Climbing with Ability

Everest Challenge
By Terry Thompson
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Tom Whittaker seeks, through his climbing, to change society's attitudes toward persons with disabilities. Whittaker is the man behind the Everest Challenge, a highly publicized climbing event in which he sought—and may well have accomplished—to "redefine the possible." The Everest Challenge took place in April and May of 1998, and consisted of two events:

First, team members from the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group, founded in 1982 by Whittaker at Idaho State University, accompanied an international team of seven persons with disabilities, each from a different country, on the fifty-mile trek to 17,000-foot Mount Everest Base Camp.

Second, Whittaker attempted to summit Mount Everest (29,028 feet), a goal toward which he had gotten progressively closer on two previous Everest expeditions. His first attempt was in May 1989, when he reached 24,000 feet via Sir Edmund Hillary's South Col route, before bad weather forced him back down. His second attempt was in 1995, when he reached 27,500 feet on the rocky North Face, having become the first person with a disability to break the 8,000-meter elevation barrier. Whittaker admits that his dreams are large. "If people only had small dreams, there would have been no railroads," he says. He vividly describes his memories of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, and he hopes today to utilize the media, as NASA did, for projecting a widely witnessed message into the hearts and minds of adults and children worldwide. "The message is that it's okay for disabled people to have big dreams too," he says.

Whittaker's media campaign involved filming a documentary, posting regular updates on the Internet, and eventually having television coverage on CBS's "48 Hours." He utilized the Internet by facilitating ongoing communication between team members and their worldwide audience, thereby "putting a human face on disability." He placed a particular emphasis on broadcasting live into schools, in order to provide inspiration and leadership for disabled children, and to encourage non-disabled children to respect the potential of their disabled peers.

Tom Whittaker reached the summit of Everest on May 27, 1998.

He refers to his effort on Everest as "a climb of imagination, technology, and human spirit." Certainly this same label could be used to describe the well-publicized accomplishments of each of the persons profiled in this article. Perhaps the single greatest lesson that can be learned from Bill Irwin, Mark Wellman, Erik Weihenmayer and Tom Whittaker is this: Look beyond human limitations, and always consider the possibilities.

© Story copyright by Terry Thompson

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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