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Veteran to become first double above-knee amputee to climb Everest
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With his megawatt smile and infectious laugh, Hari Budha Magar radiates positivity. Just as well, since he is about to undertake something that has never been attempted before – and with good reason. In May, this 43-year-old former Gurkha soldier who served 15 years with the British Army will attempt to become the first double above-knee amputee to conquer Mount Everest. The world’s highest mountain has defeated plenty of able-bodied climbers.
Hari has to contend with all the usual challenges of snow, ice, wind and treacherous terrain while having to crawl much of it on his hands and – without knees – several sets of prosthetic limbs and feet.
One set of feet is armed with spikes for the toughest part of the 29,000ft climb.
The ascent will take him three times longer than able-bodied climbers so he and his team will need three times as many oxygen tanks, all of which must be carried up and down the mountain.
To prevent frostbite developing inside his prosthetic limbs, they are fitted with heating elements. And since he will use his hands more than other climbers, he’ll need multiple pairs of gloves.
In the run-up to the climb, it’s vital he neither gains nor loses weight as this will affect the fit of the prosthetics.
During the climb he must not sweat too much as perspiration will freeze inside them. Frostbite would be catastrophic.
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Despite all these challenges, Hari is confident and happy at the final send-off in London before he leaves for Nepal this week. So happy that, in the words of Dame Joanna Lumley, a patron of the expedition and a steadfast friend of the Gurkhas, meeting Hari is “like drinking champagne at 10 in the morning. His can-do optimism is infectious and inspirational”.
Hari has already climbed many mountains, metaphorical and physical, to get this far. Born in a cowshed in the foothills of the Himalayas, he grew up in a remote village and had to walk barefoot to school up and down hills each day. His dream was to join the Gurkhas, the legendary soldiers from Nepal who have fought alongside the British for 200 years.
Aged 19, he was one of just 230 out of 14,000 applicants who made it through the famously tough selection process (this year a staggering 20,000 young Nepalese men applied).
The successful recruits flew to Britain – Hari’s first time in a plane – where his training involved social as well as military skills. “I had to learn to eat with a knife and fork,” he recalls, laughing.
“I’ve always been ready to adapt.” He served 15 years with the Royal Gurkha Rifles on five continents in roles including sniper, covert surveillance duties and team medic. It was a career and life he loved.
Then, on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010, by now a corporal, he trod on an IED bomb. With a bang, his career, his body, and life were blown apart. He lay in the dust while his comrades used tourniquets to staunch the bleeding.
Nearby US forces flew him by helicopter to Bagram air base where American surgeons managed to save his life but not his legs.
Back in the UK, recovery was long and hard, both mentally and physically. His smile falters when he recalls how, lying in his hospital bed, he stared at the ceiling and envisaged hanging himself, depressed and fearful about the future.
He said it was: “Fear of being an outcast in Nepal. Fear that my life was finished – that I would be in a wheelchair, that I would need a carer, that I would lose my wife.”
In Nepal, he explains, “people with disabilities are seen as a burden, hidden away, and blamed. Disability must be punishment for sins in a past life”.
Back home with his family, after a month in hospital, he drank heavily to numb the fear and depression. It was a desperately hard time for him and his wife Urmila, who had followed him on postings and their two young sons. Hari also has a daughter, now 26, from a first, arranged marriage in Nepal.
What brought him back from the brink, he says, was not just wanting to live for his family who depended on him – he was the breadwinner for his relatives in Nepal, funding his three brothers through college – but the support of charities and, through them, adventure and sport.
BLESMA, the charity for limbless and blind veterans, helped him adapt his house in Kent, while Battle Back, part of the Royal British Legion, persuaded him to take part in a skydive from 15,000ft.
It was a major turning point. “Before the jump, I was still half-suicidal,” he said. Afterwards, he thought: “What next?”
He began looking for more physical challenges, throwing himself into parasports such as skiing, kayaking, golf, biathlon (cross-country skiing and rifle shooting), archery, table tennis and cycling.
On one trip, he met ex-Gurkha and former SAS mountain instructor Krishna Thapa. With his help, Hari became the first disabled person to ski in Nepal. This ignited his mountain-climbing career.
He became the first double above-knee amputee to trek to Everest base camp.
As his skill and confidence grew, he climbed other peaks, among them Ben Nevis, Mont Blanc and Mera, at 21,000ft, also in Nepal. But Everest stands head and shoulders above them all at 29,000ft, the holy grail for mountaineers.
It is one of the top three things Nepal is famous for, Hari explains: “The Gurkhas, the birthplace of Buddha and the highest mountain in the world.”
At school, he learned about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit, a triumph announced on the day of the Queen’s Coronation in May 1953.
But he never imagined he would get the chance to climb it himself. Originally Hari planned to attempt Everest in 2018 but, the year before, the Nepalese government banned solo, blind and double amputees from climbing the mountain.
Devastated but undeterred, he went to the country’s supreme court and overturned the decision – a victory he hopes will change perceptions in Nepal about disability.
After further delays due to Covid, he now hopes to reach the summit in May, around the time of King Charles’ Coronation – 70 years after Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
It has taken a phenomenal effort to get this far.
No mountain climbing prosthetics existed, but an amputee from the US helped him out with climbing feet that could be welded onto his prosthetics. Since then, specially-adapted prosthetics have been built for him.
Donors from around the world have helped with everything from carefully-designed meal packs to a tablet for filming and communicating. (Mobile phones don’t work at minus 30C).
Hari and his all-Nepalese team of ten must climb at night when the snow is firmer and easier for his legs which are far shorter than those of most climbers.
But of course, at night, it is much colder.
What drives him on is his mission to inspire other people with disabilities to believe that they too can overcome challenges and to change other people’s perceptions of them.
He realises, he says, how lucky he has been. Losing his legs was devastating, but he was given good prosthetics by the British military – each of his prosthetic limbs costs £60,000 – and helped by so many charities and supporters.
Many of the estimated one billion people with disabilities around the world are far less fortunate. In Nepal, particularly in the remote villages, those who lose limbs through accidents or illness face an incredibly difficult life without wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs.
One of Hari’s sponsors is the Gurkha Welfare Trust, for whom he is an ambassador. As well as helping Gurkha veterans and their widows, the charity runs medical clinics in Nepal fitting prosthetic limbs to children and adults. He says that if he was living in Nepal as an amputee not only would he have been treated as an outcast, but his family would have been too.
He hopes, by conquering Everest he can prove that people with disabilities can lead productive, fulfilling lives.
Hari says: “Some people think disabled people should just stay at home.
“I’ve been so fortunate. There are so many people who are also strong, who also have the right mindset, but they don’t get opportunities. I’ve got this opportunity, so I must use it to help other people.”
And what are his plans when he comes back down from the Everest summit?
His broad grin gets even wider: “A big party to thank the people who saved my life – I wish I could find the Americans who rescued me and the doctors and nurses, the physios, everyone who has helped me.”
Although he lost his religious faith after being blown up, it is these people, he says, who are now his “gods”.
“I am so grateful to them for helping me,” he concludes. “I want to help other people now. I want to give back.”
- To help fund Hari’s climb, visit crowdfunder.co.uk/p/
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