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March 15, 2003
Conquering a Mountain of Stereotypes

Team '03 tackles Mount Everest to change the way we think about people with disabilities
By Pamela LeBlanc, Austin American Statesman

 

Austin American Statesman/ Photo by D. RogersMount Everest has always loomed high in the minds of mountaineers. The jagged Himalayan peak is an incredible challenge for any experienced, able-bodied climber.

Now a team that includes Texans with disabilities will try to make the 30-mile trek to base camp of the world's highest mountain. From there, the expedition's leader, an Austin climber with just one arm, will press on to the summit.

Twenty-six people -- 11 of them with disabilities, including five in wheelchairs, others who are deaf or blind, and some who are amputees -- leave today on the first part of their weeks-long journey.

The biggest obstacle for the group might not be the climb. On the 50th anniversary of another trek some thought could never be done -- the first summit of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay -- the members of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities are hoping to shatter the myth that having a disability means you're not strong or capable.

They'll go slowly, taking about three weeks to travel from Lukla, Nepal, at 9,184 feet, to the base camp at 17,388 feet. After four days at the foot of the snow and ice-clad peak -- a mystical, rocky, wind-whipped place -- the main group will head back to Katmandu, the nearest large city, from which they'll fly home.

Expedition leader Gary Guller of Austin, who lost his left arm in a mountaineering accident, will stay at base camp with three experienced climbers who do not have disabilities and five Sherpas. After a month or more of acclimatizing, they'll attempt to summit the 29,028-foot mountain in mid-May.

Team Everest '03 intends to be the first group of people with disabilities to make the trek to base camp together. And if Guller makes it to the top, he will be the first climber with one arm to reach the summit. (Tom Whittaker, a below-the-knee amputee, reached the summit in 1998.)

It will be a daunting task, but that's why they've decided to tackle it. And, at a team cost of nearly $272,000, the project has been an expensive one that's required more than a year of fund raising.

"You can't shatter stereotypes with a feather; you've got to use a jackhammer, and Mount Everest makes one heck of a jackhammer," said Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, which is organizing the climb as a way to raise awareness about how far people with disabilities have come in the half century since Hillary and Norgay made their trip.

The group is one of about 20 teams who will attempt the summit this year.

Mind over body

Guller, who wears prayer beads and a Buddhist medallion from Tibet, is sipping coffee and trying to describe what it feels like to breathe the air high on Mount Everest.

"Run in place for a few minutes, then try to breathe through this," he says, holding up a soda straw. "That's how it feels on Everest." Now run in place again, he says, and do the same thing with a skinny coffee stirrer. That's how it feels at the summit.

"It's a head game," Guller said. "But when you make it to the top and the clouds break and the winds change or you share a laugh with a Sherpa, you forget about all the suffering. Or I do."

Guller has tried to summit Everest before. Two years ago, he had to turn back at 24,000 feet, about 5,000 feet shy of the top, because of bad weather.

It won't be any easier this time.

That's why he's training by running 50 to 70 miles a week, lifting weights and walking the streets of Austin with a pack filled with 45 pounds of flour and water.

Guller runs his own adventure travel company, Arun Treks & Expeditions, which has offices in Austin and Katmandu. He has climbed in the Alps and the Andes, the Himalayas and the Cascades. Last year, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. In January, he spent three weeks scaling Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere at almost 23,000 feet.

He loves to climb mountains, and he's done it since he was 15.

"It's the freedom and being at one with nature and the challenge and pushing myself mentally and physically," he said.

An accident 17 years ago nearly took away his dream of climbing Everest.

Just 100 feet from the summit of Pico de Orizaba in Mexico disaster struck. One of his two close friends on the climb slipped at a steep, icy section. All three climbers, who were tethered together, plummeted more than 1,500 feet down the hard, icy face.

"I remember going down the ice so fast . . . I could see rocks below and thought to myself, 'Surely I'm going to stop soon.' And then it was lights out," Guller said.

When the men woke up, they were so seriously injured they couldn't hike out. They had no food or water and drifted in and out of consciousness. "That night, we looked at each other and thought, 'We've had some good fun. Why don't we just hold each other and go to sleep?' " Guller said. "The next morning, (one of the men) didn't wake up. I did."

