Reaching their peak
Disabled but determined, climbers set to scale Mount Everest
By Lee Hancock / The Dallas Morning News
They're too tough for pity, too old to be poster children.
They're going to the top of the world for reasons that have
long called others to Mount Everest: to reach deep. To climb
high. To show themselves what is possible.
Next week, 10 people who live with deafness, paralysis, chronic
pain or lost limbs will begin the long journey to Mount Everest.
Their leader, Austin climber Gary Guller, hopes to stand atop
the mountain in May. He could become the first person with
one arm to climb to the 29,035-foot peak as world attention
turns to the 50th anniversary of the first "summit"
by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Their goal reaches beyond their trek to Everest base camp
at 17,500 feet. They want to shatter assumptions about the
limits of ordinary people and the abilities of those with
"There are going to be a lot of people who say, 'If
that quadriplegic or that paraplegic or that deaf person can
go do that, then maybe I can go see my sister that I haven't
seen for 20 years in Indiana,' " Mr. Guller said. "You
can think of a thousand reasons not to do something. But once
you set your mind to something, most folks can do most things."
The group will leave Saturday for Katmandu, capital of the
Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. They'll then fly on March 20 to
a village at 9,184 feet at the edge of the Khumbu region to
start their three-week trek.
The group includes nine Texans and one North Carolinian with
disabilities, seven volunteers from five states along to assist
them, a doctor from Chicago, two documentary filmmakers, a
reporter and a photographer from The Dallas Morning News,
and three U.S. and Canadian climbers who will try to reach
the summit with Mr. Guller.
Even at the start, the air will be so thin that people exposed
to equivalent air pressure in a commercial jet would use oxygen
masks. At base camp, air pressure will be half that of sea
level making slow movement feel like running a marathon
Going 30 miles up steep, rocky paths broken by narrow swinging
bridges, the climbers will stay in Sherpa villages as they
ascend to 18,000 feet just before arriving at base camp. The
trip is so arduous that doctors say more than half of all
trekkers have headaches and other altitude-induced symptoms
of acute mountain sickness, and a third don't reach base camp.
"I don't know what to anticipate. There's definitely
going to have to be a lot of teamwork, especially with five
of us in wheelchairs," said Riley Woods, 28, of Waco,
who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1997 skiing accident.
"It's probably going to be a whole lot tougher than we
think it is. We'll be doing everything from pushing ourselves
to riding in baskets to riding yaks."
One team member, Gene Rodgers, 47, of Austin, is a quadriplegic
with little mobility below his shoulders. He will be carried
by Nepalese porters.
Mr. Rodgers says that he knows some people will question
why he would do that, but he adds that they probably wouldn't
understand what he gets out of skydiving, scuba diving and
"I would ask 'Why not?' " he said. "I'm not
really trying to prove anything to myself or anybody else
about people with abilities or disabilities. I'm going there
to enjoy the company, enjoy the scenery, enjoy the place."
Mr. Woods and the others say they intend to push themselves
up the trail as much as they can.
"But this is a lot bigger than just a personal adventure,"
he said. "This is a group of people with varying disabilities
that are going over there showing that nothing should be able
to hold you back."
It is a goal that even renowned climbers say will resonate
within the mountaineering community, even amid the international
spectacle expected at Everest this year.
"Everest is a place that galvanizes the interest of
people who want to make themselves better or want to take
on a challenge that might be beyond their grasp," said
Pete Athans, an American climber who has reached the summit
seven times more than any other Westerner. "The
people who climb, they recognize one person's Everest may
be the physical mountain and another person's may be getting
to base camp."
How it started
The trek was born in September 2001, when Mr. Guller spoke
at the convention of the Coalition for Texans With Disabilities.
Owner of Austin-based adventure outfitter Arun Treks, the
36-year-old climber lost his arm after a 1986 mountaineering
accident in Mexico. He returned to climbing after recovering
and fell in love with Nepal, leading treks through the Himalayas.
When he came to the convention in El Paso, Mr. Guller had
recently returned from his first bid to climb Everest. He
was turned back from his summit push by an avalanche in the
Khumbu Icefall the ever-shifting glacial maze where
more climbers have died than anywhere else on Everest.
Mr. Guller and his wife checked into their hotel room and
found themselves staring uneasily at conventiongoers with
disabilities milling around the hotel pool.
Although he had publicized his 2001 Everest climb as a chance
to show what the physically challenged can accomplish, Mr.
Guller said, "I probably knew less than a handful of
people that had any disability. I remember saying, 'I don't
know if I can go out there. How do I even talk to those people?'
"Then I thought, here I am discriminating against folks
that have a disability, and I have a disability. So out we
went," he said. "Since then, I've begun to look
back and realize how long I have tried to hide the fact that
I had only one arm."
