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March 2003:

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Mar. 19

Camp at Lukla  Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsHello & Namaste! We arrived into the village of Lukla (9,000 ft) today where the trail and our trek to Everest Base Camp officially begins! The entire team flew out of Kathmandu in two Twin Otter airplanes; we took out a few seats to accommodate the wheelchairs. With beautiful, clear weather, we landed safely at the single mountain airstrip that is the Lukla airport.

Tonight, we'll camp in Lukla to make sure logistics and supplies are in good order. Our kit bags, food and tents are being transported on our route via a large contingent of porters and yak-hybrids and yaks. Much of the gear for the expedition is already on its way to Base Camp. Tomorrow we'll rise early and begin our trek to Phakding. It's amazing what a little effort can do to open the door to the Himalayan Mountains for all, regardless of a disability! We'll keep you posted. - Gary Guller

Disabled team sets off on trek to Everest base
Climbers gleeful as they arrive at expedition's starting point

by LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

LUKLA, Nepal – Matt Standridge rolled to the edge of the tarmac, popped his wheelchair into a wheelie and began spinning manically, his grin as big as the snow-topped mountains overhead.

Beside him, fellow Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek members Riley Woods and Gene Rodgers stared at the face of Chetra, the 18,500-foot Himalayan peak looming over the airstrip where they had just landed.

"It's like Riley and Matt were saying a while ago – this is enough. If the trip ended right now, it would be enough," said Mr. Rodgers, 47, an Austin resident with quadriplegia. "This alone made it worthwhile."

But they and seven other people with disabilities have weeks more to travel and a higher final goal. The group, organized by the Coalition for Texans with Disabilities, started its trek to the base camp of Mount Everest at 17,600 feet on Thursday, with a flight from Nepal's capital city to this tiny village at 9,134 feet.

They hope that traveling to the world's highest mountain despite disabilities ranging from paralysis to deafness, lost limbs and chronic pain will shift assumptions – for themselves and those who watch – about what people with physical challenges can do.

After the trek, leader Gary Guller, 36, of Austin hopes to go to the mountain's summit with a smaller group of climbers. If they make it, he would be the first person with one arm to stand atop Everest.

Barry boards    Photo by  Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe group arrived in Katmandu on Monday and spent three days preparing a mountain expedition that will take them as high as the mountain above Lukla before they arrive around April 3 at Everest's base camp.

They woke before dawn on Thursday to head to Tribhuwan Airport. There, a mob of Sherpas unloaded the expedition's massive array of gear and hoisted five team members in wheelchairs from buses.

"Watching these guys get moved in and out of airplanes, buses, getting handled so much, I realize you have to have such grace," said Steve Bernstein, a hotel-furnishings project manager from Morrison, Colo., who volunteered to help on the trek. "To develop a tolerance for that, the only word I can think of, is grace."

As the group moved onto the tarmac toward two waiting Shangri-La Airways planes, several of the men in wheelchairs raced across the asphalt through the thick morning mist, reveling in the chance to move fast on flat ground.

"Just seeing that – it is very intense," Mr. Guller said. "To see them finally in the mountains, after so much, to finally be here – I've almost cried to think this is finally happening."

Mr. Standridge, 24, an assistant manager at Wal-Mart in San Marcos who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident, posed for a picture by one of the Shangri-La planes and rolled up a sleeve to display a Superman tattoo. "Right there, right there, babe!"

"Not till you get to base camp," laughed Mark Ezell, a Raleigh, N.C., man born with spina bifida.

Years of waiting

Mountain view from cockpit   Photo by  Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe group then loaded onto the airplanes, specially modified for the wheelchairs, and took off for the 45-minute flight to Lukla, the jumping-off point for most Western travelers trekking through the remote Khumbu region around Mount Everest. Within minutes, the jagged, white peaks of the Himalayas came into view, wreathed in clouds and framed by a blue sky.

"I've been waiting 30 years for this," said Richard Muldowney, 63, of Hinsdale, Mass., a substance-abuse counselor who came on the trek because he was interested in helping and traveling with such a diverse group of people with disabilities. "I've seen so many pictures in so many books, it feels as if I've been here. It was something I thought would never happen."

The plane landed on an improbably small landing strip slanted 30 degrees up the mountain slope, and dozens of Sherpas gathered to take in the sight of trekkers, some in wheelchairs or walking with canes, one with a prosthetic leg. News of their arrival spread quickly through the village of 1,500.

"I had a lady come up to me within two minutes after we landed," said Dr. Janis Tupensis of Chicago, who is serving as the expedition's doctor. "I think she was from Germany. She said, 'Who's running this? I have friends who want to do this. Where do I sign up?' "

At one of Lukla's 20 teahouses, hostels built for trekkers, an elaborate camp staffed by more than 50 Sherpas and porters was set up for the group's first night.

There, gangs of curious children flocked to stare and play among the trekkers' 17 tents. Some Sherpa men gathered to weave bamboo onto wood frames for the large, modified baskets – called dokos – that will be used to carry some of the paralyzed men.

Trek members poked through gear, chatted or dozed as sunlight warmed the thin air. A few explored the village's narrow main street, a rocky path busy with townspeople, porters carrying other trekkers' gear and passing teams of half-breed yaks used to move heavy loads between mountain villages in lower parts of the Himalayas.

Some frustration

Riley & Matt Team Work   Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsIn camp, Mr. Woods and Mr. Standridge said their initial excitement had shifted a little as they stared at the steep crags overhead. "I'd like to go out and hike. I look up at these mountains and I feel really frustrated," said Mr. Woods, 27, of Waco, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a skiing accident. "There's not any way I could push a chair up the mountain."

Mr. Standridge said he was becoming weary of having so many people trying to move his chair. "I came here to prove myself. Any chance I get where I can do something by myself, I do it," he said.

The two men then decided to venture into town alone. Waving off Sherpas who rushed to help them, they pushed themselves from their chairs and scooted on their backsides down a 10-foot stretch of rocky steps. They handed their chairs to each other and climbed in to wrestle them over more teahouse steps and into town.

Rolling past tiny storefronts, they drew a horde of wide-eyed village children. One youngster ran behind them, laughing and making "vroom, vroom, vroom" noises. Another called to friends: "Look! They're really going fast!" The children and village adults clapped and cheered as they moved back over the steps and headed through the teahouse to their encampment.

"This," Mr. Standridge said, "is what we came here to do."

This expedition would not be possible without you and we thank you. We are still in need of funds to complete the expedition and are grateful for your continued support. How you can support the team.

Slide show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News

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