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May 4, 2003
THE ROAD TO EVEREST

Something about the altitude changes your perspective on the journey – every journey

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News


KATMANDU, Nepal – They were perhaps the unlikeliest team ever to set out for the highest place on earth:

Five American men in wheelchairs. A Texas woman with a leg brace and another with lifelong hip problems. A Sri Lankan immigrant from San Antonio with a prosthetic leg. Two Sherpas from a remote Nepali village – one without an arm and another without a leg – who spoke no English.

All led by a 36-year-old Austin climber who lost an arm in a mountaineering accident and hoped the team's efforts would spur him to reach the Everest summit.

Their goal was to shake stereotypes about the limits of people with disabilities. More than anything else, team members say, their trip to the top of the world changed the way they see themselves.

"You do the coolest thing you've ever done in your life, and with the coolest people you've ever been with. I'm not ready for it to be over," said Sandra Murgia of Austin. "So I'm trying to start a new life – instead of just waiting for life to happen, to just go out and grab it."

It began when Austin climber Gary Guller spoke to the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities in 2001 and began talking with the coalition's director about how taking a team of people with disabilities to Mount Everest might draw attention and donations for the advocacy group.

In mid-March, 10 Americans with physical disabilities gathered in Katmandu with more than a dozen helpers and supporters for Team Everest 03, joined by Nepali Sherpa tribesmen with lost limbs invited along to call attention to needs of people with disabilities in Nepal.

On March 20, they all flew to Lukla, a Himalayan village at 9,000 feet that serves as gateway to the region surrounding Everest. The next morning, with dozens of gawking townfolk lining their path, they began trekking with a team of more than 50 Sherpa guides and other Nepali porters.

Some of the Sherpas later said villagers speculated that they wouldn't get far. And problems did begin almost immediately.

Mark Ezzell's rented wheelchair broke down. Like many trekkers in the high Himalayas, some of the team got stomach ailments, and others had difficulty adjusting to the high altitude, which can cause everything from headaches and nausea to life-threatening pulmonary and cerebral edema.

Mr. Ezzell, a 39-year-old lobbyist with spina bifida from Raleigh, N.C.; law student Riley Woods of Waco; disabilities counselor Barry Muth of San Antonio; and Matt Standridge, a Wal-Mart assistant manager from San Marcos quickly grew frustrated riding in bamboo baskets, or dokos , instead of pushing themselves. But the way was often too narrow, steep and rocky for their wheelchairs.

Dinesh Ranasinghe, who lost a leg to cancer at 10 and walks with a prosthetic, and Tenzing Sherpa, who walks on one leg using crutches, developed sores and blisters while negotiating boulders and other long stretches of rough trail.

"I hate this! I hate this!" Mr. Standridge, 24, raged after being jostled for hours in a doko while struggling with severe nausea on the first day. "I was talking so much trash about doing this on my own, and here I am riding in a basket."

But at almost every turn, stunning vistas rewarded team members' efforts. Slopes covered with pine and rhododendron forests gave way to soaring, snow-rimmed peaks. Sheer rock gorges rose above the nearby Dudh Khosi River, a greenish ribbon of tumbling rapids and glacial pools.

"There's a real connection between earth and sky here," said Christine White, 50, of Austin, whose hearing has been severely impaired since childhood. "To me, the mountains beckon you. You're afraid of them because they're so enormous, but at the same time, they call you."

In each settlement, red-cheeked toddlers and wizened elders alike called out, "Namaste"– a Sanskrit word commonly translated as "I honor the divine within you."

"Going up is almost like a cleansing process. You have a renewed sense of yourself," Mrs. White said.

"It's like the higher we go up, the more we start shedding some of the stuff, the problems from back home. You can't help but have a spiritual experience here."

The Sherpas and porters worked hard to figure out how to help the men they dubbed "the wheelchair people" do as much as they could. By the time they reached Namche Bazaar, a village at 11,000 feet, team members who could push their wheelchairs were traversing high, hanging bridges on their own.

"Don't give up – that's what it's all about," said Mr. Standridge, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle wreck. "At least I'm on this part of the trail and not back home. ... I look up at the sky and start smiling."

The group stayed in Namche for several days to acclimate. Many played pool, drank beer and bonded in a climbers' bar, hanging a Team Everest 03 T-shirt among those from mountaineers around the world.

Looking at their T-shirt beside others bearing slogans such as "A woman's place is on the face," "Seattle Mountaineers," "Our drinking expedition has a climbing problem," and "The Aussie Six Chicks from Down Under," Mr. Woods and the others exulted. "It's so incredible," he said. "We're paras – here! To think: We're a part of this, too."

As the group left Namche – with the men in wheelchairs pushing themselves and teammates yelling encouragement – others on the trail often stopped to cheer them on.

