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March 2003:

9 15 - 17 18 19 21 23 24 25 26 27 28 30 31 | April
Mar. 30

Greetings Friends and Supporters!

As the team gets closer to Everest base camp, we're busy here in Austin working with the Texas Legislature to ensure community services for people with disabilities. Your emails of support have been motivating and much appreciated by everyone on the team. Thank you! Messages of support and questions for the team

We are grateful to Lee Hancock and Erich Schlegel of the Dallas Morning News for their excellent coverage of the people of Team Everest '03 and their daily progress. Slide show

Taking obstacles in stride
Nearly halfway through journey, disabled climbers relish routine

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

Himalayan Peaks   Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsPANGBOCHE, Nepal – As darkness descends on the Team Everest 03 camp, the world shifts from the breathtaking sights of the Himalayas to the humble sounds of a mountain village.

Children's laughter spills from nearby houses, and among the rows of yellow tents, Sherpa and American voices are punctuated by chiming yak bells and the roar of the Dudh Koshi River.

Snowy peaks that glow in the crisp morning light and hide themselves in clouds each afternoon stand like shadowy sentinels in the clear, star-flecked sky.

And at first light, Sherpas begin waking everyone in the camp with offers of hot drinks or "bed tea."

Team members open tents to take in the incandescent peaks and prepare to climb upward toward the world's highest mountain.

"All of it is just so incredible," said Nikki Tupesis of Chicago, whose husband, Janis, is serving as the team's physician. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world right now."

The Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek is near the halfway point of a 23-day trek to Mount Everest.

Barry Muth & Sherpa     Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe group's 26 members – including nine Americans and two Nepalese Sherpas with disabilities – are headed to base camp at 17,400 feet on the world's highest mountain. Their intent is to challenge common assumptions about what people with physical challenges can do.

Leader Gary Guller of Austin will try to climb to the summit of the mountain, at 29,035 feet, after the trek with three other mountaineers from the U.S. and Canada. If successful, he would be the first person with one arm to stand atop Everest.

Each of their days in the Himalayas has been a mix of discovery and routine. Together with the expedition's 15 Sherpas and 80 porters, they have learned how to move people with disabilities ranging from paralysis to lost limbs and debilitating pain over rugged, steep mountain trails.

They have surprised themselves and others as they've traveled. Villagers in Lukla, the Himalayan village where the group flew in from Katmandu to begin their trek at 9,184 feet, gossiped that none of the team members would make it very far.

They've drawn curious villagers and trekkers and even a few journalists from countries ranging from India to England, the Netherlands and South Korea – all surprised to see people with such physical conditions on such a grueling trip.

But only one member has so far dropped out. Mark Gobble, a teacher at the Texas State School for the Deaf, left the group early last week because he was too uncomfortable with being away from his wife and family and the deaf community.

Camp      Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe daily routine

The team has developed rituals of camp life, setting up a small tent village each night in yak pastures and teahouse yards and learning more daily about how to live and trek together.

With the Sherpas and other Nepalese carrying expedition gear, preparing meals, and setting up and tearing down camp each day, "it's like being on safari like in one of those British movies," said Sandra Murgia of Austin, who sustained severe nerve damage to one leg while serving in the US Navy during the first Persian Gulf War. "Having a set routine is very comforting, though, since we're headed every day into the unknown."

The camp begins stirring before dawn, as Sherpas and Nepalese porters wake, begin boiling water and readying the 13 yak-cow hybrids being used to haul expedition gear for the day.

The animals are fed from huge packets of hay carried by porters from lower elevations, and then saddled up with wooden platforms used to mount loads on their backs.

As they begin to move around, the camp begins to ring with tinkles and chimes of each animal's bells, worn so they can be heard coming down winding mountain trails.

Trekkers learn fast to jump to the uphill sections of trails when they hear the bells to avoid being bumped – or worse. A yak jabbed one team member in the rear with its horns last week, and the animals have occasionally been known to gore passers-by.

Bed TeaWhile some Sherpas feed the yaks, others deliver wake-up servings of bed tea to each tent, followed by pans of water for sponge baths.

"Bed tea rules," said Ms. Murgia. "I want to bring a Sherpa home with me."

Team members then emerge from their tents to eat breakfast, joke and talk about the day.

'I'll be busting trail'

The talk often includes jokes about Gene Rodgers, an Austin man who has had little movement below his shoulders since being injured in a fall at age 17. He has to be carried in a Sherpa basket, or doko, but he usually beats everyone else to the day's destination. "Somebody needs to be the leader here, so here I am. I'll be busting trail," he declared on one recent morning.

Others in wheelchairs make a daily ritual of poking fun at one another, making jokes about paraplegics and quadriplegics and wisecracking about getting out of their chairs and walking.

At breakfast and nightfall, the team's doctor, Dr. Tupesis, makes the rounds to find out whether any of the team members or their Nepalese staff has any ailments.

Dr. Tupesis said he gets 12 to 15 requests for treatment each day from team members, Sherpas and porters.

About 80 percent of the team members have had brief bouts of gastrointestinal illness, all probably due to the group's primitive living conditions. Some of the trekkers who use wheelchairs have had pressure sores, and others have had problems with blisters.

Two team members and one porter also have had symptoms of high-altitude sickness, which at its worst can cause life-threatening conditions including cerebral edema and pulmonary edema.

But Dr. Tupesis said the group's schedule, taking about twice the time to reach Everest as most treks, has helped keep The mighty Himalaya     Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning Newsaltitude-related health issues to a minimum. "Overall, I think we're doing great," he said.

Cold gets harsher

With the group's ascent, which will reach 14,000 feet by the weekend, nights and early mornings get colder. Team members bundle into more layers of fleece and long underwear and begin to pull out heavy down jackets.

While nighttime temperatures hovered in the 30s during early days of the trip, it was 27 degrees inside the tents on Thursday, when the group camped at 12,600 feet outside the Buddhist monastery of Tengboche.

It was so cold outside that tents that people who had hung laundry on tent lines found it frozen in the morning.

"Frozen underwear, frozen underwear, anybody need some frozen underwear?" said Dr. Tupesis. "They're as stiff as a board."

By midmorning, the temperatures rise into the 60s, and team members who walk the trail are usually in T-shirts and sometimes even shorts.

Those in wheelchairs usually stay in warmer clothing, and Mr. Rodgers is often bundled in three or four layers because spinal injuries make it difficult to regulate his body temperature.

"With the cold, it's a struggle to get out of bed every day," said Barry Muth of San Antonio, who lost most use of his body below his chest after a car accident but has enough arm control to push his wheelchair. "I'm finding out what my body's made of."

Physical hindrances

Dinesh on trail followed by Dana & Dick      Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe group heads up the trail about 9 a.m., and team members quickly spread out, stopping occasionally at teahouses along the way for hot tea and snacks. Some, like Dinesh Ranasinghe, a San Antonio man who uses a prosthetic leg, have the most difficulty on downhill sections of the trail. Mr. Ranasinghe, whose leg was amputated because of a childhood tumor, has begun swathing his leg stump with duct tape because it has become so sore on the jarring trails.

Others, like Kim Smith of Dorchester, who has hip dysplasia and fibromyalgia, struggle most going uphill. She has taken twice as long as most other team members to travel each day's route, and was forced to remain behind last week to try to adjust to the physical stresses of high altitude before continuing upward.

But she and others say they've been rewarded by the spectacular views of soaring mountains, river gorges, piercing sunlight and stunning blue sky.

"The beauty has surpassed what I've anticipated, and I've been fortunate. I've seen some mountains: British Columbia, the Alps," said Christine White of Austin, who has had severe hearing loss since childhood.

"There's a real connection between earth and sky here. To me, the mountains beckon you. You're afraid of them in a sense, because they're so enormous, but at the same time, they call you."

Clouds begin rolling in from the high peaks by noon, and most of the team is back in winter clothing by 3 or 4 p.m.

The group camps by midafternoon in the yards of small lodges or teahouses, where primitive outhouses and pans of water for sponge baths are what pass for amenities.

In an outhouse, some of the porters stashed a stack of shredded cardboard boxes for their toilet paper. In another, at a village school, a small tin bucket was filled with students' old test papers.

The Sherpas set up camp and then prepare lunches and dinners and late-afternoon tea.

Dinner time     Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe team gathers just after dark in a large dining tent to eat, talk about the day's hike and hear about the next day's trek.

Given the range of physical limitations, the group's leader, Mr. Guller, said he has been awed by its progress and its adaptation to life in one of the world's poorest and least developed regions.

"To come out here and mix in all the elements: altitude, ability, disability, extreme cold, different diet, unknown culture, and to do it like these people are – I didn't know the strength of the human spirit," he said. "To be here collectively, it's like a force, going up the mountain."

CTD's current legislative work: Kids should grow up in families

Texas holds the shameful distinction of leading the nation in children with disabilities residing in institutions. In 2001, disability advocates succeeded in getting the state to establish the Family-Based Alternatives program. Recognizing that these kids cannot return to their birth families, the program is about recruitment, training and support of foster families who want to take a kid with a disability into their home. Family-Based Alternatives has already identified some 200 interested families and is primed to expand. Yet, the Texas Legislature has slated the program for elimination as they deal with the budget crisis. With an annual budget of only $400,000, Family-Based Alternatives is one of the best uses of state money, giving children a chance to prosper and become included in society. Kids in institutions never reach their potential and historically remain institutionalized. CTD is giving special effort to saving this small, valuable program.

Contact Dennis Borel at (512) 478-3366 or for a media kit, sponsorship opportunities and to learn more about TE '03 and the advocacy work of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD).

A project of CTD, Team Everest '03 is one of the most important events in the disability community, radically changing the way individuals with disabilities are perceived. The year 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the first summit of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Team Everest ’03 represents 50 years of progress of people with disabilities and will “Challenge the Myth” that having a disability equates to a lack of capability and potential.

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