The skys the limit

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

Mark Inglison the Everest in 2006.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Mark Inglison the Everest in 2006.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Mark Inglis, the first double amputee to scale the Everest.

FOR Mark Inglis mountaineering came early in life. And with it came what other people would call the audacity to reach for the impossible. It made him think differently about challenges and gave him a different frame of reference with which to see the world. As a 12-year-old, the only dream this New Zealander harboured was to climb the Everest, the highest peak in the world. When you do mountaineering at such an early age, you become a different person. You are willing to take on even those challenges that many would consider irrational. But the ability to see the world from the top, the aerial picture, is what drives you, he told Frontline at a Gurgaon hotel recently when he visited the National Capital Region to give a series of motivational lectures.

It took him nearly three decades to realise his boyhood dream. Finally, on May 15, 2006, he stood on the summit of the Everest, a mission he undertook to raise funds for The Cambodia Trust, a non-governmental organisation that he patronises.

But before he could do this, he went through his own share of pain. In November 1982, Inglis and fellow mountaineer Philip Doole, who were working as search-and-rescue mountaineers at the majestic Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, were caught in a heavy blizzard, probably the worst in New Zealands written history. It forced them to take refuge in an ice cave smaller in size than the space available underneath an office table. They remained there for 13 days. Following their rescue, Inglis had to spend almost a month in hospital to recover and in the process his legs had to be amputated from the knee down because of severe frostbite. His partner met the same fate.

Today, Inglis describes that incident as just a hiccup that made mountaineering a bit more difficult. His nonchalance while talking about that fateful fortnight could make people who have never faced a serious challenge feel strange. Never had I seen such a deadly blizzard. We miscalculated the storm. But as trained mountaineers, we knew how to survive. The first thing we did was to get out of the wind, into that ice cave. In a stormy condition, the 20 C feels like 60 C. We had to survive on half a biscuit for the first five days. A helicopter dropped some food and other accessories for us on the seventh day, but we were rescued only on the thirteenth day. I lost 40 kg in 13 days as you tend to burn maximum calories in such cold weather. The maximum someone had survived those conditions was nine days. We managed somehow, he said.

Probably it was only a hiccup for Inglis, as nearly 30 years later he became the first double amputee to have climbed the Everest and only the second double amputee to scale the Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world. He recalled how his Everest dream came true: September 27, 2004, my 45th birthday, saw me standing on my first 8,000-metre peak, Cho Oyu, at 8,201 m, only 649 m lower than the Everest. That summit meant I am only the second double amputee to have climbed an 8,000-m peak, but as always, that wasnt quite enough. From the summit of the Cho Oyu, I looked straight out at what people had told me was the impossible, the Everest! And two years later he did climb the Everest.

But was it not tough to have lost both his legs? And that too when he had been a mountaineer all his life? I was disappointed. Who would not be? If I can get my legs back today, I will take them. But I do not repent because I know I will not get them back. At the hospital, the worst part was that I could see my legs rot every day in extreme pain. Before the doctors could say it, I desperately wanted them to be amputated.

In a way, Inglis life is a summary of human challenges. His stint with mountaineering started when he was tabooed out of the school for his lack of skill in rugby, the favourite sport of the Kiwis. After his amputation, he showed rare courage in getting back to mountaineering. It was not easy. Every day, I had to learn to walk better with artificial limbs. And you had to scale with other mountaineers. I could not walk slower than them. That is against the principles of mountaineering. Rather than asking why Everest?, I asked why not Everest? It was very hard, but I was confident, he said.

Just after the amputation, mountaineering was painful. After the initial frustration that things were not happening fast enough, Inglis took to academics and finished a degree in biochemistry. While he was still learning to walk faster, he started working at a firm that researched the DNA make-up of leukaemia patients. He followed this with another of his passions: winemaking. He also skied and cycled, which culminated in his winning a silver medal in the cycling event at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. I realised that the best part of having legs like mine is that you can remove them and fix them whenever they act faulty. As I learnt to walk better, nothing seemed impossible.

At 52, he is no longer as fit as he used to be but he feels that he can use his experiences to help make people mentally fitter. He travels across the world to share his experiences and give motivational talks for a living, encouraging executives, school and college students, and entrepreneurs to take up challenges. In my talks, the message is the same, but the medium varies according to different cultures. I like India because people are really aspirational here. I tell them anything is possible. If you have resources, you are not disabled. I feel hurt when people without any physical disabilities lose opportunities, he said.

Inglis said that he did not want to scale big mountains anymore. He said he was much more relaxed now; he took two treks to North Pole every year, enjoyed skiing and cycling and wanted to go back to winemaking. Mountaineering is more of culture than a sport. It breeds hope, lets you see life in a positive perspective. That is why I want to pursue winemaking and wine tasting, make money for my family, start a charity organisation which will donate artificial limbs to amputees, design a sustainable vehicle for the disabled. Mountaineering is not just about mountains, you see. It is about grooming people to react like a leader when unexpected things happen. It is about interpreting different facets of life, Inglis said.

And this is why he does not say that he is disabled and instead prefers to call himself a double amputee. Inglis is also known for wearing only three-quarter pants, making his steel and aluminium limbs visible all the time. It is not to show off. But I have different limbs for cycling, skiing, walking and running. I have to change them all the time. Wearing three-quarter pants makes changing easy. And every time I cover them [my legs] up, I would somehow damage them. They are expensive limbs and I am not that affluent, he said.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment