Disabled climbers making an
impression on Nepal
As Texas group enjoyed the
attractions, they became the sight to see
By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas
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
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
"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
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
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
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."