Disabled War Vet Takes on Everest

Posted By: The Ski Channel on April 17, 2012 4:53 pm

There have been many amazing tales from those brave enough to challenge the tallest mountains in the world, and Private Jaco Van Gass’s story is no exception.  

A 25-year-old adventurer from South Africa, Van Gass is a strong climber with determination matched by very few.  In his young career, he has already summited Mt. Manaslu in Nepal, the eighth-highest peak in the world, and served his country in Afghanistan.  So, for those who know him, it is no surprise that Van Gass has set  his sights on something bigger…Mt. Everest — a massive and dangerous climb of over 29,000 feet.  

But this isn’t just another adventure. Jaco Van Gass is now handicapped.  In 2009, Van Gass lost his right arm while serving in Afghanistan in the British Parachute Regiment when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded nearby.  His injuries went beyond a missing limb.  With a collapsed lung, punctured internal organs, and multiple shrapnel wounds, he is lucky to even be alive. 

Van Gass is a fighter though, and just two years after the attack, he returned to the great outdoors for a trek to the North Pole with the Walking with the Wounded charity.  Walking with the Wounded is a UK organization founded in 2010 to fund the re-training and re-education of wounded members of the military.  They organize trips, like the one Van Gass went on, to build confidence and inspire wounded vets with the end goal of helping them reintegrate into the work force. 

While on his venture to the North Pole, Van Gass contemplated what he would need to participate in longer, more strenuous climbs.  Without his arm, he knew it would be difficult – if not impossible – to navigate the elements with the same efficiency as healthy climbers.  Then, a brilliant idea came to mind: a prosthetic ice axe to replace his missing limb.  

A small group of engineers at a military rehab center in Britain took on the project and built the bionic arm prototype.  Van Gass specified the need for an electrical system to heat his stump; with poor circulation in his arm, the threat of frostbite would become dangerously high at altitude.  According to The Guardian, wires were used to connect two heat patches molded into the prosthetic to an AA battery pack sewn into the thermal under-layer over his heart.  The idea is that his body heat will warm the batteries and help them last longer, since cold temperatures will drain their power. 

With only one hand, it is important to keep it free in case of slips.  With this in mind, designers fashioned the axe to connect to the remaining structure of Van Gass’ arm, ultimately replacing his left hand and freeing his right hand to balance while the axe to holds him to the mountain. The tool itself is made from a regular climbing axe, with one side sawed off and connected to a prosthetic. 

Climbing Everest is a life-changing test on its own, but doing it with one arm will be even more challenging.  Private Jaco Van Gass will test out his invention with four other injured vets when they embark on their journey in May 2012.  

For some great photos of the preparation, click here.  For more information about Walking with the Wounded visit, walkingwiththewounded.org.uk.

Feature Photo Credit: David Cheskin/Press Association