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Whittaker’s story is about hope, dreams coming true

Tahoe Daily Tribune Staff Reports

Tom Whittaker is the type of guy you want to have along when everything goes wrong. He lives for that stuff.

That’s the impression you get as he waxes poetic about his early life as a professional mountaineer, and later life as a professional mountaineer with one good foot and one prosthetic.

Whittaker, who spoke to a crowd of several hundred at Lake Tahoe Community College on Monday to kick off the college’s multicultural week, received a standing ovation at the end of a two-hour presentation about life on the edge. He’s lived it – whether it’s rock climbing Outer Limits, a route rated 10c in Yosemite, or making Everest’s summit after being rebuffed twice by weather and his disability.

In his younger years, Whittaker was a dreamer, and as he became a young man, his dreams became too big for the confines of his native England. He lived for outdoor challenges, the beauty of the mountains and all the variety vast open spaces had to offer. England was slim pickings, so he came to the United States (by way of delivering two sailboats), and focused on launching a career as a name-brand mountain guide.

Just when his career potential began to match his lofty goals, this dreamer suddenly found himself face-to-face with a nightmare, in the form of a car careening toward his borrowed VW bus on a lonely Idaho highway. He says at impact it was estimated he was doing 8 mph (in his lane), and the other driver was doing 50 mph (also in his lane).

At the time of the crash, Whittaker was driving from Pocatello, Idaho, where he had earned his master’s degree at Idaho State University, to his dream job in Sun Valley. He had been hired to take high rollers rafting and skiing; whatever they wanted to do in Idaho’s great outdoors.

Entrenched in the American West and some of the best terrain the world has to offer an outdoor enthusiast, Whittaker was on his way. His dream was becoming a reality. But had it not been for his seemingly tragic date with destiny, the world beyond outdoor sports probably would not have heard much about Tom Whittaker.

The world wouldn’t know about his strong spirit, cracking jokes about being a “one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest” as he lay hobbled in bed. In retelling his story Monday, Whittaker said he refused morphine for four hours to give the doctors specific instruction about what he wanted them to do. The depth of that kind of spirit can’t be measured.

Had it not been for the accident, the world wouldn’t know about his ability to control fear, and again climb at a world-class level while everyone around him expressed quiet doubt. The thousands of disabled whom he has inspired to conquer mountains and embrace life, would not have had him as their role model. He certainly would not have been able to parlay his experience into the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group, an organization he started to introduce the handicapped to outdoor sports.

Our world, it turns out, became a better place when Tom Whittaker’s world was put in peril. He adapted to life as a “gimp,” as he jokes, and used it to bridge the gap. For those of us who know and are affected by his story, “disabled” or not, he inspires hope that what we sometimes perceive as limitations are just steps toward achieving our goals.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at jscripps@tahoedailytribune.com. For information about Tom Whittaker’s “Seven Summits” attempt, visit http://www.tomwhittaker.org


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