Five lower-limb amputees and two Navy veterans with other disabilities converged in New York City, bonded by a share goal – we were ignited by our mission to bring Accessible Tourism to Nepal. But we knew little else about one another. Most of us met for the first time as we stumbled through JFK airport security, bubbling with excitement. Soon we’d be almost 8,000 miles from home, trapped in close quarters with a group of strangers.
According to Outside Magazine’s Patrick Symmes, the parts of the country that regained footing quickest after last year’s earthquakes were those that saw foreign dollars. So we developed a goal to bring different kinds of tourism abroad by evaluating remote travel with disabilities.
Could an above-knee amputee ascend 1,400 steps on the Annapurna Circuit? Would our basic needs be met in some of the most secluded teahouses in the world? How would cultural standards influence our ability to see Nepal?
Although Nepal has the highest Facebook usage per capita in the world, we were quickly hours from the nearest hospital. And farther still from comfort. Most of us had never been quite that far in the middle of nowhere before. It was horrifying to realize that you’d have to ride a donkey off the side of a mountain if something went wrong.
As a precaution, we brought along Pittsburg’s Dr. Yogesh Neupane and world-renowned prosthetist Jeff Erenstone. Throughout the day, our team was like an elastic waistband, shifting in and out of focus. Jeff ran circles around the group, making adjustments to our prostheses as he trekked.
Several days into our journey, Danika Viola, a below-knee amputee, was certain she had bruised her tibia from descending so many stairs earlier in the journey. Each additional step was like salt in the wound. Fighting occasional dizziness and extreme pain, she felt herself pale and fading out. Next, she was on the side of the trail, vomiting into the bushes. She and her porter were alone in the wilderness, and separated by a language difference. Dangerously dehydrated, and weakened by the formidable terrain, Viola pressed onwards and was one of the first hikers to arrive at Tadapani.
For the third evening in a row, the mountains were saturated by torrential downpours. Monsoon season was supposed to be over, but it dwindled. We worried for the slower hikers, knowing they could be risking hypothermia or a fall. One by one, each hiker stumbled into the warmth of our nesting place.
When we eventually emerged from the Himalayas, we were tired and starry-eyed. Even a little disoriented. But the realization that we did it started to sink in. What we accomplished wasn’t easy. But we had demonstrated that it was possible to trek remotely with disabilities. The role of community emerged as the most vital component of success. Shared trails, we discovered, amount to less strife.
Together, we collapsed inside of the Jeeps that would carry us back to civilization. We were disheartened to say goodbye, but elated to have proven ourselves right. Winding our way through the bumpiest terrain known to man, we were comforted to know that this was just a beginning. Laughter echoed through the streets as the journey continued.