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60 years of Everest's conquest: 'Tenzing and Hillary inspire every mountaineer'

May 28, 2013 19:08 IST

What is tenacity, one often wonders. Is it the ability to claw your way out of a difficult situation and stand tall despite all odds, or is the ability to embrace the challenges that life throws at you and take it in your stride without complaining.

If this is true, then you need not look further. Mark Joseph Inglis is one such person who fits the bill, who not only faced hardship but also overcome the challenges that many others would find difficult to deal with even in their wildest dreams, let alone in reality.

The 53-year-old Kiwi fell in love with mountaineering at the age of 12 in a country which is passionate about rugby. By the time he turned 18, he was employed as a search and rescue mountaineer for Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand.

Life was looking perfect, till catastrophe struck in 1982, when he was trapped in an ice cave for 14 days. By the time he was rescued, both his limbs had to be amputated because of frost-bite.

A tragedy such as this would have deterred the tolerance and endurance of anyone – but not Inglis. If anything, he was more motivated and determined to the face reality and stand tall.

Inglis proved to be an inspiration when he won a silver medal in Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000. Six year later, he battled all odds to conquer Mt Everest to become the first-ever double amputee to scale the world highest peak.

In an e-mail interview with Manu Shankar on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mt Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Inglis shares his life, challenges and the delight in climbing the peak.

May 29 marks the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt Everest in 1953. Your take on that?

It is always great to celebrate a great success, but even more important to use it as a time to reflect and consider the changes over the 60 years and where we are going for the next 60 years.

How much has Sir Edmund Hilary has inspired you?

I think Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Ed inspire every mountaineer -- they were the first to climb the highest peak. It is less about the technical aspects of the climb though, and more about the courage and grit shown to step into a place that no human had ever been before.

Tell us how climbing the Everest has changed your life?

In most ways it hasn’t; as a mountaineer it is like any peak, just a bit higher that needs more effort and focus. Mountains are like a validation of your thirst to achieve -- I am the same person I was before, but perhaps just with a clearer understanding that anything is possible if you really want it.

You scaled Mt  Everest in 2006, to become the first-ever to scale the peak on prosthetic legs. Please share you experience on being on top of the world?

I was the first double amputee. Previously two other single amputees had climbed Everest from Nepal – like me, both were experienced mountaineers who had lost a limb to frostbite.

Standing on the summit of Everest is a very conflicting place – you are both elated at the achievement while at the same time full of fear, as the summit of Everest is only half way, most people that die, die on the way down.

Your love for mountaineering is unmatchable. Was it something that you always wished for when you were growing up?

Mountaineering came from a body and temperament that was unsuited to New Zealand’s national game -- rugby! I was passionate about motocross but couldn’t afford the best motorcycle. In climbing all you need is to be the best.

Like you said New Zealand is known to produce rugby players. So what made you take up mountaineering, which is not only adventurous but also dangerous?

In mountaineering – you control your destiny, the decisions you make are not just important but life changing, the majestic mountains force you to show respect, humility but also total self confidence – it is not just a game.

You have been an inspiration to many mountaineers. Who or what was yours?

Many different people, from a teacher at school who introduced me to climbing to so many of the great mountaineers of the present and the past have been a source of inspiration. But if I had to pick one, then I would pick Reinhold Messner (renowned for making the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all fourteen "eight-thousanders" -- peaks over 26,000 ft -- above sea level).

Tell us about the tragedy that struck 30 years ago, when you were caught in that record storm?

That was less of a tragedy and more of a challenge. On a climb of Mt Cooks majestic East Ridge (a 1,500m steep ice ridge), we were caught out by a severe storm that had started 12 hours earlier than predicted. The storm was so severe that we had to shelter in a tiny ice cave for thirteen-and-a-half days just to survive.

With little food we were soon dependent on our own search and rescue team to rescue us. We suffered from significant frostbite to our feet and severe malnutrition.

How much time did it take you mentally and physically to be able to pull yourself up from it considering the fact that you were just 23 when tragedy struck?

Mentally, I just treated it as a new mountain to climb so I learnt about prosthetics and started to train. I always consider the fact that I was just 23 and a mountaineer -- a huge advantage in shaping a new life. Once your legs are cut off there is no going back, so the only thing you can do is go forward -- just like in the mountains it is all about decision making.

In mountaineering, you face challenges all the time. While one can prepare for the basic challenges, how do you prepare for the unexpected ones?

By recognising them as a new puzzle, a new challenge and by using techniques of analysis to understand them.

What special preparations did you undergo before scaling the peak?

Like all big mountains, you need to learn about them as much as possible; you need to visualise all the situations you might be in, then plan and train yourself to react automatically to them. I spent six months of focused gym work and significant amount of mountain biking -- I have been a mountaineer all my life so I don’t need to train to climb technically, just be strong and healthy.

What were the challenges that came along the way, while scaling the peak?

Everest is full of challenges for everyone -- altitude, the cold, the weather, your health, to name but a few, add in all the challenges of leg design, of managing your stumps, of needing to climb as fast as an able-bodied mountaineer (no disabled are allowance on Everest,  and never should be on any mountain) and you end up with a much harder task that requires a much stronger spirit and focus.

Sydney was something special. Winning a silver medal must have made you proud?

Very proud, Olympic/Paralympic medals are earned -- huge volumes of training and incredible effort, so to come away with a validation of that work and those sacrifices is great -- even better when it was New Zealand’s first-ever cycling medal.

Manu Shankar in New Delhi