This time last year I was sat staring at these mountains learning something new, now I choose to look at them every day to remind myself what they taught me.
For a first timer into the high Himalayas it’s often hard to comprehend what you’re looking at. I remember just staring up in awe at the giant peaks, struggling to make sense of the scale of things. The longer I spent there and the longer I stared, the deeper my emotions would run. I felt humble, calm and strangely spiritual but most of all I had an overwhelming sense of insignificance. Those mountains were significant, huge and incomprehensibly old. I had never felt so tiny and fleeting, I was literally a spec of dust in comparison and my stay on this earth was going to amount to the equivalent of a blink of an eye compared to theirs…The question is why was that realisation empowering and not scary?
I’ve thought a lot about the power of insignificance. I don’t mean on a micro scale, of course you can be significant and impactful to those around you from day to day. But on a macro level, we will all leave this earth and eventually fade away to nothing, not even a memory. Maybe it should but that doesn’t make me feel sad, it makes me feel free. To me it means that I am free to make whatever I want of this life. I’m free to take chances, chase dreams and choose happiness. I’m free to spend these few moments on earth with the people I love, doing the things I love and helping others realise that they can do the same. Why? Because in the end it all doesn’t really matter. The promotion, the title, the bonus, non of it matters. Live the life YOU want to live. ✌️
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.
Steve Jobs said that “boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity.”
It was week four of isolation and I was up early again, drinking too much coffee and waiting for the dew to evaporate so I could mow the lawn for the fourth time in as many days. If I’m honest I hadn’t hated isolation to this point, in fact I had quite enjoyed it. For the first time in what seemed like years my head had emerged from beneath the backlog of emails and I had begun to indulge in some of the past times ‘I didn’t have time for’. As productive as this was and despite the lawn being manicured to within an inch of its life there was an inevitable itch developing. I suppose if you spoke to my wife she would describe me as restless. I thought I was doing pretty well combating this particular personality trait but I suppose questions have to be asked when your sat waiting for the grass to grow so you can cut it again. The grass was taking a while so I started flicking through the news and inevitably Captain Tom was dominating the headlines with his incredible gesture to the NHS by walking lengths of his garden fundraising. This got me thinking of all of the other charities that are struggling at this time and that there must be something I can do to help. It was time for some lateral thinking.
I picked up the phone and called my mate Ross who a couple of days before had climbed the height of Elbrus on his stairs. ‘Whats the crack then mate, how hard is this?’ Actually before I continue it’s probably worth saying that Ross is not alien to doing some pretty gnarly things. He’s a yes man with a big engine. Just a few months ago he climbed Mont Blanc then jumped straight on his bike and cycled to Calais, canoed the channel and ran to London. So the response I got to his assault on the staircase was a bit of a surprise. ‘It’s brutal mate…my legs are in bits and it’s painfully boring…’ The original plan was to climb the height of Snowdon (1,085m) which I calculated would have taken me about 4 or 5 hours. Ross agreed that was probably a good idea given that I was going to have to only use one leg, he gave me a few tips and wished me luck. I cant really remember the thought process within the next hour that took me from Snowdon to a four day expedition climbing from sea level to the height of Everest (8848m) and back again whilst camping at the bottom of the stairs but there was definitely no alcohol involved as it was 10am and I was mowing the lawn. Unfortunately for my wife and parents, once I’ve thought of something I find it very difficult to let it go so this was going to happen, I just had to play it down enough so they would allow me to start.
Although the main reason for the challenge was fundraising, I thought that if we tried to have some fun along the way it might break up the monotony of isolation and give people something to smile about at home. Persuading my dad that pitching a tent in his kitchen was a good idea however has to be one of the more bizarre negotiations of my life. Fortunately my family were as bored as me so were open to a bit of change…they just weren’t sure how much ‘change’ they had let themselves in for.
I started at 8am on Tuesday morning and it was obvious within the first couple of hours that I had wildly underestimated what I had let myself in for. In preparation for the climb I had worked out that I could cover about 125 flights in an hour. That number was now looking more like 80-100 flights which may not sound like a big difference but it meant that I was going to have to endure 10-12 hours a day rather than 8. I had put a white board next to the stairs to tally up the total, marking a dash every time I completed 10 reps. You would have thought counting to ten was easy but it’s amazing how quickly your mind wanders when you’re doing something monotonous. In fact after filming myself I realised that I had done 23 extra in the space of just one hour, so I taped a clicker to the banister at the bottom of the stairs to keep me on track, or closer at least.
I finished the first day at 8pm, 12 hours after starting. The last hour or so was really tough physically but all in all considering I had just done the best part of 23,000 single leg step ups my body felt ok. Because of the spinal cord injury I suffered a few years ago my right side doesn’t have any pain or temperature sensation and seeing this was the side doing the majority of the work the lack of feeling was turning out to be a blessing. There were a few expected blisters but nothing to write home about so I patched myself up, tucked into a big feed and retired to my tent to pass out. The next morning I woke up and it felt like I had been run over by a bus and as much as I wanted to just lie there i knew the only option was to get moving, so I rolled out of my tent, had a good stretch, tended to some blisters and set off.
