Warren Macdonald: Indomitable Will
June 2009 Issue
"Warren didn't just reclaim his old life, he took the basic model of it and made it bigger, better, and brighter than it was before."
Some kinds of pain are beyond the power of imagination. No matter what details we know or the depth of our empathy, the human mind is powerless to travel certain dark corridors without firsthand experience. This segregates the inexperienced into the safe-zone of hearsay and the experienced into a little-populated and forever-changed universe. Because of this, most people can never truly know what Warren Macdonald went through on an Australian mountainside in 1997, trapped alone beneath a one-ton boulder in the middle of rising water. And Macdonald thinks that's really unfortunate.
When The O&P EDGE asked the internationally known motivational speaker, mountaineer, and environmentalist, "What motivates people to change?" Macdonald says, "Trauma, in a nutshell. I've often said people won't change until you put a bomb under their ass...." However, he adds that "being uncomfortable to the point that they can't take it anymore" can serve the same purpose. He says that for the willing, positive transformation can also lie in changing one's perceptions and learning to see new possibilities.
"You recognize [the value of transformation] after you've come across enough examples," he says. "People might see me one year, and then six months later see a guy with a similar story, and think, 'Am I going to wait until something like that happens to me? What am I waiting for? To have a heart attack? What's it going to take for me to get to the point where I'll live the life I want to live?"
Macdonald serves as a shining example of someone living the way he wants to live. His speakers' website says, "Warren didn't just reclaim his old life [after the 1997 accident], he took the basic model of it and made it bigger, better, and brighter than it was before."
Living in a Box
Macdonald wasn't raised for a life of adventure. Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1965, the oldest son of an aircraft engineer and a kindergarten teacher, he says, "I grew up in a world where a fairly small box was set aside for me. 'Go to school, get good grades, get an apprenticeship so that you can get a job, and there you are.'" He did go through school and then worked as a technical officer with a state natural-gas company. The story might have ended there had his family not nurtured a quiet love for the wilderness throughout Macdonald's childhood. Their short car-camping trips eventually led Macdonald to take his first three-day wilderness trek at 18 years old. That trek, he says, changed his life. "It blew me away, the idea that you could leave society behind, with just a backpack full of stuff, and go."
Macdonald soon became disillusioned with his technical job, reached for his memory of the wilderness, and undertook the venerable Australian tradition of walkabout. His wandering took him across North America, Europe, and Africa. Once, he hitchhiked from London to Istanbul.
As his travels exposed him to vast swaths of the earth's terrain, he found himself increasingly motivated by a fierce, protective love of the natural world. He saw increasing environmental destruction during his travels and became a dedicated environmental activist. Eventually, he decided, "the only way to get people to appreciate these wild places is to become a guide and take them out there." He began his accreditation process to become a wilderness guide, but when a back injury temporarily stopped him, Macdonald decided to take a few days and go on a bushwalk. His destination was Hinchinbrook Island, an uninhabited island off the coast of North Queensland.
Macdonald's life would be forever altered by the trip. On his way toward the island's highest peak, Macdonald met another solo traveler, Geert Van Keulen of the Netherlands. They decided to trek together, and by evening found themselves, as Macdonald puts it, "geographically embarrassed"—lost. They made camp, and just before turning in, Macdonald left camp to relieve himself and attempted to climb a 12-ft. rock face. Partway up, a one-ton boulder came loose under him, knocking him to the earth and pinning his legs. Van Keulen heard his screams, found him, and spent the next four hours attempting to use small trees to lever off the rock. Every tree broke. In the morning, the already lost Van Keulen began a desperate 36-hour trek back toward the once-daily ferry, leaving Macdonald alone.
The pain, Macdonald says, was indescribable. Soon, it began to rain, and cold water started rising around his hips. He slipped in and out of consciousness, thinking something had happened to Van Keulen.
Somehow, Van Keulen found his way back to the ferry in time and recruited a medical helicopter to search above the dense Hinchinbrook forest. Miraculously, Van Keulen spotted Macdonald's arm from the helicopter. By the time they landed, Macdonald had been alone for 45 hours.
It took the rescuers two and a half hours with a hydraulic jack, crowbars, and wooden blocks to lift the boulder off Macdonald. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital, where both his legs were amputated above mid-thigh.
Before his rehabilitation, Macdonald says, "I'd already figured out that you can create a life for yourself. The accident sealed the deal and took it to a whole new level." Macdonald decided he needed "a completely new body awareness," he says, and started practicing yoga, to the puzzlement of his therapists. This choice, to seek clarity and redefine the parameters of his situation, became a central theme of Macdonald's life. He now tells clients, "We are infinitely more powerful than we think we are when we [reach crisis], and then we can create our own reality."
Ian Matthews has been Macdonald's friend for 15 years. He jokes that after the accident, he knew that "a little thing like losing his legs wasn't going to get in the way" of Macdonald's life. He was right. Ten months after the accident, Macdonald used a modified wheelchair and the seat of his pants to climb Tasmania's 5,069-foot Cradle Mountain.
Next, in 1999, Macdonald tackled Federation Peak, which Matthews calls ones of Tasmania's "most difficult and revered bushwalks." A film crew followed Macdonald on his 28-day journey over the mountain's tortuous terrain. The Second Step, the international-award-winning film of the expedition, shows Macdonald toiling over streambeds, sheer walls, and razorbacks, mostly using arm crutches and stubbies. Eighteen people provided support to Macdonald on the trip, and Matthews says the journey gave the supporters as much as Macdonald received from them. "Because Warren was going through enormous physical hardship," Matthews says, "there was enormous power and energy there. It was an inspiration and also a revelation."
Macdonald's adventures continued. In 2003, he became the first bilateral transfemoral amputee to summit Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro. In 2005, he ascended America's tallest cliff face, El Capitan, an effort requiring more than 2,800 pull-ups over four days. He wrote a book, A Test of Will: One Man's Extraordinary Story of Survival. His efforts garnered international attention, taking him to the sets of Oprah, Larry King Live, and the Discovery Channel's I Shouldn't Be Alive.
Now, Macdonald works to motivate audiences with both the positive and negative examples of his remarkable story. He and his partner, polar guide and ice-climber Margo Talbot, also lead guided expeditions to Antartica through their Unlimited Adventure Trips.
Macdonald and Talbot now live together in a remote part of British Columbia, but Macdonald accesses prosthetic care from Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, Bethesda, Maryland. Carroll, his design team, and Macdonald are currently developing a set of custom cross-country skis for Macdonald. Carroll says, "Warren's life is not lived on regular ground.... He's serious about his career as a climber and educator. He educates people about the environment, and he shows what's possible, what can be done."
Matthews agrees, comparing Macdonald's ability to motivate people to Barack Obama's. "They have the same power, the power to create and inspire, to dream that anything is possible with determination and willpower," Matthews says. "Warren was within hours of death. If the helicopter hadn't arrived that evening, he would surely have been dead. It gives him tremendous strength and power, knowing that in a split second your life can be gone, and therefore you've got to live every day as if there's no tomorrow. Because there might not be one."
Morgan Stanfield can be reached at