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Top Of The World: In 1980, Jeff Glasbrenner lost his leg. In 2016, he climbed Mount Everest

After Jeff Glasbrenner lost his leg in 1980, his doctors gave him a list of all the physical activities to stay away from. He obliged for a few years. And then, after becoming a wheelchair basketball world champion and an Ironman, he decided to climb Mount Everest.

The Khumbu Icefall is a terrible beauty, a looming jumble of frozen minarets and seracs guarding the southwestern slopes of Mount Everest. Navigating it, says climber Lisa Thompson, feels not so much like walking on the mountain as it does walking through it.

“There is the visual of these towering, teetering ice blocks,” she says, “but also the audio of ice cracking around and beneath you, reminding you that it’s moving, it’s alive. It could swallow you whole at any second.”

Early in the morning on April 18, 2014, a massive serac released, resulting in an avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese guides. The Everest climbing season was canceled, as it was again a year later, following a 7.8 earthquake that killed 9,000 people in Nepal and triggered another avalanche that slammed into the mountain’s base camp, taking 20 lives. Even by the unforgiving standards of Everest, on which at least 280 people have died since the peak was first summited in 1953, it was a ghastly two-year stretch.

Climber dies in accident while preparing to climb Mount Everest without oxygen

Among the teams returning to the mountain in 2016 was a group led by Garrett Madison, a veteran guide based in Seattle who was assisted by Brent Bishop. Bishop—along with Thompson and Jeff Glasbrenner—are the central characters in Capturing Everest, a joint production between SI and Endemol Shine Beyond USA. It’s the first virtual reality documentary of an expedition up the world’s tallest mountain.

Thompson, 44, was an ambitious, successful executive and recreational climber whose battle with breast cancer forced her to reflect on how little time we are allotted on earth. In March 2016 she quit her job, sold her house and signed up to climb Everest. The sage, serene Bishop qualifies, in this country, as mountaineering royalty: His father, the late Barry Bishop, was a member of the first American team to stand atop Everest, in 1963. Having twice summited that peak before last year’s expedition, Bishop, 50, was intimately familiar with the dangers of the Khumbu Icefall, which entails, he says, "2 1⁄2 miles [weaving] through chunks of ice as big as a small office building. . . . It’s terrifying.”

"There's the audio of the ice cracking, reminding you that it's moving. It could swallow you whole at any second."

"There's the audio of the ice cracking, reminding you that it's moving. It could swallow you whole at any second."

The experience was even more daunting for Glasbrenner, 44, especially as he navigated the ladders serving as flimsy bridges over the Icefall’s many crevasses. Missing his right leg below the knee, Glasbrenner’s quest was to become the first American amputee to scale Everest. His $50,000 climbing prosthetic is cutting edge, but it can’t provide feeling in his nonexistent ankle, foot and toes. “They tell you not to look down,” says Glasbrenner, who had to look down to make sure the cramponed foot of his “Everest leg” was properly placed on the rungs of the ladder.

Glasbrenner and his mates endured six passages of the Khumbu Icefall—all necessary parts of becoming acclimated to the altitude. “A lot of people assume you just go to base camp, then climb up to the top and get out your selfie stick,” says Glasbrenner. “It’s a little more involved than that.”

To wit: After a nine-day trek from the tiny airstrip at Lukla to the “throne room of the mountain gods,” as Bishop refers to Everest base camp, climbers commence a series of “rotations” designed to boost their production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Only after several weeks of this training are they considered acclimated and ready for the final push to Camp 4—aka the Death Zone—at 26,085 feet, and the summit beyond.

"On Everest, small problems turn into big problems. As they say on the mountain, 'lose a glove, lose a hand.'"

