Members of a Mount Everest expedition led by Charlotte native Tom McMillan approach the summit in May. McMillan organized the climb in part to help six-year acquaintance Nawang Sherpa reach the top. Photo: Friendship Beyond Borders Expedition

Nawang Sherpa, who lost his left leg in 2000, climbs an ice wall in May on his way to the peak of 29,028-foot Mount Everest. The trek made Nawang the first below- the-knee amputee to reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain, or any other taller than 26,000 feet.  Photo: Scott Anderson

Tom McMillan
Photo: Friendship Beyond Borders Expedition

Posted on Mon, Jan. 03, 2005

Rising above disability to climb Everest
Charlotte native's aid helps Sherpa with prosthesis reach top of world

Staff Writer

Strong and hardy at high altitudes, Sherpa guides have accompanied Mount Everest expeditions since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit 51 years ago. Charlotte native Tom McMillan found a way to repay the Nepalese mountaineers.

The Everest expedition he led last spring allowed a Sherpa to become the first below-the-knee amputee to reach the top. Nawang Sherpa, who lost his left leg when a bus hit his motorcycle in Kathmandu, reached the top of the world -- 29,028 feet -- at 8:15 a.m. May 16. The Himalayan peaks below looked like the waves of an angry sea.

"When I got there, I had a tear from my eye," Nawang later told GQ magazine, "because I was thinking back to when I got hurt and who saved my life, who gave me the (prosthetic) leg, who helped me, who looked out for me. I remembered all those people when I got to the summit." Those people are why McMillan named his expedition Friendship Beyond Borders.

ExplorersWeb, which covers such expeditions, said Nawang was the first below-knee amputee to summit a peak of 26,000 feet or higher. Among hundreds of expeditions, the Web site gave McMillan's a special mention in its Best of 2004 list.

"As long as I remember," McMillan said during a holiday visit with his parents, "I wanted to do something exciting, but I didn't know what." Magazine photos finally inspired the son of a Charlotte doctor. Climbing was "like finding religion." While still in his early teens, he and a friend hiked the length of the Smoky Mountains. At 17, he spent a summer amid the towering granite domes of California's Yosemite National Park. Since then, the 48-year-old software engineer has climbed mountains, rock and ice all over the world, including multiple trips to the Alps and the Andes.

Adventure runs in the family. A decade ago, McMillan's younger brother, Peter, re-created a Vickers Vimy biplane and its 11,000-mile flight, first accomplished in 1919, from London to Australia.

Tom McMillan met Nawang Sherpa, whose surname is common among his ethnic group, in 1998. Their expedition was to scale 26,545-foot Annapurna, a Nepalese peak that is 10th-highest in the world. The trip was aborted when an avalanche destroyed their base camp. After Nawang lost his leg in 2000, McMillan's wife, Linda, organized the Annapurna expedition members to pay his passage to the United States. The University of California-San Francisco donated a $20,000 prosthesis. Nawang stayed at the McMillans' Marin County, Calif., home.

Ed Hommer, an American climber who lost both lower legs in an Alaska airplane crash, met Nawang and had him fitted for a new leg in Minnesota. But their plan to scale Everest together in 2003 ended when Hommer was killed in a training climb. Then an Everest expedition, previously unthinkable because of its expense, fell in Tom McMillan's lap. Hamid Moghadam, the chairman and CEO of the San Francisco real estate firm where McMillan works, offered $25,000 of his own money to make it happen. Other private and corporate donors came up with an additional $35,000.

McMillan immediately thought of Nawang, 33, who still harbored hopes of becoming an Everest guide. Three other Sherpas joined the climb. In the weeks before the attempt, Nawang skipped most of the training treks that let climbers adjust to Everest's thin air. "He may be the first person to summit Mount Everest with a prosthesis, but without training for it," said Linda McMillan. "He was afraid of hurting his (artificial) leg."

At 9 p.m. May 15, during a break in the weather, the team set off from its base camp. McMillan's only problem during his final push to the top was with his glasses, which froze over because of condensation from his oxygen mask. "There definitely was a moment when I thought, `I'm this close to the summit and I'm not going to make it because I can't see,' " McMillan said. Because he was busy taking pictures and video footage in the thin air, McMillan scarcely remembers his 90 minutes at the top. But he's jubilant in the tape of his satellite-phone call to his boss-benefactor in San Francisco.

Nawang celebrated, too, proudly posing for photos with the Nepalese flag and pictures of his country's king and queen. "It was nice," the man with the titanium and carbon-fiber leg later told McMillan, "but so hard to get there."

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