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May 2003:

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May 4

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

Gary Guller with Sherpa in Namche   Photo by Erich Schlegel /  The Dallas Morning NewsMOUNT EVEREST BASE CAMP, Nepal – It's midnight, and Gary Guller is still up in his expedition tent, bundled into a sleeping bag and yelling into a satellite phone.

The roar of an avalanche splits the icy darkness, answered by a tinny din from the phone. Forty-five fifth-graders back in Texas are screaming in delight that a real mountaineer would share such an adventure with them from the top of the world.

The 36-year-old climber flashes a grin, delighted at more converts to his passion and his cause: The freedom to explore should be open to anyone, and there's nowhere better to prove it than the highest of his beloved mountains of Nepal.

"It doesn't take a lot of money, a lot of material things. It's people willing to get out and make the effort, being willing to work together and help and try," he said. "Even if it's going only 50 meters. Sometimes just one meter is enough. Sometimes, all it takes is getting off the couch."

The Austin resident took a team of people with disabilities to Everest's base camp this spring to prove just that, and he's now poised to take his message to its summit.

Joined by two other American climbers and a small team of Nepalese Sherpas, Mr. Guller hopes to stand on the peak of the 29,035-foot mountain in the next few weeks. If successful, he would be the first person with one arm to reach the top of Everest.

It would complete an odyssey that began at age 12, when he was captivated by a photo of a snow-rimmed peak on the trail to Everest. "I thought, 'One day, I'd like to see that. One day, I will,' " he said.

He roped up for his first rock climb the next year, exhausting himself on a 40-foot pitch near his hometown of Gastonia, N.C.

Gary identifies peaks with Steve Bernstien    Photo by Erich Schlegel /  The Dallas Morning NewsAt 15, he talked his parents into sending him to mountaineering school and then got a job helping underprivileged kids learn outdoor activities, including climbing.

"That was a start," he said. "What appealed to me then and now is that sort of sense of accomplishment, letting other folks experience some of the pleasures that I can show them, of something that they wouldn't normally do."

The accident

By his early 20s, he'd climbed across California and the Southwest and been in the Alps. After a college stint spent mostly climbing, he ended up at an Arizona school specializing in outdoor education.

He and his best friend talked professors into letting them organize a climb of Orizaba, a volcano in Mexico, as an independent study project. So one piercingly bright morning in 1986, Mr. Guller, his friend and another student were roped together at 18,000 feet on the ice-rimmed mountain, nearing the summit.

Mr. Guller said the lead climber somehow peeled off a short vertical section, pulling them all down. Then came the realization that they were falling far too fast.

He said he dug his ice ax into the slope, and the others hurtled past as he held onto it, its strap around his left wrist. The ax initially held, but he passed out after his friends' weight ripped the nerves controlling his left arm from his spinal cord. He later learned that his neck was also broken in several places.

He came to in a scree field with his friend trying to wake him. They had fallen about 2,000 feet, and neither could walk. Their companion was hundreds of feet below with a broken hip.

As darkness came on, he said, he and his friend hugged each other and fell asleep. His friend cried out in the night and was dead by morning. Mr. Guller said he and the other climber waited two days before being found by searchers so sure they'd be dead that "they only brought body bags."

Coming to terms

Gary takes in the sites as the team ascends to Namche    Photo by Erich Schlegel /  The Dallas Morning NewsA neurosurgeon told him he'd never regain use of his arm. He had experimental surgery but ended up only with excruciating pain in his left shoulder.

He had more surgery to deaden the nerves, and then began trying to get himself back into shape.

"You saw something that he wanted to do so bad, and nothing was going to get in his way. Not even losing a limb," said his younger brother David. "He would spend hours at the gym, just driving himself to the point of physical exhaustion. It was almost a hush-hush situation with our parents, not something ever talked about. But as a brother, I knew: He's going to go up a mountain again."

In 1989, trying to regain "that free, athletic kind of life," Mr. Guller said he decided to have his arm amputated.

It was easy "from a physical point of view," he said, but it wouldn't be until he was asked to speak at a convention of people with disabilities in Texas in 2001 that he would come to emotional terms with what had happened.

"That was a big turning point for me. I think I've wasted too many years, not facing up to my injury," he said. "I've begun to look back and realize how long I have tried to hide the fact that I had only one arm."

After the amputation, he said, he delved back into outdoor sports, hiking and camping across Canada and the western U.S., and then going to Europe to search for some semblance of all that he'd lost.

Persistence

He settled in England, hiking in winter in the mountains of Wales and returning to climbing in earnest with ice climbing in Scotland. He discovered Nepal in the early '90s, and was so smitten with the country and people that he was soon leading treks there.

In 1997, he signed on to a friend's expedition to climb Lhotse, a peak adjoining Everest. Shortly after they reached the mountain, his friend died in his sleep of a heart attack.

Mr. Guller returned to England and learned his wife had filed for divorce, citing his frequent absences.

"I don't know if I could give up what I do for anyone. That comes across as very hard," he said. "I think the majority of people don't really get to experience what they really want to do, though."