All who would presume to stand at the top of the world—29,029 feet, close to the cruising altitude of most commercial flights—must endure the full spectrum of suffering, physical and mental. On his first night in Camp 1, just shy of 20,000 feet, Glasbrenner woke up oxygen-starved and, for a scary minute or so, was struggling to breathe (a temporary condition called Cheyne-Stokes respiration). As the expedition wore on, he coped with the additional anxiety of watching his weight drop. He lost 20 pounds from his 6' 2", 170-pound frame—nearly half of that in the final week, as the team fidgeted through a five-day holding pattern at Camp 2 (21,000 feet), waiting for 200-mph winds at the summit to die down.

As Glasbrenner became leaner, so did his stump, which made the fit of his prosthesis less snug. Thankfully, he’d anticipated this issue and developed a high-tech solution for it: “I just kept adding socks. Lots of socks.”

“On Everest,” he says, “small problems turn into big problems. As they say on the mountain, ‘Lose a glove, lose a hand.’ I had to be highly attentive to my leg.” A sore or abrasion on his stump, he noted, “could have meant game over.”

The weather improved; a window opened. At 10 p.m. on May 17, the group left Camp 4, aiming to summit shortly after sunrise. Glasbrenner has never spent a longer night. “It’s dark, you’re on a fixed line. You take a step, lock out your back leg, take three breaths. Repeat. We did that for 10 1⁄2 hours.”

Glasbrenner’s resting heart rate is 43. On that grueling push to the summit, it was between 160 and 180 beats per minute. In the hours before sunrise, he recalls, “I was thinking, Wow, I don’t know if I can do this.”

Breaking dawn revealed the serrated peaks of the surrounding Hima-layas, a tableau so stunning, he says, “that I can’t begin to describe it.” Sitting at his kitchen table in Golden, Colo., 11 months later, he pulls up a shirtsleeve to show his goose bumps.

One of the stunning views from the final ascent to the summit.

One of the stunning views from the final ascent to the summit.

Attitude adjusted, he pushed on. The view that morning provided instant perspective, a reminder of how far he’d climbed. Decades earlier Glasbrenner had passed through a different kind of death zone.

"I mean, you think doctors know best. It turns out they don't know everything."

When the blade of his John Deere 60 tractor made a harsh, scraping sound, Jeffrey Glasbrenner cut the power and looked at his eldest son. The two of them were cutting hay on the family’s cattle farm in Boscobel, Wis. As he had many times before, towheaded, wiry, eight-year-old Jeff Jr. jumped from his safe spot on the tractor, removed the offending rock, and pulled out any excess alfalfa wrapped around the blade. Normally, his dad would turn on the power once his son was back in his safe spot. On this July morning in 1980 he pushed the PTO (power take-off) button a moment too early. Jeff’s pant leg caught in the spinning shaft, pulling his right leg into the machinery. The next thing Jeff knew, he was lying in the field looking down at his truncated, bloody limb. “Ten feet to my right,” says Jeff, “I saw my shoe with my foot still in it.”

Jeff Sr., who died in 2010, carried guilt from that day to his grave. The older Jeff Jr. got, says his sister Jenelle, “the more he realized that our dad saved his life” by using his hands as a tourniquet—squeezing the leg to stanch the flow of blood. Had he not done so, doctors told the family, Jeff would have died before arriving at the local hospital. From there he was driven by ambulance 70 miles to a larger hospital in Madison.

Glasbrenner spent 47 days there, undergoing 14 surgeries. He contracted gangrene. Twice, his heart stopped and doctors had to bring him back. Those days were long and stressful, his mother, Sandy, wrote in a letter to him five years ago, “but we still had you!” Doctors removed skin from his back to graft onto his stump, then skin from his backside to replace the skin on his back. This took place in the burn unit, where many of the patients “had so much pain that they would scream, and then you would scream,” wrote Sandy, “and I would just cry for you.”

In the room next to Jeff’s was a boy from Green Bay, dying of cancer. That boy’s mother shared some valuable advice with Sandy. Sometimes, she warned, the worst enemy of a special-needs child is that child’s mother. Sandy could raise her son to be independent, “or raise him to need everyone around him for the rest of his life.”

