Twenty years ago, doctors wondered if Tom Whittaker, a lifelong outdoorsman, would ever even walk again, let alone climb. After a drunk driver crashed into his van, Whittaker found his legs crushed; his right foot required amputation. He considered suicide. Then the lure of the outdoors drew him back. CBS News Correspondents Dan Rather and Bryant Gumbel report on his attempt to climb Mt. Everest and define the limits of his disability.
Tom Whittaker knows Mt. Everest well. He had tried to climb the peak twice and failed. Once he almost died. And yet he returns to Nepal, beckoned by the mountain's powerful spell. With the help of an artificial device called a flex foot, Whittaker attempts increasingly bold adventures. He gives himself one last chance. "I really believe that Mt. Everest stalks the wary, but it hunts the unwary," Whittaker says.
The idea for attempting Mt. Everest again surfaced during Whittaker's last trip to the area in 1995. A friend, Greg Child, brought him a rock from the summit and encouraged him to return it to the peak.
This time Whittaker's expedition team includes six members. Along with Sherpa guides and porters, his group brings 4 tons of equipment 17,500 feet up Nepal's Khumbu Valley to Mt. Everest's base camp. Whittaker's long-time friend, cameraman Jeff Rhoads, documents the expedition for CBS.
The team sets aside about six weeks, a schedule that allows for adjustment to lower levels of oxygen. "You're definitely looking at the ultimate high-altitude machine here," says expedition member Garreth Richards, an old climbing buddy of Whittaker's."The lungs of a yak, the legs of an ostrich and the brain of a codfish," is how he describes himself.
Whittaker is not the only one facing considerable odds with his climb. Some friends from an organization he founded after losing his foot, the Handicapped Outdoor Group (HOG), also take on the mountain, aiming for the base camp.
Cerebral palsy sufferer Kyle Packer makes the climb on his knees. Paraplegic Tom McCurdy is crossing some of the deepest gorges in the world on his butt.
Whittaker's wife Cindy and daughter Lizzie are climbing with the HOGs. They begin their journey about a month before Whittaker and his summit team. Whittaker and his team arrange to meet the HOGs at the base camp.
Hiking to Mt. Everest's base camp at 17,500 feet is a major accomplishment. A person in reasonably good shape with no acclimatization could die in a matter of hours. The air is thin, the weather is freezing and just getting there requires 38 miles of rugged trekking, all uphill.
The 38-mile trek, which Whittaker and his team do in 10 days, takes the HOGs three weeks. One HOG, Steve DeRouche, makes the trip on two artificial legs. Another, Ike Gayfield, had been a world-class track star, climber and skier before he developed a degenerative neurological disease.
For the HOGs, the home stretch proves the most difficult. The ay the group begins its final push there's a fresh snowfall and subfreezing temperatures - not to mention the thinner air and rougher terrain lying ahead. But the group perseveres.
After sending his HOG friends back down the mountain, Whittaker turns his full attention to Mt. Everest. But as luck would have it, he comes down with pulmonary edema and lacks the energy to climb. He sends ahead his partners, Garreth Richards and Angela Hawse, to reach the summit on their own.
Ominous clouds signal a new threat. A cyclone forming in the Bay of Bengal is reportedly headed straight for Mt. Everest. Should it strike, this would end his chances of reaching the top. Though seriously ill, Whittaker fears the pending storm may close his window of opportunity, so he decides to continue his ascent before he's physically ready.
"I definitely need time, but I've run out of time, so I just have to try and maximize my opportunities," Whittaker says.
Whittaker and cameraman Rhoads try to do in two days what is normally done in four. The first part of that ascent is through one of Mt. Everest's most hazardous sections, the dreaded Khumbu icefall, where at least 19 mountaineers have died. Some fell into monstrous crevasses; others were crushed beneath huge blocks of snow and ice. They make it, though.
Twenty-eight hours after leaving the base camp, a weary Whittaker and Rhoads pull into the highest camp on Mt. Everest, five miles up and only 3,000 feet from the summit.
Richards and Hawse are there, having just returned from their own summit bid. They have missed their goal by only about 300 vertical feet. High winds have forced them back.
Whittaker and Rhoads and two Sherpa guides plan to climb through the night, with the hope of reaching the summit by morning. In theory, this will give them enough time to return before the expected storm.
It takes Whittaker five hours to climb only 1,500 feet. Although Rhoads is climbing well, Whittaker is not. He decides to turn back. "You can be in love with the romantic idea of climbing Mt. Everest, as much as you like, but if things are not happening right, you have to use your judgment and say, `This isn't working,'" he says.
Whittaker becomes desperately ill - perhaps with high-altitude pulmonary edema. Such a sickness could kill him within hours. A lack of oxygen causes his blood vessels to leak. His lungs fill with fluid. If he doesn't come down immediately, he will drown.
During six painful hours, Whittaker retreats almost 5,000 feet down to camp two. As he treks, the clouds disperse, and the cyclone is blown off course.
Buoyed by that news, Whittaker decides to try again - against a doctor's recommendation. After a lot of wrangling, he convinces two Sherpas to accompany him; they are wary. They don't think he can do it and worry he will die or endanger others.
Whittaker realizes the risks, but says he has to try. Because there is not enough oxygen to bring along, Hawse nd Richards cannot accompany him.
He moves into what's called "the death zone," that area above 26,000 feet in altitude where muscles deteriorate - where the human body risks slow death from dehydration and exhaustion. Says Whittaker, describing this climb: "I've just been climbing all night. All I see is footprints in front of me. It's just been endless."
Finally they reach the South Summit, about 300 feet below the true summit - all treacherous going. After almost eight hours of climbing, Whittaker reaches the final hurdle, the famed Hillary Step. Technically this is the hardest part of the climb: a 40-foot wall of sheer rock and ice.
Beyond the Hillary Step, the summit is still almost an hour away. The last stop is the roof of the world.
Finally reaching the summit, a deliriously happy Whittaker takes out the rock that Child had given him three years earlier.
"Greg, do you remember in 1995 getting me some rock from the summit and giving it to me and saying, `I want you to put this back where I got it from', " says Whittaker, taking out the rock and flinging it onto the summit. "Well, Greg, this is for you. I took care of business."
Later, recalling his climb, Whittaker says, "She's taken everything that I had to give. I'm totally at peace with the mountain, and I'm very much at peace with myself."