HANCOCK of The Dallas Morning News writes: More than 40 hours
and a world away from home, a Texas-based group of people
with disabilities finished the first long stretch of a journey
to the top of the world Monday.
It was a trip as exhausting as it was exhilarating, as members
of the Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek crossed the Pacific
Ocean and hopscotched across half of Asia before arriving
in the Himalayan kingdom. "The adventure has begun,
Steve Bernstein, 59, of Morrison, Colo., announced as three
Sherpa men hoisted Mark Ezell from his wheelchair into a waiting
This is an adventure! replied Mr. Ezell, 39,
a state legislative liaison from Raleigh, N.C., grinning as
he peering out at the sea of touts, taxi drivers, cane-wielding
security men and families milling outside Tribhuwan Airport.
Like the rest of the bleary-eyed Americans, each of the men
wore elaborate malas eyepopping garlands of fresh marigolds,
daisies, red swatches of cloth and tinsel brought by
the Sherpa guides to welcome them to Katmandu.
Ten people with disabilities including five in wheelchairs
have come to Nepal along with Austin leader Gary Guller,
a team doctor and 13 helpers and climbers to make the grueling
high-altitude trek to the base of Mount Everest. Mr. Guller
then hopes to climb to the top of the mountain along with
a team of four climbers, a feat that would make him the first
person with one arm to make it to the summit.
Mr. Guller, 36, spent the past 18 months organizing the expedition
with the Austin-based Texas Coalition of Disabilities. It
is aimed at shattering stereotypes about limits, abilities
and possibilities for people who live with deafness, paralysis,
pain and other physical conditions. Most of the group began
traveling from Austin Saturday morning after tearful early-morning
goodbyes at the airport with friends, family and supporters.
They met up with other group members in Los Angeles for the
13 1/2-hour leg to Taipei.
Just getting on the plane is a huge step for some of
these people a huge step, Mr. Guller said.
And this isnt even the beginning. This isnt
even the start of it. For many, the first leg of the
flight was something of a shakedown cruise.
Rasinghe, 26, a computer web designer from San Antonio, began
the trip on a new prosthetic leg a San Antonio company had
donated specially for the trip a model rigged for cold
weather and rough terrain. He wasnt out of the Austin
airport before his daypack rubbed against a switch in the
legs hip that controls the bend in the knee, sending
him tumbling. Its taken a little getting used
to, he said.
Mr. Ezell, who uses a wheelchair because he was born with
spina bifida, was tooling around on a titanium wheelchair
rented for the trip. But a plastic coupling for one of its
front legs seemed precariously wobbly, and Mr. Ezell worried
it might not even survive the series of flights to Katmandu.
Im not too sure how this is going to make it,
he said, boosting himself from his chair to the floor to tinker
with it repeatedly.
Within two hours after leaving Los Angeles, Barry Muth was
already feeling effects of the long ride. A quadriplegic since
a 1997 wreck in Saudia Arabia ended his career as an Army
officer, he can still feel a deep burning sensation on his
backside when he sits too long. For a temporary respite, he
and some of the others in wheelchairs occasionally drew themselves
up on their arms to relieve discomfort. I may just get
up and walk around, he declared with a snort to Ted
Holmes, a friend from Colorado who volunteered to help him
on the trek. And then, he added quietly, I wish.
By the time the flight left from Taipei for Bangkok, the
group had been traveling almost 24 hours, and the long stretch
of trying to catch sleep in narrow economy seats began to
tell. Riley Woods, 28, a law student from Waco, emerged from
the Taipei-to-Bangkok flight with news that someone who had
helped him onto the plane in Taiwan had taken his wheelchair
with his day pack slung over its back. Reunited with his wheelchair,
his pack was nowhere to be seen. It has a lot of things
all my money, medicine I need, he said.
Mr. Woods bag showed up at the Bangkok baggage claim,
and he was so elated that he headed out into the night to
explore downtown Bangkok with a group that included Mr. Rasinghe
and Matt Standridge, 24, of San Marcos, another Challenge
trek member in a wheelchair.
They returned just after dawn with tales of seeing one of
the kings palaces and an odd assortment of souvenirs
found at the only store they could find open at 3.a.m., a
Thai version of 7-11. They had picked up some Fish-O
fish-flavored snacks, a Thai language newspaper, and neon-colored
condoms. Yeah, one night in Bangkok, someone laughed.
Standridge mused that the trip was already special because
it was with people ``I can relate to, who know how it is to
get the look because youre in a wheelchair.
By midmorning Mr. Woods was eating sushi for the second
time in my life, cruising the Bangkok airports
vast rows of duty-free shops and declaring, Ive
got to travel more. This is great!
Everyone except the late-night Bangkok crew got several hours
sleep in an airport hotel, and Mr. Ezzell even found a friendly
Thai handyman there who managed to stabilize the wobbly front
wheel of his chair. We managed to communicate, using
the universal language of guys: fixing things, he said.
Just after noon Monday, many in the group got the first glimpse
of what they hope to stand on in a few weeks. As the Thai
Airways jet cruised at 30,000 feet, the pilot pointed out
the dark sharks-tooth peak of Mount Everest parallel on the
horizon, its distinctive plume of clouds trailing to one side.
Within a few hours more, the group was winding by bus through
the smog-choked city of Katmandu, staring up at buildings
festooned with bright Buddhist prayer flags and then back
down to dusty, crowded streets where every fourth or fifth
man and virtually every young boy had faces
and much of their shirts stained bright red.
Two team members who had come early to Katmandu to visit
schools for the deaf, Austin teachers Mark Gobble and Christine
Kane, walked into the groups hotel soon after to explain
that the red faces honored a Hindu festival known as Fagun
Purnima, or Holi. The principal means of celebration
chucking water and paint balloons from rooftops onto the heads
of passerby was particularly appealing for Katmandus
young boys, and the two teachers already had been easy targets
several times that day.
lime-spiked tea from a hotel balcony overlooking the ancient,
flag-decked Boudhanath, one of the largest the Buddhist shrines,
or stupas, in the world, the group laughed at the teachers
tales of friendly assaults and other adventures in the gritty
Asian city. And then someone asked for a toast.
To the largest group of disabilities going up Everest,
responded Gene Rodgers, 47, a quadriplegic from Austin. It
wont be the last.
show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News