The day Jeff left the hospital, a doctor handed him a piece of paper. On it was a list of activities he must never attempt: swimming, riding a bike, playing sports. “They were afraid I would hurt myself or hurt other people,” he says. “And the really bad thing is, I believed them. I mean, you think doctors know best.

“It turns out they don’t know everything.”

For many years, he obeyed. He worked hard to keep a low profile at school—to avoid drawing the attention of bullies who taunted him or impersonated his uneven gait. “We grew up in a small town,” says Jenelle. “If you were different in any way, you were going to be teased.”

Cut to last spring, when Jeff wore shorts during much of the 40-mile trek to the Everest base camp, at 17,500 feet. When the team arrived in villages, children often approached him. After touching and inspecting his prosthetic leg, they would look up and say, “Namaste.”

“It was pretty cool,” he says, “to show them that climbers come in all shapes and sizes.”

Jenelle, 15 months younger, was the family’s star athlete. Her 37 points against Riverdale broke Boscobel High’s single-game scoring record. While she was at practice after school, Jeff covered for her at home, doing her chores on the farm.

Sitting at the scorer’s table or cheering Jenelle on from the bleachers, there was always a part of him that craved competition. “I wanted to play something,” Jeff recalls. “I was always her biggest fan, but just sitting there watching, I wondered if I would ever get my chance.”

Glasbrenner (No. 10) called wheelchair basketball his 'happy place,' and went on to become a world champion.

Glasbrenner (No. 10) called wheelchair basketball his 'happy place,' and went on to become a world champion.

Hopping down the hallway of his new dormitory at Wisconsin-Whitewater—he didn’t bother strapping on his leg for the trip to the bathroom—Glasbrenner made eye contact with a cheerful fellow with an Aussie accent who deadpanned, “Dude, you’re missing your leg!”

This was Troy Sachs, whose long pants concealed the fact that he, too, was a below-the-knee amputee. Sachs was also a world-class wheelchair basketball player. After two years commuting to Wisconsin-Platteville, Glasbrenner had transferred to Whitewater, which was, unbeknownst to him, home to one of country’s top wheelchair hoops programs. Right there in the hallway, Sachs started recruiting him. Twelve years after losing his leg, Glasbrenner decided to disobey the doctors. He showed up for practice the next day.

He wasn’t good. The only time he’d been in a wheelchair was when he left the hospital. Other than shooting in the driveway with Jenelle, he’d seldom played basketball. Seeing his frustration, Warhawks coach Mike Frogley cut a deal with him. If Glasbrenner showed up in the gym at 5:30 every morning, they’d spend 90 minutes working on his skills, before the rest of the team arrived. Later in the day, Glasbrenner would practice alone.

He made swift progress. A natural athlete, Glasbrenner finally had an outlet for his competitive fire, a focus for his boundless work ethic. Finding this sport “made a huge difference for me,” he says. “I hadn’t been unhappy, up until then. But I didn’t have that one thing I was good at. I’d found my happy place.”

Before long Glasbrenner was holding his own on the court, getting around with control and ease, making a few baskets. And then he was dominant. In 1997 he was invited to try out for the national team. A hundred athletes arrived in Colorado Springs for a five-day training camp. Twelve players made the team. Glasbrenner was one of them.

When Team USA took on Australia at the 1998 world championships in Sydney, Glasbrenner rolled up for the opening tip-off. Smiling at him across the half-court line was Troy Sachs. Glasbrenner got the tip, the Yanks won the game, and they went on take the gold.

Glasbrenner won another world title four years later. A three-time Paralympian, he spent two years in Spain playing in a professional wheelchair basketball league. Back in the States in 2003, in the championship game for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, he poured in 63 points to lift his team to the championship, after which he called Jenelle and asked, “Hey, what was your single-game scoring record, again?”

In 2000, Jeff got a call from a former teammate. Would he come to North Carolina for a charity bike ride? He’d be operating a hand-crank bicycle 200 miles, from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Glasbrenner had never used a hand-crank bike. “I’m in,” he said.