my mountain

Sunday, 11 November 2018

I have set many goals since suffering my last stroke back in 2008. Some began from my hospital bed, others have grown organically along my journey, but one has always been there, these last ten years.

Something my stroke physios said to me one day on the ward; I was getting so frustrated with my body, I wanted to be better - now. I was given these words: “Take one step at a time, try not to climb the mountain in one”. At the time I didn't listen, it was not what I wanted to hear. And I guess I never have listened to them truly. I will push as hard as I can to get to the top of the figurative mountain every time, and as fast as I can. And I'm taking giant leaps to get there.

These words have always stayed with me, and have driven me. I see every challenge as the mountain, and every achievement the summit. But there has been one challenge that I have longed to find a way to attempt, perhaps my ultimate challenge since those days on the stroke ward. One day I WILL climb a mountain, This will be my mountain.

Back in the summer I headed off to the Welsh / Herefordshire border, car packed with a daypack I'd borrowed from a friend, filled with essentials such as, hydration bladder, plasters, sun cream and waterproofs. I knew very little about what I was heading into, I knew no one, had no expectations, but I wanted to find out more. I wanted to meet others who shared the same mindset as me, who didn't see barriers as something that stops you, merely meaning having to go a different way around. If nothing else, this weekend I hoped to meet some new people and spend time outside in this gorgeous weather, surrounded by beautiful countryside. That was every reason to say yes to Martin Hewitt when I received an email inviting me to a community weekend.

That was my first weekend spent with the Adaptive Grand Slam team. Past, present and future members, made up of injured military personnel and civilian, coming together as a team to learn about and from each other, and to train as a team for their next challenge.

The big goal of Adaptive Grand Slam is to be the first all disabled team in history to reach all seven of the highest summits on the seven continents, and the two poles. The notorious Grand Slam. Successfully completing this, the team would break four world records in the process. Bearing in mind only a handful of able-bodied mountaineers have completed the Grand Slam, this is bigger than any words. The AGS team have already successfully summited four of the seven peaks and reached the North Pole. In 2019, the team will take on their second attempt on Everest, having been forced to turn back on their first attempt in 2017.

My own goal was a little less impressive compared to this, but for me it was everything, and to quote a mountain hero of my own who kindly wrote to me on hearing about my own journey over the last years, "You have climbed the equivalent of 6 Everests" - Sir Chris Bonington. This felt like my Everest.

During that weekend back in the Summer, I pushed my body so hard. I had to prove I had something, I was worthy of such a challenge, probably to me more than anyone else. It was one of the hottest weekends we had and being faced with what felt like a vertical climb up Black Hill as the rest of the team marched on, I was way out of my comfort zone. My heart was not entirely happy, I think it was struggling to comprehend just what I was asking of it, but I pushed on. Blisters grew and grew on my palms as my crutches created friction in the scorching heat of the sun, casuing me to pour with sweat, giving evry bit of effort I had to pull myself through my arms on my crutches up the hill. There became a point I didn't want to know how bad they'd got, I knew it wasn't good but I also knew that wasn't going to stop me going as far as I believed was possible. It took a good few weeks for my hands to heal as a result, but showing the boys my swollen blistered hands that night at dinner and being called "nails", I took as a compliment. 

My weekend in Herefordshire was my initiation. Next came the real challenge.

Wild Beyond Barriers continues.

What follows will be my own words from my diary posts during and after this epic challenge. Read on to find out all about my mountain adventure.

Wednesday 10/10/18

First day spent at base camp meeting the team and getting kit sorted.

Friend and team-mate Sam keeps laughing at me as I stand wide-eyed and open-mouthed starring at the mountains. I am feeling completely and utterly overwhelmed.

10 years since being on the stroke ward and my physios words to me ..“Take one step at a time, try not to climb the mountain in one”.
Those words have never left me. 
That goal has never left me.
I have no idea how or how far I will get.
But today with the help and as part of the Adaptive Grand Slam team, I will start to face my mountain. Every meter matters.

Let the journey begin..