Mr. Guller said a man in a wheelchair came up after his talk
and asked if Mr. Guller would take him to Everest. Over beers
waiting for their plane, Mr. Guller talked with coalition
director Dennis Borel about doing just that.
Mr. Borel quickly warmed to the idea. They discussed how
going to the mountain on the 50th anniversary of the first
summit would give them a chance to talk about disability issues
from the world's highest soapbox.
They hoped to raise $1 million enough to fund the
expedition and Mr. Guller's summit bid as well as provide
a healthy endowment for the 25-year-old coalition.
The idea piqued immediate interest. People with disabilities
across the country inquired about the trip, and several dozen
Mr. Guller's colleagues in Nepal recruited two men with disabilities
one with one arm and another with one leg. The men
are from the Sherpa tribes whose members made careers of helping
Westerners climb Everest.
One of the first Texans to apply, Mr. Rodgers explained that
he had already trekked in Nepal. That bolstered the organizers'
certainty that even quadriplegics could make the Challenge
Mr. Rodgers told how porters carried him easily in a doko
the large, woven basket that is the common means of
moving goods in the largely roadless country.
Not all were supportive
But the expedition raised eyebrows, even among disabled people.
Mr. Guller recalled one Austin man's angry reaction to being
asked for a contribution.
"This was a guy in a wheelchair," Mr. Guller said.
"Basically he said, 'This is like a freak show.' I couldn't
believe I was hearing it. But he thought it sounded like a
Raising funds proved so difficult that Mr. Guller repeatedly
had to scale back the expedition.
He and Mr. Borel said hard economic times prompted some companies
to scale back or withdraw pledges. People with disabilities
who signed up also struggled to raise the $6,100-per-person
"I think a lot of people don't want to touch this team
because we are disabled, and they're afraid something might
happen," said Barry Muth, 44, of San Antonio, paralyzed
in a 1997 car accident while serving in Saudi Arabia as a
U.S. Army major.
He and other trek members said relatives, friends and even
strangers expressed alarm.
'You could die up there'
At a sports convention in Colorado, Mr. Muth said, a paraplegic
climber famous for scaling Yosemite's 3,000-foot El Capitan
flatly told him not to go. "The first words out of his
mouth were, 'You know you could die up there?' "
"I guess my thought is, as long as your mind and body
tell you we're going to do something, we're going to do it,"
Mr. Muth said.
Mr. Guller stripped the expedition's budget to $180,000 but
worried until last week that he might have to call it off.
A fund-raiser Tuesday at an Austin restaurant netted $50,000
still short of what was needed but enough to keep the
trip afloat, Mr. Guller said. Among the donors was a stranger
who overheard Mr. Guller talk about the trip and promptly
wrote a $10,000 check.
On Friday, Mr. Guller shipped almost five tons of food and
gear for the expedition and began wrapping up arrangements
for dozens of yaks and several hundred Nepali porters.
Trek members are finishing personal preparations, some working
with physical therapists to prepare for problems as basic
as getting themselves from wheelchairs into sleeping bags.
Some will have final doctor visits to review medical issues.
Even at the mountain's lower altitudes, people are susceptible
to pulmonary and cerebral edemas, a buildup of fluids in the
lungs and brain that can kill trekkers.
Dr. Mark Fredrickson, a spinal cord injury specialist at
Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans' Hospital in San Antonio,
developed drug regimens for Mr. Muth and Mr. Riley. He said
people with spinal cord injuries are more prone to altitude-related
illnesses and have problems regulating body temperature
posing increased risk of frostbite and blood clots.
"It's not risk-free. I've had some sleepless nights.
But most extreme things aren't risk-free," said Dr. Fredrickson,
himself a quadriplegic. "All these folks want to push
as much as they can. They don't want to be passive. I'm a
rehab doc. That's music to my ears."
Mark Gobble, 28, a middle school teacher at Texas School
for the Deaf, and Christine Kane, 29, a colleague who is accompanying
him as his sign-language translator, spent time in Austin
introducing students to a curriculum they and others spent
a year developing on Everest and Nepal.
It includes science projects, suggested readings and lessons
on mountaineering and the region's culture, history and religions
all available at ali.apple.com. Ms. Kane said she and
Mr. Gobble will also send e-mails and host chat room talks
Mr. Gobble said the students are so excited that "my
cool factor as a teacher is at an all-time high."
And Ms. Kane said she has seen firsthand the Challenge Trek's
potential to shake perceptions.
"Their initial reaction was, 'No way,' " she said.
"But as they've talked to us, you can see it in their
eyes: Maybe you can do it. It doesn't matter if you're a woman.
It doesn't matter if you're deaf or have one arm or are in
"And it's been an amazing thing just to open the dialogue:
There are all kinds of people in the world. Some people's
bodies are different. Some people use different equipment,"
she said. "It might take us longer. We might have to
use different means. But we're all going to get there
even if we have to carry each other."
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