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March 9, 2003

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 trek.

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.

Dangerous trek

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 Nepalese porters.

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 highest soapbox.

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.

Immediate interest

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 climb Everest.

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 expressed alarm.

'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. Muth said.

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.

Making preparations

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."

Learning experience

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 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 each other."

Press Contact:
Dennis Borel
Project Director
(512) 478-3366