DH: Hi. Welcome to Keep On Pushing Radio. I am your host Devon Harris, and as you know, our goal here is to provide you with ideas and insights that are going to help you to live your absolute best lives. So look man, is that something that you’re interested in, even remotely? Well if you are, you are in the absolute right place, and I think we have an amazing guest here today that’s going to lead us in that right direction.
My guest today is a guy who was had many lives. He was a schoolteacher in the U.K., he was a diver in the North Atlantic, a rig diver, he was a nightclub bouncer in Gibraltar, a Program Director with the Canadian Outbound School, a Professor at a college in Phoenix, today he is a mountain climber, an author, a motivational speaker. The man has lived about 10 lives already. And he has been given so many awards as well. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Award, the ESPN Superlative Performance Award, I would like to get one of those.
The one thing that I’m really impressed with though is the… Ready for it, The Most Magnificent Order of the British Empire, by Queen Elizabeth II. That’s just a couple, a few of the awards and honors he has been afforded. But one of the thing that impressed me most about his accomplishments, is that he is the first disabled person ever to climb Mount Everest. Now I’m having a hard time climbing up my stairs with two legs. This dude has climbed Mount Everest with only one leg. It is my honor and my pleasure to welcome on the show today, Tom Whittaker. Tom, welcome. It’s so good to have you.
TW: Good to see your smiling face Devon. Last time I saw that face, that grin, we were in Kyrgyzstan working for the U.S. State Department.
DH: I don’t know if I was grinning. The thing I remember, and it’s a story I tell all the time, it had been many years since I’d gone skiing, right? I admit that I’m king of the bunny slopes. That first day out I went on the bunny slopes and I felt good, felt confident and I needed something a little bit more challenging and you were heading up on the ski lift and I decided to join you. I took some bad advice from Nelson Carmichael, who I hope to have on the show one of these days, Mr. Moguls, and he goes, “Yes. That slope isn’t too bad. Steep in some bits.” I am like, “Tom, I am coming up.” And you go, “Yes, I’ll wait for you at the top.” Do you remember what happened? I could not even get off the ski lift, man. I was falling down, I’m trying to ski down the hill, and I’m all over the place. I had to take the skis off and walk down and I feel so bad Tom because I ruined your day of skiing. You were kind enough to stay with me. We were on the slopes so long they closed the lift.
TW: Yes, it was getting dark. I was beginning to worry.
DH: Yes, but now I can smile again. I don’t think the last you saw me I was smiling, but I appreciated you waiting for me then and I appreciate you being on the show, so welcome. I’m glad you’re still talking to me.
So I know your dad was a colonel in the British army.
TW: Yes, correct. The Royal Fusiliers.
DH: Did that mean that you moved around a bit? What was that like?
TW: Yes. As a kid, I started out traipsing around… I actually spent 3 years in Jamaica. I was there for the… I think it was Caroline, was the name of the hurricane. That was the first hurricane I went…
TW: You saw all these palm trees with their tops all broken off. There were all these little soggy bundles and when you get closer and look at them, you realize they’re birds. If we think hurricanes are a bad time, the birds have no defence. Anyway, that broke my heart and I was only five years old at the time. Yes, it was pretty cool. The Queen came and there was a huge celebration.
DH: Was that ’62, during the… The queen came so, was that ’62 when we had independence or before?
TW: No, it was before that. It was in the ’50s. She came to the throne, I think in 1952 or 53, something like that.
DH: That must have been during her tour.
TW: Around that time.
DH: Cool, so Jamaica, and you’re left broken-hearted because of the birds and the hurricane and those can be rough. Where else have you lived?
TW: I spent a lot of time in a boarding school in the U.K. where it was the good old days of corporal punishment, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.
DH: A lot of good that did you, huh?
TW: I was the least spoilt child, I’ll tell you that. There was no dust in my trousers whatsoever [laughs]. Then I spent my vacations with relatives and usually, with my uncle. My Uncle Roger was a farmer and his kids… And I was a good athlete. I thought I was a pretty tough guy, but when you get into wrestling matches with guys that have grown up on a farm and used to chucking 130-pound bales around and stuff, they’ll put you in your place pretty darn quickly.
DH: I got you. You’re pretty hardy, so obviously you tried the wrestling. Are there any other organized sports that you tried when you were younger?
TW: Well, yes. I was a team sports guy. Rugby was something I was really good at and I got as a schoolboy selected to play for… No to try out for the Welsh team. Wales lives, breaths and sleeps rugby.
TW: Yes, it was a big thing. Then when I went to college, I represented the college in athletics for javelin and discuss. I played rugby and represented London University for that, for rugby and so on. I was playing at a pretty high standard and then when I came to United States, I set up a rugby team at Iowa State University where I was doing the Master’s degree. We got second place in the Regional match, the Regional Championships, the first year we were up and running, so that’s cool.
DH: Congrats! That’s awesome! As I said earlier, you have had many lives. Was there anything in your early years, in your upbringing, that influenced those career choices? Those early career choices?
