Tom Whittaker

Working as a professor in Adventure Education at Prescott College in Arizona, he is recognized as a visionary leader and program innovator. Whittaker lectures internationally. In 1981, Whittaker created the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group (C.W.HOG) at Idaho State University and directed the program for ten years. This is a remarkable organization which seeks to rebuild hope, courage, and self confidence in disabled people through the medium of outdoor adventure, and a supportive peer group.

A widely experienced mountaineer of 25 years, with numerous first ascents on both rock and ice, Whittaker is currently a member of the prestigious North Face Climbing Team. As a Himalayan mountaineer he has spent more than six months in Nepal and Tibet. In 1989 and 1995 Tom was instrumental in successful ascents of the South Col and North Ridge routes on Mt. Everest. As leader of the 1995 Everest Expedition he was the first disabled person to break the coveted 8,000 meter mark in mountaineering. On May 27,1995, Whittaker reached 27,500 feet on the rocky North Face of Mt.Everest, breaking the existing altitude record by more than 3,000 feet.Whittaker aborted his bid for the summit of the world's tallest mountain (29,028 ft.) upon realizing his oxygen supplies would not last.

Going back in 1998 Whittaker believes that Everest Challenge'98 is powerless to change the circumstance of disability but can do a great deal to change attitudes. He wants people to realize that disability is as much an attitude as it is a condition.

"Assaulted by the elements, in rarefied air, mountaineers do battle with the giants of geography. In wind and snow, on rock and ice they toil upwards. It has no intrinsic purpose, it is of no earthly good. There is no one to watch, no adoring public, no accolades. Financially it is often ruinous. Why then do we do it? The spirit of mountaineering is the need to sustain the soul through adventure. It is not he summit it is the journey to the summit that is the prize. The outer journey leads us within. The rewards are in self knowledge that comes from pursuing our dreams with love and courage.

The last 70 days of my life take on a surreal quality. Did I actually climb Mt. Everest or did I just imagine it? Everything seems so fantastic. The Ester-C Everest Challenge was more than a climb, it was a pulling together of all the major threads of my life and combining it into a project that had four distinct parts.

  • The Environmental Restoration Project, whose goal was to retrieve 100 oxygen bottles and a ton of garbage from high camps on the mountain. In all, we retrieved 89 bottles of oxygen, in addition to the 59 that we brought to the mountain, and a thousand pounds of garbage from Camp II.
  • All Abilities Trek, that included five people with significant physical impairments. Ike Gayfield and Tom McCurdy are spinal cord injured, Kyle Packer and Carla Yustak both with cerebral palsy and Steve DeRoche is a double, below the knee amputee, who trekked on two Flex-Feet.
  • Service Learning: Prescott College purchased our permit and sent six students to embark on an educational adventure of a lifetime.
  • The Climb: There is no such thing as the perfect Mt.Everest expedition. But this came pretty close! We came to the mountain with the commitment to place the first disabled person on the roof of the world, and despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the weather, sickness, and circumstances that were stacked against us, we managed to endure.

A Disability Reality Check: At first glance you would think that funding for the first disabled ascent of Mt. Everest would not be a tough project. It was easy to see that this venture resonated with many potential sponsors, however, upon examination their interest waned. A friend of mine who is the head of PR and marketing for a large manufacturer told me in confidence that, despite being chosen by an independent panel for funding, their marketing team had deemed it advisable to withhold the grant because of "the lack of expediency in supporting a disability venture that involved personal risk"".

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