Thursday 11/10/18

We emerged from the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy. Continuing to drive and climb higher, taking in beautiful switchback mountain roads, we past dark timbered houses with slate roofs, totally unique to this alpine wonderland. I couldn’t help imagine cycling these roads of dreams. 
The rain had come and fog lay low around us as we arrived at the base of Gran Paradiso National Park and got our kit together, ready to set off on our Adaptive Grand Slam Chamonix Challenge.
There was an air of excitement within the team, itchy feet from many, as the weight of our packs weighed down any urge for anyone to take off at speed, instead one by one moving up the path into the forest heading only one way - up. I had no idea how far I would get, every extra meter would be a bonus. I was going into the unknown, going Wild Beyond Barriers.

I began my way at the back of the team into the forest and up. I knew this was going to be a massive challenge, but in reality, I had no idea just how hard this was going to be.
I tried not to put any pressure on myself for this one. I was completely out of any comfort zone I knew, and in a world I knew quite little about, certainly not in my 10 year-old para body, now reliant on my arms to make any headway in this mountain environment. I was prepared to fail, I was ok with that. After-all, I was here to learn, learn about myself and learn as a team. To start my mountain journey, to build from. Getting to this point felt like a big step forward already. If I had one goal however, it was to reach the Rifigio Chabod mountain hut, which was to be our base for the night, before continuing up the mountain. Faced with a steep rocky path from the start quickly becoming clear that for me and my crutches this was bigger than I ever imagined, and for the first time I had doubts I would even reach the hut, maybe I had gotten myself into something just too big.

... The team around me were my legs. They wouldn’t let me fail. After a time, the sensible decision was for them to help carry my pack to help me negotiate the technical terrain that was nemesis to my non existent balance. I was not happy about this, but I’m learning what being a team really means and begrudgingly let them help.
The journey was slow and the effort at maximum. My heart rate certainly reminded me of that, particularly noticeable as we headed up over 2500 meters, working at already pushed limits into altitude. But slowly we continued up.
It must have taken a couple of hours to clear the forest and our tree roofed canopy, we couldn’t see much for mist and fog but the rain began to clear. Out of the trees I began to feel better, every now and again getting a glimpse of the snow capped mountains around us and my excitement radiated from my grin. Standing aloft ridges we spotted Ibex watching our every move. We took our first footsteps onto snow, now too high for trees, I felt like we had entered into Narnia.

 Out of the forest and off the tricky steep rocky path, moving higher and higher, now a new type of terrain to learn to tackle. It was strange seeing snow after yesterday sitting in 20+ degrees sunshine, the snow had only fallen here over the last week or so, making progress all the more difficult, slipping was a problem as the ground cover changed, the current bottoms for my crutches were starting to struggle. it was a tough workout for sure.

The moment I made it to the mountain hut. Rifugio Chabod at 2750 meters.
Although this was my big goal, at the start of my journey I realistically feared this moment may not have happened. It was a huge ask for my body, & for the team, just 3 weeks after my heart procedure, & although my cardiac team were amazingly supportive of my plans as I asked on the theatre table, when I chatted with my arrhythmia nurse just before leaving the uk, I was reminded that I was still in early days, & to be aware of that, & be careful.. I’ve never been at altitude before, pre or post strokes, & I’ve never asked my stroke body to do anything quite like this before. There were a lot of unknowns & a lot of pushing beyond, but that’s why I’m here & part of this no-messing, life-living, ass-kicking Adaptive Grand Slam team. As a group of injured military & civilians, linked not by our pasts but a common mindset; pushing boundaries, challenging perceptions & showing what is possible.

I’d say those last few steps were the hardest, but I’d be lying, it was all so tough, but I was so grateful for that. I had very little left, running on adrenaline over any purposeful use of my body, but man was I happy to reach the hut.
I may have been the last person to make it up there of the team, but after 4 hard hours I’d got there. I was pretty moved; by the rest of the team waiting to greet me in with an offer of a hot cup of tea, by the mountain backdrop snowscape surrounding us, & by those supporting me all the way up, making sure I made it and always with lots of laughs, such knowledge & stories & great fun. I’m pretty sure we'd all loved every moment.

Goal achieved, anything else would be a bonus from here on..

That night we feasted on our mountain rations, which were far more indulgent than expected. I made use of my first ever alpine long drop.. & we set down to sleep in our bunks in the winter room ready for our 4.30 alarm call. With a fire burning, our mountain hut was surprisingly warm, & icy walkway visits in the darkness to the long drop were cherished by a 360 degree snow-capped mountain range silhouette & a billion starred night sky above.
This was our billion star hotel.