TW: Well, I think, in a strange sort of way, when you mentioned that I was working as a rig diver out in the North Sea, and when we had time off we would work for a month at a time and have two weeks off. Most people just had the weekends off, so what you’re going to do is spend a great weekend with them and then you can’t stick around. You’ve got nowhere else to go, so I had a friend who was working in an Outdoor Pursuits Center in the U.K. that teaches adventure recreation as a process of developing character and personal development. I would go and work as a volunteer Instructor and as a good athlete, I was really surprised to find that rock climbing terrified me and I was really, really bad at it. I would be climbing with some gals that didn’t look particularly athletic or anything like that, carrying a little of weight and stuff and they’d skinny right up this thing and I’d be struggling and I realized that it wasn’t my physical capability. It was all here in the head. I came to the conclusion that I either had to never do this again or I had to buy the equipment, make a commitment and get good at it. So because it bugged me; because I didn’t like not being good at something, I had no natural ability for it and I ended up coming to the United States delivering a 65 foot sailing boat across the Atlantic and then hitchhiking to Yosemite Valley and the whole idea was to… In Britain I could climb 300-foot cliffs. In the United States, in the Yosemite Valley, you can climb 3000-foot cliffs, so…
DH: Is that how you got into mountain climbing then, Tom? You’re volunteering with your friend, these girls are running circles around you on rock faces, and you, I guess, being competitive and not liking the fact that you’re not very good at this, started out and you moved to the U.S. and really got into rock climbing and mountaineering?
TW: Yes, absolutely and I think I’ve actually… Yes, I do have… I have a photograph here. I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to see it. Can you see it or not?
TW: When you can do that, you’ve conquered your fear of heights, haven’t you?
DH: Yes, where was this?
TW: That was in Britain, in Wales on a mountain called Triffin.
DH: So you get into mountaineering and rock climbing, what are some of the early challenging rock faces and mountains that you climbed and hiked?
TW: Well, I think the most important rock climb in my life happened after I was hit by a drunk driver. I was on my way on Thanksgiving night driving from Pocatello, Idaho where I just got a Master’s degree in Outdoor Adventure Education and I was driving to Sun Valley to get a job working for Sun Valley Corporation. A drunk driver came into my lane, hit me head on. I was driving a V.W. bus, no engine in front, nothing like that and I sustained multiple crush injuries to both legs. Both knees were permanently damaged and my right knee cap was removed and my right foot was amputated and for the first next five days, I went through a number of life crises.
They gave me eight bags of blood, blood transfusions and they saved my life and I would be in my hospital bed and friends of mine who are climbing companions who came from as far away as from Canada and from Maine to come see me and visit and they were so angry that I was just this broken back of bones and we’d been climbing really extreme stuff together. You know from being in the military yourself, how you do become a band of brothers. Adversity gets people to come together. When these people have hurricanes and stuff like that, everybody works together to help one another and it’s an amazing thing.
Well, our friendships are welded into that kind of crucible and these guys came and they were so mad. What I did was I got a regular, just a… I got one right here because I kept a habit……. composition book and I just write my thoughts, my ideas, everything in there and I do one for about a year and you know I just write all my stuff in there and then I have them for 20 years. I can go back and look and yes, they’re kind of interesting. Then I would tell them that I was going to do this climb called Outer Limits and if you’re going to be an extreme mountaineer and rock climber, this is one of the climbs you have to have had, you have to achieved on.
DH: In terms of a resume, yes.
TW: When it was put up, it was considered the hardest climb in the world. So I was telling them that I was going to go back and climb this climb and they’re going, “You know, Whittaker is not only a broken bag of bones
DH: He is broken in his mind.
TW: As well. I spent the next two years training really, really hard and then I find myself standing at the base of this cliff with this scimitar crack running down the middle of it.
DH: When you said you spent two years training really, really hard, are you talking about after the accident?
TW: Yes, this is after the accident. Lots of things happened. I became homeless because the gal that hit me was under-insured and so I lost my foot, I lost my life savings, I lost my job and because I couldn’t pay my hospital bill. I was out on the street as soon as they could get me out the door. Really, I didn’t have anywhere to stay and you can stay with friends for a little while, but then you have to jump up and do something on your own. My leg’s all smashed up, I couldn’t work, and I was a foreign student, so I didn’t have a permit to work. I’d already graduated and so I was living in an abandoned basement of an old kind of house in Pocatello and eating out dumpsters for a while. I lost a lot of weight, which was good.
DH: Before we get to the climb, talk to me. Here it is that you’re going about your life, things are great, you’re finishing up your Master’s, you get hit and that obviously changed your life. You’re in hospital, you wake up and you’re all crushed. What are you thinking? What’s going through your mind?
TW: Well, the thing that I try not to do was not to worry about things that I couldn’t change, I couldn’t affect. The first thing I realized was that I was in really bad shape and all I needed to do was concentrate on getting well. A step that I had made before that was that while I was still trapped in the vehicle and before they managed to cut me out and get me back to hospital, they wanted to give me an I.V. with pain medication and stuff like that, and I knew from working in mountain rescue, that when I got to hospital, I’d be prepped and X-rayed and then the surgeon would use protocols that were laid down to do whatever needed to be done. And I wanted to talk to the surgeon and tell him why I was in America and what I was wanting to do for a living, working as a mountain guide and professional mountaineer and it’s a part of the job description. So I got a chance to talk to my surgeon and he actually admired the fact that I hadn’t taken any pain medications so that I would be…
DH: Clear minded.
TW: Clearheaded and talked to him. He agreed to get some more people into a team situation and decide what they were going to do with me. He got an internist, called Dr. Radcliffe, a traveling fellow who goes around teaching the latest techniques in surgery and he just happened to be in Pocatello at the time and so Dr. Goodman came in and Dr. Bacon, my surgeon that I talked to, and they talked it backward and forwards and they’re going, “Well, if we don’t take his right leg off, those broken bones are going to put so much fat in his blood that he could have a heart attack and die.” These other guys go, “Well, he could do, but he’s in great shape and if you cut both his legs off, you’re going to kill him anyway.”
DH: So everything is at a risk right now.
TW: Anyway, so I woke up in the Recovery Room and I met a nurse some six years later and she said, “You don’t remember me, but I was the nurse in attendance. I was in the Recovery Room. You looked down the bed as soon as you were done and you saw that you still had one of your feet and you said ‘thank God’. I was expecting whoever was there to just freak out because that had happened. Here you are and you’re seeing this blue, black deal with toe sticking out like a bad hair day and you’re saying ‘thank God’. I knew in my brain that if I had one of my feet I had a chance.
