When Norman Croucher Lost His Legs, He Knew He Still Had Mountains to Conquer
07/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
Nineteen-year-old Norman Croucher was drunk—rebelliously, recklessly drunk. After making the rounds of assorted pubs in Wiltshire, England that night in 1960, he stumbled off to sleep in the woods. Instead, he tumbled down a railroad embankment and collapsed on the tracks below. He doesn't remember what happened next, but when he awoke, he came to a nightmarish realization: His legs were gone, sliced off just below the knee by a train. "The first thing I thought when I realized what happened to me," he remembers, "was, 'I wonder if I can climb again.' "
Croucher wasn't worrying about climbing stairs. Even in that moment of trauma, he was determined to fulfill his childhood dream to climb mountains. Since then, despite the nearly insurmountable handicap of two artificial legs, he has realized that dream, scaling dozens of peaks on three continents. Last month Croucher, now 40, with his climbing companion, John Margesson, 30, reached another summit in his astounding career, conquering the 21,509-foot Himalayan peak White Needle. It was only the fourth time in history that the peak had been scaled, but his partner found Croucher no handicap. "Going up, Norman could go as fast as I wanted to," said Margesson. "He never delayed me."
For Croucher, who has been rock climbing since the age of 12, adjusting to his Ieglessness was a harrowing struggle. "I had a lot of depression and misery," he remembers. "But I didn't suffer from self-pity because I realized it was my own fault." After six weeks in the hospital, Croucher was sent to a convalescent home, where he was fitted with artificial limbs. As soon as he could get out of bed, he began climbing trees. For the next nine years, while employed as a clerk and then a social worker in London, Croucher spent his spare time rock climbing in the English countryside. Then he began to look for a tougher challenge. By 1969 he decided he was ready to take on the Alps.
Training for that trek, Croucher hiked from one end of Britain to another: John o'Groat's in Scotland to Lands End in Cornwall, a distance of 900 miles. "It took me three months, and I must have the record for the longest time," he says, "but it got me fit enough for the Alps." Six months later Croucher climbed both the Jungfrau and the Mönch, each rising more than 13,000 feet. In 1972 he scaled the treacherous west flank of the Eiger, and two years later conquered the Matterhorn. A few years afterward, to ease the strain on his legs and improve his balance, he began using crutches while climbing. Last February, on an expedition to the Andes, his artificial left leg broke from metal fatigue at 13,000 feet. Croucher kept going for five more days, living on nuts, stale bread, a can of tuna and one of beef while he dragged himself on hands and knees another 3,000 feet up the icy slopes of Mount Ameghino. "When you're crawling," he says, shrugging off the danger with a joke, "you can't fall very far."
Croucher is philosophic about close calls. "A lot of things in life are a risk," he says. "The more serious risk is not losing your life but wasting it. Through climbing, I've had a very rich life. And my wife, Judy, values all aspects of what we've gained." Author of a forthcoming book, Outdoor Pursuits for Disabled People, Croucher, who has no children, works with a camp back in England that trains the handicapped in outdoor skills. "The idea," he says, "is to integrate them into situations with able-bodied people, to get away from treating handicapped people as a race apart." Croucher does not, however, advocate that others with his handicap take to the mountains as therapy. "What I do is not applicable to most amputees," he says. "To climb in the Himalayas, you have to have great desire, whether you have legs or not. My desire was there before the accident." Croucher does dispense one bit of advice, applicable to those who are handicapped and those who are not. "You have to get out and take some knocks," he says, "to realize what you can do—and want to do."