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April 2003:

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Apr. 9

Barry breaks trail on ice fall    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsTrekkers prepare for another push
Ice climbing practice, memorial mark their final day at base camp

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

MOUNT EVEREST, Nepal – It was a novel sight in this mecca for mountaineers: a man in a wheelchair hoisting himself up an ice pinnacle with a rope and a mechanical ascender – the tools climbers use to go up Everest.

"Push! Push! Push!" shouted a clutch of Sherpas guiding Barry Muth's chair as he strained against its wheels.

"You're breaking trail for everybody!" yelled Austin climber Gary Guller, leader of the Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek.

The San Antonio man crested the 30-foot hill and slumped over panting as his teammates cheered.

"Barry, your first ascent!" called team doctor Janis Tupesis of Chicago.

"Oh, man," gasped Mr. Muth, 44, who has been paralyzed with limited mobility in one hand and both arms since a car accident several years ago. "That's tiring. I didn't know 17,000 feet would be this tiring."

It was another small triumph in a journey to the world's highest mountain for a Texas-based group with disabilities.

The group trekked for 17 days through the Himalayas to reach Mount Everest, arriving Sunday at its rock- and ice-strewn base camp at 17,600 feet.

Gear at Puja ceremony   Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsOn Monday, the group participated in a Buddhist ceremony asking for blessings for Mr. Guller and his smaller team that will head for the summit.

Lama Gelgen, who conducts the ceremonies for climbing teams at base camp each spring, prepared elaborate butter sculptures and arranged them along with water, sacred rice, offerings of food and portraits of the Buddha and a revered Tibetan Buddhist lama on a stone altar built by the team's Sherpas.

The climbers piled their ice axes, boots, ropes and other climbing gear beside the altar, and Sherpas brought more food as well as bottles of wine, Mount Everest whisky and a potent local rice homebrew called chang to offer at the altar.

The lama, dressed in a golden brocade shirt, crimson robe and crimson and white shawl, chanted Tibetan Buddhist prayers asking the deity, who Tibetans and Sherpas believe reside in the mountain they call Chomolungma, to grant safe passage to Mr. Guller and his climbing team.

Ice climbing school

That night, the group's climbing Sherpas asked Mr. Guller whether they could figure out a way to take the team onto the glacier for ice climbing lessons.

The Sherpas rose early to rig climbing ropes on a nearby ice pinnacle and modified harnesses to accommodate wheelchairs, and team members began their last day at Everest base camp by climbing on the ice pinnacles of the great Khumbu Glacier.

Riley climbs in ice field    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsBy the time team members walked from their campsite to the nearby ice field, the Sherpas had also hung a customized American flag brought by one of the group – with stars arranged in the shape of a wheelchair – on the pinnacle's wall of pale blue-green ice.

They donned harnesses and hooked one by one into the ascenders – rectangular metal tools that allow a climber to balance on a near vertical slope and push himself up a rope with his arms.

Some members chose a 45-degree slope, but others – including paraplegics Riley Woods and Matt Standridge – gravitated toward a near-vertical ice face.

"This one no good for wheelchair," said Mingma Sherpa when Mr. Woods pointed at the orange rope leading up the steep face.

"I can do it," Mr. Woods replied, instructing Sherpas to help him from his chair onto the snow and into a climbing harness.

The 28-year-old Waco man then began moving the ascender up the rope with his arms, dragging his legs over snow and ice knobs.

"You're doin' it, buddy!" Mr. Standridge bellowed from below.

"Any bets on his catheter being in still? Crap. I'm gonna be doin' a lot of business tonight," muttered Dr. Tupesis as he watched Mr. Woods move upward. "I don't want to take care of broken legs on the last day."

And then Mr. Standridge, 24, of San Marcos, struggled up the ice face, coming down spent and breathless. "It was hard. I had no idea how hard it would be."

Memorial to a son

At the end of the morning, the group gathered at the foot of the ice wall as team member Sandra Murgia, 43, of Austin scattered ashes of her son Kenny, who died at 11 ½ after a lifelong battle with chromosomal damage that left him using a wheelchair and severely disabled.

"He would love to be here, because he just loved life," she said, weeping.

Sandy Murgia's memorial to son Kenny    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsTuesday night, as the team finished its last dinner at base camp, climber and mountain guide Gary Scott – the expedition's co-leader – told team members to consider the enormity of all that they had just accomplished.

"This is my 30-somethingth trek, and in many ways this has been the most rewarding to me and the most memorable," said Mr. Scott, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who has guided Himalayan treks for decades.

"We all have our own Everest experiences, and I believe some of you have climbed your own Everests on this trip."

See a slide show by Dallas Morning News photographer Erich Schlegel.

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.

On Thursday, April 17 there will be a Challenge Trek Team Homecoming and fundraiser from 6-10 pm at Mother Egan's, 715 W. 6th St., Austin. The event will feature top local musicians.

Flag in ice field   Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsYou are invited to attend a panel discussion and press conference with trek team members also on April 17, 10:00 am at the CTD offices, 316 W. 12th St., Austin. Call 512/478-3366 or Email for details about both events.

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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