Friday 12/10/18

The plan was for the Adaptive Grand Slam team to attempt summit of Gran Paradiso today. Standing at 4061 meters, the highest mountain entirely in Italy.
My own plan was never set in stone, or snow. To the mountain hut would have been a huge success, & it was. The climb up had taken a lot out of me. I know I pushed harder than I should have, but it’s a constant hard battle between head & heart, & although heart won out, it was that, that paid the price that night too. I think my body was trying to deal with such a huge effort & the altitude, & the result giving me a little scare as it tried to recover, rest & rebalance systems in a testing environment. I’ll admit I was a bit scared. I’d never been at altitude & I had pushed hard, this unknown territory became even more so, & now halfway up a snowy mountain. I knew the best thing for me was to rest, so did what I could to let my body find it’s happier place into the night. I had decided that if things didn’t settle overnight, I would go no further. I had achieved my goal.
That night groups were set for the following morning’s accent, five in total. One of them including me. Our group guides were awesome, we all agreed to see how I felt after some rest, although all of us wanting to continue up the mountain.

..Amazingly I’d been able to get some rest during the night. Not so much sleep, as did no-one, but I was happy my body relaxed & things had settled. We had an hour until sunrise, and as we kitted up in harnesses, helmets & head torches, that seemed like a good place to start..

All the teams carried ice axes & crampons, for me, my new adventure crutches came into their own, swapping rubber ferrules for snow shoe & ice spike attachments. These were my legs, & apart from our guide Richard, attaching a rope to my harness while traversing narrow icy ledges, the only things stopping me resembling Bambi on ice, & giving me my chance of mountaineering, my way.

The darkness was a scary but beautiful place. Not seeing drops had its advantages though increased fears, & there was something magical about watching the teams ahead file up the snow, seeing only a single line of silver light from head torches.

The starlit skies were quickly replaced by pale blue from over the mountains in the east & a soft quilted blanket of translucent cloud. As the sun began to rise, the sky washed through a palette of purples, pinks & orange.
The terrain & climbing was so hard going, I’d hit neuro fatigue at max yesterday & I’d started out this morning pretty tired. I’d given myself little goals, I wanted to be in the mountains under the stars, I wanted to see the sun come up. If I broke up my journey into more manageable steps it was far less daunting, & I could hit goals along the way.
The pace was painfully slow. I was slipping a lot & it took every bit of effort from me to plant my crutches hard into the snow, searching for something solid for me to pull all my body weight through, to then move a few cms forward, to just slip straight back again. Our small team were incredible. There is no way I could have even made ten meters that morning without them. Jake & Chris would go ahead breaking the trail further & wider to help me make some headway & have somewhere to plant my crutches, guides John & Richard would be blocking my left foot, stopping me slipping backwards & lifting it by my gaiters when I couldn’t swing through my crutches or use my right leg to pull up, & marking me through narrow edges and rocky moraine. It was hard, & working at altitude only added to this. I had to stop regularly to catch my breath & let my heart rate settle. Though I was pleased this side settled well as the hours went on. My hands got very cold gripping my crutches so tightly, it’s easy to see how unforgiving a place the mountains can be, & I was very grateful of the team plying me with sips of hot drinks & warm layers from my pack.
Challenge aside, being out on the mountainside that morning was the most incredible feeling, I still can’t quite get my head around it. I felt so small amidst the jagged white peaks rising above the cloud base below, yet at the same time, I felt strong & empowered. Like it was just us & the mountain.
The 4061 meter summit of Gran Paradiso behind me. - The greatest wild wee spot of my life so far..

It was hard to take in the bigger picture while I was so emersed in getting one foot forward after another, any way we could. I had to have my head down looking where I was planting the whole time, as I wasn’t able to tell where my crutches or feet were going & on the odd occasion I tried to look up, my lack of balance usually made me wobble in a direction that wouldn’t have ended well. My neck was so sore from looking down & carrying my pack, but as long as we were moving forward, however slowly, it was progress.
I felt so bad for the other team members, holding them up. Why was I finding it so tough, guilt & determination fought with each other in my mind as I gave every last bit I had. we’d been going for nearing four & a half hours now, at this point I had little left. I fell a lot, through my body not being able to hold me up through the snow more than anything. I could say little. On this particular steep ridge that had gone on for a long way, for a moment I went down & lay there for a few seconds, I remember saying I just wanted to stay there, I could have happily curled up and gone to sleep in the late morning sun on the trail. I went inside my head for a minute or two for a chat, I didn’t need to say anything on the outside but I certainly gave myself a good talking to. “Get off your arse and get up that f*£$!^% hill”, was basically the voice inside my head. So I pulled myself up & pushed on some more.

