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Spencer West at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. (Courtesy of Free the Children)

Legs Lost, But Still Climbing High

by NPR Staff
Oct 18, 2012 (Tell Me More)

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Spencer West as a young child. Spencer West proved that he could excel at sports, including cheerleading.

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A lot of people would like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At a little over 19,000 feet above sea level, it is Africa's highest peak. Many want to do it to raise money for a cause or just to prove to themselves or the world that they can. And some people, like Spencer West, actually make it to the summit.

But not many people do it the way he did — using just his hands, arms and an irrepressible spirit.

Spencer West tells that story and others in his evocative new memoir Standing Tall.

In his interview with Tell Me More's Michel Martin, West describes how his parents infused him with the idea that he could do anything, despite his being born with a rare genetic disorder that prevented his legs and lower spine from fusing properly.

West says that he later learned that only minutes after he was born, the attending physician told his parents that he would never walk or live a "normal" life. But they refused to believe it and instilled the same attitude in him.

"There was no can't or won't," he said, "only how."

West took that attitude and ran with it — in his own way, of course. Both of his legs were amputated below the pelvis by the time he was 5, as doctors thought it would give him more mobility.

Foregoing prosthetics, he learned to get around so well in his wheelchair and on his hands that he became a cheerleader, did theater, graduated from college and settled into a career.

West recounts a few instances when he was bullied, especially in junior high school, when he was knocked from his wheelchair by a kid who then refused to help him up. But again, he decided he was not going to be defined by that experience.

Bored at his job, he began to volunteer building schools and other projects for a nonprofit group called Free the Children, where he learned he could have an impact on people just by doing what he wanted to do anyway.

On his first trip to Kenya, he met a girl who told him, "I didn't know things like this happened to white people." Because of his work with that group, West decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise $750,000 to support sustainable water projects.

He trained for the climb and set out with his two best friends. The hardest part for West? His friends got altitude sickness and he didn't, and he realized he couldn't carry them physically, as they had done for him during some rough patches.

But perhaps he did carry them in his own way, with the attitude that so inspired music star Nelly Furtado that she allowed him to use the title track from her new album, The Spirit Indestructible, as the soundtrack for a video about his amazing climb.

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