Tom Whittaker’s life as a mountaineer appeared to hit rock bottom when he was involved in a collision with a drunken driver on Thanksgiving Day in 1979 in Pocatello, Idaho. That life reached its peak on Nov. 4 when the Scottsdale-based motivational speaker received an award from Queen Elizabeth II of his native England for something he had accomplished eight years ago.
Hospitalized with two shattered legs and a severed foot, Whittaker refused pain medication so he could speak with his surgeon. Whittaker wound up with severely damaged knees and had his right kneecap removed. His right foot was amputated.
“I was a bag of broken bones in a hospital bed, and people would sit beside me and weep,” said Whittaker, 58. “They had written me off. They figured I’d never climb again. I told them I’d climb the Outer Limits in Yosemite (Valley, Calif.), within two years. They figured, ‘He’s not only beat up, but delusional.’ I found I had to prove myself.”
Whittaker, who began rock climbing when he was 25, made the Yosemite climb within his time frame. He then set his sights on the ultimate challenge for a mountain climber: Mount Everest. His first two attempts to reach the world’s tallest peak in Nepal and Tibet were unsuccessful. But on May 27, 1998, he completed the ascent, becoming the first disabled person in history to reach the top.
The queen’s award came during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace. She honored Whittaker for his service to disabled people and service to mountain climbing. He recalls the trappings of the palace, but most vividly, he remembers almost tripping.
“I knew protocol about not putting your back to her, so I had to walk backwards when we were done,” he said. “I was worried with the prosthesis that I might trip. Here I am getting an award for mountain climbing and I might fall on my face in front of the queen.”
During his first Mount Everest expedition in 1989, Whittaker survived a snowstorm in which five mountaineers died. At 21,000 feet, he abandoned his supplies to get off the storm-bound mountain. In 1995, he came within 1,500 feet of the summit before turning back because of poor weather conditions.
Upon Whittaker’s return to base camp, teammate Greg Child set a goal for Whittaker. Handing him a stone, Child said: “I picked this up on the summit and I want you to put it back where I got it from.”
The difference in his successful climb was that he led the team. A call for his help came in 1998 from a woman he didn’t know.
“I said, ‘Do you realize you’re talking with a man with one foot?’” Whittaker said. “She did. I knew no disabled person had never attempted to do Mount Everest. I told her every fiber of my body was devoted to the C.W. Hogs (a Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group he formed). When I put the phone down, I thought that although I had realized other people’s dreams, I hadn’t developed my own.”
The successful climb, which cost Whittaker $350,000, took 70 days round-tip to and from Kathmandu. Whittaker spent 30 minutes on the Everest summit. He thinks the prosthetic he wore during the climb helped, but it was a hindrance on the way down when there was more snow.
“I’ve gone back to corporate leadership and motivational speaking,” said Whittaker, whose Web site is www.tomwhittaker.com. “I spent six months conquering Everest, and I’ll climb again, but not there.”