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June 7, 2003
Everest climber home to tell his tale

Austin man fulfilled dream, became 1st with 1 arm to reach summit

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News


AUSTIN – Gary Guller came home from the top of the world Friday, cheered by family, friends and trekking teammates as he told of "living his dream" to become the first person with one arm to climb Mount Everest.

"For a mountaineer, you spend your whole life looking up at the hills, looking up at the mountains. ...You're always looking for something a bit higher and a bit harder," he said. "To finally reach the place on this earth where there is no place higher, what else is there?"

Mr. Guller stood atop Mount Everest on May 23, 47 days after leading a group of people with disabilities on a trek to it's base camp.

Along the way, his Team Everest 03 expedition endured repeated hardships. During the expedition's challenge trek, several people were felled by altitude sickness and one had to be evacuated by helicopter because of a potentially deadly intestinal condition.

Mr. Guller suffered excruciating snow blindness after his descent from the summit; a Sherpa companion broke a leg coming down the mountain; and another who was like a younger brother to Mr. Guller, 28-year-old Karma Gylzen Sherpa, died May 24 from what was believed to be septic shock from an abdominal infection.

A helicopter chartered to fly Mr. Guller from the mountains last week crashed near Everest's base camp – killing and injuring several people – just after leaving him, a teammate and their climbing Sherpas at a remote Himalayan airfield.

Raising awareness

Despite the hardships, the 36-year-old said, the journey fulfilled his dream of a lifetime and increased awareness of the strengths and abilities of people who live with physical challenges.

"If it changes the way one person is treated, then it's all been worth it," he said at a news conference sponsored by the expedition's organizer, the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

Mr. Guller said getting seven other people with physical disabilities to base camp at 17,600 feet inspired his summit team to make it to the top.

They needed it. The weather was harsher than usual on the 29,035-foot peak, with winds that blew entire camps of tents off the upper slopes and kept climbers from trying to go to Everest's upper reaches for the first three weeks of the spring summit season.

Bad weather forced Mr. Guller and his teammates to spend three nights at the mountain's Camp 4 before they could make their summit bid, and they were kept there for two more nights after he was overcome with snow blindness – a condition where the intense reflection of high-altitude sun on the snow burns the corneas.

Almost there

Camp 4 is at 26,000 feet – a height so forbidding that it is known as the death zone – and mountaineers try to avoid staying there more than a few hours before making their final climb.

"We knew that it was going to be tough, that I needed to be pushed," he said. "To dig that deep inside was bloody hard."

Mr. Guller said others warned them to go down, but they stuck to their plan. On the day they headed up, the Sherpas told him that the success of the Challenge Trek made them certain they would make it.

"They said we've been blessed from the very beginning with Team Everest 03. Why is today going to be any different? And it wasn't. We were blessed. We had no wind. We had blue sky," he said. "That day was just picture perfect."

He said his greatest physical challenge came on the knife-edged ridge that runs between Everest's south summit and it's highest tip. His lead climbing Sherpa motioned toward a narrow ridge of ice and snow and told him to step there, and he shifted his weight there gingerly, wondering if it would hold or send him tumbling into thin air.

"It's 4,000 feet down to Tibet. You can see Camp 2 below you, and there's nothing but air in between," he said. "Here you are facing all these things you don't want to face ...You better make this step right, because the consequence is death."

The ice held, and another Sherpa "looked back and said, 'congratulations.' At that point, I knew."

When they reached the summit, they had it to themselves. A French team had just descended. Mr. Guller said he and his four Sherpa friends knelt, put their heads together and cried.

"For the 50th anniversary, to be standing on top of the world with your favorite people, four climbing Sherpa, you talk about a dream come true," he said.

"For me, ever since, God, I can remember ... I've dreamed of climbing Mount Everest. I truly, truly thought that that would be just another dream that would not come true, especially after the accident," said Mr. Guller, recalling the loss of his arm in a 1986 mountaineering mishap that took the life of his closest friend. "I cannot say thank you enough to those people that helped me make this happen."

Dennis Borel
Project Director
(512) 478-3366