Ed Hommer: A Testimony to the Human Spirit

“If there was anywhere in the world Ed would rather be, it would be the mountains.”

Kelly Raymond

If human beings were truly measured by the amount of courage and compassion they possessed, Ed Hommer was a giant among us. Through conquering the depths of despair and literally the highest peaks in the world, Hommer overcame astounding physical and psychological obstacles. His message to others was, “Don’t lie down; don’t give up. Life still holds great promise even against long odds.”

Hommer’s passion was helping other physically challenged people. He touched many lives with his quiet strength and kindness. He was killed by a falling rock on Sept. 23 as he trained on Washington State’s Mount Rainier for his second attempt to become the first double amputee to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He was 46 years old.

Plane Crash in Alaska

From 1974 to 1978, Hommer served in the Army as a paratrooper in the 87th airborne division. He came back home to Manistee, Mich., and worked in a marina repairing wooden boats.

“One day he told his mother he wanted to go visit a friend in the upper peninsula of Michigan,” said Tom Halvorson, a certified prosthetist for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics and Hommer’s prosthetist and good friend. “He packed his backpack and asked his mom if she would give him a ride to the top of the hill so he could hitchhike from there. The next thing she knew, she got a postcard from Alaska.”

In 1980, Hommer became a bush pilot for Hudson Air in Alaska. In 1981, a charter plane he was flying crashed on Mount McKinley. Trapped by a winter storm for five days, two of the passengers perished before rescuers could get to them. Hommer lost his legs to frostbite.

“He had a series of surgeries,” said Halvorson. “It was tough for him. He ended up being a bilateral transtibial amputee.”

With the help of his family and friends and his own strong will, he got through it, Halvorson said.

Bilateral Amputee Commercial Pilot

Halvorson first met Hommer in 1984. Hommer walked into his office wearing prostheses that didn’t fit well and was using crutches. According to Halvorson, Hommer felt as if he walked like Frankenstein.

“When he left my office, he was carrying the crutches and grinning from ear to ear,” said Halvorson. “We were friends ever since. In fact, we were so close, we called each other brothers.”

In 1985, Hommer became the first bilateral amputee commercial airline pilot, flying for American Eagle from 1985 to 2000.

Back to Climbing

Hommer had always loved to climb. In 1995, he decided he wanted to start climbing again.

“I had just made him a new set of legs,” said Halvorson. “He told me that he wanted to climb the black ice in Utah. He had a relatively difficult time because there was so much rock just getting to the climb. It went well enough though, that he wanted to go back and try Mount McKinley.”

To Halvorson, for a double amputee to climb that mountain was incomprehensible.

Hommer made a special trip to McKinley and placed a memorial for the two people who died in the plane crash. In 1998, a team of four took off for Mount McKinley. The team turned back due to bad weather.

“It was the hardest thing — saying goodbye to Ed on that mountain,” said Halvorson. “After so many years of getting him to the point where he had his life back, and then for him to risk it all on that mountain, was extremely difficult to take. This was just one of the hard goodbyes I had with Ed.”

photo photo photo
Hommer was an adventurous man who enjoyed
mountain climbing and thrived athletically and professionally despite his bilateral transtibial amputations.

The Top of the World

On June 3, 1999, Hommer, with the rest of the expedition team, summited Mount McKinley — the mountain that nearly cost him his life.

“We were there to take care of business,” Hommer told O&P Business News in 1999.

“After Ed got his own life back and he stood on top of Mount McKinley, his goals in life changed,” said Halvorson. “He wanted to help others in similar situations. Sometimes I’d have a patient who was having a really hard time adjusting and I would ask Ed to go and talk to him or her. He loved to go sit and talk with other amputees. It was amazing how their whole attitude would change.”

In 2000, Hommer summited one of the more challenging mountains in the Himalayas. In 2001, an attempt was made to scale Mount Everest. Halvorson was sent with the team to make sure Hommer’s high-tech, Springlite prostheses held up.

“Atrophy of the residual limbs could be a problem and Ed would also lose 25 to 28 pounds on an expedition. He was only 150 pounds to start with,” said Halvorson.

The team got up to 26,500 feet and the fierce weather and lack of time forced them to turn back.

“There’s a line in a poem that Ed would often quote,” said Kelly Raymond, Hommer’s climbing partner and good friend. “The author talks about a breed of men that don’t fit in. That’s how Ed saw himself. He liked to hang out on the outskirts of society, but he did a good job of wearing a suit and working a nine to five job.”

Hommer’s nine-to-five job from 2000 until his death was as an MD-80 first officer (pilot) for American Airlines.

Helping Others

Raymond recalled a morning walk in Nepal with Hommer.

“Ed was taken aback by all the kids with deformities and amputations,” he said. “He pledged to himself that he was going to do something about it.”

Hommer not only wanted to help people in Nepal but in the United States as well. Raymond said that Hommer believed it wasn’t right that a person’s quality of life should depend on the size of their pocketbook, so he started the High Exposure Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives financial assistance to amputees so they can obtain high-level prosthetic devices. The foundation also provides training for Nepalese technicians in fitting prostheses, and supplies devices to clinics in Kathmandu (see O&P Business News, April 15, 2002 for more information about High Exposure).

“It didn’t matter what kind of person you were,” Raymond said. “Ed would make the time to sit and talk with you. He always walked away with a big smile on his face. He had a big heart.”

Sharon Baldauf, the customer satisfaction manager for Otto Bock Health Care, said, “I will lovingly remember Ed Hommer for his sense of humor, his contagious smile, and the hint of mischief in his eyes. He was also the most courageous and inspiring man I have ever met. You could always find him reaching out to others to support, encourage or just make them laugh. Ed didn’t feel sorry for himself because of the obstacles in his path. He simply took each day as a new challenge. Springlite quoted Ed as saying, ‘Courage isn’t always marked by a loud roar, but more often by quietly saying at the end of the day, I will try again tomorrow.’”

Hommer also wrote his life story in a book titled The Hill.

Raymond said the most important thing in Hommer’s life were his three children — Carmen, Mitch and Garrison — although he didn’t get a chance to see them as often as he would have liked.

“Because I was not only his friend but also his prosthetist, Ed called me the Magic Man,” said Halvorson. “But the magic was in his heart. In his later years he was more interested in helping others than he was himself. He will be missed by many. I’ll cherish the memories and love him always.”

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