DH: That’s really important point Tom because what I’m hearing from you is that this tragedy happened and you accepted that it happened. I often tell people that there’s a big difference between acceptance and resignation, right? You accepted that this thing happened, there’s nothing you could do about it, but you weren’t resigned to the fate that you’re going to be just an amputee with no future. You could always do other things outside of… rather than sit there and mope. You’re grabbing on to one leg and you go, “Thank God, it could have been worse. I could have had no legs.” A really important point to point out to our listeners, to our viewers that, “Hey, sometimes some really bad things happen to you, but there’s always something to be grateful for.
TW: Yes and there are some things you can’t change. They’re going to happen. They’re all waiting for us. Life is a proving ground and we get a lot of… I am struggling for the words right now, but a lot of grief. You have to carry… You overcome lots of hurdles in your life and my feeling is that every time you overcome adversity, it cuts a new facet, a new face, on the rough diamonds that we all are and after we’ve got multiple assets and we’re really polished people can hardly buy us because we’re so valuable. In retrospect, I’ve never had a really bad thing happen to me that I haven’t been glad about in the long run.
TW: Now, I have never survived one of my children or something like that. I’ve never had a child die or something. I think maybe I’d have to change my mind. All the stuff that has happened, has happened to me and after a while, I get over the self-pity and saying why me?
TW: I get into a mind-set while I go, “Why was I chosen? What can I do with this that is going to help me make a difference?
DH: Got you. So it comes down to it’s really not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you that in the end that matters. Here it is now that you are a mountaineer with only one leg and you’re climbing what is regarded as the toughest climb in your field. What were your friends thinking when you said to them, “Hey, this is what I want to do?”
TW: Well, what I wanted to do is, I wanted to let them know that I’m a Welshman and on the evolutionary totem pole, we’re somewhere between a flounder and a codfish. We’re low on the totem pole and so I was just going to say, “Okay, well this is just a fin off. I can get around fine with one fin. I need to rediscover who Tom Whittaker is and what I can do. What they haven’t done is my spirit his fine, my body is broken. I can do this climb within two years.” Like I said their reaction was, “This is worse than ever because the guy is delusional.”
TW: Within two years I find myself standing at the base of the climb in Yosemite Valley and I’m flaking out the rope, making a big pile of like spaghetti of the rope and I’m tying it into my harness and my fingers are like sausages. They are not working right. It’s rather like people that have been playing snowballs and stuff out in the cold and their hands, you can’t feel them, they can’t do fine motor skills anymore. It was like that and I realized my fingers weren’t cold. I was terrified.
Climbers are used to dealing with fear and what we do is, we take the fear and we shrink it down, so it’s the size of a walnut and it’s floating around somewhere inside you. That keeps you honest and that stops you making mistakes and being arrogant and putting yourself and other people’s lives at risk. So, it keeps you honest. But this thing from being a walnut and growing into a tree that was paralyzing my limbs, I had lost it, and I realized that it wasn’t just the anxiety of taking on the challenge of the climb. That this now meant that all the messages that I’ve been getting, “That you’re less than, you’re a cripple, you are a this, that and the other”; that I was always fighting against and not letting me put me in the disability box.
We all want to categorize people. And so what I wanted to do is find out who Tom Whittaker was, and if I fail at my task of climbing Outer Limits. I’m going to prove that they’re right and it’s like I had… I was betting the farm on this climb and when it was put out; it was the hardest time in the world. Here I am, and maybe this is a little arrogant, a little too much, I’ve got an artificial leg now.
Now I’ve got to do this damn climb and I started up the climb and as I was climbing up this crack, free my hands in doing this stuff. I got to a place where the crack pinched out and I had to get to a layback where you’re hanging on a… it’s like hanging on a door. You’re holding that and your feet are against this wall and you’re moving up and you’re just using the pulling of your arms and the pressure of your feet to keep you on the rock or you disappear. All the time you can feel the energy just draining out of you and you have to go, go, go, and then finally get that ‘Thank God,’ jam at the top, pull yourself up until you can just stand in close to the Rock and now I had another 70 feet of overhanging rock and crack above me.
I just wait there until I get the lactic acid out of my arms again and I can go again. Now I’ve got something that just like the most amazing, elated feeling in my life, the climbing above there is great, it’s within my ability, I’m just cruising up this climb, I get this tiny little ledge that’s about the same size of this little envelope. You’re standing on this wall and the rope that you have attached to your back so that you could put a…You can set up your rappel, come back down, it is falling… by the time you got up to this ledge, it’s coming out…. It’s 12 feet out from the foot of the climb. The climb so steep and overhanging, now little faces like postage stamps looking up at you and one tied off on this little ledge. They’re shouting up me going, “Whittaker, let’s get going! What’s going on?” They want to come do the climb too. These guys are there with all fingers and toes.
I’m there and I’ve got there. I am just flooded with emotion. Then it’s like… I’ve got this… It’s like I’m looking into a pool. This is fish, this terrible fish that’s coming up to the surface of the pool and I want to commune, I want to look at this fish, I want to look it in the eye. I want to know what wisdom, what thing’s it’s got to say to me. I was…The realization that I got from that was that I was never, ever going to let anybody say what my capabilities were. I have enough insecurities to overcome myself. I don’t need to take on other people’s concepts of what disabled people should be able to do.