Each morning I started with a live session on Instagram in the hope that a few punters would join in from home. By day two I couldn’t believe the amount of people who didn’t have anything better to do than tune in to watch me climb the stairs! Lois would read out questions and my dad would be taking music requests as he read the paper. It was amazing how quick those live hours went past and how much fun they were, in fact I’m not sure I could have coped without them as it was becoming clear the main challenge was going to be a mental one and these hours were the only thing breaking up the monotony. As well as having a laugh it’s amazing how much difference that moral support makes even from a distance. I had felt it before when I was in hospital and although the stakes were slightly different this time it felt very similar.
After lunch on day two I lay down outside for 20 minutes before trying to get up and carry on. I was already shattered and despite not even being at the half way mark all I wanted to do was close my eyes and stay there for the rest of the day. I took out my phone and glanced at the fundraising total which turned out to be all the motivation I needed. The original target was 2k which incredibly we had passed before I set foot on the first step and by this point we were already nearing the 10k mark! I had joked about now not having to carry on because we had hit the fundraising goal but the truth is the exact opposite. There is no bigger symbol of support than someone actually donating some of their hard earned cash to the cause, especially when times are as tough as they are at the moment. The simple fact that so much money had been raised assured that no matter how long it took, I had to finish. Having that motivation makes a huge difference when times get tough and you might want to give up, you focus on the people who have supported you and the people who you are helping and you crack on, it wasn’t about me. Not long after I re started news came in that we had hit 10k and Berghaus had been in contact and matched it. Berghaus has been very supportive of me since my accident as we share the same belief of the physical and mental benefits of the outdoors but this was an unprecedented gesture that meant the fundraising total was now at a whopping 20k and counting!
I had almost been defeated but that afternoon I hit the stairs with a spring in my step, put on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers ‘By The Way’ album and nocked off 300 flights before the live session at 5:30pm. Looking back I feel like this was the tipping point, I had the urge to give up but thanks to that boost I was able to push through and now felt like I had broken the back of it ’no pun intended’. During the live session I got caught in my first avalanche when my step mum chucked a bucket of ice over my head then ran off. This sums my family up…I was angry for about a second and then realised how nice it was to be cool for the first time since I started. A few more hours and the second day was finished by 9pm. I was again tired, blistered and sore but passed half way so it was all downhill from here…ye right!
Fatigue was accumulating and my pace on the stairs was slowing so I decided to start slightly earlier than usual to get some reps in before we went live. My hands were slightly too big to fit between the bannister and the wall so by this point there was blood everywhere from small grazes on my knuckles and blisters on my hands. By this point I had done over 1500 flights of stairs and I was really having to dig deep to stay on track, luckily there was help on the way… The evening before a group of my mates who are DJs lined up four live sets to get me through the day and it made a massive difference. I kept stopping and chuckling to myself thinking how bizarre the situation was and some of the comments from people stumbling across the live feed were hilarious. It must have looked so weird, half your screen was a DJ playing house music and the other half was some bloke limping up the stairs. It may have been confusing but the donations were still rolling in and unbelievably still with a day to go we were up to 30k.
After the live session that evening I had the opportunity to chat to F1 legend David Coulthard who is a fellow ambassador for ‘Wings For Life’, one of the charities I was supporting. I had heard good reports and it’s fair to say he didn’t disappoint. Incredibly measured, friendly and funny, I was amazed at how comfortable I felt talking to him given that I was worried I would be fan girling from minute one. It was a pinch yourself moment and made me take a moment to think about the momentum that had built and how supportive everyone was being. I mean I just spoke to a formula one legend live in my house about walking up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the bathroom…I tell you what when people say these are unprecedented times, they’re not joking!
That night I finished at 9pm but short of my target so I knew that if I was going to make it to the summit on time the next day then I would have to start early. I was actually quite excited by getting up at 4am, it was going to be like a proper summit day, starting in the dark and watching the sun rise over the mountains…or garden.
When the alarm went off I awoke full of adrenaline, it was the final day and I knew I had a nice cold beer and a big steak waiting at the end. Unfortunately my body wasn’t as enthusiastic as my mind so it took me a good 20 minutes before I resembled a human being at the bottom of the stairs. A long day awaited but I was adamant that I would finish on or before the time I had told everyone so that they had the opportunity to join in from home if they wanted. The head torch was on and I set off up the stairs in the darkt. I mean if it wasn’t so warm, I was on steps, I was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, 1 trainer, there were handrails, the air was normal, I had just had a good sleep and almost everything else was different then it was effectively exactly the same as being on the real thing. I actually loved the morning session, by the time my dad emerged weary eyed at 6 am I had already done 160 flights bringing me back on target and setting me up nicely for the final 500 to the finish. I did a few radio interviews that morning before I set off constantly shaking my head in disbelief as to the interest being created but grateful nevertheless as the fundraising total had now climbed to 40k!
