Everest Diary: Base Camp - Without a leg to stand on, but on top of the world

THE artificial limb lying on the snow beside the crampon-scarred track into the Khumbu Icefall seemed pretty incongruous by anyone's standards.

Just getting to Base Camp would be a considerable feat for a disabled person. Discarding a limb at the foot of one of the key stages in the ascent of Everest, well, that is a puzzle.

Just as a reminder that entering the icefall is akin to playing Russian roulette, we watched from our tents this morning as one of the seracs (ice cliffs) collapsed in a cascading explosion of ice and snow. Fortunately, it was some distance from the route engineered up to Camp One and which, weather permitting, our Himalayan Kingdoms team will take tomorrow.

The owner of the artificial limb was also well out of the firing line of the serac fall. Tom Whittaker was back at his own Everest Challenge base after two days at Camp One in preparation for what he hopes will be the first ascent of the mountain's summit by an amputee. British climber Norman Croucher, missing both legs below the knee, has climbed Cho Oyo, the sixth highest 8,000m peak, and been high on Everest's north side.

Whittaker, who holds British and United States passports, is a fit-looking 49-year-old. Three inches over six foot, he has every bit of the physique of the bouncer he briefly was in Gibraltar nightclubs, and the "big wall" climber and outdoor pursuits specialist he has been over more than 25 years. It is only when a slight limp draws the gaze to his right foot that one realises how extraordinary Whittaker's attempt on Everest really is.

In place of a foot, Whittaker has a piece of sprung graphite which looks rather like a spatula attached to a prosthesis under his trouser leg. What we had seen at the base of the icefall was his work-a-day prosthesis, bashed about on the quarry floor of Base Camp and switched for his mountain climbing limb, which comes complete with crampon-spiked foot.

Whittaker's life was turned upside down in 1979, when, just as he was about to improve his skiing skills in Sun Valley, Idaho, he was hit by a drunk driver in a car. Both his legs were smashed. "At first it was so serious that I didn't have time to think about the ramifications of it," he said.

When he did, he decided not to return to England where "as an army brat" he felt he had no roots. He had been at boarding school in Surrey and North Wales before starting a career in outdoor education.

Supported by friends, he rebuilt his life in the United States and is now a professor of adventure education at Prescott College in Arizona, married with one daughter and still able to spend lots of time in the outdoors. He has also made two attempts on Everest, surviving a storm which killed five Polish climbers in 1989 and getting within 1,000m of the summit in 1995.

"I was super disappointed," he said of that 1995 attempt on the north side when "a certain amount of squabbling" between teams meant that there was insufficient fixed rope in place to compensate for his disability. "That trip cost me about $30,000 [pounds 18,4000] whereas this one is costing about $300,000 (pounds 184,000), but the deal is I want to be in control of my destiny."

Whittaker is sponsored by US broadcasters CBS and an innovative protein company Ester-C. Not surprisingly the Everest Challenge team has the best communications and a boggling amount of healthy powders which Whittaker believes are the equivalent of knocking 1,000m off Everest's daunting 8848m.

Whittaker is surrounded by friends and climbing colleagues from Prescott College. They all seem to share his goal of placing the first amputee on the top of the world, and unlike on previous attempts he is "prepared to be a little bit selfish" to ensure that he makes it. "These are young men and women in their prime who will get another chance whereas I am a fat 50-year-old with one foot," he said.

People with far greater disabilities than Whittaker will be trying to make the journey to Base Camp as part of the Challenge project. Including a 54-year-old woman missing a complete leg, the group are all from a programme started by Whittaker to repay his "debt" to the community that helped him recover and called, somewhat oddly, C.W.Hogg - co-operative wilderness handicapped outdoor group. "If these people don't work together as a team, their chances of getting up to Base Camp are very remote," said Whittaker, who will be descending to one of the lower lodges to meet the group shortly before making his summit attempt in May. His progress can be followed on web site: www.everestonline.com.

Ready communications with home and office via electronic mail and satellite telephones can be a mixed blessing - even when these precocious systems are actually working.

Take stockbroker Rob Owen's electronic mailbag of yesterday; while he got an affectionate message from his wife, Lisa, he also received a lengthy missive on inflation in Romania. Rob's boss obviously thinks that the young Everester is pining for news of eastern European economies. Receiving the call cost Rob $50 (pounds 31), but at least the rest of the team found it good mickey-taking value.

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