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Dream On

Double Leg Amputee Xia Boyu: Until the Last Breath

  • Lars Becker
  • October 10, 2019

Xia Boyu was the first double leg amputee to climb Mount Everest via the southern route. After the fulfillment of his lifelong dream, the Chinese continues his incredible story by climbing the highest mountains of all continents. On Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus, the 70-year-old had a successful start.


Between 15 and 30 people die every year trying to climb Mount Elbrus. For the double leg amputee Xia Boyu, the ascent to Europe's highest peak of 5,642 meters in late summer of 2019 was something of a walk.

This may sound like a bad joke in view of his two silver leg prostheses and his proud mountaineering age of 70 years. And yet it's true. At least in comparison to his almost epic tale of suffering in his attempt to reach the top of the world.

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Xia Boyu climbing the 5642 meter high Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus.
Xia Boyu climbing the 5642 meter high Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus.
Image credit: Xia Boyu

First expedition to Mount Everest: selflessness costs both feet

It all started in 1975 and Xia Boyu was quite a successful footballer when he was selected for a Chinese Mount Everest expedition. There were not many professional mountaineers in the Middle Kingdom at that time, so a group of physically fit young men was assembled for the politically important mission. After a few training sessions in the Chinese mountains they went straight to the highest mountain in the world. This should prove to be a disastrous mistake for Xia Boyu.

At an altitude of 8,600 meters - just 250 meters below the summit - Xia's team was hit by a sudden weather change on the Tibetan north side. For two days and three nights the Chinese climbers had to endure temperatures of minus 25 degrees before a descent was possible. The following night at an altitude of 7,600 metres, Xia Boyu gave his sleeping bag to a team-mate in distress. In the icy conditions his feet suffered from frostbite, changed color and ultimately had to be amputated.

«I was so incredibly sad. My first thought was that I could never play football again. I had no idea what to do with my life anymore.»
Xia Boyu

"I thought I had to spend my whole life in a wheelchair."

«I was so incredibly sad. My first thought was that I could never play football again. I had no idea what to do with my life anymore. I was only 26 and thought that I would have to spend my whole life in a wheelchair," says Xia Boyu. Only a meeting with a German expert gave him new courage to face life. He told Xia Boyu that he could possibly learn to walk again with suitable prostheses.

Fuel for the fighting spirit of the professional athlete. Every morning at 5 am he got up and to master an almost inhuman fitness program: 8 x 40 sit-ups, 8 x 60 push-ups and exercises with weights on his shoulder. Xia Boyu returned to sport, tried shot-putting, discus throwing, basketball and the Chinese national sport of table tennis - initially in a wheelchair. When the quality of the prostheses finally allowed it, Xia Boyu learned to stand again: "That was the prerequisite to be able to walk again."

After the amputation of his lower legs, Xia Boyu's mountaineering career really started thanks to new prosthetic technologies.
After the amputation of his lower legs, Xia Boyu's mountaineering career really started thanks to new prosthetic technologies.
Image credit: Xia Boyu

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So Xia Boyu took one step at a time on his way back to a wheelchair-free life. Every working day he cycled a 32-kilometer roundtrip to work. On weekends, he'd go hiking in the mountains. The tours became increasingly demanding and Xia Boyu was getting faster, walking with his prostheses. He felt happiest in the mountains of all places, although the rough nature had cost him both lower legs.

However, mountaineering with prostheses brought completely new challenges: not only do the stiff prostheses and the poles severely restrict mobility, but the grip on the ground is also much worse than on nimble and flexible feet. Since Xia Boyu cannot feel the ground with his feet, he depends solely on his eyes when assessing the stability of the ground. Several times he accidentally jammed a prosthesis and had to be freed by a companion. If he loses a prosthesis, it would almost be impossible to reattach it to the swollen leg stumps in the mountains.

"It became my life's dream to climb Mount Everest. I promised myself that I would try until my last breath," says Xia Boyu. On the way to fulfilling his great dream, however, fate brought further ordeal his way. Xia Boyu was suffering from lymphoma: "The doctor told me: 'You will never stand up there'. And I told myself I'd never give up. "He recovered and sold his apartment and car to fulfill his big dream. In contrast to the glamorous stars of the climbing scene, Xia Boyu has no support from big sponsors.

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Mount Everest: Three more failed attempts

After climbing easier mountains, Xia Boyu made his second attempt on Mount Everest in 2014. But because of the avalanche accident in the Khumbu Icefall with 16 fatalities, he had to abandon his plans just as in the following year later after a severe earthquake. On his fourth attempt at the top of the world in 2016, Xia Boyu climbed to 100 meters below the summit before having to turn back once again due to unfavorable weather conditions.

"If I had been alone and given my age and the 40 years I had fought for my dream, I would have moved up further without thinking about the consequences," Xia Boyu said in an interview. "But as I looked back, I looked into the faces of five sherpas. They have families. That's why I decided to turn back."

Xia Boyu at ISPO Shanghai in conversation with author Lars Becker.
Xia Boyu at ISPO Shanghai in conversation with author Lars Becker.
Image credit: Messe München GmbH

2018: The fulfillment of a lifelong dream

When the Nepalese Tourism Authority banned the ascent of double leg amputees at the end of 2017 in order to prevent the growing number of accidents when climbing Mount Everest, Xia Boyu's dream seemed to have come to an end.

But the country's Supreme Court overturned the ban and Xia Boyu launched its fifth attempt in 2018. After unbelievable exertions he finally reached the highest peak of the world as the first double leg amputee - at the proud age of 69 years.

"After all, Mount Everest accepted me. After 43 years I have reached the summit and fulfilled the greatest dream of my life. I was first an athlete, then a disabled person - and wanted to show all the other people what challenges you can overcome in life," says Xia Boyu. His extraordinary performance has put him in the Guinness Book of Records. In 2019 he was also awarded the prestigious Laureus Award for the "Sporting Moment of the Year" at an event featuring world-class sporting stars such as Novak Djokovic and Tiger Woods.

Seven Summits the next goal

Xia Boyu feels extremely honored by all these awards, but above all he wants to pass on his unique spirit to all people with disabilities or existential problems - all over the world. His next project is to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains of all continents. After Mount Everest in Asia, he conquered Mount Elbrus.

Geographers argue whether the dead volcano in the Caucasus still belongs to Europe at all. For the most renowned mountaineers, however, it is clear that Mount Elbrus and not Mount Blanc, which is generally regarded as the highest peak in Europe, belongs to the Seven Summits - just like the South American Aconcagua, the North American Mount McKinley (Denali), Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (Kibo), the Antarctic Mount Vinson and, depending on the interpretation, the Mount Kosciuszko for the Australian continent or the Puncak Jaya on New Guinea for Oceania.

"Some people go fishing, some people play poker, some people don't do anything - and I climb."
Xia Boyu

Enjoying retirement with climbing

The fact that many pensioners regard him as crazy because of his extraordinary plans makes Xia Boyu smile : "Everyone has a different way of enjoying retirement. Some people go fishing, some play poker, some don't do anything - and I climb."

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