By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News
EVEREST BASE CAMP, Nepal It's midnight, and Gary Guller
is still up in his expedition tent, bundled into a sleeping
bag and yelling into a satellite phone.
The roar of an avalanche splits the icy darkness, answered
by a tinny din from the phone. Forty-five fifth-graders back
in Texas are screaming in delight that a real mountaineer
would share such an adventure with them from the top of the
The 36-year-old climber flashes a grin, delighted at more
converts to his passion and his cause: The freedom to explore
should be open to anyone, and there's nowhere better to prove
it than the highest of his beloved mountains of Nepal.
"It doesn't take a lot of money, a lot of material things.
It's people willing to get out and make the effort, being
willing to work together and help and try," he said.
"Even if it's going only 50 meters. Sometimes just one
meter is enough. Sometimes, all it takes is getting off the
The Austin resident took a team of people with disabilities
to Everest's base camp this spring to prove just that, and
he's now poised to take his message to its summit.
Joined by two other American climbers and a small
team of Nepalese Sherpas, Mr. Guller hopes to stand on the
peak of the 29,035-foot mountain in the next few weeks. If
successful, he would be the first person with one arm to reach
the top of Everest.
It would complete an odyssey that began at age 12,
when he was captivated by a photo of a snow-rimmed peak on
the trail to Everest. "I thought, 'One day, I'd like
to see that. One day, I will,' " he said.
He roped up for his first rock climb the next year, exhausting
himself on a 40-foot pitch near his hometown of Gastonia,
15, he talked his parents into sending him to mountaineering
school and then got a job helping underprivileged kids learn
outdoor activities, including climbing.
"That was a start," he said. "What appealed
to me then and now is that sort of sense of accomplishment,
letting other folks experience some of the pleasures that
I can show them, of something that they wouldn't normally
By his early 20s, he'd climbed across California and the
Southwest and been in the Alps. After a college stint spent
mostly climbing, he ended up at an Arizona school specializing
in outdoor education.
He and his best friend talked professors into letting them
organize a climb of Orizaba, a volcano in Mexico, as an independent
study project. So one piercingly bright morning in 1986, Mr.
Guller, his friend and another student were roped together
at 18,000 feet on the ice-rimmed mountain, nearing the summit.
Mr. Guller said the lead climber somehow peeled off a short
vertical section, pulling them all down. Then came the realization
that they were falling far too fast.
He said he dug his ice ax into the slope, and the others
hurtled past as he held onto it, its strap around his left
wrist. The ax initially held, but he passed out after his
friends' weight ripped the nerves controlling his left arm
from his spinal cord. He later learned that his neck was also
broken in several places.
He came to in a scree field with his friend trying to wake
him. They had fallen about 2,000 feet, and neither could walk.
Their companion was hundreds of feet below with a broken hip.
As darkness came on, he said, he and his friend hugged each
other and fell asleep. His friend cried out in the night and
was dead by morning. Mr. Guller said he and the other climber
waited two days before being found by searchers so sure they'd
be dead that "they only brought body bags."
Coming to terms
neurosurgeon told him he'd never regain use of his arm. He
had experimental surgery but ended up only with excruciating
pain in his left shoulder.
He had more surgery to deaden the nerves, and then began
trying to get himself back into shape.
"You saw something that he wanted to do so bad, and
nothing was going to get in his way. Not even losing a limb,"
said his younger brother David. "He would spend hours
at the gym, just driving himself to the point of physical
exhaustion. It was almost a hush-hush situation with our parents,
not something ever talked about. But as a brother, I knew:
He's going to go up a mountain again."
In 1989, trying to regain "that free, athletic kind
of life," Mr. Guller said he decided to have his arm
It was easy "from a physical point of view," he
said, but it wouldn't be until he was asked to speak at a
convention of people with disabilities in Texas in 2001 that
he would come to emotional terms with what had happened.
"That was a big turning point for me. I think I've wasted
too many years, not facing up to my injury," he said.
"I've begun to look back and realize how long I have
tried to hide the fact that I had only one arm."
After the amputation, he said, he delved back into outdoor
sports, hiking and camping across Canada and the western U.S.,
and then going to Europe to search for some semblance of all
that he'd lost.