He flew back to Nepal and fell in love with Joni Rogers, a speech therapist from Texas.

They decided to move to Austin to tap into the U.S. adventure-travel market. They married and mapped out a plan. Mr. Guller would lead treks and build up their company, Arun Treks and Expeditions, while readying himself for his ultimate goal: going up Everest.

"The one part that was missing was my head," he said. "I didn't have the mental control over what had happened [in 1986] yet. I was still kind of running from it."

He went to climb Everest in 2001. With only one arm, it was far more difficult to get through sections like the Khumbu icefall, a highly unstable ice floe at the base of the mountain. There, climbers traverse 25 to 30 aluminum ladders stretched over deep crevasses and up massive ice walls, balancing heavy boots with sharp metal crampons while holding onto fixed safety ropes. Having to use one arm to negotiate the ladders and safety ropes was difficult, but Mr. Guller said he compensated with footwork and patience.

On one trip through the icefall, he and his climbing Sherpa, one of his closest friends, narrowly escaped being swept away by an avalanche. Hearing a roar overhead and seeing a wall of snow hurtling toward them, Mr. Guller said, Nima Dawa Sherpa threw sacred rice blessed by a Buddhist lama, told Mr. Guller to hold his breath and hugged him against an ice wall.

"What went through my mind was, 'I can't believe this.' " he said. " 'I survived my neck being broken. I got here, and this is how it's going to end?' "

They were unscathed, and got up to 24,000 feet but ultimately had to abandon their summit bid when shifting ice knocked out crucial fixed ropes.

Gary Guller receives a special blessing and a bag of rice for protection at the monastery in Pangboche   Photo by Erich Schlegel /  The Dallas Morning NewsConfidence renewed

Back in Texas, Mr. Guller agreed to speak to the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. He said it was the first time he'd talked publicly about how he lost his arm, and he was initially terrified of being with so many people with disabilities.

"Even I didn't know his whole story," Ms. Rogers said. "I'd only gotten pieces of it. It was an extremely emotional process just to write the talk that he gave."

Afterward, Mr. Guller began brainstorming with the coalition's director, Dennis Borel. They assembled Team Everest 03, and their goal was audacious but simple: Carry to the highest point on earth the message that people with physical challenges have unlimited potential.

They hoped to raise $1 million, but the poor economy made fund raising so difficult that they had to pare the expedition budget. At the last minute, they scrambled to raise enough to send the minimum amount of equipment they needed in Nepal. Mr. Borel said they remain $13,000 short of covering expedition costs.

Once under way, Mr. Guller said, virtually everything about the trek exceeded his hopes. Seven of his fellow Americans with disabilities reached base camp with him, and the group drew national attention and praise from every climber and trekker they met along the way.

"People do get it," he said. "What we're doing is pushing the same envelope that Sherpas did years ago and climbers did years ago."

He reveled in showing teammates the mountain kingdom.

In the tiny settlement of Dugla, he pointed out a particularly stunning peak – the one he'd seen in pictures as a boy.

"It's like a dream, regardless of anybody's ability or disability, to see people's faces when they see these mountains," he said, his eyes tearing up as he watched his teammates. "And working together like this, it can truly change the world.

"In Austin, they're fighting to keep basic human services for people just like these," he said. "I wish we had the ways and means to have direct, live satellite links to the Legislature. I think they'd start maybe realizing these people are just like them. They're not asking for the world. They're asking for fairness."

The day they left base camp, a passing Sherpa stopped him on the trail to hand him a package from Katmandu. Mr. Guller sat down and ripped it open like a child opening a present and then stared at the Nepali government document inside. It was his team's permit to climb Mount Everest.

"I've waited all my life for this," he said. "Since I was 12 years old."

Slide show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News

To contact the TE '03 Summit Team: info@teameverest03.org

**The expedition needs your financial support to keep the message and the dream alive. Please spread the word to friends and colleagues to donate so that we can accomplish our goals.

 

May 2

Base CampTashi Delek from Mount Everest Base Camp!

Christine Kane reporting on behalf of Team Everest '03! After a few days of consistent snowfall, we are now experiencing early morning high winds. Our climbing Sherpa decided to stay at BC, a wise choice since it looks like we may have a couple more days of mixed precipitation and high winds. Our camp is blanketed with snow and Mt. Pumori has a dangerous looking cloud clinging to its peak. The plan at the moment is for the team to ascend to Camp 1 on May 4 or 5, to Camp 2 on May 6, on to Camp 3 for a night on May 7 or 8, then back to Camp 2 for a day of rest. Perhaps our first summit attempt will be two days thereafter! Please keep your fingers crossed and your positive thoughts coming our way.

Vince Bousselaire arrived back at BC three days ago from resting and recovering at the lower elevations. He is in great spirits and is now between Camps 1 and 2 with Karma Sherpa. They took the opportunity to ascend to Camp 1 very early yesterday morning when there was a brief period of clear weather. It is important for Vince to have some acclimatization nights at the high camps to check on his health before ascending higher up the mountain. Gary Guller spoke with Vince last night at Camp 1 and all was well. As a team and on behalf of Vince, we are convinced that his recovery is 100%. Vince sends his kind regards to all the people that have supported him and the message of Team Everest '03.

