On Top of the World

August 8, 2003
Two Baylor alumni -- Riley Woods, an '02 graduate who entered Baylor Law School this fall, and Dinesh Ranasinghe, an '00 graduate who is a Web developer -- were part of the Team Everest '03 Challenge Trek, a group of disabled persons who traveled 17,400 feet up to the base camp of Mount Everest this past spring. The journey was chronicled and photographed by journalists at the Dallas Morning News, and you can visit that account at www.dallasnews.com/everest/. Here, Riley and Dinesh share with Baylor Magazine their personal stories of being on top of the world. Photos by Erich Schlegel/Dallas Morning News.

Riley Woods

As I emerged from my tent, I was met by a temperature of 20 below and the low rumble of a distant avalanche echoing in the crisp morning air. The sunlight was blinding as it danced upon the snowy peaks that surrounded our camp like silent sentries. A spattering of tents and the fluttering of prayer flags added color to the rocky landscape. It was April 7, 2003, and the day before, my teammates and I had made history with Team Everest '03 as the largest cross-section disability team ever to reach Mount Everest's base camp, a feat many considered unthinkable.
Seven years ago, when I was a third-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I sustained an injury while snow skiing that left me a T5 paraplegic -- paralyzed from the chest down. Although I faced this with faith and determination, no one could have convinced me then that I would one day have an opportunity to journey, in a wheelchair, to Mount Everest's base camp, which stands at 17,400 feet -- more than 3,000 feet higher than any point in the continental United States.
Today, my perspective has changed. I have witnessed the potential of the human spirit in my teammates, a group of people with varying disabilities, and I have seen possibility in the impossible. With just this mind-set, the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities organized Team Everest '03 to challenge the myth that having a disability equates to a lack of capability and potential. Ultimately, we spent a month journeying through Nepal, including 18 days traveling to base camp. Gary Guller, our expedition leader, would become the first person with one arm to reach the summit.
Just leaving my wife, Rachel, for a month was difficult. War was looming with Iraq, and we had never been apart for such a long period. Careful preparation and contingency planning, however, helped assure all would go well. Traveling to the inaccessible Himalayan region of Nepal was trying in itself. Obviously, there is no Americans with Disabilities Act in Nepal, so we were not met with ramps or level paths for wheelchairs. In fact, the disabled in Nepal are not seen wheeling the streets, so we became quite a spectacle, drawing crowds of curious onlookers as we visited Buddhist monasteries, Hindu temples and took in the culture of Kathmandu. I often thought of the many blessings and privileges we have in the United States, where the disabled have opportunities to be contributing members of society.
A few days later, we flew into Lukla, the town where we would begin our trek. Soaring peaks, which led higher and deeper into the Himalayan region, drove home the enormity of our task. Although I had realized I would need assistance, the actuality of needing so much help was disheartening. I couldn't help but yearn for my able body again so that I could hike the trail unaided. Two porters, Kumar and Gylzen, and a Sherpa guide named Lhakpa were assigned to help me. Kumar and Gylzen carried me over trails too difficult for wheelchair maneuvering in a doko -- a woven bamboo basket modified into chairs our porters carried on their backs with a strap straining against their foreheads to help support the weight. Lhakpa took care of all my other needs. Having to use the doko was hard on my pride -- of all the obstacles on the trip, this was the most difficult for me -- but the five of us who needed it knew it was necessary if the entire team was going to accomplish its goal.
Whenever the terrain allowed it, I would negotiate the path myself. I pushed myself for six hours on the trail from Namche Bazaar to Losasa, which was the longest stretch I was able to maneuver alone. Throughout our journey, I wheeled around boulders and rocks, through snow and mud, and I dodged yaks, animals used for carrying goods in the higher altitudes of Nepal. Wheeling along a cliff, crossing narrow, swinging bridges above raging rivers or merely resting to absorb the splendor of the mountains -- these were the moments that rejuvenated my mind and spirit. Most rewarding was climbing the ice pinnacles near the Khumba icefall, a terrain of "frozen spires, walls and chasms," as Lee Hancock described it in the Dallas Morning News.
I watched my teammates push themselves to overcome their own physical obstacles to break all barriers and stereotypes associated with their disabilities, which present daily obstacles in the most accommodating environment. In addition, many also had to deal with high altitude ailments. Through it all, we developed a true camaraderie that helped sustain us. I am thankful for the opportunity to have been part of such a courageous team but also to have been surrounded by people, such as our Sherpas, who were determined to see us triumph.
For our team, reaching the Everest base camp was a joyous moment. Guller's successful climb to Everest's summit a few weeks later completed our mission by taking our message to the top of the world -- a message that, to me, says we all should be defined by what we can do, not what we can't do. We shouldn't be afraid to climb the highest mountains or set the highest goals, regardless of our circumstances. The potential of the human spirit is limitless, and it enables us to do anything -- even the impossible.

