||LEE HANCOCK of The
Dallas Morning News writes: More than 40 hours and a world away from home,
a Texas-based group of people with disabilities finished the first long
stretch of a journey to the top of the world Monday.
It was a trip as
exhausting as it was exhilarating, as members of the Team Everest 03
Challenge Trek crossed the Pacific Ocean and hopscotched across half of
Asia before arriving in the Himalayan kingdom. "The adventure has begun,”
Steve Bernstein, 59, of Morrison, Colo., announced as three Sherpa men
hoisted Mark Ezell from his wheelchair into a waiting bus.
“This is an adventure!”
replied Mr. Ezell, 39, a state legislative liaison from Raleigh, N.C.,
grinning as he peering out at the sea of touts, taxi drivers,
cane-wielding security men and families milling outside Tribhuwan Airport.
Like the rest of the bleary-eyed Americans, each of the men wore elaborate
malas – eyepopping garlands of fresh marigolds, daisies, red swatches of
cloth and tinsel — brought by the Sherpa guides to welcome them to
Ten people with
disabilities – including five in wheelchairs – have come to Nepal along
with Austin leader Gary Guller, a team doctor and 13 helpers and climbers
to make the grueling high-altitude trek to the base of Mount Everest. Mr.
Guller then hopes to climb to the top of the mountain along with a team of
four climbers, a feat that would make him the first person with one arm to
make it to the summit.
Mr. Guller, 36, spent the
past 18 months organizing the expedition with the Austin-based Texas
Coalition of Disabilities. It is aimed at shattering stereotypes about
limits, abilities and possibilities for people who live with deafness,
paralysis, pain and other physical conditions. Most of the group began
traveling from Austin Saturday morning after tearful early-morning
goodbyes at the airport with friends, family and supporters. They met up
with other group members in Los Angeles for the 13 1/2-hour leg to Taipei.
“Just getting on the
plane is a huge step for some of these people – a huge step,’’ Mr. Guller
said. “And this isn’t even the beginning. This isn’t even the start of
it.” For many, the first leg of the flight was something of a shakedown
Dinesh Rasinghe, 26, a
computer web designer from San Antonio, began the trip on a new prosthetic
leg a San Antonio company had donated specially for the trip – a model
rigged for cold weather and rough terrain. He wasn’t out of the Austin
airport before his daypack rubbed against a switch in the leg’s hip that
controls the bend in the knee, sending him tumbling. “It’s taken a little
getting used to,” he said.
Mr. Ezell, who uses a
wheelchair because he was born with spina bifida, was tooling around on a
titanium wheelchair rented for the trip. But a plastic coupling for one of
its front legs seemed precariously wobbly, and Mr. Ezell worried it might
not even survive the series of flights to Katmandu. “I’m not too sure how
this is going to make it,” he said, boosting himself from his chair to the
floor to tinker with it repeatedly.
Within two hours after
leaving Los Angeles, Barry Muth was already feeling effects of the long
ride. A quadriplegic since a 1997 wreck in Saudia Arabia ended his career
as an Army officer, he can still feel a deep burning sensation on his
backside when he sits too long. For a temporary respite, he and some of
the others in wheelchairs occasionally drew themselves up on their arms to
relieve discomfort. “I may just get up and walk around,” he declared with
a snort to Ted Holmes, a friend from Colorado who volunteered to help him
on the trek. And then, he added quietly, “I wish.”
By the time the flight
left from Taipei for Bangkok, the group had been traveling almost 24
hours, and the long stretch of trying to catch sleep in narrow economy
seats began to tell. Riley Woods, 28, a law student from Waco, emerged
from the Taipei-to-Bangkok flight with news that someone who had helped
him onto the plane in Taiwan had taken his wheelchair with his day pack
slung over its back. Reunited with his wheelchair, his pack was nowhere to
be seen. “It has a lot of things — all my money, medicine I need,” he
Mr. Woods’ bag showed up
at the Bangkok baggage claim, and he was so elated that he headed out into
the night to explore downtown Bangkok with a group that included Mr.
Rasinghe and Matt Standridge, 24, of San Marcos, another Challenge trek
member in a wheelchair.
They returned just after
dawn with tales of seeing one of the king’s palaces and an odd assortment
of souvenirs found at the only store they could find open at 3.a.m., a
Thai version of 7-11. They had picked up some “Fish-O” fish-flavored
snacks, a Thai language newspaper, and neon-colored condoms. “Yeah, one
night in Bangkok,” someone laughed.
Mr. Standridge mused that
the trip was already special because it was with people ``I can relate to,
who know how it is to get the look because you’re in a wheelchair.’’ By
midmorning Mr. Woods was eating sushi “for the second time in my life,”
cruising the Bangkok airport’s vast rows of duty-free shops and declaring,
“I’ve got to travel more. This is great!”
Everyone except the
late-night Bangkok crew got several hours sleep in an airport hotel, and
Mr. Ezzell even found a friendly Thai handyman there who managed to
stabilize the wobbly front wheel of his chair. “We managed to communicate,
using the universal language of guys: fixing things,” he said.
Just after noon Monday,
many in the group got the first glimpse of what they hope to stand on in a
few weeks. As the Thai Airways jet cruised at 30,000 feet, the pilot
pointed out the dark sharks-tooth peak of Mount Everest parallel on the
horizon, its distinctive plume of clouds trailing to one side.
Within a few hours more,
the group was winding by bus through the smog-choked city of Katmandu,
staring up at buildings festooned with bright Buddhist prayer flags and
then back down to dusty, crowded streets where every fourth or fifth man –
and virtually every young boy — had faces and much of their shirts stained
Two team members who had
come early to Katmandu to visit schools for the deaf, Austin teachers Mark
Gobble and Christine Kane, walked into the group’s hotel soon after to
explain that the red faces honored a Hindu festival known as Fagun Purnima,
or Holi. The principal means of celebration – chucking water and paint
balloons from rooftops onto the heads of passerby — was particularly
appealing for Katmandu’s young boys, and the two teachers already had been
easy targets several times that day.
Sipping lime-spiked tea
from a hotel balcony overlooking the ancient, flag-decked Boudhanath, one
of the largest the Buddhist shrines, or stupas, in the world, the group
laughed at the teachers’ tales of friendly assaults and other adventures
in the gritty Asian city. And then someone asked for a toast. “To the
largest group of disabilities going up Everest,” responded Gene Rodgers,
47, a quadriplegic from Austin. “It won’t be the last.”