I’m going to forge my own my own way, so it was a feeling of defiance that overcame me. And when I rappelled back down to my friends and started later on that evening driving back up to Pocatello Idaho where I was living and had done my rehabilitation, the community had rallied around and had provided me with funds so that I can I buy a prosthetic and stuff like that. They were incredible and I wanted to pay back the people of Pocatello. I thought okay, “Now, I thought, well, now I’ve got…. This has given me permission to do something which is a totally weird idea, and that is using outdoor adventure recreation, a small group of people, small group process, during adventures in the wild outdoors to build self-esteem, esprit-de-corps. We called ourselves a Handicap Outdoor Group.
DH: Before you get into that, your story proves something that I’ve always known, that when you go after big goals you have to be delusional and I often describe myself as such. I know I probably sound delusional, but you have to be really at a point of being delusional to be able to go do this thing that there’s nothing in your background that would even suggest that it’s remotely possible. Then you have to go and then you get to that point, like the day, that point where you’re supposed to launch and as you say your fingers become sausages, right?
DH: Great and most people don’t recognize that great accomplishments are always accompanied by great fear and the people who actually succeed are the ones who find a way to control that fear and to move ahead, regardless, despite the fear, courage. It’s being scared to death, but doing it anyway. Then here it is, you talked about how you’re making good progress, but then you get to this one point and I think we all have that in our lives and in our experiences and when you watch the movies you see that we’re… The hero or the heroine is making progress and then there comes great adversity that you have to dig deeper, dig deeper to get over to finally get to the top, right?
DH: The story that you just told me and I’m just riveted, just so fascinated by it, I think demonstrates that well. It’s not just… This is not just a story about rock climbing. It’s a story about climbing in our lives, right?
DH: Getting past the unsavoury things that may have happened and then having friends looking at us and going, “Wow, not only is your body broken, your mind is broken. But then going past the realities of your challenges and all the other things that people are saying that you can or cannot do and recognizing that there’s so much more in you that you can do. Man, I’m proud! I’m proud of you. Thank you for that example.
TW: Well, I love the fact that you said that courage is not being not afraid. It’s being in mortal fear, but facing your fears and pushing through to… And that’s what courage is. It’s definitely if you’re not frightened you can’t be courageous [laughs].
DH: It’s not possible. Absolutely!
DH: So because of that experience, my tagline is Keep on Pushing, that pushes you to be able to go do adventure training and with other disabled people, people who probably have certain self-esteem issues because of their conditions, correct?
TW: Yes. The thing is I had no funds. I’m almost a homeless person. I’ve no qualifications for working with people with disabilities. I’m not a psychologist. I’m a school teacher and all the other things, but my feeling is that the small group can be like a mirror to people and the activity that you are doing unpeels the onion so you’re basically standing naked in front of your peers, your people, who can see exactly who you are. You may be able to look in the mirror and see, “Oh, I’m an eagle.” They’re looking at you and they go, “That guy is a sparrow” [laughs].
TW: We can fool ourselves, but we can’t fool all these people. They’re our mirror and so they will feed us back information that we can use to make changes in our life because we now recognize that there’s some stumbling block, they’re some things that are holding us back and then once we identify, if we have the courage to face them, we can get those smoothed out and we can have a more successful and better life as a result.
DH: Yes. You know you made a really good point. Here it is that you want to start this program, you have no funds, you’re practically homeless, you have no formal training or expertise, but you’re getting started anyway and made an impact and a difference in the lives of people. It’s one of the things I try to impress upon people that I meet as well when I do my talks that you will never have a perfect time to go pursue your goals. There are always going to be things that are missing. There are always things that you didn’t know, the resources that you didn’t have. But if you sit back waiting then you’ll be waiting in vain. You’ll be waiting forever but if you decide… Even if in your mind you’re an eagle and what people are seeing is a sparrow, if you step out, you’ll become smarter, become wiser you’ll start getting the resources and the support that you need to transform this eagle, this sparrow into it.
TW: Exactly and the great thing about goals, about challenges, about dreams, is that they’re sequential and I have to do Outer Limits before I could be inspired to take on creating the CW HOG program, the Cooperative Wellness Handicap Outdoor Group. We’ve put it all together. Now that was 30 years ago and people still haven’t reached the same standard that we were doing back then today. The reason for that is instead of asking able-bodied people what was going to be best for us, I went to my peers, other disabled people and said, “Hey, what would you gladly break a leg being world class at?”
TW: “Tell me what you’d break a leg being world class at.
DH: That’s the great vision that pulls us right out of our normal environment and circumstances to be better than how others may see us, or how we may even be seeing ourselves in this moment. You go from that…
TW: Can I make another point just to jump in here? I’m thinking about you and your journey and I remember you telling me that as a teenager, you didn’t have shoes. What I want to know is how old you were when you were accepted into Sandhurst, which is Britain’s elite officer training for the armed services? How old were you when you were accepted?
DH: I started at Sandhurst just after my 20th birthday.
TW: At like 15 or 16 you didn’t have shoes on your feet.
DH: This is true. At 14 or 15, I’m running track barefooted. I saved up and I bought what was like converse those days, which was like the lowest thing on the market but that’s all I could afford. Yes, until, here we are, having this conversation. You’re absolutely right. You have to have that vision of something greater because that’s the thing pulls you, right?
TW: It’s the sequential thing. You had successes in athletics, sprinting and running and as an athlete. Then that gave you an idea that you can join the military and figure out that you can be an officer in the military.
DH: That’s a very important point. You’re right. It’s all sequential which really speaks to my philosophy of Keep on Pushing because you’ll work from where you are to get to a level that’s above where you currently are, and then you can see something else. I tell people all the time, “Go as far as you can see, so when you get there you’ll see further” and…
DH: My foray onto the bobsled team absolutely grew from being a barefooted boy running track to going to Sandhurst, coming back and dreaming about the Olympics or reviving that dream and so I don’t know that if I was not in the army at the time, the bobsled opportunity would have turned up in my life.