Remembering how I felt on day 2, I couldn’t really believe that my right leg was still going so strong to be honest I was two hours in and it was the best my body had felt since day 1. The body has a way of adapting to its stresses over time and I think I had broken through that barrier now, it was day 4 and my leg was just thinking, “oh well, I don’t like it but I guess this is what we do now so better just get on with it.” Blisters were the only real issue by this point but my spirits were high and things were just made better when I found myself joined by current F1 driver Alex Albon who wanted to walk some stairs with me. I mean I know he probably doesn’t have anything better to do at the moment but what a hero.
I was now climbing live again with people joining in from home when all of a sudden I noticed that @thebodycoach was requesting to join the session. I obviously accepted a bit taken a back and the next thing you know I’m chatting to Joe Wicks… as if this couldn’t get any weirder! After a good chat and a solid bit of motivation from the internet sensation I cracked on towards the summit. I watched the numbers tick away as I approached the final push and with only about 80 flights left to go I had another call from a very special guest indeed. Berghaus had lined up a chat with Sir Chris Bonnington. Sir Chris, now in his 80s, is mountaineering royalty and still widely considered one of the greatest climbers of all time. He has numerous first ascents and of course pioneering climbs on the real version of the mountain that I was currently attempting. He was an absolute delight. I was engrossed as he described the magic of some of his favourite climbs and I nearly fell off my chair when he went on to offer me advice for the final push to the summit. It was a magic moment and one that I will treasure for a long time.
I put on my mountaineering gear for the final push which was almost a mistake as the heavy boots combined with how tired I was nearly resulted me tumbling back down the staircase a couple of times. As I took the last few steps I was met by a barrage of Prosecco to the face and some whooping from the family and i couldn’t help but burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I was stood outside my parents bathroom in full mountaineering gear being sprayed with Prosecco whilst speaking to hundreds of people via a live feed on my phone. I mean its not what I envisaged whilst I was sat staring at the lawn a week ago, in fact I’m not sure what I envisaged but this was definitely weirder. The support I received all week and on that final day in particular had been nothing short of amazing but just like that it was done.
I took my jacket off and sat on the top step to take it in. It’s usually at this point of an expedition where all of your hard work pays off and you are rewarded with an incredible view. I looked down at the blood stained walls before peering up at the same window that I had been looking at for four days and you know what I felt equally content. In fact I felt a bit sad that it was over. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t rush back and do it in a hurry, it was savagely hard work and mind numbing at times but it had evolved into the most amazing week of positivity, community and most of all fun. It was as clear of an example of ‘it’s about the journey not the destination’ that I had ever experienced. I had seen and spoken to countless old faces, met some incredible new ones and had the chance to have some hilarious quality time as a family. There were so many positives but most of all we had raised over fifty thousand pounds for some incredible causes…
It has been nearly a week now and my body is back in one piece, base camp is packed up and the parents have forgiven me for having to repaint the walls. I’m sat here wondering what’s around the bend on this crazy road we’re all on and the answer is that I don’t know. I’m supposed to be returning to France and Nepal this year on fundraising trips and I have just received official registration of my own charity ‘The Millimetres to Mountains Foundation’ which I’m excited to start making an impact with but the truth is a lot has changed recently and If there’s one thing i’ve learned over the last few years it’s that you never really know what’s around the corner. Change used to scare me, now I embrace it, in fact I seek it out. New experiences, challenges and opportunities are everywhere and in every situation if you’re open to them. Sir Chris summed it up perfectly when I asked where his favourite mountain on earth was; “you don’t have to go to the other side of the world for an adventure dear boy,” and of course he’s right…you don’t even have to leave your house.
Thanks again for all of the support, it’s been one hell of an adventure, until next time.
So I’m 3 today! Well technically I’m a little older than that but do you know what, it’s the first time since my accident I’ve reflected back and can’t really remember what life was like before April 8th 2017. It’s amazing how life ebbs, flows and sometimes does U-turns but eventually, without fail, everything becomes ‘normal’ again.
I do know that I’ve changed though, I have fundamentally become a happier person. That might sound bizarre following a life changing injury that has taken me from a professional sportsman and left me with the motor function of a wingless daddy longlegs, but it’s true. On paper I’m way worse off; bladder and bowel issues, regular spasms, temperature regulation problems, I’m weaker, poorer, lighter + fatter (bad combo), but I became happier…why?
I finally understood that life isn’t on paper, it was in my head. It wasn’t about what I had, it was about who I was, and that was a choice. Life can take things away from you, it can test you, lord knows some are being tested to the limits now. Life can make things truly shit, it can change your life and take people from you, but it cant control who you are. You own that.
I truly believe that at the end of the day we can chose to be happy, chose to be positive, chose to be whoever we want despite what happens to us. There’s bad times and there’s good times and it’s ok to be sad or angry for a bit but always remember that things will become ’normal’ in time and then all we have left is who we’ve chosen to be.
