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April 2000

Disability doesn't mean inability

By Tom McCurdy,
HOG adventurer and All Ability trekker.

"...the trail you will be travelling after you fly into the high alluvial plain village of Lukla at about 9,000 feet stretches about 40 miles to base camp at 17,600. On the trek in you will be crossing rivers on cable and wood bridges, some of them quite rickety and precarious. Much of the trail is well maintained and picked clean of rocks and debris by the local people, however some of it is rather rugged and steep. For those of you who can walk, I think the trip will be doable with some caution exercised. For those of you who can't walk on your own, passage on the back of a horse or yak will be the best option. Occasionally one of the bridges spanning a river is washed out, if you encounter this you can usually get across by fording the river on a yak...."

Such was the nature of the invitation by Tom Whitaker to join him on a H.O.G. trip into Mt. Everest base camp in Nepal during his spring 1998 Everest Challenge expedition. You see, Tom is not your average mountaineer and H.O.G. is not your usual outdoor adventure group.

Tom Whitaker is a Prescott College professor and mountaineer with a disability. While a graduate student at Pocatello, Idaho's Idaho State University (ISU), Tom was in a car accident and lost his right foot above the ankle and right kneecap. Not only did the accident change Tom's life forever, but the face of Pocatello too. During his rehabilitation and reintegration into his outdoor adventure lifestyle of mountaineering and white water kayaking, Tom was confronted with now being perceived as "disabled" by society and his colleagues who now questioned his abilities. This inspired even greater determination in Tom to succeed in reintegrating, while also demonstrating that disability does not mean inability. 

Tom's most lofty ambition was to scale Mt. Everest's narrow and steep ridges and become the first mountaineer with a disability to stand atop her 29,035 foot peak. Such was the intent of his Everest Challenge '98. What is H.O.G. and how did this turn into a H.O.G. trip though?

A spinoff of Tom's experience with the social barriers encountered early in his rehabilitation was his reasoning that if he were having these sort of experiences as a newly disabled person, surely others with disabilities must be also. He changed the face of Pocatello, Idaho forever by founding C.W.H.O.G. at ISU. 

C.W.H.O.G. Stands for Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group. The group calls themselves HOGs and their adventures HOG trips. Tom established this group in 1981 as a medium through which people with disabilities pursue recreation and adventure with the intent of enriching their lives with another dimension while cultivating a stronger sense of self and self esteem that is often eroded or discouraged by the barriers encountered in society. Pocatello has embraced and supported the organisation for 20 years now and the group has positively impacted the lives of countless people with disabilities and volunteers who work with the group.

The group of people with disabilities and their friends who would trek into base camp became known as the All Abilities Trek. The All Abilities Trek and its association with Tom's Everest Challenge '98 was spawned over a cup of tea Tom and his friend and long time HOG Steve DeRoche shared one morning in the early stages of talking about the expedition's planning. Steve said something like " we should make this into a HOG trip", and that was all it took for Tom to give us the invitation I opened the story with.

I have to admit, when Tom told a large gathering of us HOGs about his third expedition to Everest he was planning and invited us along, I seriously doubted his assessment of the means and possibility of us, and especially me, completing the trip. It sounded really difficult and coming from someone who could still walk, though with a prosthesis, I questioned his judgement. I wasn't the only one though. Many of our family members, friends and colleagues thought that we were a bit loopy for attempting this challenging HOG trip, many people discouraged us from the very beginning. You see, we were planning on getting 5 people with disabilities, three of us in wheelchairs, into Mt. Everest base camp. The All Abilities Trek was comprised twelve people total, seven able-bodies and the five people with disabilities who were Kyle Packer who has CP, Karla Yustak also with CP, Steve DeRoche who is a double amputee below the knees, Ike Gayfield who has transverse myelitis and myself with paraplegia.

We had the experience of running into another group of trekkers in Kathmandu who thought we should not be trying the journey either, a group from Norway or Finland who thought we had a death wish. Even after re-evaluating Tom's ideas about how we could do it and motivating myself to gather the money and commit to doing the trek, this group really frightened me with their dire reaction to our trip. I still had serious doubts.

Loading up on yaks.

Image: Ike and Tom loading up on yaks for first time. 
Horses also get altitude sickness above 16,000 feet, 
yaks do much better up there.

The first night on the trail a snow leopard, now pretty rare in the area, stole into camp. Fortunately we all slept in the teahouse that night but that left our pack animals and horses to fend for themselves in the wee hours of the morning. In the ruckus that ensued my horse sustained a serious goring in the hind leg by one of the pack cows. I began wondering if events were not preordained against us.

The trip was very challenging, especially in the beginning. Steve's main worry was that his stumps would develop blisters or other skin problems where his prostheses interface. This never happened but was an ever present danger that could have been trip ending for him if bad enough. Kyle, Ike and I were on horses to begin with but that was no cake walk. I kept falling forward and sometimes off my horse because of minimal balance and support with my mid-chest paralysis and the lack of hand holds on the saddle. Kyle's CP is very spastic at times and this often frightened his horse, causing it to buck and throw him a couple of times. Since Ike and his horse were traveling near Kyle, Kyle's horse's reaction spooked Ike's horse too. We joked later on about the Khumbu rodeo we had going the first couple of days (Khumbu is the glacier and river drainage region of Everest we were travelling). On top of that, our hired assistants and porters for the trek spoke very little English, making it a challenge to communicate and get the specific help we needed. By the end of the second day of our 32 on the trail, there was still a lot of doubt in the group as to whether the horse users would be able to make it. Then things began to fall into place.

