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 physical challenges.
"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 Kathmandu, 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
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 to newcomers.
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
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 world travel.
"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
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 applied.
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
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 Trek.
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 stunt."
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 trip fee.
"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
'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.
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 from Nepal.
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 a wheelchair.
"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