Well it’s fair to say that everything’s just a little bit weird at the moment. One minute we’re bouncing along as normal and the next minute everyones decided that the apocalypse is upon us and only unnecessary volumes of toilette role can save us now. We’re in uncertain times that is for sure and despite actively practicing social distancing for a long time prior to the government regulations I am thoroughly unexcited by the thought of being confined to my home should it come to it.
Unexcited but not unnerved…I’ve been here before. No I wasn’t around for Spanish flu or the war but this isn’t the first time I have entered a long period of uncertainty and a form of isolation. Three months on a hospital ward is an endurance test for anyone, but add in a spinal cord injury and the possibility that you’ll never walk again and you’ve got a recipe for…well lots of things, but mainly stress.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I was in a mental battle rather than a physical one. Control my emotions, stay positive and my body would react positively but get down, spend time worrying and progress was non existent. The main problem was that uncertainty is the primary cause of anxiety and no one knew what the future held; if I would ever walk again, or if I would make any recovery at all.
The future for most of us is uncertain; Is my job safe, how long will this last for, what’s going to happen to all of this loo roll when people realise they don’t need it? All of these questions are weighing heavy on our minds and creating a lot of anxiety. But, and there is a but, what if I told you that we don’t just have to survive this next few months we can actually prosper from them.
Through necessity I learnt a way to stay positive against the odds, deal with the boredom of isolation and come out on top. Now I want to share a few little tricks I picked up along the way.
It’s only a crisis if you say it is
Catastrophising is the minds tendency to think of worst case scenarios. We naturally focus on negatives over positives. Was I unlucky that the water was shallow when I broke my neck or was I lucky that I didn’t drown because someone was there to pull me to the surface..? Are you unlucky that you cant go to the pub anymore or are you lucky that you aren’t on the street or have severe respiratory problems. Marcus Aurelius said ‘Its not what you look at, it’s what you see’. Most of us have just been given the most precious commodity there is, time. Lets focus on that for a bit…
Plan / structure
The thought of having no plans is quite appealing right? You go on holiday, get up when you want, do what you want, laaavely. Difference is the holiday or weekend version of having no plans is ironically…planned. When having no plans is forced upon you and your previously structured week is no more it can actually through you off track quite badly. The mind responds well to structure and it won’t take long until idleness and inactivity will start to take their toll. Re-introduce some structure and start to take some control back. If your working from home get dressed in the morning, take a lunch break and even have a little whinge about your boss to the wall, it all helps retain some normality.
Ahh natures medicine. When anxiety and house arrest are the name of the game, it’s never been more important. By the time I reached Salisbury spinal unit I had spent almost every minute inside for 8 weeks, and it wasn’t until I rolled out into the hospital garden for the first time, felt the sun on my face and took a gulp of fresh air that in truly realised what I had been missing. There was a path around the hospital garden that I used to do laps of in my wheelchair for exercise, challenging anyone that was up for it to a race. If it wasn’t for the ability to get outside and get my heart rate up during that time I think I would have gone mad. Be sensible but try to get outside and get your heart rate up at least once a day, if not for your body, for your mind.
Let me just start by saying I have never considered myself ‘creative’. Growing up I had never kept a journal and would probably mess up trying to draw a stick man. I did play the saxophone for a bit but I was so offensively bad that my teacher actively encouraged me to stop. In hospital I started recording voice notes at night as a way to clear my head and help me sleep. It worked. I would just write about what I had done that day and what I was thinking, it was private but getting it down was helping. One day I woke up and a mate was reading through my transcribed voice notes. I wasn’t impressed but he looked up at me and said two things; firstly; ‘you’re weird’, and then ‘you need to make these public, they might help people’. I wasn’t keen on sharing my thoughts with the world but after some persuading and the realisation that if it helped just one person then it would be worth it I caved. So began a daily practice of blogging about my time in hospital and it had a way bigger effect than I could have imagined. It allowed me to communicate and get advice from people who had been in my situation before and update friends and family on how I was doing but most of all it felt good just writing, it was a great distraction. There is a lot research now behind the psychological benefits of creative practice so why not give it a go if you don’t already. Drawing, playing music or writing it will all be beneficial, you may already be good at it but if not you now have time to learn. I would recommend starting with a simple daily diary, it’s amazing what you find out about yourself if you just start writing..
Theres nothing more damaging than feeling useless and with everyone stuck at home there’s a danger that people will lose a sense of purpose. After my accident I felt like a burden on everyone, I couldn’t even wash or feed myself and it was tough to deal with. When I started blogging and people were contacting me saying it was helping them it made a huge difference to my mental state, finally I was some use again. Obviously this is a completely different situation but we all need to start thinking outwardly because believe me the quickest way to feel better about yourself is to do something for someone else. That sense of value and worth is a powerful thing and there’s lots we can be doing to help it. Obviously we need to follow the government guidelines but you could offer your services to help with food deliveries or delivering medication to the elderly but less than that, simply taking time to call people who may be isolated can make a massive difference. If we all think of each other first, this isn’t just going to be an easier ride but we can come through this a lot tighter society as a whole.
