UCSF Prosthetic Patient Summits Mount Everest

By Lisa Cisneros on April 08, 2005

Nawang Sherpa

Nawang Sherpa, who last May became the first man with a prosthetic leg to summit Mount Everest, delivered hope to patients at UCSF recently. Sherpa, flanked by two friends and fellow mountain climbers, told a tale of courage and conviction on March 25 as a guest of the UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. The department hosted a reception for Sherpa - one of its most prominent successes - inviting fellow amputees and their families to hear his story and view the video (Windows Media) chronicling his remarkable trek. Sherpa, who lost his left leg below the knee when a bus collided with his motorcycle in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2000, reached the peak of the 29,035-foot Mount Everest with a state-of-the-art titanium and carbon-fiber limb just four years later. In doing so, he joined the league of some 1,400 climbers worldwide - and among only a few who are disabled -- to summit the earth's highest mountain. "He was just amazing," said his friend Tom McMillan, who raced ahead of Sherpa during the momentous May 16, 2004 climb to document the final stretch. "No one with a disability as severe as his has ever done anything like this." McMillan and Sherpa are members of the Friendship Beyond Borders Expedition, which is using last year's successful Everest climb as a springboard for pursuing new opportunities to raise global awareness of disabled athletes and to "demonstrate the power of international friendships to overcome the world's toughest challenges." As they did at UCSF on Good Friday, they deliver an upbeat message on speaking tours, in short films and on the Internet, where the video of their climb is posted. Boyhood Dream A native of the Solukhumbu village of Tapting, Sherpa had always dreamed of climbing Mount Everest since he was a child. He had trained in mountain climbing and had completed part of his work to become a certified high-altitude guide before his tragic accident. "I was riding my motorcycle when a bus hit me," Sherpa recalled. "There was a lot of bleeding and I got really thirsty. I had to have a Coke." With the help of a friend, Sherpa hailed a taxi and was stuck in traffic for half an hour before arriving at a local hospital. He was transferred a few days later to another hospital better equipped to care for his battered leg. "I was in one of the best hospitals for the type of injury I had," Sherpa said. "The doctor tried to save it, but it was very bad."
Final steps to summit of Mount Everest
Final steps to summit of Mount Everest (29,035 ft.; 8,848 meters) looking back at the south face of Lhotse and the Khumbu Region of Nepal, morning of May 16, 2004.
Sherpa was told that part of his leg had to be amputated due to gangrene. "I thought my life was over," he recalled. "I was very sad. I never thought I would become able to climb Mount Everest." Sherpa's attitude changed one day when he read a newspaper story about Tom Wicott, who became the first man to summit Everest with an artificial foot. "I thought, if I can get an artificial leg, I can do it, too," he said. Help from Friends Sherpa's achievement came with the help of his friends. McMillan, a software developer for AMB Property Corp. of San Francisco, a real estate investment trust, met Sherpa in 1998 when they were planning to scale Annapurna, a Nepalese peak that is 10th highest in the world. That trip was aborted when an avalanche destroyed their base camp. With the financial support of American friends and the Annapurna trekkers, Sherpa traveled to the US, having been referred to the UCSF Orthotic and Prosthetic Service, a division of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, where the clinical staff evaluate, design, custom-fit and manufacture all types of orthoses (braces) and prostheses (artifical limbs) to meet the needs of an individual patient. At UCSF, Sherpa met with prosthetist Walter Racette, director of the service, who fitted Sherpa with a specially designed $13,000 prosthetic leg donated to him by the department in May 2001. After four weeks of adjustments by Racette and adapting to his new leg, Sherpa returned to Nepal and reclaimed his life as a mountain guide.

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"Most people are happy to stand in balance and take a few steps, Nawang took off to the Mission Bay climbing wall," Racette recalls. With a new leg, Sherpa began making treks in the Everest region, and twice climbed beyond the advanced base camp on the south face of Mount Everest. In May 2003, AMB Property Corp. CEO Hamid Moghadam offered McMillan a chance to climb Mount Everest, serving as lead sponsor of the expedition. Climbing Everest not only takes lots of courage, but lots of cash, costing a minimum of $15,000 in fees and permits. McMillan invited Sherpa, who was by then on his fourth prosthesis due to the need to ensure an adequate fit, along for the journey and a chance to realize his dream. In the end, Sherpa, equipped with an oxygen tank, water bottle and an extra leg just in case his became damaged, reached the peak, where he spent about an hour in exultation before heading back down. Today, Sherpa has set his sights on climbing the world's 14 other mountains over 8,000 meters high. Source: Lisa Cisneros Photos and video courtesy of Friendship Beyond Borders Expedition

Related Links

Everest: Friendship Beyond Borders Expedition Rising Above Disability to Climb Everest