Dinesh Ranasinghe

Being a cancer survivor and an amputee, I have always looked at life a little differently. I learned from an early age that life only gives you so many chances, and it's up to you to take advantage of them. When I first became an amputee at age 10 because of a cancerous tumor on my knee, I remembered thinking I would never be able to do the things other kids were doing such as playing basketball, football or simply being able to run. I certainly wasn't expecting to get involved with an adventure sport like mountain climbing.
After many years of not participating in sports, a friend introduced me to wheelchair softball. It was the most fun I'd had in quite a while, and it made me realize how much I had missed playing competitive sports. Through Warm Springs Sports, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities by hosting wheelchair sports, I also began playing football and basketball.
As I became more involved in athletics, I realized I was craving bigger and more interesting challenges. A few months later, I heard about a project called Team Everest '03, an expedition to Mount Everest for individuals with disabilities. At first, I thought it was one of the craziest things I'd ever heard, especially since I never thought I would be capable of trekking up the tallest mountain in the world. But I also knew that it was exactly the kind of challenge I'd been waiting for, and I simply could not let the opportunity pass by.
I learned I was accepted to the team in May 2002, and I started preparing immediately. I trained for approximately nine to 10 months, lifting weights at the gym in the mornings and doing cardio exercises after work. The day of departure, March 15, 2003, came quickly. I boarded a flight that would -- 35 hours and several layovers later -- take me to Kathmandu, Nepal.
We camped the first day at a small village called Phakding. Although the trek there was difficult, we saw some spectacular scenery. We went through a valley with a crystal-clear river flowing through it and magnificent mountains all around us. Throughout the expedition, we were accompanied by a group of people known as Sherpas, which refers both to a tribal group and job ability as porter, climber or trek leader. The term also means easterner, referring to the tribe's origins in eastern Tibet. The Sherpas who accompanied us were some of the strongest, kindest and happiest people I have ever met in my life. They could carry more than 100 pounds of supplies on their backs and make it seem effortless.
Observing their lifestyle made me realize how easy I had things back home. The people in Nepal generally have so much less than most of us do in the United States, yet amazingly, their hardships had not made them bitter or callous. On the contrary, they seemed happy and full of life. It also made me realize that losing my job or my car breaking down, although stressful, are not the worst things that can happen to me. It made me appreciate even more the goodness in life and the love of friends and family.
One of my most challenging and memorable moments on the trek occurred on the 12th day. I woke that morning with a headache and feeling weak. A couple of the team members were going to climb an 18,200-foot-high trekking mountain. Not wanting to turn down this challenge, I decided to accompany them despite not feeling well. Initially, I planned only to go to the halfway point and turn back, but soon after we started our ascent, I began feeling better. I'm not sure if it was by the grace of God or just luck or maybe both, but I was thankful for the burst of energy. Even so, it was a particularly tough climb for me. For most people, walking is a natural activity, and they hardly have to think about it. For an amputee walking with a prosthetic, however, not only can it be physically challenging, it also requires being conscious of where you step and how stable you are. It was especially true in this case because I was walking on terrain that consisted of rocks, ice and muddy slopes. Along the way, I was motivated by encouraging words from complete strangers. The three-hour climb was well worth it when I saw the view from the top. Even with the wind blowing 30 mph to 40 mph at times, it was one of the most beautiful and breathtaking views I've ever seen.
Two days after reaching that summit, I was nearing my long-awaited goal -- the final trek to the Everest base camp. Although the distance from Gorak Shep, our last campsite, to base camp wasn't far, it was a tough trek. The last half of the journey didn't have a trail or defined path, and there were so many rocks and so much ice on the ground that it took more than an hour to walk about a mile. Even with a prosthetic leg specially made for climbing, the terrain was difficult. But I also realized that this was part of the challenge and it was what I'd been preparing for all this time. More important, I realized part of my frustration resulted from being so eager to reach my destination. Finally, I arrived at base camp to cheers, applause and congratulations from my friends and Sherpa who had arrived before me. After so many worries, aches, pains and uncertainties, I had made a yearlong dream come true.
At first, I thought this trip would be an interesting challenge and a fun expedition, but what I learned about myself and about life is immeasurable. I've learned that I am capable of overcoming extraordinary challenges, whether physical, mental or otherwise. I know that an important factor in overcoming challenges and achieving my goals is having a winning attitude. More than ever, I look at my disability as just another obstacle in life over which I need to triumph. I've also learned to appreciate the little things and be thankful every day for the loved ones in my life simply because they are my biggest supporters when I'm facing any challenge -- big or small. Just as I was able to climb the tallest mountain one step at a time, I know I'll be successful if I live life to the best of my abilities, one day at a time.
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