I still find myself wondering how I managed to stay positive. The answer is that I didn’t, not all of the time. I just have to read some of my diary entries and blogs back to realise that. Over time however I learnt to manage my negative thoughts and even turn them into positive ones.
It was fight or flight and I knew that negativity was counter productive to my recovery, so i started to develop ways to fight it, I had to. Productive distractions, fear setting and eventually mindfulness played their part but the most powerful was, and still is, reframing. Reframing is simply just looking at a situation with a different perspective in order to turn it into a positive. I didnt have any experience with psychology or mental techniques, in fact if anyone had said i should try reframing i probably would have thought they were talking about art or windows. At the time my mind was just finding ways to survive. What i find really interesting though is that after practicing it for long enough reframing has become something almost completely subconscious and as a result I’m more positive now without even noticing it.
Bad things happen and negative thoughts are natural, in fact for most of us they’re more common than positive ones. What this says to me though is that a situation is only negative if you look at it that way. That sounds easy, it isn’t, but it is possible. All i learned to do was step away from the issue emotionally and ask; why is this good? Then force myself to find an answer. And believe me when i say that an answer to that question can be found in any negative situation, even the most mundane. For example, someone cuts you up on the way to work; your automatic reaction would tend to lean towards a lot of expletives, but look at it differently and you see an opportunity to practice self control. You stay calm, and then you feel good about yourself for doing so.
It’s difficult at first but like anything with time and repetitions it eventually becomes subconscious, until the point that every day seems a more positive one. ✌️
I’m not certain but I’d guess that my right leg doesn’t like my left. I’m pretty sure that if it had it’s way we would just chop it off and take to hopping. Half way up a mountain with a swollen knee, in full spasm and not a flicker of selective movement I have been inclined to agree with it, but then I remember that I’ve grown attached to lefty…quite literally. Aside from the fact that it has been joined to me for over 30 years, what it has had to put up with over the last few you wouldn’t wish on even the most hated limb (Captain Hooks peg leg for example). The truth is it gets a bad wrap, when actually it’s the entirety of the left side that’s, for want of a better word…struggs.
Sooo what the badger is BS syndrome? No it’s not a congenital defect that effects politicians or something you suddenly contract when your parents ask whether you’ve had a cigarette before. In this case BS stands for Brown-Sequard. An average spinal cord is 12mm in width, of which I have 4mm left. A fragment of exploding disk decided to venture horizontally through over half of my cord, cutting the motor nerves for the left side of my body but the sensory nerves for the right…confused? Ye I was too. It’s because the motor nerves stay on the same side of your body from the brain down, where as the lateral spinotholamic tract that carries the nerves responsible for pain and temperature starts on the opposite side of the cord and only decides to cross over when they head off to their assigned body part. This means that I cut all of the pain and temperature nerves for the opposite side of my body below the level of my injury. BS syndrome only effects about 2% of people with spinal cord injuries and is most commonly associated with knife and gun shot wounds…(which basically makes me a gangsta…with a capital A).
Gangsta or not it has resulted in my body being a tale of two halves. On one side a leg with no interpretation of pain and consequently a love of endurance and on the other side a constantly confused and over sensitive weakling…but thats fine because they’re both mine so on we trot….
This is as straight as I can open my hands. It often surprises people because to the naked eye my disability is only obvious when I move and unless you’re one of those weirdos with a hand fetish you will be forgiven for thinking I just have a bad hip or knee. This time of year I get a lot of; “skiing accident mate?’”or “rugby injury?” The response “diving actually” usually gets people.
A closer look at my hands will tell a different story, the reality is I’m effected from the neck down. Every now and again I’ll chat to another SCI and the conversation turns a little more technical. “What’s your level of injury or what’s your classification?”
Well just incase you were wondering I’m technically a (C6/C7 incomplete quadriplegic with Brown-Seqaurd syndrome). Can you see why sometimes “ye mate did my knee playing 5 a side” is easier? I’ve got no issue explaining it to people but there’s a risk that if I go into detail they may fall asleep or lose the will to live.
Here’s all you really need to know – No two spinal cord injuries are the same but you have probably heard the terms paraplegic and quadriplegic before. Paraplegia is an impairment of motor or sensory function of the lower limbs and in simple terms related to a spinal cord injury is caused by a broken back. Quadriplegia (also called tetraplegia) is an impairment of all four limbs and stems from the Latin and Greek words for ‘four’ and will usually be caused by a broken neck or brain injury. Simples.
