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Local group hopes to make hiking history

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By The Staff

It’s a dream three years in the making that Camp Kysoc director Jim Ebert hopes will come true the week of Oct. 6.

Early that morning, a group of Carroll County residents led by Ebert will hit the road for Arizona and the Grand Canyon. The mission: To help Sarah Service become the first paraplegic to descend to the bottom of the canyon on the seven-mile South Kaibab Trail.

Service, who lives in Owen County, is a Carroll County High School graduate who was left paralyzed from the waist down in a July 2003 car accident.

Ebert, a son of mountain-climber parents and an accomplished climber and guide himself, has led hundreds of expeditions in the United States, Canada and in 17 Alpine countries over the past 40 years.

After his mother suffered a debilitating stroke, Ebert and his father continued to take her with them on expeditions. Ebert said that during 16 years he “never saw anyone else in a wheelchair doing these things.”

So, he founded Alpenglow Adventures, through which he hopes to provide hiking expeditions to people who cannot walk, or cannot walk without assistance, to destinations attempted by very few, if any, disabled climbers.

After being hired to run Kysoc four years ago, “I started to look into places where people with disabilities had never been,” he said. One of these locations was the Grand Canyon. Ebert said he has hiked the canyon 80 times.

During his research, Ebert came across a device called the TrailRider. Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic and mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia, developed the device to enable himself to maneuver hiking trails over nearly any terrain with the help of at least two other hikers – one to pull from the front and another to push from the rear and operate the brakes. Any additional hikers are tethered with climbing ropes to those operating the cart, to help provide power.

For the past three years, Ebert has applied for grants to get funding to buy one of the $7,000 devices for Camp Kysoc – to no avail.

“We couldn’t seem to convince anyone that this was a good idea,” Ebert said.

Hewitt said it’s difficult to find a “champion” for the disabled. “We’re nobody’s cause. … You have this small population of disabled people, and it doesn’t affect as many people as cancer does,” she said. Issues related to people with disabilities “aren’t high on everybody’s [list of priorities], “but we’ll get there.”

Eventually, Ebert was able to buy a TrailRider by postponing some routine maintenance work at Camp Kysoc. “I’m eliminating a paving job, and we’re going to keep using our two 1986 vans that have 500,000 miles each, so we could get this.”

And he’s doing it with approval from Kelly Gillihan, chief executive officer of Cardinal Hill Healthcare Services, which owns the Easter Seals camp.

“We think this is a great idea. … We’re very excited about it,” Gillihan said, crediting Ebert for thinking “somewhat outside of the box.

“A lot of folks with disabilities are still quite adventuresome,” Gillihan continued. “Here’s somebody who works with us, who is a very accomplished mountain climber, developing a program that [will enable] all folks with disabilities to do things that have never been done before.”

On Monday, Ebert took the TrailRider to the Grand Canyon for a trial run with Matt Schuermer, 25, who works summers in Kysoc’s kitchen and cannot walk without assistance. Several college students, including Ebert’s son and daughter, went along to help Schuermer maneuver the trail.

Ebert said he chose Service for the project shortly after meeting her at Kysoc. “Sarah had come [to camp] the first summer I was here,” he recalled. He decided she was the one he wanted to be the first paraplegic to make the trip.

He first proposed the trip to her mother, Beverly, who was all for it. “They were both on board right away,” he said.

“I’m going to do it; I’m determined,” said Sarah Service during a recent trip-planning meeting. And with a smile and a sly glance toward the volunteers, she pledged, “And I’m not going to complain once.”

Beverly Service, who is a nurse at Baptist Hospital Northeast in La Grange, will be one of the hikers, along with her son, Daniel; both will be helping Sarah down the canyon trail.

Also hoping to make the trip are Amy Hewitt, special education teacher at Cartmell Elementary School and founder of the county’s annual Disabilities Week in November; local pastors Chris White and Bob Brocious and their sons, Nate White and Kory Brocious, who are Daniel’s classmates; local businessman Vernon States; and Casey Northcutt, a student at Murray State University and a friend of White’s.

Hewitt said she and Ebert are working to raise a total of $5,000 to cover expenses so that at least 12 volunteers can make the trip. She said a team of five is needed at all times to power and guide the TrailRider down and back up the canyon. With the entire hike encompassing 14 miles, she said it’s important to have enough people to rotate into and out of Sarah’s team, so that no one is exhausted by the climb.

So far, they have raised $2,500 – $1,000 was donated last week by the Carrollton Rotary Club, $500 was donated by Baptist Hospital Northeast and $1,000 was donated from money Hewitt raised during Disability Awareness Week last year.

Looking to future trips in the works, Ebert also is trying to raise an additional $3,500 to buy a Kilikart – another trail device for disabled climbers.

The Kilikart was developed by Jesse Lee Owens, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Alaska who became a paraplegic, like Sullivan, as the result of a skiing accident.

Owens used his device to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a 19,340-foot summit in Tanzania, Africa.

The Kilikart is more like a conventional wheelchair, allowing the disabled climber to participate physically in the climb; like the TrailRider, it also can be powered and stabilized by able-bodied climbers.

With both devices, which should allow navigation of any kind of trail or terrain, Ebert said he plans to take Schuermer and a group of climbers to the Kilimanjaro summit in January.

If all goes well, he wants to take Service on the same trip next year, too.

“She would be the first woman paraplegic to do it,” he said.

For more information about the trip, or to find out how to donate funds, call Ebert at Camp Kysoc at (502) 732-5333, or call Hewitt at (502) 525-2537.