DH: Most of the people who, the top seven of the top 10, were initially selected, were all members of the Jamaican Defence Force and I was among the top four, fortunately. You’re right, it’s all sequential. So, you go from volunteering with your friend to getting your butt kicked by some women to go and “no, this can’t be. I have to learn how to do this. To learning how to mountain climb, hitting almost rock bottom, certainly in terms of the experience of losing a leg, to climbing this steep face, to climbing Mount Everest. How did that happen? Talk about success being sequential.
TW: Well, you were talking about delusional and we have to have a little of that, a pinch of that. It’s like fairy dust. It frees us from… Let’s us imagine doing something that is outstanding. That was the process in the HOGs that I was trying to do and it’s what I call the creative process. We are the only creature on this planet that has an imagination and can have a vision of the future with them in it. Then work towards making that vision come true. We have to reverse engineer out of the picture that we imagine of ourselves, back to where we are and then we can do one step at a time until we get into the vision.
DH: Indeed. I agree.
TW: That is the creative process. My idea with the HOGs was if we could do that with recreation, with fun activities and we learn how to do the process when we’re playing.
DH: What you said, ‘HOGS.’
TW: Handicap Outdoor Group. Cooperative workman as Handicap Outdoor Group. CW HOG or just the HOGs as we call ourselves. It was all about if you could learn how to… I was amazed because so many of these people were so shut down that they didn’t have imaginations. They didn’t believe that the American Dream was for them. It was for other people.
DH: They were looking at their current circumstances and listening to what everybody else had to say about that and that became their main focus and their glass ceiling and self-fulfilling` prophecy.
TW: Yes. Anyway, as far as your question about Everest, some of it was really pragmatic. I had a prosthetic foot that was made out of the beech wood which is a hard heavy wood and it had a spring toe and a bit of soft rubber for the heel and the piece that I stuck my stump into was… The whole thing weighed 14 pounds. I’d lost three and a half pounds of tissue and they replaced it from an internal skeleton to an external skeleton that weighed 14 pounds. It’s like giving me a ship’s anchor and saying, “Okay, have a great life guy.” I’m seeing these guys with this thing called a flex foot and I’m going, “Well, if I’m going to be able to climb Mount Everest, I can’t do it with this. I need to have something that is better than this. I went and talked to…
DH: How did the idea to climb Mount Everest come about in the first place? How did you jump from HOGs to Everest?
TW: When I was… I was a HOG myself. It wasn’t us and them. It was… We were HOGs and so as a HOG, it was my duty to have a vision and work into it and all the time as a disabled person I had to go, “Okay, well, what are you capable of now?” I found that through training and focus I was capable of climbing things…..rock climbs many times as hard as I climbed when I was at my peak fitness and had all my fingers and toes. Then I was climbing very big climbs in the Canadian Rockies in wintertime. Frozen waterfalls that were more than a 1000 feet high and over time I was doing this to just find out, “Well, you’ve already put up the first ascent of this waterfall. It’s become a classic climb in the Canadian Rockies and now, can you still climb that standard? So I would work myself up until I could go to the Canadian Rockies in winter time and spend a couple of weeks climbing and just see what I can do.
Well, I did the same with white water kayaking and things like that I could get my crutches in the back the boat. I got respite from my disability immediately because everybody’s sitting down when you’re kayaking and this is great. I’m zooming around and doing it. It’s just…I’m just one of the crew. That was what I was doing, so now there’s a gal who works for Snow Birds Ski Cooperation in Salt Lake City. It’s about a two-hour drive from where I live and she’s got these people she’s recruited to do an Everest expedition that she’s putting together. She’s going, “Do you know anybody else that might be a good candidate for this.” They go, “Well, we’ve got a kind of off the wall idea. We’ve got this disabled guy up in Pocatello Idaho. They would’ve never mentioned me if I wasn’t doing extreme stuff.
Then I am in the CW HOG office and the phone rings and it’s just like somebody has sucked all of the oxygen out of the room. It’s like their voice is now a 1000 miles away and they’re saying, “I’m not offering you a place on the team. I’m trying to find out if you would be interested in joining our team to climb Mount Everest. And that’s a dream that I didn’t dare dream. But like you were saying that because you were in the armed forces you got the chance to be on the Jamaica Bobsled team. Just as an aside, it amazed me that we go to Kyrgyzstan and immediately you’re the damn star because everybody has seen the movie, ‘Cool Runnings‘. I can’t believe it. These guys in Kyrgyzstan and seeing Cool Runnings and they think it’s so…You’re their hero, amazingly. So there I am, carrying your bag going, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
But anyway, it’s just amazing. We get opportunities to do extraordinary things, extraordinary!….to be extraordinary! This is such a gift that if we didn’t have the adversity and we didn’t accept that life is a proving ground and we didn’t solve problems and get better and better at solving problems so that we could solve bigger and bigger problems, then people start to value you. I got a call when I was part of the HOGs, not just from this gal down and the opportunity to go to Everest for the first time, but I also got a call from Ted Kennedy, who wanted me to come over and talk to a subcommittee on disability about what I was doing, the CW HOG programme.
DH: You said Ted Kennedy, as in Senator Ted Kennedy?
TW: Yes, Senator Ted Kennedy. Yes and so there I am, showing these guys an interactive slide show and telling and they’re seeing stuff that they wouldn’t dare to do. All of a sudden these guys are being inspired by these images of people with disabilities doing stuff that they wouldn’t themselves feel comfortable attempting.
DH: Awesome! You get the call and you obviously went on the first expedition. When was this?
