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Purpose Turns a Double Amputee Into a Mountain Climber

Losing both of his legs couldn’t stop Warren MacDonald from moving forward, once he recognized his purpose in life


by Janice Holly Booth

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Warren MacDonald was working as a house painter in Australia when he decided to go on a backpacking trip to Hinchinbrook Island. While scrambling up a rock face, McDonald became pinned when a one-ton boulder rolled onto his legs. He was trapped for two days, and his injuries were massive, requiring amputation of both legs mid-thigh. MacDonald faced a watershed moment—give up or go on. Just 10 months after his accident he climbed Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain using a modified wheelchair. In 2003 he became the world’s first double above-knee amputee to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. Here, he shares his remarkable journey with Life Reimagined, and how tragedy helped him shape a new life purpose. (For a motivation boost, try Life Reimagined’s program Complete Your Goal With Self Control.)

     See also:  Thinking About Life and Death

After your legs were amputated, you must have had some dark nights of the soul. What was the pivot point when you went from seeing darkness to seeing light?

I had some dark moments, for sure, mostly based around uncertainty. Does this mean I won’t live as long? Will people always point at me now and stare? Will I scare young children when they see me? What turned things around was the gravity of the situation. The challenges were so huge that I had to push back. I had to know if I could beat this thing. Simple things like learning to climb back into my wheelchair from the floor gave me hope. Then camping, and carrying firewood under my chair; all these things turned the experience from “why did this happen to me?” to “I’ve got this.”

What’s the universal lesson—for people losing their income, their home, their family? What do they need to do in order to go forward and thrive?

Accept where you’re at. That sounds easy; it’s not, but it’s a crucial first step. You’ve lost something. Don’t waste time blaming others, or yourself; it doesn’t help. Start with small ways to have small wins. Try not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the struggle, just pick one thing to begin with and focus on making it happen. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’ll be moving, and if there’s one thing you need to overcome crisis, it is some form of momentum.


You climbed a mountain just 10 months after you lost your legs—that’s incredible grit and determination. But that’s different than purpose. Can you tell us how you came to understand and acknowledge your life’s purpose?

Before the accident, I understood that life is what we make of it. That we could throw our cards in the air at any time and make something out of how they land. But I lacked focus. I lacked purpose. It’s purpose that provides the fuel to get where we need to go. It lays down the tracks if you like. For me, it was the understanding that I could be better than I was before.

Can you tell us your purpose?

To teach by example. To be the best version of me possible. That being disabled is not a good enough excuse to stop growing, stop exploring who we are. In fact, the more we’re challenged, the more we have to gain by pushing forward.

     See also: Conquering Her Fears on Kilimanjaro

New research has proven that having a clearly defined life purpose increases longevity and improves health. Do you agree?

Absolutely. Not only that, it opens up possibilities because in our quest to grow, our comfort zone expands, and as I often talk about in my presentations, your comfort zone sets not just what you can handle, but also your space to create. A bigger comfort zone equals thinking bigger and the room to create a bigger life. In terms of purpose, it gives you more room to grow.

For you personally, how has having a clearly defined purpose improved your mental and physical health?

Mentally, it helps me break out when I get stuck. Physically it’s changed my life many times over. Eighteen months ago I couldn’t lift my left arm above my head due to a shoulder injury. After a year of rehab, I felt stuck, like I’d hit the wall. I began to accept that maybe this is it; maybe this is as strong as I’m going to be. Until I started to think about what that meant in terms of growth, or being limited and stuck. I found a new [physical therapist] who helped me train in a different way, and now I’m stronger than I’ve been physically for at least five years. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t accepted that it wasn’t good enough to spend the rest of my life with such a physical limitation.

     See also: A Life of Possibilities

By living your purpose, you’ve inspired thousands of people to seek theirs. Any favorite stories?

So many. One of my favorites came from a woman who hired me to speak at their annual conference. She wrote me a few weeks later and told me that I’d inspired her to get in shape; that she’d been unhappy for some time being overweight and that I’d inspired her to do something about it. I was speechless when she sent me her “after” photo 5 months later; she simply didn’t look like the same person. And one of the best things for me to come out of all this is when I get new amputees contacting me, telling me they want to rock or ice climb. I get to share what I’ve learned so that they don’t have to totally reinvent the wheel, and even better, by not spending so much energy on discovering what’s already been discovered, that energy is freed up to push the envelope even further.

Your blog is all about entertaining a mind shift. So give us a mind shift. For people who are seeking to find their purpose but don’t know where to start, how can they see their reality in a new way?

Decide to start. Decide to start living the life you are meant to live. And when the voices appear in your head telling you why you can’t, or how you’re not good enough; remember—there’s a guy out there with no legs climbing mountains. And he’s having a great life. Are you in, or out?

Warren MacDonald is the author of A Test of Will. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his partner, ice-climber Margo Talbot.