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March 2003:

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

Team Everest '03 needs your financial support to get the message to the top of the world that the potential of people with disabilities is unlimited. Please spread the word to friends and colleagues to donate so that we can accomplish our goals. Thanks to all! - Gary Guller

Disabled trekkers inspire awe muscling way through Himalayas
By Lee Hancock / The Dallas Morning News

Matt Standridge    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsLOSASA, Nepal – Gary Guller stared at the wheelchair tracks snaking down the narrow mountain trail and slowly shook his head.

Ahead, Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek members grunted and huffed as they muscled their wheelchairs forward, pushing up 40-degree inclines and edging along 1,000-foot drop-offs to the Dudh Khosi River.

"That's the first time anyone's seen that here before," said Mr. Guller, 36, of Austin, a veteran climber and Nepal trekking guide leading a Texas-based team of people with disabilities to Mount Everest.

"This is too much, too, too much. It's hard to keep it together, watching this. To see such human spirit and all of these people doing this together," he said. "Just one time, everybody should be able to experience this. It's like a dream."

Mr. Guller's group, sponsored by the Austin-based Coalition for Texans with Disabilities, is going to one of the world's highest, most hostile and inaccessible places to call attention to the abilities and potential of people with physical challenges.

The team's nine Americans with disabilities include five who use wheelchairs – one is paralyzed from the shoulders down – and others with severe hearing loss, lost or damaged legs and chronic pain. The Americans have been joined by two Sherpas with disabilities and more than a dozen volunteers from the United States and Canada.

A 10th team member, a deaf teacher from Austin, left the group to return to the United States earlier this week.

At the end of their trek to Everest base camp 17,388 feet, Mr. Guller hopes to lead three U.S. and Canadian climbers to the mountain's summit at 29,035 feet. If successful, he would be the first person with one arm atop the highest place on Earth.

The trail to Losasa      Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsOn the sixth morning of their trek, the team climbed the barren slope above the Sherpa trading village of Namche Bazaar and headed down a winding trail rimmed by some of the world's most formidable peaks.

Clouds shrouded Everest, but other snow-capped behemoths glimmered in dazzling sunlight, framed by a brilliant blue sky.

For the group and those who encountered them, the jaw-dropping scenery was rivaled by what was happening on the trail.

Four members who use wheelchairs pushed themselves during much of the five-hour trip to a terraced village campsite, accomplishing what they had hoped to do since arriving in the Himalayas nearly a week ago.

Nepali porters had carried them in woven bamboo baskets called dokos for most of the group's previous journey because the terrain was too rough and rocky for wheelchairs.

On their own

But after two days of resting and adjusting to the altitude at 11,000 feet in Namche Bazaar, Mr. Guller announced that the trail ahead was passable enough to allow the men who could push their wheelchairs to try it on their own.
"This is what we've been waiting for," said Riley Woods of Waco, a 28-year-old paraplegic. "So much has been taken away from you that normally you would do on your own, you take pride in what you can do."

Moving up the trail, they popped onto rear wheels to maneuver around boulders and over rocks. They slogged through thick mud and pools of snowmelt. And they dodged dozens of yaks, the principal means of transport for trekking equipment and commercial goods in the remote, roadless region.

One of the men, Mark Ezell of Raleigh, N.C., only managed a short ride before a faulty front wheel on his wheelchair collapsed and he had to return to a doko. But the others pushed themselves for hours, waving off Sherpas who tried to help even as their arms ached and they gasped in the thin air.

"It's a good burn. Uhn. Uhn. Sleepin' good tonight!" grunted Matt Standridge of San Marcos, leaning forward with a sweaty Houston Astros hat perched backward on his head.

Riley Woods       Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsHis grin widened as he strained, hopped and bounced his chair. "Who's your daddy!" the 24-year-old paraplegic called out.

Mr. Woods also rocked his chair to clear small rocks and popped wheelies to get past bigger ones.

"I'm lovin' it!" he said. "This chair, I'll probably never use it again. I'll retire it and put it in my Everest hall of fame."

Barry Muth of San Antonio, a 44-year-old quadriplegic who has limited use of his arms, tilted back and pushed while a porter pulled him from the front with a makeshift rope harness.

"This is what I needed," he said.

He occasionally fell forward in his chair, and once tipped over, sending a scrum of alarmed Sherpas diving to right his chair. But he laughed off the tumble, declaring it part of the adventure.

"The porters are letting me work," he said. "They're getting good at letting me do what I can."

Other team members gathered at the crest of a particularly steep 30-foot stretch to cheer the men on as they wrestled their chairs to the top.

"It's so great to see my friends push – really, really strive," said Dinesh Ranasinghe, 26, of San Antonio, who also struggled over parts of the trail because his prosthetic leg has worn sores in his upper thigh.

"They are so happy," added Christine Kane, 29, a teacher at the Texas State School for the Deaf in Austin. "Every single muscle they're using, they appreciate – every drop of sweat. They don't care if it's hard. They don't care if it's slow."

Barry Muth      Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsTeams of Sherpas and porters occasionally hoisted the wheelchairs over large boulders and steps and then hovered nervously as the men began pushing again.

Mingma Sherpa, one of 15 Sherpas and 80 Nepalese porters assisting the expedition, repeatedly tried to coax Mr. Woods back into a doko.

"The trail is not so good," he said. "But he says, 'my wheelchair is very strong.' He keeps going, going. I never see anything like this in my entire life."

Impressing onlookers

The sight of the men themselves rolling up precarious paths and skirting thousand-foot drop-offs left their teammates and other trekkers in awe.

"Usually you turn a corner here and get goose bumps because you see these beautiful, beautiful mountains. Here, I'm turning the corner, and I see these guys, and I get even more goose bumps," said Dr. Janis Tupesis, 28, of Chicago, the team's physician.

"An Australian couple who passed us on the trail just threw up their hands in disbelief," he said. "They're on their way back [from Everest], and this rivals anything they'd seen."

Slide show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News

Dose of reality

Five Indian contestants traveling to Everest base camp for Mission Everest, a National Geographic-India Channel reality TV show, stopped by the Team Everest 03 camp to meet the group before team members set out Wednesday morning and then watched in amazement as the members moved up the trail.

The five Indians, chosen from 30,000 applicants in a national competition that included a stint for finalists in an Indian Army mountaineering boot camp, said seeing the Texas-based group was among their most memorable experiences in Nepal.

"When we saw them for the first time, we said, 'Oh my God,' said one woman who asked that her name not be used because the network is keeping winners' names secret until the show airs in April. "Whenever we are tired, and we see these people, we realize we can't be tired.

"We knew we'd be meeting great people because this is the 50th year [since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the top of Everest], but we never knew we'd be meeting people like this."

Matt Standridge / Barry Muth      Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsAnother of the five TV show winners said seeing people with such physical challenges accomplishing such extraordinary things "is a beautiful concept, really."

"You start questioning limits. It's very easy for all of us to say something is not possible. We see something like this, and we realize that anything is possible," he said.

"So I say what disability? They're doing it, and they're doing it quite nicely" he said. "These guys definitely rock."

Questions / comments for the team

CTD's current legislative work: "The money follows the person"
Divided into several bills, this innovative legislation allows a Medicaid-eligible person with a disability to leave a
n institution and take their funding for services into the community setting. Without this, a person who wants to leave an institution must go to the bottom of a lengthy waiting list, which is a huge and scary disincentive to transitioning into the community.

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. Contact Dennis at dborel@cotwd.org to learn more about CTD's advocacy work.

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