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Dr Norman Croucher: The toughest summit of them all

Dr Norman Croucher OBE is famous for his mountaineering exploits on artificial legs but hadn't bargained fr the challenge he faced after a bowel cancer diagnosis

When Norman Croucher was a teenager, he lost both legs below the knee in a railway accident. His ambition was to climb mountains and he determined that such a setback would simply make that ambition a greater challenge. Norman, who in 1995 climbed the world's sixth highest mountain, Cho Oyu in Tibet (26,906ft or 8201m), has now survived his most difficult climb of all- from the depths of a life-threatening operation for bowel cancer to the heights of Gaislachkogel in Austria, a 10,000ft peak. At the same time he raised almost £16,000 for Hospiscare in Exeter, where e lives with his beloved wife Judy.

Now aged 77, Norma has consistently beaten the odds by climbing some of the world's highest mountains and, in doing so, he has raised thousands od pounds for charities. He has also set up new charities to help other disables people and to emphasise that the true spirit of mountaineering is not necessarily reaching the summit but in helping others achieve what they thought was beyond them- and always to turn back to aid stricken colleagues.

Norman's achievements have been recognised by the award of the Order of the British Empire and has also been the subject of television's This is Your Life programme. In addition to 'legless mountaineering', Norman takes pride in the fact that he set the record for the longest anyone ever took to walk from John O'Groats to Land's End, which he did in the Eighties and again in 1990.

However, his longest battle began when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012 plus a nodule on one lung and a suspicious area on the liver. "On that day," Norman told me, "I began making plans for a survivors' climb in the Alps, as a symbol of recovery. I needed a sense of purpose to drive me physically and psychologically."

He resolved, with the same determination, to raise at least £10,000 for Hospiscare.

"I told myself I would treat the next few months ad an adventure," Norman said, "not one for which I would have volunteered. There would be good times and bad but I was ever conscious of the fortunate time and place in which fate had put me."

On May 30th, 2013, exactly 18 years after he had reached the summit of Cho Oyu, a mask was placed over his face in the operating theatre- iconic because, bu contrast, on that summit day, there was no mask as Norman had climbed without resort to supplementary oxygen.

after a five-hour operation- an elective abdominal-perineal excision and stoma- Norman came to in intensive care with Judy by his side. There were complication, there was pain, there was shock, but the nursing staff showed care beyond the bounds of practical nursing.

On the fifth day, filled with painkiller drugs, Norman was convinced he could see his neighbours' black and white cat, Duffy, sitting on the end of his bed.

"You're a very clever pussycat," he said, "to find the hospital the ward and my bed." "57 bus," replied the cat- and that was the right bus. Hallucinations are common for many patients on drugs but if an (almost) black cat symbolises good fortune, it certainly did in Norman's case, as he survived.

On the tenth or 11th day, a dietitian advised Norman that he had to go on a special diet because he had lost 21 pounds in the week. A quick reassurance bu the patient resolved the problem immediately. "I was weighed last week with my legs on," Norman told her, "and yesterday without them."

After training from a specialist stoma nurse and three pyhsiotherapists, Norman was able to return home. Towards the end of June, the hospital phoned to say that seven lymph nodes had been removed, the surrounding blood vessels were clear and there was no need for further chemotherapy. The lung nodule and liver were unchanged.

After a further fortnight, painkillers became unnecessary. Walking a short distance with crutches, walking further (to the pub), telling fold of his experience, making fun of his condition. "How are things at your end," asked a niece over the phone- and then "oops."

A second operation was necessary as Norman was healing too quickly from the outside, leaving a cavity. It took only 40 minutes this time and Norman was home the next day. A subsequent persistent bad cough turned out to be bronchitis- a diagnosis that Norman was delighted to receive. It meant that he could continue to plan ahead, to resume his after-dinner speaking, to raise more funds for charity and, above all, to detail his challenge of a post-cancer mountain expedition 

Virtually all of is, having suffered serious cancer treatment, living with a colostomy, and being well past the biblical age of three score years and ten, would look to live a quiet and comfortable life with little physical activity. Norman Croucher is not an ordinary person. He is an inspiration to us all. And remember, he has two artificial legs. his determination is boundless and his tenacious ambition was to get back on a mountain.

Wh Judy, he climbed Le Brevent (8284ft or 225m) in the Aiguilles Rouges range in France. "I was back on a mountain." Norman was radiant as he reached the summit. 

"My delight at this modest achievement was as great as any summit I have reached, for I had not been sure how I would perform. Nineteen months after diagnosis I had recovered."

It took until June 2016 to build himself up to a climb above 10,000ft and the heights of Gaislachkogel, but that is what he planned and that is what he achieved. "I now have a more heightened awareness of the awful sufferings in the world. There are scores of afflictions, which are worse than those I have experienced. I rejoice at having been able to turn something negative into a positive experience and to raise money for Hospiscare, with a lot more to come"

Legendary mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington wrote of Norman: "there is no one like him. His extraordinary achievements have earned him a place in climbing history."

And Lord Hunt, he of that memorable 1953 Everest conquest, said simply: "Norman i take my hat off to you".

Choice readers, I believe will collectively do so, too.

What do you think to this? Are you inspired by Norman's story? 

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