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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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 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
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
"My doctor's been saying, 'No, no, no.' Now, I'm saying, 'Screw
show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News