In the industry I’m simply known as a ‘walking quad’, all of the other jargon is for the medical professionals. I am a quadriplegic, but the word doesn’t define me, it only describes me, the same way ‘able bodied’ did before. It’s all too common for people to live up to their label and accept that now they have to be a certain way. Whatever disability, gender, race, sexuality you are doesn’t matter, they’re just descriptions and ones you should be proud of. I like the fact that i’m described as a quadriplegic, it’s just another fun fact of what it means to be Ed + i get cheaper train tickets. ✊
It’s about this time of January that most people give up on their resolutions…but don’t worry, I don’t like resolutions either…
The word resolution makes out that you intend to do something. I prefer change. And why should you have to wait until next January to fail at another resolution when you can make a change whenever you want..
Uncertainty is against our human nature, resistance to change is effectively a natural instinct. Sometimes change is out of our hands and sometimes it’s necessary but if you think about it we rarely make changes unless we’re forced to. We get comfortable because we feel safe with what we know, even if we’re not necessarily happy with it. Often life can just become coping. My relationship with change has shifted over the last couple of years and taught me something pretty seismic about myself; that actually I’m not who I thought I was… I was so caught up in who society dictated I should be, that I never had a chance to discover me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still the same idiot, I’m still Ed, but my expectations, personal limitations and outlook on life is now very different. I may have been forced into a situation where I’ve had to question who I am and what I really want but not being able to avoid that question has made me realise the power of asking it.
If you’re doing something because life has led you there let 2020 be the year, actually no; let tomorrow be the day that you question whether that’s actually what you wanted in the first place. If it is, great. If it isn’t, it’s never too late to make a change. Follow your passion. Do something you care about. Why? Because life’s too short to live somebody else’s dream.
So what are the implications of being a walking quadriplegic in the mountains?
On the face of it mobility is the obvious issue but actually that’s not even scratching the surface..
Let’s start with mobility though. My spinal cord injury has left me with about 10% power down the left side of my body, from my arm and hand down to my foot. This obviously has the biggest implication on my walking. I cant lift my left leg up to clear much more than an inch from the floor and foot drop on that side makes walking on uneven surfaces or slopes extremely challenging. I combat this to a certain extent through my AFO’s (artificial foot orthosis). In the mountains I have been using a turbomed attached to some La Sportiva approach shoes for the majority of the trekking and then a flexible in boot orthotic once i have to switch to summit boots.
The advantages of the turbomed are that:
It’s flexible allowing me to get my whole foot to the floor for grip despite the gradient.
It’s an external orthotic that doesn’t take up space inside the shoe which is generally more comfortable.
It’s durable; I am constantly smashing it into rocks, getting it caught in gaps and stressing it in all sorts of directions but yet it lives on. I did manage to crack the calf plate a few months ago which when i spoke to them had apparently never been done before but it was a quick fix.
It is best secured to shoes via cable ties through the eyelets and given the big stresses i put it through it has a habit of eventually destroying the shoe. This also makes it a pain to transfer from one shoe to another however i just have one permanently attached to my walking shoes. (It’s best to go with boots or shoes that have strong eyelets).
Although it is light, like most AFO’s it takes up a lot of space which isn’t ideal when space is at a premium. Unavoidable unfortunately + Can be attached to outside of pack.
I have been using the Turbomed for a while now and am yet to find anything that rivals it in the hills. The shoes I’m using however are a recent addition to the kitbag. The idea is i need something light, durable and waterproof. So the initial thought was walking trainers or cross country running shoes rather than boots to limit weight. I spent a decent amount of money on some waterproof North face trekking trainers which worked well for about four days in the mountains before a combination of my foot splint and me dragging my foot through the hill rather than over it resulted in them disintegrating. I invested in a second pair thinking it may have been a one off but sure enough i buggered them up pretty quickly too. I tried a few different options but nothing seemed to work. I was starting to think that the combination i was looking for didn’t exist until one of the climbing guides we were with in Chamonix recommended approach shoes. I had actually never heard of approach shoes at the time but the idea is that they are a crossover between a trekking trainer and mountaineering boot. They are light enough to walk long distances in but have one solid toe piece to assist with foot holds when climbing on rocks, one solid toe piece that might be able to put up with the abuse i would give it. Chamonix is an outdoor wear Mecca for shopping so i was in the right place to go looking for them. They weren’t cheap by my god they’ve been a good purchase. Hardly a scratch on them after 20 days ofabuse in the Himalayas. Unbelievably comfy, light, fully waterproof and they even look decent. I can now say I have finally settled on the AFO / Shoe combo i will using moving forward for the trekking element of these trips.
The mountaineering element is still a work in progress. I went to visit London Orthotics a few months ago as i wanted to present my issue to them regarding how to best incorporate some sort of orthotic with a mountaineering boot, fair to say it wasn’t a problem they had been asked to solve before. After some deliberation they fitted a flexible carbon fibre orthotic inside my boots. After some tampering we got it comfortable and i was happy with the result even if it is only a temporary solution. The issues weren’t realised until we reached the mountain though. I have some Asolo mountaineering boots which are great but actually turned out to not be warm enough from Mera Peak so needed some insulated gators over the top. At altitude your hands and feet have a tendency to swell and due to the inactivity in my left ankle and foot they were both now pretty chubby. Combine that with the compression of the gators and the indwelling AFO and when it came to putting them on for the first time at 5000m we had a problem. Despite the effort there was no way that my left foot was getting in that boot so I had to rent some larger ones which were far more accommodating but much heavier… This definitely chucked a spanner in the works as every gram counted up there for me, especially when i hardly have the strength to lift my bare left foot up.
