At the age of 72, Norm targets another peak on his two false legs
Double amputee and mountaineer Norman Croucher OBE has scaled some of the world’s most brutal peaks. Could he be one of the world’s most remarkable adventurers? Fran McElhone asks ahead of his forthcoming expedition to the Alps next summer.
He has no legs yet has stood on the summits of some of the mightiest mountains around the globe, clocking up almost 100 ascents of 2,500-metre-plus peaks, including one 8,000m giant, in the 53 years since he lost his legs as a teenager.
His accomplishments are so mega, he registered on the radars of producers of the epic US TV series Lost and was mentioned in one of the early episodes by leading character, wheelchair-bound John Locke.
Now, despite being diagnosed with bowel cancer last year, Norman is planning another expedition he's named Norm's Survivors Climbs.
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In June, the 72-year-old and at least two friends who have each survived life-changing afflictions are set to take on two or three 3,500m peaks around Chamonix in the French Alps. All funds raised from the feat will go to Exeter Hospiscare.
The mountaineer, who was due to go in for an operation the day after I met him at his Topsham cottage, draws a parallel with coming to terms with losing his legs aged 19, after he fell onto train tracks into the path of a train, and his recent diagnosis.
"Climbing is an addiction," he says. "I say, life's like a muscle and if you don't stretch it, it'll waste away – and climbing for me is like stretching the muscle of life.
"It gives me something to aim for. I'm going to be less active for a while, but I'll be okay for the trip next year.
"The accident was my own fault, I was drunk," he adds matter-of-factly from across his dining table.
"But I was very lucky – my legs got squashed off rather than chopped off, which would have meant I would have bled to death. And the boy who found me, who was coming back from his first ever trip to the cinema, was passing by four minutes later than he should have been because the film broke down. These minutes made all the difference. I thought, I can't blame anyone else, so it's up to me to get on with it."
Before the accident, Norman had already got a taste for rock climbing and decided losing his legs wasn't going to stop him pursuing this new-found interest. He started climbing trees during his rehabilitation stint, and "almost as soon" as he got his prosthetics he was wandering off on his own finding rocks to climb and within months scaling the Cornish sea cliffs near his home.
"And I thought, 'yep, it's on'," he says. "It's like now – I wanted a sense of purpose, something to aim for."
Norman has climbed mountains the world over from Canada to middle Asia and can count among his many conquests the Matterhorn, the Eiger and Mont Blanc in the Alps, the White Needle in the Kashmiri Himalayas, Muztagh Ata in China and the sixth highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyo in Tibet – without legs and bottled oxygen. Not, as Locke said, Everest.
"He says something like, 'Norman Croucher lost his legs and climbed Everest'," Norman tells me.
"Then the other character says, 'Norman what?' So the only thing I'm known worldwide for is something I didn't actually do! It was quite a shock to be sitting there and hear my name. They got it wrong but I thought, it'll do!"
Extraordinarily, rather than be a burden, having no legs has, at times, been beneficial to the point of life saving.
"Because there's less of me and I have a shorter blood circuit, I oxygenate better," he explains. "So I may be slower on the lower mountain but then among the first party at the top.
"And because there's less body surface to lose heat from, I keep warmer as well so often I'm more comfortable that the others," he continues. "And there are advantages on long distance flights too – I can take my legs off and stretch out over two seats and have quite a good sleep. I've had many more comfortable nights than the others," he muses.
"But I had to watch out in the early days to remember not to put my compass too near my legs, because needle would deviate quite a long way.
"And I can't get crampons in as deep – I have to make really careful movements and sometimes I have to make a chip in the ice where I want to put my foot.
"I'm slower and more deliberate – other people take risks that I don't. I think, as a guide once said to me, I'm more careful than he was, because I have to be. I've seen able bodied climbers on the mountain who are far less safe than I am because I always move within my limits – bullshit will kill you on the mountain – people think if someone with no legs can do it they can, but this is not true."
While admitting that being legless makes him more vulnerable atop soaring frigid peaks susceptible to crevasses, sub-zero temperatures, deadly weather fronts and rock falls, having prosthetic limbs once saved his life, on his first attempt at an 8,000m mountain, Broad Peak in Pakistan.
"There was a massive, 600m rock fall while we were on a steep ice slope, rocks were whizzing down all around me, any one could have hit me," he recalls.
"Then a rock struck my calliper. Anyone else would have had their femur shattered and probably not survived. The fact I don't have legs saved my life."