"The tremendous spirit – I'm just stunned," said Mandar Jadhav, one of five Indian contestants on a reality TV show trek to Everest's base camp, sponsored by the India National Geographic Channel.

Some passing trekkers worried that "there must've been a bad accident" when they saw so many people in wheelchairs. A Briton who encountered them doubled back to apologize, explaining he felt horrible because he initially thought the men riding in dokos were simply lazy, and he hadn't understood that they were paralyzed.

A lama who blessed them at the 326-year-old Buddhist temple in Pangboche, the region's oldest Buddhist structure, marveled at their journey.

"Not everyone can come to Everest, these kinds of people, but American people are even wondering how brave are you?" he told the group "No hand, without leg, but you still want to do something!"

The landscape grew starker and more dramatic. Barren, windswept valleys approaching Everest were dotted with chortens, or memorials to Westerners and Sherpas who had died there, somberly reminding travelers of the tenuousness of life in the Himalayas.

Kim Smith, 38, of Dorchester, Texas, who was born with a misaligned hip and has fibromyalgia (unexplained chronic pain), was forced by illness to stay behind at the village of Pheriche, waiting for the team's return from base camp. Even that experience was profound.

"In the States, even when we're alone, we have so much going on around us. We have radios we listen to. We have TVs we watch," Ms. Smith said. In Pheriche, "there was nothing to do but live in the present moment. I did a lot of reflection and learned a lot of things about myself."

Even the strongest team members struggled with thinning air and increasing altitude; nearing base camp, their lungs could absorb only half as much oxygen as at sea level. Some team members couldn't sleep, and others said that just turning over in a sleeping bag left them breathless.

Gene Rodgers, a 47-year-old paraplegic from Austin whose world travels had included a previous trek to Nepal, was sickened by a bowel obstruction only a day's walk from Everest. The painful twisting of the intestines required hospital treatment, so he had to be evacuated by helicopter to Katmandu.

Tenzing Sherpa and Lapka Dorje Sherpa, both with disabilities, and Chris Watkins of Thunder Bay, Ontario, who had hoped to climb Everest with Mr. Guller, also had to turn back because of altitude sickness. Mark Gobble, 28, a teacher of the deaf in Austin, had turned back earlier.

But the group's camaraderie and determination seemed to grow with the physical hardships, and some team members said that kept them going.

"There were times when I've felt like, 'Oh God, I'm not going to make it.' But once I got to camp at the end of each day, I felt stronger," said Ms. Murgia, 44, who has had constant pain and paralysis in one leg from a condition known as repetitive sympathetic dystrophy since being injured in the U.S. Navy in 1991.

Mr. Ranasinghe, a 26-year-old computer programmer from San Antonio, said all the encouragement got him to the 18,000-foot peak of Kala Patar, the highest anyone on the team reached. "I didn't know I could push this hard for this amount of time."

On April 6, Mr. Guller and his teammates, including seven with disabilities, reached the vast glacial field at 17,600 feet that is Everest's base camp.

They had traveled 17 days through some of the world's harshest terrain, enduring bone-chilling cold and snow and living conditions so primitive that it was difficult to avoid getting sick.

"We set our minds to do something incredible, dang near impossible," Mr. Standridge said. "And we did it."

Mr. Guller has headed back to the Himalayas, where he hopes by mid-May to become the first person with one arm to stand atop Everest. Calling last week from Everest's base camp, he said, "Even the climbing Sherpas are still talking about it, just how powerful it was for us to be a part of that experience with the challenge trek team, how much energy that is giving us to succeed."

Back in the United States, Mr. Rodgers joined a sit-in at the governor's office in Austin to protest proposed budget cuts for community programs for the disabled. He also arranged to get a wheelchair for a 4-year-old Nepali child, an accident victim he learned about while hospitalized in Katmandu.

Mr. Muth, 44, an Army veteran paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident, said the experience persuaded him to organize a nonprofit sports facility in San Antonio for people with disabilities.

Mr. Ranasinghe had to start job-hunting because he left his old one to go on the trek, but he also started training for a 100-mile bike ride. "I'm thinking, you know, it's still good. I'm in an air-conditioned place, and I get to flush my toilet. It's just the simple things that you count on sometimes."

Kim Smith got home and learned her husband had filed for divorce. Initially devastated, she said her experience on the trek softened the blow.

"The strength that I got from being ill, separated from the team, and on my own in a foreign country in a village where three people spoke English – after I made it through that nine days, I knew I could make it through anything in the States," she said.

Ms. Murgia said she's thinking about returning to Nepal with relatives, and she's mulling her lifelong dream of doing foreign-aid work in Africa.

"My doctor's been saying, 'No, no, no.' Now, I'm saying, 'Screw the doctors'."

Slide show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News

Press Contact:
Dennis Borel
Project Director
(512) 478-3366
info@teameverest03.org