I have to say that the larger boots were helpful for warmth as it allowed me to get two pair of Marino socks on but the added weight was tough. Despite the extra effort i managed to get up there and I’m coming back with all of my toes so problem averted. Moving forward though with the help of London Orthotics I am going to look towards a more permanent solution for future climbs.
Other necessary pieces of equipment include poles and gloves. I have a tendency to go through poles like matchsticks for the same reason i destroy shoes. I rely heavily on my upper body, effectively moving around everywhere on four limbs rather than two. On the way up as well as adding stability, the poles give me the chance to tense my upper body with each step, activating the left side of my core and often resulting in improved leg lift. Coming back down, they are merely there to save me from falling on my face more than obligatory amount; which is still quite a lot… I grip the poles quite hard so it’s important i look after my hands and wear gloves. At the higher altitudes it’s not a problem as you need them on anyway for the cold but even in the warmer times a pair of half finger gloves go a long way.
As you may have seen before i lose hand function pretty quickly in the cold, something that has posed some interesting challenges this last few weeks. As well as my hands become weak quickly they actually both end up as clenched fists when my tone increases so keeping them warm is a constant endeavour. Every morning on the mountain we were well into the minus figures even in our rooms or tents so my partner in crime Rich literally had to become my hands every morning. Putting gloves on, doing my sleeping bag up, tying shoe laces, even unbuckling my trousers to go to the toilet, it would have been almost impossible without his help. On summit day my hands were a lost cause, i could neither feel them or move them making rope or harness work almost impossible. On the plus side they had clenched around my poles so i just hung on and prayed that I wasn’t going to lose any to frost bite. Despite the fact i cant feel my fingers hitting the keys right now i think I’ve avoided the worst but it has highlighted the importance of a good pair of gloves (open to suggestions). I know a go to at those temperatures of -20 to -30 is often mittens but due to my decreased hand function they are impossible for me to do anything in so ideally i need gloves…
I went into this having done a lot of training and preparation and there was one thing i knew for sure it was that getting enough calories in was going to be a real challenge. My inefficient movement requires a lot of energy. It’s common sense that would be the case but I’m sure it is because I’ve monitored it quite carefully over the last couple of years. There are two pieces of tech I use to do this:
Oura ring… Worn like a normal ring it constantly monitors heart rate, heart rate variability and body temperature. From doing this it can not only work out your energy output but how recovered you are from the previous days activities. Where it really sets itself apart though is monitoring sleep (which I will get onto in a bit).
Suunto traverse watch + HR strap monitor…. The suunto traverse is a GPS watch used for trekking/climbing/hunting etc so I use it to accurately track the routes we’re taking but also it comes with a heart rate strap so I can more accurately record high intensity exercise.
The watch and ring already have my vital stats; age, weight, height etc so against those they can work out my calorie expenditure.
The information coming back confirmed what I assumed, I was burning over 10,000 kcal a day, one day as much as 15k. Replacing that amount of calories is pretty much impossible on a long expedition in the mountains, you would have to carry a huge amount of calorific food with you and be eating all day which just wasn’t feasible. The food at every village, tea house or camp is pretty similar. Dal bhat is the staple dish which consists of a bowl of lentil soup, potatoes, a few greens and a lot of rice. The form is to chuck it all in together, mix it up, add some chilli sauce and stuff it down with your hands. Spoons were provided for us weird westerners. Other common options were sherpa stew which is a potato and veg broth, and mixed noodles. The portions were big and if you order dal baht you tend to get free refills so there was plenty of opportunity to replace some calories, but not 10,000! Every stop had snack shops as well where we would try and claw some of the deficit back through biscuits or chocolate bars but as we got higher the luxury items got more and more expensive so the focus was on rice and lentils. The sherpas love the saying ‘dal baht power, 24 hour’ and it doesn’t take long to work out what they mean by dal baht power. A diet of lentils and rice lends itself to jet propulsion from the rear end. Now you might think that would be a benefit whilst trying to climb long distances but the problem is that you’re climbing long distances in a line so inevitably someones rear end is right in front of you… anyway enough on that. The diet lacked protein and greens and although I felt like I had plenty of energy on the carb heavy diet I knew that I should supplement to make up for that. The two supplements I took with me were:
SF Nutrition Supergreens powder: This replaces the plant micronutrients I was missing in my diet to help restore ph balance and aid recovery. I would mix one scoop in my drink at the start of the day and then one with dinner. It’s easy, light and has a big effect.
SF Nutrition BCAA + Electrolyte powder: The BCAA’s help support muscle retention and growth whilst the electrolytes aid with hydration replacing the salts I was loosing through sweat. I would have one scoop mixed with my water at all times.
