Paul Pritchard:

“The brakes are smok­ing!” I shouted to Dun­can over the noise of scream­ing disc brakes as I tried to con­trol a 75km/h speed wob­ble on the Alpine Way above Khan­coban, near the New South Wales–Vic­to­ria bor­der. I was do­ing my best to hold the tan­dem-trike ste

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORYBY PAUL PRITCHARD

From the low­est to the high­est

I WAS PART of a five-per­son team, each with a heap of dis­abil­i­ties, at­tempt­ing to be the first to cy­cle be­tween Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre and Mt Kosciuszko, on the Low­est to High­est ex­pe­di­tion. The team was Wal­ter Van Praag with cys­tic fi­bro­sis and only 38 per cent lung func­tion; para­plegic Daniel Ko­jta who ped­alled with his hands; Con­rad Wans­bor­ough who lives with chronic pain af­ter a spinal in­jury; legally blind Dun­can Meerd­ing; and my hemi­plegic-epilep­tic-apha­sic-self.

This ride would be the cul­mi­na­tion of years of plan­ning and the de­vel­op­ment of a phi­los­o­phy of em­pow­er­ment for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. We were all very in­ter­ested in mov­ing away from the char­ity model, where peo­ple are largely pitied, to the more in­clu­sive so­cial model, whereby peo­ple are dis­abled by bar­ri­ers in so­ci­ety not by their im­pair­ment or dif­fer­ence.

I have used a re­cum­bent trike ever since be­ing re­leased from hospi­tal in Liver­pool in the UK in 1998 af­ter spend­ing an en­tire year there. My then girl­friend, Celia Bull, and I were climb­ing Tas­ma­nia’s in­fa­mous Totem Pole, a slen­der do­lerite col­umn at Cape Hauy, when the climb­ing rope dis­lodged a block that scythed 25m through the air smash­ing my skull. This trau­matic brain in­jury re­sulted in hemi­ple­gia, which is the loss of move­ment on one side of the body, and apha­sia, an in­abil­ity to com­pre­hend or for­mu­late lan­guage.

The res­cue was some­thing else. I was hang­ing up­side­down, 1m above the sea, on a 4m-wide by 65m-high nee­dle of rock in a very nar­row cleft. Blood was gush­ing from my head and I was drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness. I re­mem­ber Celia be­side me. She got me up­right in an ar­range­ment of slings and then climbed back up a rope to a ledge 30m up the Totem Pole. She then pro­ceeded to haul me up to the ledge, which took three hours – her hands had deep gouges caused by the rope. I can only put her ef­fort down to the adren­a­line rush one hears about whereby a mother, say, lifts a car off her trapped child. She made me safe on the ledge and then climbed a rope to the pole’s sum­mit, which per­cep­ti­bly sways in the wind. She then crossed a rope tra­verse to the cliff edge of the main­land and pro­ceeded to run 8km to Fortes­cue Bay where there was a tele­phone – it was in the days be­fore mo­bile phones.

I was on that ledge for a fur­ther seven hours be­fore paramedic Neale Smith ab­seiled down to me. By the pro­fu­sion of blood on the ledge, Neale thought it was go­ing to be a corpse re­cov­ery. When he saw I was still breath­ing he knew there was no time to lose. He clipped me to his har­ness and de­scended the stack to­wards a wait­ing tin­nie. But the tin­nie was surg­ing against the col­umn of do­lerite a full 2m on the swell. So, wait­ing for the up­surge, Neale cut the rope and we both fell into the boat – quite ex­cit­ing re­ally.

THUS BE­GAN MY YEAR in hospi­tal where I wrote my book The Totem Pole with one f in­ger. It was either that or go down to the day-room with the other pa­tients to watch re-runs of The Bold and the Beau­ti­ful. I was now in a wheel­chair, the doc­tors were strug­gling to get my f its un­der con­trol, I was un­able to talk and un­able to re­call the most sim­ple of facts but, para­dox­i­cally, just as in­tel­li­gent as I ever was – so not very! It was akin to be­ing a baby again.