Some well-caught fatigue-fuelled frustration captured by Chris as I finally reach the top of that ridge & pull up a snowy rock for a rest.

Little did we know as we watched the lead team in the far distance slowly break through a path further up the mountain, that frustrations were shared amongst us all. It had been five hours now since we had all set off in the dark of the morning, & under normal conditions, the lead team should have been nearing summit by now, but they weren’t. A storm on Wednesday night had dumped 50 cm of fresh show on the mountain, making conditions much harder than expected. We passed a couple of very experienced climbers earlier in the day who were attempting the north face of Gran Paradiso, only to turn back as trail-breaking was just too much for their plans. We watched as three of the lead group painstakingly broke trail up a steep climb, a good few hundred meters further up. For us, it was the best live action tv there was, as we ate a mid morning snack of wraps & brioche that we’d made back in the mountain hut the night before.
We never saw the leaders much further their climb, turning back down the mountain the way they’d come. We didn’t know why at the time, but judging on how long it had taken them, the strongest of us all apart from Jake who had kindly agreed to help me in our team, to get that far, any summit attempt would have pushed the day exceptionally long, & most likely meant descending in darkness.

I was torn. I so wanted to carry on. For myself but especially for the team. They had got me so far, I never expected to get to this point, the night before I was pretty adamant the mountain hut was my summit, & that was ok. Here I was, blue skies, sunshine, snow, & at just short of 3200 meters, feeling like I was on top of the world.
I knew we had multiple crevasse on the glacier ahead of us, & with the state of my tired body I just didn’t know how I would be able to negotiate these. I also knew we still had to go back down, & none of us knew how that would pan out descending the same steep ridges on crutches.
I felt so done. I was willing my body to find something else. Definitely one of the toughest decisions, we agreed to head back.
At the time I felt so bad for letting the rest of the team down, but I also learnt what a true team means. I am slowly realising what these last few days mean & will never be more grateful for the whole Adaptive Grand Slam team for a shared determination & belief & helping get me up that mountain. A promise I had made with myself back on the stroke ward just over 10 years ago, from a single comment from my stroke physios. This was my summit. I had climbed my mountain, or at least my first one.

I definitely plan to come back & reach 4061 meters along with the rest of the team next time. This has only got me hungry for more & believing in more.

We later found out that the risk of avalanche was just too high for the teams to continue, I’d heard one myself early in the morning ricochet through the far mountains, & although the disappointment was very clear to see with everyone, deep down we all know & accept there’s no arguing with the mountains or Mother Nature. Gran Paradiso will be there waiting another day.

I love this ‘our summit’ shot of one awesome team within a team. John, Chris, Richard & Jake, thank you. To my first mountain, & to many more.

I didn’t know what my possible was, I still believe there’s more. What’s yours??

Turned out I had pretty good mountain skills coming back down.

It was much safer for me to bottom slide the steep snowy ridges down, sometimes I used my crutches as poles, sometimes just my hands. I was surprised what a great hack this turned out to be & much easier than going up! There were a couple of comical falls as I slid down face first on my crutches, my pack continuing the momentum & me ending up like an upside down tortoise in the snow. I was glad the guys were there to untangle me from my crutches & stop me sliding further down the snow.
Part of me still wished I’d pushed on a bit more into the glacier, the descent went far better than expected, but it’s always better with hindsight hey. 
Some great mountain lessons learnt that day. I can’t wait for my next one.

Saturday 13/10/18

The Adaptive Grand Slam Gran Paradiso team. 
Friends & teammates.

Adventure In Focus/Tom McShane Photography

Alongside the Adapted Grand Slam foundation who I owe so much to, who made it possible for me to make my mountain possible. Great thanks to the team at Alpkit for continued support on my latest Wild Beyond Barriers challenge, Having Alpkit keep me warm and dry, and with the perfect backpack system, ready for the mountain was really great to take the team along with me in some way. All of my kit performed brilliantly. Also thanks again to Firepot Food for always keeping me fuelled and feasted on fantastic ethically packaged vegan food, and to DryrobeSidestix and Texenergy for each of their unique adventure support solutions.