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June 7, 2003
He's still walking on a cloud

Austin amputee recalls conquering Everest

By Pamela LeBlanc / AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

 

Austin mountaineer Gary Guller, fresh off a plane from Nepal, wept Friday as he recounted his adventures in becoming the first person with one arm to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain.

"It's still like a dream," said Guller, lips chapped and head shaved, as he described reaching the 29,035-foot peak of Mount Everest. "You spend your whole life as a climber looking up at mountains. This was one time you simply could not climb any farther."

Guller, 36, and four climbing Sherpas, part of Team Everest '03, reached the summit the afternoon of May 23. In mid-March, a larger group, made up mostly of Texans, many with disabilities such as paraplegia and leg amputations, had trekked 30 miles to Everest's Base Camp. The trip, organized by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, was planned to shatter stereotypes about people with disabilities.

At Friday's news conference at the Capitol, Guller wore shorts, sandals and a collection of medallions that had been blessed by Nepalese lamas.

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

Success came, he says, because the summit team stuck to its plan, waiting a day after many other teams had made their climbs in order to avoid crowds. The climbers were rewarded with clear blue skies and a bit of privacy. From the top, with an oxygen mask strapped to his face, Guller says he could see everything -- even the curvature of the planet. "We had it all to ourselves," he said.

The most difficult and dangerous time came while the climbers were descending the summit to Camp Four, at 26,000 feet. The route is narrow, with steep dropoffs into Nepal and Tibet. Balance, made more difficult because Guller has just one arm, is crucial. Complicating matters, their bodies were exhausted because they'd been at high altitude for so long.

"You are facing all the things you don't want to face -- you need to make this step and make it right because the consequence is death," he said.

More than 100 people climbed Everest this year, the 50th anniversary of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's first summit on May 29, 1953. At least 175 people have lost their lives trying to duplicate their feat.

"For me, ever since I could remember, I've dreamed of climbing Mount Everest," Guller said. "I truly thought that would be just another dream that would not come true -- especially after my accident."

Guller lost his left arm in a climbing accident in 1986. He is the third person with a major disability to reach the top of Everest. A leg amputee and blind man also have succeeded. It was Guller's second attempt; he turned back because of bad weather and avalanches in 2001.

This time, Guller's team left Camp Four at about 8 p.m. May 22, after several days of delays caused by high winds. When the climbers arrived at the summit nearly 17 hours later, Guller and Sherpas Nima Dawa, Da Nima, Pem Tenji and Namgya fell to their knees, put their heads together and cried. They stayed 20 minutes before descending to Camp Four.

That night, Guller woke to severe pain -- "like someone putting knives into my eyes" -- and he couldn't see. The high altitude had caused a temporary condition known among climbers as "snow blindness." He stayed at Camp Four an extra night until he could see again.

When he did return the next day to Camp Two, he learned by radio from Base Camp that one of the climbing Sherpas who had been at Camp Four but had not reached the summit had died. Karma Gylzen Sherpa, 28, had descended to Camp Two after suffering abdominal pain. He appeared to be improving, but died May 24 near Camp One before reaching Base Camp.

"He was like my little brother -- I have known his family for years," Guller said.

Guller returned to Base Camp on May 26. He later attended celebrations in Katmandu marking the 50th anniversary of Tenzing and Hillary's original summit. Guller, the owner of Arun Expeditions trekking company, says he has no plans to return to Everest anytime soon, but he does want to climb again. Next in his sights is a towering peak in Tibet.

A party to celebrate Team Everest '03's success is planned for 7-10 p.m. June 21 at Scholz Garden, 1607 San Jacinto Blvd. The public is invited; a $15 donation per adult is requested.

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