Klye Packer seated in cargo basket.

Kyle's basket.

Kyle's help saw and understood his difficulties so they fashioned a seat into one of the cargo baskets they hauled gear up the trail with and sat him in it. It worked great! Now the plan was two people would take shifts carrying Kyle in the basket the remaining 35 miles into base camp. With Kyle's horse gone, Ike's horse had nothing to spook him so that problem was solved, leaving only my instability to solve. The morning of the third travel day I had an epiphany about the solution. I ran a doubled strap under the saddle, leaving a long loop in front, pulled the ends out the back and around my hips and back through the front loop and pulled it tight, holding it all in place with one hand. I felt like a rodeo cowboy strapping myself onto a bull! It was stable because it helped hold me into the saddle, yet it was safe because it released me from the saddle as quickly as I let the hand hold go. Yeeehaaah!! I was ready to climb Namche hill- the first very steep hill climb on our trip, a climb of about 2500 feet over a distance of about a mile- yes, very steep. We did it though!! Kyle's basket worked out great and I stayed relatively secure in the saddle with greater balance and in a short while we were all two-thirds of the way up the hill at our lunch site eating together, talking about the challenge and our success over french fries and canned fish!

We all gained a lot of confidence making it successfully up that first hill! It was the kind of challenge that made me feel the rest of the trip would be accomplished. We had 2 more steep hill climbs and several breathtaking (literally) narrow exposures over 3000 foot drops to the river below. Not that the challenges were lesser, but by the third day traveling we had worked out effective basic communications with our guides and porters and with them developed a system of travel that was effective and adaptable in all situations we would encounter. Now all we had left to conquer was managing to use pit latrines and stomaching the sometimes unbearable food!

The trip was a fascinating experience for all of us. Traveling in this rugged and not easily accessible region of the world where lifestyle and world view are so different from that we were used to was an eye-opening and appreciation building experience for everyone. I would encourage everyone to travel to some part of the world which is as foreign as Nepal is to the U.S. for this experience.

Our final day of travel into base camp was the worst weather day we had all the way up. It started out as a beautiful, sunny, warm day as our final four mile walk began. The weather quickly deteriorated as the hours passed and by the time we arrived at base camp in the afternoon on May 11th, we had been walking in a horizontal blizzard for about two hours. The wind was howling off Mt Everest's peak so loudly that at base camp, 5 miles from the peak, it sounded like a freight train somewhere down the valley. Word from the few mountaineers up higher on the mountain was that some of the 14 expeditions would be packing up and going home because they were losing all their equipment in the hurricane force winds up there. I'm thinking at this point " oh great, now that we've finally made it we're going to get snowed in here and not going to be able to get out". It turned out though that the next two days in base camp were likely the best weather of the whole trip.

When we arrived there the expedition had erected a huge welcome HOGs, hooray HOGs sign from supply boxes on the main Chortlen in camp. Hot tea and a late lunch as well as many smiling faces and back patting hands greeted us that afternoon. Most of us were emotionally overwhelmed and speechless to the inquiries of how it felt to have made it. The lengthy planning, cautious approach and ingenuity had paid off. We had pulled it off! And we weren't strung all along the trail injured or maimed as many had predicted! Many congratulatory hugs filled the remainder of the afternoon.

Everest Challenge '98 members.

Image: Everest Challenge '98 members 
with All Abilities Trekkers in Base Camp.

Our trek was successful in many ways. We arrived, after travelling for 21 days, in base camp for a 3 night stay and exploration before heading home. Our presence was appreciated support and encouragement to Tom and the other mountaineers in his expedition in their successful journey to the top of Everest, yes Tom made it along with long time climbing partner Jeff Rhodes of Pocatello. 

We inspired many individuals from all over the world we met along the way who were wondering how they were going to get their recently paralysed brother, brother-in-law or cousin back into the wilderness on an adventure. When I arrived home I ended up playing consultant to a para from California who had followed our journey via the internet and was planning to do the same trek in the spring of 1999. Above all, our trip was a testament to the fact that disability does not mean inability, you merely have to creatively adapt to the challenges you face along the way to realizing your goals.

Our success could not have been realised without the support and encouragement of family, friends, colleagues and the equipment manufacturers who sponsored us with all the gear we would need to be comfortable on our trek. In my case, I could not have done it without the support of my dear wife Jennifer who, though frightened for my well-being, managed the daily affairs of our life at home, especially taking care of our 2 children, one an infant at the time, for the six weeks I was gone. All of the trekkers had similar support in managing their families and businesses at home. A special thanks is due to companies like Cascade Designs, Eureka, Coyote Eyewear, Platypus, Leki, and many others for the $20,000 or so in equipment they donated to our effort with a wish of good luck.

During one our visits with Tom and the other expedition members when we rendezvoused at about the half-way point on our way to base camp, Tom helped us to re-examine our efforts in relation to society at large by reminding us that "society will, if you let it, define your abilities and boundaries for you". 

Hopefully our trek helped to do the converse of that, redefining for society the abilities and boundaries of people with disabilities. 

For more information about C.W.H.O.G.S's activities:

Google links

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