Among the astonishing quests Norman has made in his life, documented in his autobiography, Legless but Smiling, when his prosthetics broke through metal fatigue, using crutches and crawling his way up to an Argentinean summit, is arguably one of them.
But, with the greatest of modesty, Norman tells me, "It wasn't that bad."
"I was up around 4,200m when my leg broke," he recalls. "I stuck my leg in my bag and went down the mountain using my crutches, and then carried on below base camp to look after someone who had become sick. At first I thought, that's it. Then when the person I was looking after got well again, I thought, perhaps there's something I can do."
So Norman clambered up a subsidiary summit at 5,115m, a further 1,000m on one leg, bivouacking twice over three days.
"I wouldn't say it was the hardest mountain I've ever climbed," he tells me as I stare at him, a little wide-eyed now. "Cho Oyo is a bit of a grunt at the end," he adds, making himself laugh.
"I always carry crutches," he continues seriously. "That's another situation where I'll survive where others possibly won't."
And then there was the time Norman slept in his rucksack descending Cho Oyo's massive 8,201m high pinnacle.
"It had taken 11 hours to get to the top," he recalls. "We were on the descent, it was about 3pm, and the Sherpa's torch broke. I thought, we're going to get caught in the dark on an unsafe area so I told him to take my torch and go down as he was faster than me, Sherpas risk life and limb for virtually nothing, we had no tent and probably wouldn't have survived the night. I had an extension on my bag which was enough to keep me warm enough because I was in such a compact space. I didn't need my head torch as there was nothing I needed to do that night.
"In the morning, they thought I might be dead as they radioed me from base camp and I didn't answer because it was too cold to take my arms out – I've seen people lose their fingers to frostbite within minutes. Another Sherpa came up in the morning and thought I was dead because all he could see was my rucksack. I think I gave him a bit of a shock when I sat up."
For the last five decades Norman has chosen the same design for his legs as the original. And the legs he climbs with are exactly the same as those he uses to wander around Topsham.
"You can get gadgets that would increase the grade of climbs you can do, such as different sized feet which fit into smaller cracks," he explains. "But I'm more of a mountaineer than a climbing whizz kid, for a while I was obsessed with altitude and wanted to climb mountains over 8,000m, but I became more into ascetic appeal."
And then he starts talking about the wilderness experience being an important factor, the exploratory element rather than just climbing the big boys for the sake of it.
Norman has channelled this remarkably positive and survivalist spirit into inspiring others and making a profound difference in the world of disability sports and the way disabled people are perceived.
A key component of his mountaineering has been promoting adventurous sports for disabled people, for which his dedication, including as a volunteer for the Sports Council – he was first disabled person to be appointed – led to him being added to the Queen's Honours List.
Initially he found himself fighting against those who held the view that only mainstream competitive sports were suitable for disabled people. Norman battled the preconception that there was too much risk associated with adventure sports and went on to prove them all wrong and make them realise that sailing, tobogganing and zip wiring, for example, are accessible.
"There was a boy once who was suffering from 50 seizures a day," he tells me. "But he loved it on the zip wire."
This side of things has added, he says, a "sense of purpose" to his climbing.
And in 2007 Norman founded the Alpine Club Spirit of the Mountain initiative to encourage others to look after each other on the mountain.
"To me, it's probably one of the most important things to get the debate going that you don't just leave someone to die," he says recalling a time when he was on a mountain with someone who did lose his life because his companions left him.
"It's probably one of the greatest privileges on a mountain to help someone down," he says.
Norman's positive attitude is either the result of learned wisdom, or inherent. I suspect the latter. But he knows what it feels like to be typecast. He tells me about his time at teacher training college when the climbing club wouldn't let him take part in the climbs. Then, and he starts smiling now, years later Norman met the secretary of the club, who apologised profusely.
"He asked if I'd help him with an expedition he was planning," he continues. "That was ironic."
Norman ended up becoming a social worker for a time in London. This is when he became involved in projects promoting sports for the disabled, and when he first took on his first major feat, walking from John O'Groats to Land's End which proved his capabilities of pushing boundaries and sparked his big mountain series. His first mountain was Monch in the Swiss Alps.
"It helped that I was going out and doing this," he continues. "Because people thought, if he can do that, he knows about sports for the disabled. People would listen to what I had to say."
Norman explains that all of this was never about proving anything to himself or anyone else, he just loves mountains.
"I just want to climb."
For more on Norman's forthcoming expedition or to pledge your support visit, www.justgiving.com/Norms-Survivors and www.normancroucher.co.uk.