TW: That was in 1989 and then I got up to 24,000 feet on a 29,000-foot mountain. Then this storm came in that put 10 feet of snow on the mountain. We were cut off from all communications. We were getting information in, but we couldn’t get information out. There were five Sherpas and two climbing members, myself and Andy Labkis. They were convinced that after six days of storm and so on, that we were dead. We were listening to other people that have died because big avalanches came down and hit their camp and stuff like that. We couldn’t get up to render help because they were in other parts of the mountain and there was so much snow, that you weren’t walking through the snow, you were swimming through it. After six days, the snow and the wind abated and we spent 16 hours covering terrain that a mountaineer in good condition could probably do in three.
DH: Was that going up the hill, continue to go…
TW: Coming back down, going back down to base camp.
DH: You’re stuck in a base camp for six days, then…
TW: This was up on the mountain. We were up high.
DH: You’re stuck on the camp, up on the mountain?
DH: Forgive me messing up the Mountaineering vocabulary
TW: Up at about 21,000 feet.
DH: So you’re stuck there, all the snow is falling, you’re hearing reports of other people getting killed, avalanches and so on, what is the mind-set like? What’s the mood like among the seven of you guys that are there?
TW: You don’t have really any option and you know that if somebody weakens, they will be left because it’s too difficult to… It’s too difficult… It’s all we can do to save ourselves. We can’t take on anybody else or else the entire team will die. Somebody weakens and they can’t keep up, so I’ve got an artificial foot and because my artificial foot is smaller than a regular foot with a mountaineering boot on it and stuff like that, that when I stand on the snow in somebody else’s footprint, it just… called post holing. You go all the way down to your knee and then you have to pull it out and then you do it again and again. They’re walking on the top of the snow and here you are with a considerably reduced strength of your right leg and a heavy prosthetic and you’re post holing down through the snow every step. It was like I had to keep up or I would be left and that was never… It was never spoken.
DH: It was an unwritten rule and it was understood?
TW: You know that that’s the situation.
DH: As a mountaineer, you climb and as someone who has climbed Mount Everest and you hear of other people getting killed and that was happening while you were on the mountain. How do you guys view that? I know in bobsledding, the year I learned to drive sleds, two people were killed in eastern Europe. It’s kind of like the same thing in the army as well. We’re all going to war, we all know everyone is not coming back, but you kind of think it’s not you.
TW: Yes, exactly.
DH: Is that kind of how you guys view this when you’re climbing as well?
TW: Well, there’s some sad situations where failure is not an option. Yes, because failure is not a question of losing some money for your business or losing your job or whatever. You’re going to lose your life. I think people need to understand, like courage, that there’s a difference between failure and making mistakes. If you are in uncharted territory, you are going to make mistakes. The way I can fail with the HOGs is to be put off by the mistakes that I was making, not learning from them, remaking mistakes, making careless stupid mistakes that I shouldn’t be making and damaging other people’s lives; having people die or get injured and so on. But the failure would be for me to give up on you.
I was going to do the HOGs for a year and after a year I realized that this organization wasn’t ready to be left because it would just fall and I had to put it on a secure opening. It took me 9 years to do that. But failure would have been to turn my back on it and go, “Well, it’s time for me to do my thing now.” No, I had a responsibility to these people that showed up and who believed in me and so that whole thing was a nine year commitment. There’s a difference between making mistakes and if somebody I recruit to work for me will say as an expedition member, continually makes the same mistakes. I’m going to tell them that they can no longer go up on the mountain because they’re endangering themselves, they’re endangering other people and they’re not learning. Then I talk to the Liaison officer who is an Army officer and making sure that you obey all the rules and stuff like that and you just say, “Well, Jack Owens is no longer part of the mountaineering team. He can stay in base camp as long as he wants, and he is welcome to join another team, but he’s not going up on the mountain with us.
DH: That was your first climb. Tell me about the second expedition.
TW: Well, the second expedition, I went up with a preeminent Australian mountaineer, a guy who I climbed The Nose of El Capitan, which is when you’re going into Yosemite Valley it is the biggest space in front of you. We spent multiple days on that together. We’ve done a lot of climbing before I became disabled and we both arrived in Yosemite Valley following our dream to become name brand climbers. He had achieved this, written lots of books, was on the North Face climbing team, he was a professional mountaineer. He was just…He was a big shot. I was at an outdoor retailer trade show and we were having a beer together, and I said, “Look, I’ve got a proposition to make for you. I would like for the two of us to join forces and to climb Mount Everest and this would be a great story. We both went to Yosemite Valley. We became extreme climbers and mountaineers, the world was our oyster, I get hit by a drunk driver and you go on to achieve your aim and then you come back, circle back and my goal is to be the first disabled person to climb Mount Everest and you come to help me do that. He wasn’t at all convinced and so you know I bought him another beer and another beer and then I realized that he’s an Australian and he was never going to be convinced until my money ran out.
TW: And then he’s like, “Okay, great idea. I’ll be there anyway.” Anyway, he milked that for as much as he could and then we headed out there in 1995. But we had a guy who was going to make a documentary film of it. He’d already made a film on the other side of Everest and he said he wasn’t going back to that side, and he wanted to do it on the north side, and if we didn’t do it on the north side, there was no movie. What we had promised people that were funding our expedition was that their products would be showing up in a documentary and so we had to go over to the north face.
The north face climbs are the hardest climbs and that’s why north face is called north face. They are the extreme guns and the north face climbs are always the extreme climbs. I got up there within a 1000 feet of the summit. The route wasn’t properly prepared. I didn’t have people to carry my extra oxygen cylinders, so I was carrying three oxygen cylinders. There was no oxygen for me at 24,000 feet. I went to 27,000 feet without oxygen and on and on. There were just a lot of things that compounded one another and I saw that the writing was on the wall and I had to give up my attempt because if I didn’t then I would be taking away the opportunity for Greg Child to get the summit. I knew I could get to the summit, I just didn’t know if I could get home.
