Mountains For The Mind

I’ve always loved the outdoors and being active. Whether it was messing around in the garden with my brother, helping my grandad on the farm or walking the dogs in the Brecon Beacons I spent most of my life pursuing fresh air; I even managed to find a job that kept me outside. So three years ago when I was asked to come to terms with never being able to walk again; in fact that I would be lucky if I regained any movement at all, it certainly wasn’t easy to hear.

I was lying in intensive care and it had been six days and still no movement or sensation when the doctor delivered the news. The impact on the bottom of the pool had caused my neck to dislocate and one of the discs between my vertebrae exploded sending shards of cartilage through my spinal cord. A severn hour operation had been successful but what lay ahead was looking bleak. At this point I didn’t realise that six days earlier I had been resuscitated three times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital but I did already know that my rugby career was over and that my life would never be the same.

It’s fair to say that a lot has happened between day 6 and now. It all started with a flicker of movement and the realisation that maybe this wasn’t over. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was in a mental battle just as much as a physical one, recovery was going to be down to remaining positive and not giving in rather than any miracle cure. Progress was slow, the outcome still uncertain and by the time I reached Salisbury spinal unit I had spent almost every minute in the same room for 8 weeks. It was mid June and we were just entering a heat wave which made it stiflingly hot on the ward. My temperature regulation was all over the place and I still had a collar and chest brace on for at least another month so things were about to get uncomfortable. Fortunately a couple of years ago a charity built an accessible area to allow the patients to get outside and it wasn’t until I rolled out into Horatios garden for the first time, felt the sun on my face and took a gulp of fresh air that i truly realised what I had been missing. Over the next few weeks I spent most of every day out there, either doing rehab, meeting friends or just sitting and thinking next to the water features or flowers. I truly believe that the difference it made to my mindset and energy levels was one of the main reasons that after three months and against all odds I not only stood but took my first step.

I discharged myself from hospital, moved in with my parents and began pushing my body to see how much further I could take it, all the time very conscious of the impact that the outdoors was having on my mental state and consequently my recovery. It started with physio in the garden, I would use the hand rail around the decking for support as I dragged myself up out of my chair and stood for as long as I could. Things soon progressed and as the number of steps I could take increased I started to venture out in the car with my physio Pete to find quiet places and flat pieces of grass where I could fall over as much as I liked. It was about 9 months after my accident when I announced to Pete that I was going to try and climb Snowdon on the 1 year mark. The idea was met with a laugh and then a concerned look when he realised that I was being serious. At that point I hadn’t walked much further than a few hundred metres so to get from there to climbing the highest mountain in Wales in 3 months was ambitious…or stupid, depending on who you asked. I knew though that I needed something to focus on to keep me motivated through the hours of physio I was doing and for some reason I couldn’t keep my mind off the mountains. Having been brought up in the countryside and living next to the Brecon Beacons for the last couple of years I had always loved the hills but now more than ever I was yearning to get back out there. That wasn’t the only motivation though. I wanted to do something symbolic for everyone else who had been given a negative prognosis and show them that there is still hope of defying the odds. A few weeks out I opened the event up to anyone who wanted to join and although I was hopeful a couple of people would show up I was completely shocked when I turned around at the foot of the mountain to see over 70 people there to join us.

I can remember standing on the summit like it was yesterday. It had taken 5 hours to that point and despite playing over a decade of professional rugby it was by far the most physically demanding thing I had ever done. Looking out across North Wales I felt at peace for the first time since my accident. It felt like the culmination of a years hard work and the ability to share it with so many amazing people made it all the more special. I was hooked and I didn’t know where or when but I knew that my adventures weren’t going to stop there…I just had no idea how far they were going to take me.

I was on a mission to raise all of the money back for the charities that had supported me and after Snowdon I had decided that climbing was the way to go. Three months later I was sat in a refuge on the side of a mountain in France with 30 other fundraisers after summiting Mont Buet. My foot splint was just holding together with tape, I had broken two poles and was covered in cuts and bruises. My disability certainly doesn’t lend itself to climbing or just walking uphill even. I have about 10% of the power remaining down the left side of my body, with a few muscles now not working at all. It’s not easy, but that’s kind of the point. The harder something is, the greater the sense of accomplishment and let’s be honest I wasn’t going to raise any money for charity by playing sudoko. It was more than just the challenge though, like my time in the garden at the spinal unit I was finding that just being outside, in nature, was immensely therapeutic. I felt upbeat, could think clearly and always returned with a smile on my face no matter how hard it had been or how many bruises I had. I was seeing the physical benefits too. After every climb there would be a positive change in my neurology, a new movement or sensation. Current medical thinking says that you are unlikely to experience any changes after 18 months following a spinal cord injury yet I am still experiencing changes nearly three years later and i’m convinced its in large part down to the time I spend outdoors and in the mountains.

Mont Buet was another stepping stone but I was about to take one giant leap (figuratively speaking). Nepal is one of the countries where most people dream of going and never actually make it but I wasn’t really in the mood for dreaming anymore and the opportunity had just presented itself. I was offered the chance to travel over there with a charity who were trying to raise funds to build a spinal unit and they had asked if I could help them raise some awareness for the project. Unsurprisingly I fell in love with the place, so much so that before the plane had time to land back in the UK I had a plan. Everything had become clear; I needed to combine my love for the mountains and passion to share it with people with fundraising for the spinal unit in Nepal. I spoke to my wife and a few friends and we founded Millimetres to Mountains as a vehicle to both fundraise and organise group climbs. Before I knew it myself and 13 others were back in Nepal taking on a climb that I probably wouldn’t have even considered when I was able bodied.

Standing at 6476m Mera peak is about 1 vertical mile higher than anything in the Alps and over double the height of my previous limit. Excited by the challenge, motivated by the mission but a bit daunted by the scale of what we were about attempt we set off from Lukla on a seven day trek to reach the foot of the mountain. By the time we reached base camp I had lost the best part of a stone in weight due to the extra effort it takes me to move. The terrain and the altitude were combining to form a daunting task that was challenging me in ways I had never before experienced. After trying to replenish some calories and 4 more days acclimatising we were ready to head for high camp where we would attempt a few hours sleep then push to the summit. The next 24 hours are hard to put into words; cold, serene, savage and beautiful come to mind but barely do it justice. We left high camp on summit day at 3am, it was -25 degrees and after a few hours of crunching through the blackness a pink hue began to form on the horizon. Slowly the sun crept up to reveal not just the summit of Mera peak but the entire Everest region sprawled out beyond. Seven of the ten highest mountains in the world were stood staring back at us with the sunlit summit of Mt Everest proudly taking centre stage. 

Standing on top of Mera peak with the world spread out in front of me was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I thought back to the first flicker of movement in intensive care, the first step at the spinal unit, that time standing on the summit of Snowdon. I thought back to the surgeon who saved my life, the friends, family and physios who had been there for me every step of the way and the amazing organisations and charities that have given me so much support. I thought of all the places I had been, the people I had met and the things I had done and I felt grateful. Life had thrown me a curveball but with help of some amazing people and the inspiration and healing powers of the great outdoors I had managed to play it, and guess what, i’m still in to bat.

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