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Ebert, team succeed with Grand Canyon goal

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Former Cartmell student becomes first disabled person to reach bottom

By Phyllis McLaughlin

It’s been an elusive goal for Jim Ebert, but on Friday, Nov. 28, he and another team of hikers successfully took Skylar Cannon to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

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Skylar, 13, a former student at Cartmell Elementary School in Carrollton, was born with spinal muscular atrophy – a terminal disease that has left her without the use of her arms or legs. She and her family now live in Shelbyville, Ky.

But, with help from Ebert and his team – which included his sons, Justin and Jared, and his daughter, Jean – trekked down the Bright Angel Trail to their campsite at Phantom Ranch at the bottom.

Justin is a senior at the University of Iowa; Jean is a student at the University of Kentucky; and Jared is a high school senior at West High School, Iowa City, Iowa.

On Oct. 8, Ebert and a team of volunteers from Carroll County, attempted the descent with Sarah Service, 22, a Carroll County High School graduate who was left paralyzed after a 2002 car crash.

The group attempted to hike down and back up the 7-mile trail in one day, with Service in a device called the TrailRider, designed for disabled hikers. The hike ended at Indian Garden, about 4.5 miles down.

While Service has the honor of being the first disabled person to make the trip by land to Indian Garden, Skylar is the first to make it all the way down, Ebert said. Others have explored the bottom of the canyon by boat on the Colorado River.

“It was cold, but I enjoyed it,” Skylar said in a telephone interview Monday. When asked if it was everything she expected, she said, “No. It’s better.”

Ebert said the group started out at 5 a.m. Friday. The weather was cold, drizzly and very hazy. “You couldn’t see anything,” Ebert said. Once they descended about 1,000 feet on the trail, though, the group got out of the clouds. By the afternoon, the clouds disappeared and the sun was out.

“It was perfect,” Ebert said.

The group arrived at Phantom Ranch at 2 p.m., and set up camp. Their gear had been delivered to the campsite by horses earlier that day.

“A group had cancelled reservations at the ranch, but forgot to cancel their dinner reservations,” Ebert said. “So, we celebrated with six steak dinners. We celebrated our first descent, and Justin’s birthday.”

On Saturday, the group started out at 3 a.m. Ebert said they reached Indian Garden at 7:30 and rested until 8 a.m. At 4 p.m., they made the rim.

“We were all exhausted,” Ebert said, pointing out that there were six fewer people to help bring Skylar and the TrailRider out of the canyon. A fifth person had been scheduled to participate, but was unable to make the trip.

“If we’d had six more people, we’d have been in great shape,” he said, adding that the extra manpower could have shortened the ascent by as much as two hours.

Either way, Ebert is optimistic that his Alpenglow Adventures program will now be a success.

Through the program, he hopes to recruit college students in March, while schools are out for spring break. He has scheduled four week-long trips at the Grand Canyon, complete with accommodations on the rim and at Phantom Ranch.

His goal is to have as many as 20-24 students for each trip, 10 to take a disabled hiker to the bottom. After camping overnight, that group would  bring the hiker to Indian Garden, where the other 10 hikers will take over the ascent.

“It’s a good system,” Ebert said. “It will work.”

While the October trip was funded with donations from Amy Hewitt’s Disabilities Awareness Week program and Carrollton Rotary, Ebert said this trip was funded by Cardinal Hill Healthcare, the Lexington company that operates Camp Kysoc.

Ebert said Cardinal Hill officials were willing to allow the trip to go on without donated funding in order to get the rest of the program off the ground.

Tami Cannon, who made the trip with her daughter and the others, said the hike was the opportunity of a lifetiime – for her and for Skylar.

“Fitness was my biggest concern,” she said. “I don’t work out and I don’t hike, and I was a smoker up until when we left.”

While looking over the edge of the trail was scary at times, “It was absolutely the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen in nature,” she said. “It was breathtaking.”

Hikers who met the group at Phantom Ranch and later passed them along the way back up the trail were extremely supportive, Cannon said.

“They were absolutely amazing,” she said, adding that most said Skylar was an inspiration for them.

Many “said it was the most inspirational thing they’ve ever seen,” Ebert said.

Cannon said she highly encourages any parent of a disabled child – and any disabled adult – to take the trip.

“Just do it, don’t even think twice about it,” she said. “It’s not something they get a chance to do every day. If my able-bodied 15-year-old had asked to go on a trip like this, I would have let him. I want the same opportunities for both of them. [Skylar] just needs a little help. I don’t see her as any different.”

Cannon added that she never once had any concern for Skylar’s safety during the entire hike. “They made sure Skylar was completely safe.”