Summit America

Summit America

From A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Summit America

“Why me?” Todd screamed as his dad pulled his bloody body out of the murky lake and into the boat. Todd remained conscious as his father, two brothers and three friends sped to shore to get help.

It was all too surreal. Everyone had just spent a fun-filled day of water-skiing at the lake in Oklahoma where his grandparents lived. Todd wanted to go inner-tubing after everyone finished water-skiing. As he was untangling the ski ropes, the gears kicked into reverse and sucked his legs into the propellers, all in a flash of a moment. No one heard him scream until it was too late! Now he was in the hospital, hanging onto his life.

Both legs were severely injured. The sciatic nerve in his right leg had been severed, causing his leg to be permanently paralyzed from the knee down to his toes. The doctors said there was a chance he would never walk again. Todd slowly recovered from his wounds, but bone disease eventually set into his right foot. For the next seven years, he physically and emotionally battled to keep his leg. However, the time had finally come for him to face his biggest fear.

On a grim day in April, 1981, Todd lay conscious on the operating table at Massachusetts General waiting for the procedure to take place. He spoke calmly to the hospital staff about what kind of pizza he wanted to eat after the surgery. “I’d like Canadian bacon and pineapple,” he joked. As the dreaded moment approached, a wave of calmness swept over him. Peace filled his heart as he thought of a Bible verse from his childhood, “Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.”

Todd knew with an unwavering conviction that his next step was to go through with the amputation. Any lingering doubt had vanished, and courage to face the inevitable prevailed. To obtain the lifestyle he desired, he had to lose his leg. In a few short minutes the leg was gone, but his whole future opened up.

He studied psychology at the suggestion of friends and family. He graduated magna cum laude, then took a job as clinical director of the Amputee Resource Center in Southern California. With his background in psychology and his personal experience as an amputee, he began to notice how he was able to inspire other amputees through his work.

“The steps I must take in my life are ordered,” he remembered. “I guess I’m on the right path, but what is my next step?” he wondered.

Until the accident he led a normal life. He hiked, camped, played sports, flirted with girls and hung out with his buddies. After his injury, he continued to socialize with his friends, but he had trouble playing sports. The artificial leg he received after the amputation allowed him to walk again, but not much more.

There were nights Todd would dream of running through grassy fields, only to wake up to the harsh reality of his situation. He desperately wanted to run again.

In 1993, he got his wish. A new type of prosthesis, called a Flex-Foot, was developed. He acquired one through his prosthetist.

At first, he struggled to run, tripping over his feet and gasping for breath. However, with perseverance he was soon able to run 12 miles a day.

As he developed his abilities, a friend stumbled across an article in a magazine he thought Todd would find interesting. An organization was looking for an amputee to climb the highest mountain in each of the 50 states. There would be four other disabled climbers, and they would attempt to break a record by climbing all 50 highpoints in 100 days or less.

The idea excited Todd. “Why not go for it?” he thought. “I used to love to hike and now I have an opportunity to explore my limits.” He applied for the position and was immediately accepted.

The expedition was set to begin in April 1994. Todd had almost a year to get prepared. He began to train for the climb by working out daily, changing his diet and practicing rock climbing on weekends. Everyone agreed it was a good idea, but some thought it might not be the most responsible choice.

Todd didn’t let those with negative concerns hold him back. He knew this was the right thing to do. When he prayed for direction, he was clear that this was to be the next step in his life.

Everything was working out perfectly—until February 1994, when he received some discouraging news. The funding for the expedition fell through. The project coordinator said he was sorry, but there was nothing left to do but disband the project.

“I will not quit!” Todd exclaimed. “I have put too much time and work into this to give up now. There is a message here that must be heard and, God willing, I’ll find a way to make this expedition happen!”

Undaunted by the news, Todd set out to put the wheels in motion. During the next six weeks, he gathered enough financial support to get a new expedition under way. He garnered the support of a few friends to help him with the logistics of the climb. Whit Rambach would be his climbing partner, and I, Lisa Manley, would handle business from the home front. With everything now in order, he took off as scheduled with his new expedition called “Summit America.”

As Todd prepared for the expedition, he learned that only 31 people had ever reached the summit of all 50 highpoints. More people have successfully climbed Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world.

Todd and Whit began the record for climbing all 50 highpoints at 5:10 P.M. on June 1, 1994 on Mt. McKinley in Alaska. The previous record holder, Adrian Crane, and a military sergeant, Mike Vining, assisted them in their climb on Denali, the Indian name for Mt. McKinley.

“The conditions on the mountain were extremely unpredictable,” said Todd. “Storms could blow in within hours. It’s like a game of cat and mouse trying to make it to the top.

“The weather got to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit at times,” he said. “It took us 12 days to battle the weather, altitude sickness and the reality of the danger. I knew the mountain could be dangerous, but I didn’t realize just how dangerous until two frozen bodies were being dragged down the mountain in front of me.

“It was one step at a time. The last thousand feet were the most difficult. I was taking three breaths for every step. I kept telling myself that my message would only be heard if I made it to the top. This realization propelled me to the summit.”

The rest of the expedition was fast-paced and exciting. Hooked on Phonics came to Summit America’s rescue by financing the rest of the climb. People took an interest in Todd, his determination to break the record, and his story. His message was being told in newspapers and on television and radio as he traveled around the country.

Everything was right on track until it was time to climb the 47th highpoint, Mt. Hood in Oregon. One week earlier, two people lost their lives on that mountain. Everyone advised Todd and Whit not to make the climb. They said it wasn’t worth the risk.

Full of uncertainty and apprehension, Todd contacted his old high-school friend and expert mountaineer, Fred Zalokar. When Fred heard his predicament, he said, “Todd, you’ve come too far to quit now. Fly me into town and I’m going take you up that mountain—safely.”

After a number of discussions with mountain authorities and hours of careful planning, Todd, Whit and Fred successfully made it to the summit of Mt. Hood. Now only three more highpoints stood between Todd and the record.

Then on August 7, 1994, at 11:57 A.M., Todd stood victorious at the peak of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. He had climbed all 50 highpoints in just 66 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes, shattering the old climbing record by 35 days!

Even more remarkable, Todd was an amputee who shattered a record set by a man with two good legs.

Todd was elated, not only because he had set a new world climbing record, but because he now knew the answer to the question, “Why me?” that had haunted him ever since his accident at the lake.

At age 33, he saw how this triumph over his tragedy could be used to encourage people everywhere to believe that they could make it through their personal challenges.

Throughout the climb and to this day, Todd Huston is bringing his message to people everywhere. With a calm assurance he states, “Through faith in God and a belief in the abilities God gives you, you can overcome whatever challenges you face in life.”

Lisa Manley

More stories from our partners