DH: Got you. It’s one of those things where you had to make that decision. It’s really the life or death of the expedition in terms of everybody getting up to the summit and also your physical life or death as well.
TW: Yep! The thing about mountaineering is we always think the summit is the end. It’s like running your race. You break the ribbon with your chest and the race is over. Well, on the summit of Mount Everest, it’s a bit like you just didn’t literally climb the pine tree but then you realize that there’s a branch sticking out and it’s higher than the top of the pine tree. So you have to climb down and climb up to the top of the branch to get there and then you have to come back to climb all the way back down to base camp Before…
DH: You can have a successful descent.
TW: The most fashionable way to die on Mount Everest is returning from either a summit attempt or a failed summit attempt, because you give so much getting there that you don’t have enough juice to get home.
DH: You fall short on both attempts and now, your friend is saying, “Hey…” I remember reading and you telling me that he brought back a pebble, a little rock and said, “I took this is from Everest and you need to replace it.”
TW: Yes, exactly that. He got to the top. I was disappointed, obviously, and I was in my tent and this guy comes put his head through and “Come on Greg.” I went down to 17,000 feet at base camp. We chit chat and then he says, “You know Whittaker, I pick this rock up on the summit of Mount Everest,” and he holds it up to me and I hold my hand up and he drops this little piece of charred rock in my hand and he says, “I want you to put that back where I got it from.” He threw down the gauntlet. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to close my hand on the rock. That night…
DH: Things that movies are made of. I could see that in a movie. That’s a challenge boy!
TW: Actually, we have the film of me putting that rock back on the summit of Mount Everest.
DH: I have seen that.
TW: I really like this kind of pay it forward kind of philosophy and Greg gave me that challenge. When I’m talking to groups of the people that have hired me to talk to their people want me to do it, I challenge them to do something that they’ve been making excuses not to do because it is not convenient like you were saying earlier on and to do it and that I will give them a piece of rock, not from Mount Everest, but what I’ve gone out and collected myself. I bought it in a store or something. I made the effort to get it and it’s in this bag and they reach in. I say, “No, you don’t choose the piece of stone you get, the piece of stone chooses you and you pull it out.” You say, “Now that is a unique piece of stone, there is not another one, exactly the same in the entire universe and you’re unique too.” Use the… If you want to put the stone whenever you’ve achieved your deal, that’s fine. Otherwise, I want this piece of rock on your workstation, in your pocket, by your mirror when you shave in the morning, wherever. I want that to keep reminding you that you have this abstract thing that you have to turn into a piece of concrete.
DH: You made a point which is absolutely true. I think one of the things that keep us back from becoming all that we can possibly become is because doing that, is inconvenient. People are not always willing to go through the inconvenience, to put that piece of rock back where it belongs. I think that’s a great, great example and a great exercise that you share with your people as well. Kudos on that. Talking about or touching on speaking to groups, I know you’re a motivational speaker these days as well, another life and you speak about leadership. Peter Drucker the great management guru, he says only three things happen naturally in an organization, friction, confusion or under-performance. Everything else requires leadership. How would you define leadership, Tom?
TW: Well, let me ask you a question. In your family, who is the authoritarian? Is it you or your wife? Who’s tougher?
DH: I think it depends on what it is that we’re doing. Generally me, except when it comes to my daughters. Then they have me wrapped around their fingers then she’s the one who is a little bit tougher.
TW: Yes, so there you go. You’re the enforcer. You’re the hammer. But maybe your wife is the person that does the managing. That’s the difference between managing and leading. They’re the people that are making sure that there are rules. You have an environment in your house that is different from the environment in my house. Your children have to understand what acceptable behavior is and what it is not and the more they respect you, the more they want to keep the rules because they don’t want to disappoint you. And if they don’t respect you and you’re, “It’s my way or the highway”, and your total…you know what I’m saying? It’s just no give and you’re just so tough and not compassionate and so on, that people are trying to avoid you. They’re trying to get round you, they don’t care if they break rules, as long as you can catch them breaking rules.
My girls say to me now, I’m empty nester now, they say, “Dad, I know I make bad choices and bad decisions but I know I’m making those bad choices and bad decisions. I always feel ashamed because I know that you’ll be ashamed of me, if you knew what I was doing. They are policing themselves and that is leadership. That is… And we always think that a leader has to be this kind of person, but they don’t at all. All they have to do is create the environment where the people that are on their team have to feel needed as individuals and you have to ask any leader. Help them to understand what their unique promise of value is, what they bring to the table and what is different about them from other people.
Then you have to… Once you’ve done that you can then, as a group of people, give them the opportunity to say what their unique promise of value is and how they’re going to use that to the benefit of their team. We don’t think that competition is the essence of what we need to do. It’s not. I never was trying to be better than anybody else on Everest. When I was on Everest, what I was trying to do was make sure that the people on my team fulfil their hopes and dreams and desires.
DH: From what I’m hearing from you, I actually think I heard two things. One is as a leader, you are working to help people fulfil their promise. You are showing compassion, you’re coaching and guiding so they can become the best they can be. You yourself were not trying to be the best. Your daughters recognize when they are making mistakes and what I am hearing there also is what I call personal leadership or self-leadership. As individuals who may have a leadership title, who is responsible for a team, I see self-leadership as perhaps the most important responsibility, personal leadership, because you can’t give to your team what you are not yourself.
