A boys' own job: we'd fly helicopters and pull bodies from the slopes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am

I've learned many things in life but having your legs amputated then scaling Mount Everest taught me not only can that you do anything but that you can always do it better. In that respect it's no different from schooldays.

It took me three goes at university before I stuck it out but I did and it was worthwhile. I grew up on the South Island of New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s. Although we struggled financially, it was an idyllic place, rural and beautiful and away from the pressures, such as drugs, that kids face today.

Despite generally a very positive overall education, I struggled at primary school. Almost a third of that time I was away from school with bronchitis and pneumonia. I fell behind learning the alphabet and even later on in life I still struggled to put words together.

Secondary school was more upbeat. I generally worked hard and if I didn't, I still squeezed through. Luckily, I had really great teachers, one of whom taught me geography. It was he who inspired me to become a mountaineer and we formed an alpine club. I was about aged 12. That worked for me as I wasn't good at rugby - in fact I was crap at it - and avoided the cliques.

There was also tremendous leadership from the top and I've realised that matters enormously.

In 2003 I toured 135 schools meeting 60,000 kids over more than four months talking about the challenges of life and my own story. As soon as I met the principal I knew what the culture would be like. As long as kids are given the right environment to learn in then they really can flourish and make the right decisions for themselves.

Another teacher told me I'd never pass English to get to university. I'm sure she did that as a challenge and I rose to it and passed with an A grade.

The first time I went to university at Canterbury was to study geography and geology. I left after two weeks because climbing was my first love and there wasn't enough time to do it. I went to work on a farm and learned how to handle animals and machinery which left me time for the mountains.

I did it for 12 months and effectively it was a gap year. I think it's too much to expect all kids to go to university straight from school. They need breathing space to figure things out.

The following year I landed the position of trainee park ranger which combined being at Lincoln University with working in a national park. When I came to work at Mount Cook National Park, my first choice, I realised this was what I wanted and didn't return to university. It was what we'd say a 'boys' own job' and I'm probably still looking for that kind of employment.

We'd fly helicopters up into the mountains, rescue climbers and pull bodies from the slopes; it was phenomenally exciting. However, in November 1982 I ended up stuck in an ice cave and the result was I lost both my legs. Now when I think about that, I choose to remember Christmas Day 1982, when I woke up to find I was without legs, as an opportunity to live a different kind of life.

I realised my career path as an amputee mountaineer would be very limited. I became an office-bound duty ranger but it was very frustrating.

So I returned to university, again at Lincoln, and having wanted to open a nursery but lacking the resources, studied biochemistry and loved it. I was 25 years old, treated it like an eight-hour working day and graduated with first-class honours.

After that, I became a trainee winemaker but now spend a lot of my time doing corporate motivational work while also having a wine consultancy and a sports food company. I was filmed scaling Everest in May 2006, the coldest season on record.

The documentary makers asked if they could come along and initially I felt it'd be too distracting. Then I relented with the clear understanding that they'd never impinge on me and my climbing.

It's been an interesting result and believe me, I guarantee that it absolutely transforms mountaineering documentaries.

Mark Inglis is the first double amputee to scale Mount Everest and appears in Everest: Beyond the Limit, Summit Dreams which premiers on the Discovery Channel at 10pm on Tuesday. He was talking to David Phair