A rescue team found the group three days later. "Because they took so long, they just brought body bags, not water or supplies," Guller said.

Guller had broken his neck and lost the use of his left arm. Two years later, after several failed surgeries, he had his arm amputated at the shoulder. "I said, this will drive me crazy having this arm on my body, useless. It's like carrying around a 15-pound dumbbell."

With the arm gone (he doesn't use a prosthetic), Guller finally could move freely again, but it took years to cope mentally with the accident. (He still bears scars on his face and torso from his flailing ice pick.) Eventually, Guller started climbing again.

Guller's disability makes an already arduous climb even harder. One of the most treacherous parts of the climb is over the Khumbu Icefalls, just above base camp. The climbers use aluminum ladders to cross chasms more than 100 feet deep. Because Guller has just one arm, it's more difficult to balance.

The adventure begins

Plans for the Team Everest '03 trek developed after Guller's first Everest attempt.

Borel, with the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, asked Guller to speak at a convention, and some audience members with disabilities asked the climber if he'd take them to Everest.

What started out as a dream eventually became a reality. The nonprofit coalition, an advocacy group that works to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to live, work and play in the community of their choice, realized the trek would be a great way to focus attention on their mission.

The coalition says it tries to combat what studies show: That people with disabilities have lower incomes and higher unemployment than people without disabilities. They're less likely to own cars or homes, and more likely to die prematurely from substandard healthcare. Plus, they face architectural barriers in many places.

This trek has drawn the attention of a major sponsor. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., now SBC, signed on as a supporter, putting a photo of Guller on the cover of its 2002 Austin White Pages telephone directory.

The group applied for a climbing permit from Nepal and rounded up a group of adventurous people who didn't let their disabilities stand in their way.

Matt Standridge, a 24-year-old living in San Marcos, was one of those people. Paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident in 1997, he heard about the trip planned for 2003 from his uncle. The closest he's ever come to mountain climbing was hiking Enchanted Rock as a kid.

As important as the trip will be to Standridge personally, he hopes it serves a greater purpose. He says he has never gotten over the way some people look at him and see only the wheelchair, not the person sitting in it.

"I hate the way that feels," Standridge said. "I want to show them, look, I'm in the chair. I'm disabled, but my life hasn't ended because of it. I can still get out and do a lot."

Standridge has raised $6,100 to pay for his place on the expedition. Wal-Mart, where he works as an assistant manager in the auto shop, made a contribution, and students in a relative's classroom have pitched in.

He wants people to know that he's not so different from anyone else. He plays basketball and football, softball and rugby. This trip to Nepal will prove once again that disabilities can't hold him back.

Standridge isn't doing any special training for the trip. Unlike the summit team, which will use oxygen tanks as it climbs the peak, he won't need oxygen at base camp.

Standridge hopes that life eventually means a job as a high-school speech or sociology teacher. "I want to help people mature and grow up," he said.

He even looks at the positive side of the motorcycle accident six years ago.

"It's closed a lot of doors but it's opened a lot of doors -- like this trip. It's just amazing that I'd be a part of this."

The team's approach

The group will stop at a monastery on its way to base camp to ask for blessings and safe passage on the mountain. They'll also pray that their expedition reaches its goal of showing that life and dreams continue, even in the face of disabilities.

The expedition, with its 50 Sherpas and 20 yaks loaded with provisions, will push on. The trail is sometimes smooth and wide, sometimes rocky and narrow, and occasionally steep as it weaves its way between the small villages in Everest's shadow. It has been used for more than 100 years as a trading route. At times, the Sherpas will have to carry the wheelchairs across the most treacherous points.

That won't matter.

Together, the team hopes to make it to base camp. Together, as Guller says, they hope to prove that just because someone can't hear doesn't mean he can't think, that because someone can't walk doesn't mean she doesn't want to smell the flowers outside, that because someone can't communicate as others do doesn't mean he can't feel the same way.

"It would be difficult for any of us to do all of this on our own. Together as a team working for the same goals and being wise, that's what's going to make Team Everest '03 a success," he said.

On the Web: The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities teams will bring computers and satellite phones so they can communicate by e-mail as often as possible along the way and update their Web site at www.teameverest03.org.

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