TW: Yes and my job as a leader is to make sure that I have the right people in the right places. I also have a responsibility of telling them what the vision is and let them within their project teams do something that we call in outdoors, situational leadership. There’ll be people that are really good at one aspect but not so good at another. Maybe somebody has become injured and has a bad break of a leg or something. Well, I’m the leader of the expedition, but I’ve got a guy here who’s a paramedic, so why would I be doing…telling people what to do. I give him. He becomes a leader and I ask him what he needs. I serve him. Everybody needs to serve somebody. You grow and you learn and that creates trust and if you don’t have trust. The other thing about leadership is that you have to be really proud of your people and you have to give them, well say a task that is worthy of their time and their talents. Over and above making money, they have to be able to go, “Okay, this is what it’s all about.”
DH: This is what’s the purpose, a higher purpose and you’re absolutely right because we get…I think we often get confused when we think about leadership and people who are in positions of leadership. We get confused with this business of motivating or inspiring one. I think you and I had this conversation before where we think that the best thing to do is to find people who are already motivated and hire them with something you spoke about before, a vision. When you sell them on the vision, when you sell them on you as someone who is capable because you’re practicing a very high level of personal leadership and then you put them in a place to succeed because you understand what their strengths and their talents are.
You’re on the mountain and you need a guy who’s a medic. He’s the guy who is going to be attending to the injured person and you’re serving him now, as the leader. Going back to my Sandhurst days where our motto is serve to lead, and I still so believe in that. That’s just ingrained in me. So that makes for an effective team, that makes for teammates, employees, colleagues or whichever term you want to use, who feel that they are valuable, as you just mentioned, because they are working on something that, it’s not just the money. It’s not that money isn’t important but most people make the mistake, I believe, in thinking that money is the great motivator. I think its zero sum. Yes, it’s important if it doesn’t exist, if there’s not enough of it, but if there is enough, then what people are looking for is the value and the purpose in what they’re doing.
TW: One of the truisms is that the way that we motivate our people is it shapes them. An example of this is that people who are growing tomatoes down in Florida, you get a tomato and it tastes like the cardboard box that it came up in. Why is that? The reason is that we reward farmers for the shape, the color, the size of the product, but not the flavor of the product. We have beautiful looking produce that taste like the cardboard box that they came up from Florida in. We get from people what we reward because this is what’s important. My six-year-old daughter trekked into Everest base camp and she did something at six, which 50% of people that tried trekking into Everest base camp don’t succeed in doing. Why did she do that? Because it was expected. Not because, “Oh, this is going to be really hard.” It’s just, “Oh, we are going for a walk.” That’s what we did. She was running around in base camp like a crazy person. Nobody told her she’s supposed to be out of breath, so she wasn’t. We hear a lot about traumatic, what’s that…
TW: PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, there you go. Are we setting people up for failure? Are we saying, “Okay, you should be feeling like this? You’re going to be feeling like this.” What people start to recognize is those feelings and they grip onto them. There’s something also called Post-Traumatic Growth, where after you have something that’s really traumatic, you use that to move beyond where you are. Everything, every really serious thing you take on your life, not only has an outer journey but also takes you on an inner journey. It’s the inner journey and the strength you have and your will-power that has enabled you to overcome a better go, a better goal, a better dream and that’s why that’s sequential because when we get to Everest base camp, nobody is capable of climbing Everest. While we’re on the mountain, the mountain educates us, the mountain gets us fit and we get the esprit-de-corps, the companionship, and the working together and the belief that as a team we can do this. As an individual, we’d never even get through the icefall, never mind to the summit of the mountain.
DH: Yes. It’s been… You have lived a remarkable life, Tom and this has been a remarkable few minutes hanging and chatting with you, picking your brains and learning about your experiences. You’re absolutely right. When things happen to us, when we experience adversity we… and I’ve never heard the term before and I love it – Post-Traumatic Growth – and I think your life demonstrates that. You had a traumatic experience and you accepted that it has happened. You never resigned yourself to a life that was not going to be fulfilling, but rather you chose to grow out of that experience and in the process you have helped others to grow.
You’ve done… you’re… I was about to say you have done things that many others haven’t done yet. You’re the first disabled person to climb Mount Everest, but you’ve done, as a person who has climbed Mount Everest, something that the vast majority of people on planet earth have not done and will not do. That just demonstrates again the tremendous ability of the human spirit. I think you epitomize that. You epitomize the whole business of having of vision and what can happen when you get that firm in your mind and you train your mind, you condition your mind to go get it done. Much respect, much love to you and for all that you have done.
As a speaker and you’re actively speaking, I know you are in the process of relaunching your website. Please share with our audience where people can find you to be able to benefit from your kernels of wisdom and to make sure that they are able to get their rock…
DH: That they can accomplish their goals.
TW: I don’t have it up while we’re talking here now. I am hoping that in the next 10 days – two weeks, that it’ll be up and running and it’s tomwhittaker.com and that’s Whittaker with two T’s and I should come up pretty easily when you do a search, it usually pops up.
DH: Absolutely. People can Google Tom Whittaker to learn more about your amazing story, but certainly, tomwhittaker with two T.’s dot com. You’ll be able to find the man, the legend. Invite him to your events, to your meetings to get up close and personal with him. He is a personable, very loud Irish man, Welsh man.
TW: Irishmen are just Welshmen with their brains kicked out.
DH: That’s what it is, so I wasn’t far off, but it’ll be awesome. Tom, thank you so much for appearing on Keep on Pushing.
DH: Devon, you know that I’m your biggest fan and thank you for having me on your show. I really love it and I can look at that grin all day.
DH: As long as we are staying away from ski slopes I think we’ll be fine.
TW: All right you bad boy. Take it easy.
Keep On Pushing!