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Featured Everest Expedition: Team Everest '03
Mt. Everest Expedition: Disabled climbers making an impression on Nepal


Disabled climbers making an impression on Nepal

As Texas group enjoyed the attractions, they became the sight to see

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

KATMANDU, Nepal Members of a Texas-based group of people with disabilities took in the full-body experience of Nepal on Tuesday, and residents of the Himalayan kingdom returned a long, curious look at them.

The Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek was front-page news in the country's largest Nepali-language newspaper Tuesday. And the sight of Americans in wheelchairs, on canes and prosthetics taking in Nepal's most famous shrines drew a steady stream of gawkers even in an ancient city long used to foreign tourists.

"They're curious about who they are, why they are here. Many of them are saying, 'These are the people I read about in the newspaper,' " said Nima Dawa Sherpa, one of the group's guides.

The Kathmandu Post ran a long feature Tuesday detailing the trekking team's plans to climb to Mount Everest's 17,600-foot-high base camp to challenge common perceptions about the abilities of people with disabilities, and leader Gary Guller's hopes of journeying with a smaller team of four Americans and Canadians to its 29,035-foot summit. If successful, the 36-year-old Austin climber would become the first person with one arm to stand at the top of the world's highest mountain.

"This is a big story, and I've heard quite a bit of reaction," said Ang Chhiring Sherpa, subeditor/reporter for The Kathmandu Post. "People are really interested in what they are doing here."

Taking it all in

The group including 10 people with disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to deafness arrived Monday in Katmandu. They will begin their trek to Everest on Thursday morning with a flight to the Himalayan village of Lukla.

But Tuesday was a day for taking in one of the world's most impoverished, polluted and romanticized cities. Most of the group piled into two buses, one specially outfitted as a roll-on, roll-off platform for the five trek members in wheelchairs, and headed into the crowded, dusty city.

They stared at knots of men tending ghats, or funeral pyres, at the edge of Pasupatinath, the temple to Shiva, the Hindu god of death and destruction. With the help of Sherpa guides, they scaled steps beside the Bagmati river to take in the ancient shrine a sprawling complex wreathed in the pungent smoke of the burning bodies and crowded with worshipers, mourners, orange-robed Saddhus, or holy men, and a boisterous band of monkeys.

Everywhere they went, knots of men, boys and even an occasional Saddhu gathered to watch.

"I never pictured myself in a place like this before. It really hits you. It wasn't anything I'd even thought about seeing before," said Matt Standridge, a 24-year-old Wal-Mart assistant manager from San Marcos.

"And when you get off the bus just now, all these people talking to you, looking at you. The looks you get: It's like something they don't get to see all the time, either," said Mr. Standridge, who became paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident.

Taste of sign language

Christine Kane, a teacher at Austin's Texas State School for the Deaf who came to serve as sign-language translator for fellow teacher Mark Gobble, said she has been quizzed repeatedly as curious Nepalis have seen her conversing with her colleague. "People wonder what's going on," she said. "Immediately, they would say, 'He doesn't speak?' "

Two boys who asked about Mr. Gobble demanded that he open his mouth after having been told he was deaf and didn't talk. "One little boy nearly fell out when he saw his tongue. He apparently thought Mark must not have one."

She said she and Mr. Gobble have learned in visits to some of the country's schools and organizations for the hearing impaired that Nepal has only recently begun creating a systematized version of sign language and creating opportunities for the deaf that were taken more than 100 years ago in the United States.

"Two deaf people in Nepal drive. There are only two of them, and we met them. Most are not allowed to even take the driving test," she said. "There is just not much visibility for deaf people here."

Mr. Guller, who has led treks and expeditions in Nepal since the early 1990s, said the sight of people with disabilities in the country is still unusual because they and their families are far too poor to afford the wheelchairs, prosthetics, education and training that would allow them access and opportunities in the larger community.

The Himalayan kingdom is one of the world's poorest countries, with more than half of its 25.9 million people living on less than $1 a day and less than a third able to read.

"But their family environment often seems to be better. Their families do what they can to support, assist," he said. "In the states, people often don't want to deal with folks with disability."

Many Nepalis seemed clearly taken Tuesday with the American group. At the Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas, or shrines, in the world, a stream of Nepalis paused from their religious observance of circling the great structure to take in the sight of Americans in wheelchairs.

"Good luck! Good luck to you all!" one family called as they ambled past.

A crowd of 20 or 30 gathered when Riley Woods, 27, of Waco, with Mr. Standridge, decided to roll down a side street in his wheelchair and careened into a wall.

The accident knocked him to the ground, prompting a swarm of the group's Sherpa guides to run down the hill to put him back in his chair and try to push him back up the steep street. But he waved them off and rolled up on his own, drawing cheers and applause from the watching Nepalis.

"People who aren't in wheelchairs don't realize that happens all the time," said Mr. Woods, a law student who was injured in a ski accident in 1997 while attending West Point. "I've had a lot worse."

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