Chef GaryLast night we were looking for something to uplift our spirits, so Gary Guller and I decided to take over kitchen detail in what was considered a revolution against our camp cooks! We dug through barrels and bags and found ingredients for an Italian feast: garlic, bread, tomatoes, onions, pasta, salami and cheese. (Thank you Central Market in Austin, TX!) Needless to say, we have a new appreciation for our camp cooks. However, the feast was enjoyed by all! We even managed to rustle up some Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Sous Chef ChristineYou'd be amazed at what melted chocolate morsels will do to add laughter to a cold and windy night at almost 18,000ft. Without an oven, we made the cookies in a pot lid cooked on three rocks in a pot over a kerosene burner that looks like a small rocket launcher, a first for me. Sadly, more funds are needed as our expedition leader is wasting away to nothing! Though we are kidding, CTD/TE '03 still needs your financial support to continue with its efforts ensuring that all people have the same freedoms to live and explore.

Hot off the press: Please pick up a copy of the Dallas Morning News this Sunday, May 4th. There will be a feature story by reporter/trekker/sherpani extraordinaire Lee Hancock with some of the greatest pictures ever by photographer/sherpa superhero/get any shot Erich Schlegel. This issue is a must see. Please buy a few extra copies for friends, family and those of us still on the mountain!

Mt. PumoriWe spent lunch yesterday learning new phrases in Sherpa language. The Sherpa here are very excited and impressed that we are learning new words, and are always happy when we talk with them using their wonderful language. Many thanks to Nima Dawa Sherpa and Namgya Sherpa for all their help. We will keep these lessons coming so you can all keep up with your Sherpa dictionaries!

Good Morning/hello:Tashi Delek; Good Night:Ngel pep; Happy Birthday:Harin kuran kiu nima; I love you:Na la ga lengino; What's your name?:Qura min kong hin? How old are you?: Qurung lotso lepsum? Where do you live?:Qurung kani deki? What's for dinner?:Guamisama Kong hin? Where is the bathroom?: Chakang kani hin? Good-bye: Golep pep.

To all our friends at the US Embassy in Kathmandu, we are very proud to be representing our country by flying the American flag at Base Camp. We look forward to seeing you on our return to the capital city. Thank you for your interest and support!

Sous Chef ChristineHello to all our friends and supporters, especially those at Base Camp CTD in Austin. We received your great notes, and are sending the message as much as we can and the amount of interest here on the mountain in our cause is truly incredible. A quick note to Dan Steinborn of the world famous internet printing house www.printglobe.com. Thank you for your PR efforts in continuing to further the success and awareness of Team Everest '03.

And finally, thanks to all the students who have written us, including Betty Adams Elementary in Colorado, the Jefferson School Kindergartners in Texas and Sollars Elementary School in Misawa, Japan. We'll be sending the answers to your questions soon in a separate dispatch. Thanks for all the messages from the middle school students and teachers at TSD. I miss you all and hope school is going well. Hello to cousins, friends, relatives and the 8th grade students at Easthampton Middle School that keep me popular with so many emails here at BC.

Golep pep! Talk to you again soon!

Christine Kane, Base Camp Manager
Team Everest '03

 

 

Back in Texas, The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities is dedicated to ensuring that people with disabilities enjoy equal opportunities to live, work, play, and participate fully in the community of their choice. CTD is currently working in the Texas legislature to pass several important bills and to preserve valuable programs.

Kids should grow up in families Family-Based Alternatives has already identified some 200 interested families and is primed to expand. Yet, the Texas Legislature has slated the program for elimination as they deal with the budget crisis. With an annual budget of only $400,000, Family-Based Alternatives is one of the best uses of state money, giving children a chance to prosper and become included in society. Kids in institutions never reach their potential and historically remain institutionalized.
Improved accessibility CTD is promoting a change in Texas law to lower the square footage of a commercial project that would require the services of an architect in order to improve accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities.
"The money follows the person" Divided into several bills, this innovative legislation allows a Medicaid-eligible person with a disability to leave an institution and take their funding for services into the community setting.
Discrimination, whether based on disability, race, gender, religion or age, must never be condoned
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and prohibited discrimination based on disability. However in recent years, courts have stuck down key protections in the ADA as it relates to States. Using the concept of sovereign immunity, Texas attorneys general acting as defense lawyers have successfully argued that the State is immune from legal action. At the request of CTD, Representative Carlos Uresti has filed HB3811 which would allow a person to pursue recourse against the State of Texas for violations of the ADA. The bill awaits a hearing at this time.

CTD has consistently delivered important results for persons with disabilities for the past 24 years, and needs your support to fight the discrimination that faces individuals with disabilities in almost every aspect of their lives. Contact Dennis Borel at 512/478-3366 M-F (other times at 512/431-1656) or dborel@cotwd.org for further info about TE '03 or the advocacy work of CTD.

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