She stood at the icy top of the continent, savoring the milestone in the golden glow of Alaska’s midnight sun. It was May 19 when Sarah Doherty, 25, reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. Beside her were climbing companions William Sumner, 42, and Matthew Kerns, 28, but the golden moment atop McKinley really belonged to Doherty, who became the first one-legged person ever to scale the towering peak. The 20-day ascent was truly an amazing feat—or, as Doherty wryly puts it, “an amazing foot.”
With 25 pounds of gear on her back and without her prosthetic leg, Doherty climbed McKinley “for personal reasons” and the sheer physical challenge. “We are all faced with great possibilities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations,” she says, citing a quotation of unknown authorship.
The 5’5″, 98-pound brunette has devoted half her life to proving her point. Thirteen years ago Doherty was riding her bike to a friend’s house in Taunton, Mass. when a drunk driver slammed into her. Doherty’s right leg and part of her pelvis were torn off, and she was hospitalized for seven weeks after the accident. Despite the severity of her injuries, her spirit remained indomitable. Two months later she started swimming, and the following winter she learned how to ski. Last April, as a member of the U.S. handicapped ski team (along with Edward Kennedy Jr.), Doherty placed fourth in the giant slalom at the international competition in Breckenridge, Colo, and fifth in the slalom at the Canadian national races in Banff.
Doherty received a degree in occupational therapy from Boston University in 1982. Her interest in mountain climbing developed three years ago when she moved to Seattle to become an occupational therapist with the Veterans Administration. On the way up 14,410-foot Mount Rainier last summer, her first major climb, Doherty crossed paths with Sumner, a recreational-equipment engineer from Index, Wash, who was on the way down. Sumner was impressed with Sarah’s dexterity on crutches, as well as “all the positive energy she had about making it to the top.” The veteran of one previous climb to the top of McKinley, Sumner later invited Doherty to go along on another trip he was planning up the rugged peak in order to test climbing equipment he had designed.
On April 29 the team arrived by an airplane equipped with landing skis at the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier—a height of 7,200 feet. Although often ascending the treacherous incline hand over hand, Doherty at times relied heavily on her personally designed crutches, with pointed bottoms and daggerlike spikes jutting out from the handles. But these were rendered useless on the eighth day when, at 11,000 feet, a ferocious snowstorm and 100-mph winds sent her ballooning over a valley of jagged rocks and deep fissures. Anchoring Sarah by rope, Sumner inched up the mountain for three hours. Recalls Doherty, “Part of me was saying, ‘This is crazy. People could die.’ But I never thought of turning back.”
After grappling her way up to America’s rooftop, Doherty reports that “the best part was knowing we were going to climb down.” Sumner calls her achievement “a triumph for the dreaming spirit.” And though she’s still recovering from frostbite (on four fingers and a thumb) suffered on the five-day descent, Doherty recently completed a cross-country bicycle-and-car trip from Seattle to Boston. As she gets in shape for the coming ski season, she has set her sights on the Yukon’s 13,905-foot Mount Kennedy, a peak named in honor of the late President and first climbed by Robert Kennedy and two mountaineers in March 1965. Suddenly picturing herself atop the world once more, Sarah Doherty’s blue eyes light up. “Life,” she says, “has no romance without risk.”