Hydration was another massive factor as through the jungle I was losing a lot of fluids through sweat and carrying enough water for the day was tough as it was heavy. Dehydration is a big contributing factor to altitude sickness so we were all being conscious to get enough in. After the first few days I worked out that to stay hydrated I needed on average 1 litre of water per hour, which is a lot! Fortunately two of the team (Wyn and Arron) kindly offered to carry my extra water bottles as every kg counted if I was going to make it to the top! On summit day hydrating was difficult as it was so cold and everything was frozen. We had liquids on us but the camel packs were frozen and your brain really isn’t working properly so digging out the water bottles doesn’t cross your mind often enough. I was so dehydrated and tired on the decent I was hallucinating. Giant purple crystals were coming up out of the snow in front of me as I staggered down the mountain towards high camp, a strange experience and one that highlights the importance of keeping hydrated.
Sleep is obviously key when your putting yourself through the equivalent of two marathons a day of energy output but getting it wasn’t easy for me. The tea houses aren’t insulated so it’s into the sleeping bags from day one which was fine as they’re actually pretty cosy. The issue is that you’re lying on a plank of wood essentially so quite quickly parts of you are going numb from the pressure and constant rolling and repositioning ensues. We were in two person dorms most of the way but the walls were just a piece of plywood or corrugated iron so it felt like we were all in bed together and every noise reverberated through the building. Despite some snoring and sore body parts, sleeping at the lower altitudes wasn’t too bad, as we got higher and the air got thinner though things got a bit more tricky. At high camp for example the oxygen level in the air was at less than half of what it would be at sea level. You account for this by breathing harder or going slower when you’re awake but when you sleep your body falls into its normal breathing pattern and as a result you wake up gasping for air every 30 mins. Over time you will acclimatise to this hence why the sherpas can all sleep like babies but it was a lot harder for us. One or two days of not much sleep is manageable but the accumulation over weeks would really take its toll. My Oura ring was telling me after 4 days that I was 7% recovered and I need 3 days off, amusing. How physically tired I was after each day helped me get to sleep but there were certain other aids I relied on:
Earplugs and a hat pulled over the eyes came in handy.
ZMA tablets / zinc and magnesium help maintain deep sleep. I’m not sure if these are a placebo but who cares they seem to work!
Vivify CBD oil / I use CBD oil regularly as i quite simply it works… I seem to not only sleep much better but it works amazingly as an anti inflammatory managing swelling and joint pain. I have tried plenty of them out but vivify sent me some samples to test over there and they were great. Not available to buy yet as still in testing but keep an eye out for them.
Ones and twos
Right here comes the spinal cord injury special, if this doesn’t effect you or you’re eating your breakfast then its not compulsory to read on but hey you might find it interesting.
I still use condom catheters and leg bags reasonably regularly, well whenever im out and about and not sure where the nearest toilet will be. If not at hone I will also use them at night to save the embarrassment or admin of an accident. This meant I had to take a months supply of bags and convenes to Nepal and although they aren’t too big or heavy, when there’s strict weight restrictions on the mountain airlines every little made the difference. The main aim was to not lose them as they would be impossible to replace up the mountain. Obviously when out walking in the wilderness bags aren’t necessary as you can go to the toilet where you want but an accident in my sleeping bag would have been a nightmare given that I only had one so I had to wear one every night. Summit day was different though. I knew that due to it being -20, my hands not working and the amount of times I would have to go the toilet it would be easier to put a day bag on…and it worked well. I had to empty it once on the decent which was tricky whilst I was hallucinating but in hindsight it should have been more than once if I was hydrating properly. I think that part of the reason I wasn’t drinking as much is because I knew how hard it would be to go to the toilet which is something that I need to work out moving forward if i’m going to continue going to high altitude.
In terms of shall we say ‘bowel movements’ the story of the trip was blockage. I’m not sure if it was the diet or the altitude but everyone was having a similar problem in lightening themselves over the precarious long drops, but for me it was particularly bad given that my bowel now moves slower anyway. The holes in the floor often had nothing to hold on to and holding a deep squat isn’t the easiest to hold with only one functioning leg so a couple of times the boys helped me rig up a handle using ropes and a walking pole. Despite our best efforts things weren’t working and I actually things got a bit concerning when I ended up going five days without being able to go to the toilet, no amount of coffee or jumping seemed to make a difference. As we descended from the mountain things got easier but definitely a lesson learned there…remember your laxido and/or suppositories…
There were so many elements of this trip that were unknowns and there were so many reasons not to go but sometimes you can over think things. I put myself in a situation that was outside of my comfort zone and made it work. Now guess what, it’s no longer outside my comfort zone. Whether it was through effort, intuition or help from others there was always a way around the problem. I’m keen to show that adventure doesn’t have to be for the able bodied. A lot of these challenges that I face medically are more common than you might think and any one of them can be enough to put someone off. For me they add to the adventure, they’re part of who I am and I won’t let them stop me doing the things I want to do.