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April 2003:

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Apr. 7

Matt arrives into base camp    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsTrekkers come out on top
Disabled climbers triumphant in journey to Everest base camp

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

MOUNT EVEREST – They came one by one, some howling with glee, some quietly exulting in the awesome expanse of rocks and ice, soaring peaks and sapphire sky.

"Base camp, baby! Yeaaah! Hell, yeah!" hollered Matt Standridge, 24, of San Marcos, a paraplegic and Wal-Mart assistant manager.

He and 20 other members of Team Everest 03's Challenge Trek reached the foot of the world's highest mountain Sunday, the culmination of a grueling, 17-day journey.

"I'm elated, just elated that the team made it. I had some doubts along the way," said Christine White, 50, human resources management director for the Texas Public Utilities Commission in Austin.

"Everyone had their ... struggles," said Mrs. White, who has severe hearing loss. "But we're here, and we really do have one voice with which we can tell the disabled community and the world: It can be done."

The group left the high plain of Gorak Shep about 9 a.m. Sunday, passing under chortens or memorials to four climbers killed in 1996.

Trail to base camp    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThey then trekked for hours over some of the harshest terrain of the trip: the rock and scree slopes of the Khumbu Glacier.

The trail snaked up and down the glacier's spine, sometimes following a knife-edge crest dropping 100 or 150 feet on either side, and passing near ice caves and frozen pools.

Toward the end, the deadly Khumbu icefall – the gateway to the Everest summit – came into view. Tiny dots moved over the chaos of frozen spires, walls and chasms: they were climbers dwarfed by the tumbling ice.

The team reached camp before 3 p.m. – a clutch of yellow tents atop a moonscape of rocks, scree and glacial ice at 17,600 feet.

A steady wind blew frigid gusts off the glacier. Avalanches roared regularly from the slopes above. The air was palpably thin – with half the oxygen of sea level. And though they moved slowly, team members were ebullient.

"To come here and see what so many people before me have seen, to see how much more there is than any picture can convey – it is incredible," said Riley Woods, 28, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a skiing accident in 1997.

Avalanche near Bamp  Camp  Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe trek to base camp was conceived by Austin climber Gary Guller and the Coalition for Texans With Disabilities to shatter stereotypes about people with physical challenges.

Ten Americans with disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to lost limbs, deafness and chronic pain signed up. They were joined by two Nepalese Sherpa with disabilities and nine American helpers.

Mr. Guller also is leading three climbers to the top of Everest. If successful, he would be the first person with one arm atop the world's highest mountain.

The team's journey began with a flight from Katmandu to Lukla, a village at just over 9,000 feet.

Some villagers speculated that they wouldn't get past Namche, two or three days' walk up the mountains. But the group formed a tight team with their Sherpa helpers, experimenting constantly with ways to get paralyzed people over rough terrain.

Garnering praise

Along the way, they drew constant attention and praise from villagers, other trekkers and Everest expeditions.

"This is the most important project since Everest was climbed 50 years ago. It's giving people a lot of hope," said Charles Wittmack of Des Moines, Iowa, who met the group near Lobuche on his way to the mountain.

On Sunday, Miura Yuichiro, a 70-year-old Japanese man known for skiing the mountain in the 1970s, passed on his way up Everest again.

"Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!" Mr. Yuichiro and his sons yelled.

But the trip had barely started when the group struggled with fierce cold, primitive living conditions and harsh Himalayan terrain. Most of the paralyzed men hadn't been camping since they were injured, and they learned everyday rituals such as getting undressed and into sleeping bags and keeping warm were exhausting.

"I found out a little bit more about myself and my injury, how I can or can't tolerate things, how I can push myself," said Barry Muth, 44, of San Antonio, a quadriplegic since a car accident ended his Army career in the mid-1990s.

Nima Dawa greets Dinesh at  base camp    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsDinesh Ranasinghe, 26, a Web site developer from San Antonio who lost part of one leg to a tumor when he was 10, struggled constantly with sores on his stump.

Nights were so frigid that temperatures inside tents dropped to the low 20s, and snow fell repeatedly – delaying the final walk to base camp for two days.

One team member, a deaf teacher from Austin, turned back after four days, citing the stress of being so far from his family and the deaf community. Others fell sick with gastrointestinal ailments.

On Friday, team member Gene Rodgers of Austin, a 47-year-old quadriplegic, was taken by helicopter to Katmandu because of a bowel obstruction. He was successfully treated but remained hospitalized for observation.

A number of team members had altitude problems ranging from headaches, nausea and sleep disruption to full-blown acute mountain sickness, which can lead to life threatening pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. Several members were forced to turn back because of altitude problems.

Kim Smith, 38, of Dorchester, Texas, who has fibromyalgia – chronic pain of unidentified origin, stayed behind at one point to try to regain her strength. She did catch up but was later forced back for good last week.

The two Sherpas with disabilities turned back Friday because of altitude problems, and team member Steve Bernstein of Morrison, Colo., left Saturday because of difficulty sleeping.

Chris Watkins of Thunder Bay, Canada, a member of the summit team, had to be taken down the mountains Saturday night because of acute altitude sickness. He is expected to rejoin the climbing team at base camp.

Team bonding

Mr. Guller and expedition co-leader Gary Scott of Colorado Springs, Colo., said the number who made it is remarkable. "It takes away a lot of excuses for a lot of people who think 'I'm not fit enough, I'm not strong enough,' " said Mr. Scott, a professional guide.

Standing on Everest, team members talked of lifelong friendships formed in their journey, bonds that kept them going and the joy of living in high mountains whose beauty is beyond words.

To some the trek was a kind of pilgrimage, whose value may be in the hardships that stripped away the trivialities of everyday life.

Going up, the world was reduced and expanded. Thin air and steep slopes bled energy. Focus turned inward to each Sherpa  team welcome team  Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning Newsstep, each breath. The reward was in each glance upward to the vast interplay of stone and snow, shadow and light.

Shedding to essentials, an elemental desire took hold: an urge to go higher, an aspiration to connect with something bigger.

That, they said, may be the attraction of Everest. The lure of this place where Earth meets sky may be as simple and as complex as the personal price paid to be there.

It is beautiful, stark and cold. There is no place higher. Like others before them, Team Everest 03 members say, finally making it to Mount Everest is reaching beyond and for a transcendent moment, finding themselves.

Email messages to the team

Team Everest '03 still needs to raise funds to cover expedition expenses. Plans are in the works for an April 17 fundraiser, 6-10 pm at Mother Egan's in Austin. The event will welcome team members home and top local musicians will play. A panel discussion with the trek team members will be held at 10:00 am, also on April 17, at the CTD offices. Call 512/478-3366 or Email for details.

Contact Dennis Borel at 512/478-3366 M-F (other times at 512/431-1656 or 512/443-6038) or dborel@cotwd.org for a media kit, sponsorship opportunities and to learn more about TE '03 and the advocacy work of CTD.

Slide show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News

The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities is dedicated to ensuring that people with disabilities enjoy equal opportunities to live, work, play, and participate fully in the community of their choice. CTD has consistently delivered important results for persons with disabilities for the past 24 years, and needs your support to fight the discrimination that faces individuals with disabilities in almost every aspect of their lives.

 

 

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