It was a beautiful morning pregnant with promises. The year was 1986. Friends Jerry, Dave, and Gary Guller were out climbing a mountain in Mexico. The Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in the country. The weather was biting. Icy cold. But there was a warm smile on the three snow-flecked faces.
The summit was a mere hundred feet away.
Like always, the friends were tethered to each other with a climbing rope. Making their way to the top in a single file. Slowly and steadily. They knew the drill by rote. They had done this zillion times.
Then it happened. Without any warning. Taking all three men by surprise.
One of them slipped. A misstep. A skid. Or something else. But he never got a chance to steady himself and get back on his feet. He hurtled down the mountain. Taking his two friends along with him. The three men had plummeted to more than 1500 feet.
And they remained there, in the unforgiving lap of the cold mountain, for the next three days.
Finally, when the rescue team arrived, they found the trio, still tethered to each other. But Jerry was dead and Gary’s neck was broken. Even after many years, Gary wouldn’t tell me what happened to Dave other than he was alive.
Their friendship and their lives had changed. Permanently.
After two years, and numerous painful surgeries, Gary’s neck was fixed. But his paralyzed left arm was amputated.
Even as a teenager, Gary wanted to be a mountaineer. All he ever dreamt of was climbing Mt.Everest. But how does a man, with one arm, climb a mountain?
When Gary got out of the hospital, he spent all his time in the local pubs. Trying to erase painful memories with alcohol. His life was lunging into a dark abyss. Littered with broken dreams. And the biggest of them all, his dream of conquering Mt.Everest, was shattered into smithereens.
When I met Gary a few years ago, he was on a stage at the SAP Labs auditorium in Whitefield, Bangalore. The room was bursting at the seams. Every eye in the room trained on him. Unruly curls tumbled down the back of his head. Broad shoulders. Straight spine. He was a little above or a little under six feet. I couldn’t tell. Either way, his demeanor was imposing.
He was clad in jeans, a blue button-down shirt, and a dark blue blazer. He was talking. Something. I was distracted. Because even as he was talking, he had casually removed his blazer. And I, like the others in the room, was captivated – by the ‘empty’ left sleeve of his blue shirt. Somehow flapping gently in the air-conditioned room.
Gary Guller, who had by now become the only one-armed mountaineer to have scaled Mt Everest, stood unperturbed.
“After I had lost my arm, I felt like climbing was taken away from me,” he said. He had given up on himself. And the world around him had given up on his dreams. It was hard to come to terms with the life that stared at him every morning.
It took him a long time, and what he’d like to call “a few (boozy) experiments in traversing different paths” in life before he came to “grips” with what had happened to him.
Once he was through with his pity party, he realized that there were other people “out there who had it worse than me.” Somewhere between the dark and the hard place, he saw a flicker of hope. He recalibrated his dreams. And put strategies in place to deal with the adversities in his life.
Gary began planning an expedition to Mt.Everest. Everybody thought he had lost his mind. It took him two years to convince people who mattered and who could help him in realizing his dream.
A one-armed guy shows up and says ‘I want to climb Everest with a bunch of people. How about you write me a quarter-million dollar cheque?’ Then he knocks on 300-plus doors, and somebody finally understands that it is about an opportunity, growth and showing the world that anything is possible. When you look beyond everything, real chance can happen.
For Gary, “it was all about having a vision, focus, determination and hard work.”
“My job is to get people to understand that we are all the same, sharing the same planet. I just have one arm instead of two, that’s all. To me, it is so simple.”
Life paid him back handsomely for his efforts.
In 2003, Gary not only climbed Mt.Everest, but he also led the biggest group of disabled people to the Mount Everest base camp at 17,500 feet. It was one of the most important moments in his life. The group consisted of paraplegic, quadriplegic, leg amputees, arm amputees, mentally challenged and so on. It took them 21 days to complete the trek. From the base camp, Gary along with a sherpa carried on, summiting the world’s highest peak.
On May 23, 2003, Gary stood on Mt.Everest, proving a point: Dreams have no limitations, physical or otherwise!
The journey was documented in the film Team Everest: A Himalayan Journey.
Since then Gary has been climbing mountains all over the world. He enjoys pushing boundaries. In April 2010, he completed the Marathon des Sables in Morocco — a six-day, 250-km endurance race across the Sahara Desert, the runners had to carry food, clothes, medical kit, anti-venom kit, sleeping bag and other things they needed for the duration on their backs. Gary was the only one-armed runner in the race. Then came the triathlon.
Gary also travels the world as a motivational speaker. The mountains, he says, has taught him integrity. “You have got, to be honest with yourself and the others around you.” Generosity, he says, is what he learned from the Sherpas. “Give without expecting anything in return. And my life has taught me to treat people fairly and equally.”
After chatting with him for more than two hours. I couldn’t help but ask him the question clawing at the back of my mind: How in the world does a one-armed man climb the highest mountain?
“By putting one foot in front of the other,” he said.
I could almost hear the flapping empty sleeve of his blue shirt telling life, “Gotcha!”