He settled in England, hiking in winter in the mountains
of Wales and returning to climbing in earnest with ice climbing
in Scotland. He discovered Nepal in the early '90s, and was
so smitten with the country and people that he was soon leading
In 1997, he signed on to a friend's expedition to climb
Lhotse, a peak adjoining Everest. Shortly after they reached
the mountain, his friend died in his sleep of a heart attack.
Mr. Guller returned to England and learned his wife had filed
for divorce, citing his frequent absences.
"I don't know if I could give up what I do for anyone.
That comes across as very hard," he said. "I think
the majority of people don't really get to experience what
they really want to do, though."
He flew back to Nepal and fell in love with Joni Rogers,
a speech therapist from Texas.
They decided to move to Austin to tap into the U.S. adventure-travel
market. They married and mapped out a plan. Mr. Guller would
lead treks and build up their company, Arun Treks and Expeditions,
while readying himself for his ultimate goal: going up Everest.
"The one part that was missing was my head," he
said. "I didn't have the mental control over what had
happened [in 1986] yet. I was still kind of running from it."
He went to climb Everest in 2001. With only one arm, it was
far more difficult to get through sections like the Khumbu
icefall, a highly unstable ice floe at the base of the mountain.
There, climbers traverse 25 to 30 aluminum ladders stretched
over deep crevasses and up massive ice walls, balancing heavy
boots with sharp metal crampons while holding onto fixed safety
ropes. Having to use one arm to negotiate the ladders and
safety ropes was difficult, but Mr. Guller said he compensated
with footwork and patience.
On one trip through the icefall, he and his climbing Sherpa,
one of his closest friends, narrowly escaped being swept away
by an avalanche. Hearing a roar overhead and seeing a wall
of snow hurtling toward them, Mr. Guller said, Nima Dawa Sherpa
threw sacred rice blessed by a Buddhist lama, told Mr. Guller
to hold his breath and hugged him against an ice wall.
"What went through my mind was, 'I can't believe this.'
" he said. " 'I survived my neck being broken. I
got here, and this is how it's going to end?' "
They were unscathed, and got up to 24,000 feet but ultimately
had to abandon their summit bid when shifting ice knocked
out crucial fixed ropes.
Back in Texas, Mr. Guller agreed to speak to the Coalition
of Texans with Disabilities. He said it was the first time
he'd talked publicly about how he lost his arm, and he was
initially terrified of being with so many people with disabilities.
"Even I didn't know his whole story," Ms. Rogers
said. "I'd only gotten pieces of it. It was an extremely
emotional process just to write the talk that he gave."
Afterward, Mr. Guller began brainstorming with the coalition's
director, Dennis Borel. They assembled Team Everest 03, and
their goal was audacious but simple: Carry to the highest
point on earth the message that people with physical challenges
have unlimited potential.
They hoped to raise $1 million, but the poor economy made
fund raising so difficult that they had to pare the expedition
budget. At the last minute, they scrambled to raise enough
to send the minimum amount of equipment they needed in Nepal.
Mr. Borel said they remain $13,000 short of covering expedition
Once under way, Mr. Guller said, virtually everything about
the trek exceeded his hopes. Seven of his fellow Americans
with disabilities reached base camp with him, and the group
drew national attention and praise from every climber and
trekker they met along the way.
"People do get it," he said. "What we're doing
is pushing the same envelope that Sherpas did years ago and
climbers did years ago."
He reveled in showing teammates the mountain kingdom.
In the tiny settlement of Dugla, he pointed out a particularly
stunning peak the one he'd seen in pictures as a boy.
"It's like a dream, regardless of anybody's ability
or disability, to see people's faces when they see these mountains,"
he said, his eyes tearing up as he watched his teammates.
"And working together like this, it can truly change
"In Austin, they're fighting to keep basic human services
for people just like these," he said. "I wish we
had the ways and means to have direct, live satellite links
to the Legislature. I think they'd start maybe realizing these
people are just like them. They're not asking for the world.
They're asking for fairness."
The day they left base camp, a passing Sherpa stopped him
on the trail to hand him a package from Katmandu. Mr. Guller
sat down and ripped it open like a child opening a present
and then stared at the Nepali government document inside.
It was his team's permit to climb Mount Everest.
"I've waited all my life for this," he said. "Since
I was 12 years old."
show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News
To contact the TE '03 Summit Team: firstname.lastname@example.org
**The expedition needs your financial support to keep the
message and the dream alive. Please spread the word to friends
and colleagues to donate so that we can accomplish our goals.