Posted on Sun, Feb. 15, 2004

Nepalese climber has high hopes
OUTDOORS:Nawang Sherpa, a friend of Ed Hommer, will challenge Mount Everest with new high-tech prostheses.


Nawang Sherpa hesitated after a California climber offered to make his lifelong dream to scale Mount Everest a reality.

Tom McMillan's invitation to include Nawang in a 2004 expedition erased a major obstacle: money for food, transportation, manpower, gear and fees.

But he still needed at least one spare leg and an extra foot, maybe two, to scale the 29,035-foot peak.

The 29-year-old Nepalese sidar, or trekking guide, lost his left leg below the knee to a motorcycle wreck four years ago. The injury galvanized Nawang's friends, former clients and Ed Hommer, the late Fish Lake, Minn., climber who shared an admiration of Nawang's skills and ambition.

In April 2002, Nawang traveled to Duluth to be outfitted with a flexible, durable prosthetic designed for climbing by Hommer, a double-amputee, and Cloquet's Tom Halvorson. Five months later, Hommer died in a rock slide on a Washington mountain while training for a second attempt at Mount Everest -- an expedition he planned to undertake with Nawang.

Nawang returned to Duluth on Monday, this time at the invitation of Hommer's friends and officials at High Exposure, a foundation Hommer launched to provide prostheses for those in need.

On Thursday, Nawang will leave for San Francisco with two spare carbon fiber and titanium legs, an extra pair of carbon graphite left feet and four liners for padding and insulation.

"That's one thing Ed wanted to do -- help Nawang," said Halvorson, a High Exposure director and certified prosthetist for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Duluth. "It's finishing something that Ed wanted to do."

The prosthetics give Nawang backups in case his artifical leg and foot become damaged by the icy, treacherous conditions on Mount Everest's historic southeast ridge route, known as the South Col.

"We're preparing him for Everest," Halvorson said. "We want him to stand on top of the hill."


From camp, climbers will face unstable ice formations, called seracs, precarious crevasses and the Lhotse Face, a steep wall of ice, before reaching 26,300 feet, or the death zone. At that height, the body no longer adjusts to the mountain's thin air.

McMillan and Nawang hope to reach the summit in May and return to Kathmandu in June.

McMillan, Nawang, three guides, a cook and an aide are expected to arrive at a Mount Everest base camp, at 17,300 feet, early in April.

The expedition, which is sponsored by the American Alpine Club, has raised $45,000, almost entirely from private donations by executives at AMB Property Corp., where McMillan works as a software developer. McMillan's employer, Hamid Moghadam, proposed the expedition and donated $20,000.

McMillan immediately thought of Nawang after receiving Moghadam's offer.

"I like him and respect him," he said. Scaling Mount Everest will boost Nawang's career as a high-altitude guide.

"Think how cool it's going to be to be standing up there with him," McMillan said.

Nawang met McMillan during the California climber's 1998 attempt at Annapurna, a 26,545-foot high mountain in Nepal. Nawang acted as a guide for 15 trekkers who joined McMillan at Annapurna's base camp, including McMillan's wife, Linda.

"Nawang was our shepherd," she explained. "That's how we felt. We were pretty clueless."

Nawang's skills, determination and friendly, professional attitude impressed the 15-person crew, Linda McMillan explained.


When the trekkers learned of Nawang's wreck, they sponsored his trip to the University of California-San Francisco, where doctors outfitted him with a sturdy prosthetic.

Nawang lived with the McMillans during his one-month stay in 2001. The Bay area couple and the guide from Nepal's Khumbu district became close friends.

It was Linda McMillan and Seattle climber Jim Wickwire who introduced Nawang to Hommer as he returned from an unsuccessful 2001 Mount Everest expedition.

Hommer championed access to prosthetics and used his expeditions to erase stigma that amputees are limited by their disability.

"This isn't about Ed Hommer," he said before his attempt to become the first double-amputee to scale Mount Everest. "This is about the capabilities of the human spirit and what any of us can accomplish."

Hommer launched High Exposure to provide prosthetics to those in need. Nawang became the foundation's first client in 2002, after his original prosthetic became loose as muscles in Nawang's limb atrophied.

The Duluth prosthetic allowed him to resume climbing, Nawang said. With encouragement from his employer, Peak Promotions, he scaled 21,000 feet on Mount Everest in 2003.

Nawang recalled thinking: "I'm happy. I'll make it one day to the Mount Everest summit," he said Tuesday. "I love to climb."

Helping prepare Nawang for Mount Everest honors Hommer's mission to see that amputees are not hampered by ill-fitting prosthetics or discouraged by their disability, said Sarah Cron, a High Exposure director.

"Ed's number one goal was to spread the message of hope," she said. "Ed could run. Ed could ride a bike. Ed climbed mountains. Ed lost both his legs."

And Hommer liked the guide from Nepal.

"Nawang meant so much to Ed," she said.

The foundation languished after Hommer's death. McMillan's and Nawang's expedition has "reinvigorated" its board of directors, she said.

"It's a pretty big deal."

MELANIE EVANS covers health care. Call her at (218) 720-4154 or (800) 456-8282 or e-mail her at