My climbing buddy Jake and I had travelled to Australia to climb at Mt Arapiles — a rock-climbing mecca. I was surprised when I first saw the red-orange escarpment rising out of flat Australian farmland. As a climber, the sight of those 20-million-year-old cliff faces was magnetising. I couldn’t help but feel a dizzying sense of potential in the rock’s amazing features and formations. It is the rock, after all, that makes the Arapiles one of the world’s premier climbing locations.
Arriving at the base of the mountain, I must admit to feeling intimidated by the size of the faces. They were much larger than anything I’d climbed before. Nevertheless, I was excited to be there. For me, climbing is a deeply enjoyable sport. Apart from the fact that climbing gets you outside, I love the fact that it requires you to be completely present in the moment. Pain and problems melt away, leaving just you and the rock: it’s a magic feeling and that’s why I was excited to be there.
Some years ago, I was given the diagnosis of primary progressive multiple sclerosis. At that time, I struggled to walk: my balance was poor, I lacked strength and dexterity in my legs, arms and hands, and struggled with fatigue, amongst other things. Over the next five years, I spent over 2,000 hours at the gym and I made a lot of progress with the support of a specialist trainer.
However, in the six months leading up to the trip to Australia, I began experiencing new, troubling problems with my legs. With some muscle groups were not working correctly, and these problems have been challenging to address. Regaining the strength and control required for a trip like this requires a lot of work. I’d spent hours doing leg exercises, and many more hours at the local YMCA climbing wall, practising my moves.
Although training at the gym and climbing wall is hard work, it is also a joy when I have a goal. Building strength and buoyed by a sense of progress toward the goal, my training gives me a sense of agency in the face of the disease. Far from being powerless against MS, climbing gives me a way to push back against it.
But it doesn’t take much to derail my training. To get to the Arapiles, I had to adopt a highly regimented lifestyle that revolves around training, eating healthily and quality sleep. A single late night with poor sleep, a common cold, or stressful event can set me back by weeks. Set-backs are characterised by weakness, loss of balance, and high levels of pain.
At times, it’s hard not to get discouraged or extraordinarily frustrated. Sometimes I question if it’s worth the enormous amount of time and energy it takes to keep climbing. In those moments, I need a goal to remind me that the struggle is worth it. Inspiring outdoor missions are key and that’s why I set up the Mastering Mountains Expedition Grant.
The Mastering Mountains Expedition Grant is designed to help people cover the costs of an overseas trip that they are excited about. We pay some or all of the trip costs and have partnered with World Expeditions, who provide the trips. With this grant, we hope to show others what’s possible with MS and bring hope. Applicants should be excited about reaching into their community, to spread hope and talk about their experiences.
In my next post I will tell you more about the Mount Arapiles trip and how I had to listen to my body.