first and a disabled person second,” he said of the learning experience. “I learned I couldn’t climb Mount Everest on somebody else’s game plan. I had to take responsibility. I couldn’t be proving myself while on the mountain.”

His ascent was featured on CBS in “A Footprint of Everest,” which won the 1998 Telly Award for best adventure documentary.

LTCC’s 11th Annual Multicultural Awareness Week has a blockbuster lineup of speakers and panels. These include Ben Wagner, U.S. Attorney’s office; Jonathan Bernstein, Anti-Defamation League; and Rick Eaton, Museum of Tolerance. Talks will cover classism, same-sex marriage, poverty, feminism and the Vietnamese culture.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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