I be­gan to get very de­pressed at the prospect of never climb­ing again – so de­pressed I needed med­i­ca­tion. I put all my ex­pe­di­tion gear up for sale: I had a room full of ropes, tents, ice-axes and cram­pons. I re­mem­ber break­ing down in tears when one per­son came to buy my ski-moun­taineer­ing equip­ment.

How­ever, it was dur­ing neu­ro­log­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion that I be­gan to re­alise I’d had a good teacher in the moun­tains and, hav­ing come so close to death, I learnt how to ac­cept the fact that I was now paral­ysed. With this ac­cep­tance came the nec­es­sary strength to over­come my mis­for­tune. I had learnt to let life’s in­evitable knocks wash over me and was about to em­bark on the long­est ex­pe­di­tion I would ever go on – my sec­ond life.

When I walked 100m around the re­hab cen­tre I re­alised that, with per­se­ver­ance, I might be able to claw back some tiny sem­blance of the life I had be­fore.

I slowly got back to the moun­tains again. First hill-walk­ing in Wales, then three trips to Africa – climb­ing 1000m higher each time and cul­mi­nat­ing in an all-dis­abled ex­pe­di­tion to Mt Kil­i­man­jaro in Tan­za­nia seven years af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

Then, a few years ago it be­came clear to me that it was im­por­tant to f in­ish what I had started al­most 20 years ear­lier. By this time I had made Tas­ma­nia my home. The tower that had caused me so much pain needed to be re­vis­ited. But f irst there were the tech­ni­cal­i­ties to con­sider.

I had long thought it im­pos­si­ble to climb a 65m rope with only one hand and one foot. But a friend sug­gested a sys­tem that might work and to­gether we set about de­vel­op­ing a ro­peas­cend­ing rig.

As soon as I re­vealed my plans to friends ev­ery­body got on board, and in 2016 ten peo­ple helped carry wa­ter, ropes and climb­ing equip­ment out to Cape Hauy. We bivouacked un­der the stars, and the next morn­ing, af­ter some gluey por­ridge, de­scended to the ab­seil point. All my ner­vous­ness dis­ap­peared as I clipped onto that rope; my mountaineer’s brain, what was left of it, knew how to act.

I made the ex­act same swing that I made 18 years ear­lier. I even ca­ressed the rock scar, the hole where the rock had fallen from. All the while, I had the best sup­port from Steve Monks, my leader.

About three-quar­ters of the way up the Totem Pole my shoul­der was start­ing to hurt and I needed to rest it and shake the fa­tigue out of my arm. Then, af­ter 126 one-armed pullups, I col­lapsed onto the sum­mit and an 18-year cir­cle was f in­ally closed.

ICONTINUE TO CLIMB but it is painful and I of­ten come back down all gashed and cov­ered in blood, be­cause I have to drag my spas­tic leg and arm up the rock. So, over the years I have taken to ex­pe­di­tion­ing by trike be­cause it is much more bear­able.

The f irst time I un­der­took a se­ri­ous ad­ven­ture by trike was cy­cling to Ever­est Base Camp from Lhasa in Ti­bet. I re­dis­cov­ered that sense of free­dom that I’d had in my past life as a big-wall climber.

Af­ter that trip I pon­dered other hu­man-pow­ered ve­hi­cle pos­si­bil­i­ties in the vast­ness of out­back Aus­tralia. This coun­try is per­fect for long trike jour­neys, and about four years ago I had a light-bulb mo­ment: “Wouldn’t it be great to cy­cle be­tween the ex­trem­i­ties of the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent?”

It took years of plan­ning, how­ever, f in­d­ing the right team, do­ing route re­con­nais­sance mis­sions and find­ing the right spon­sor. Luck­ily, World Ex­pe­di­tions came on board – we could not have achieved the Low­est to High­est ex­pe­di­tion with­out them.

As we sat atop Kosciuszko af­ter 43 days in the sad­dle from Lake Eyre we pon­dered what we’d achieved. Through our ride we had de­liv­ered a mes­sage: peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are ca­pa­ble of world f irsts, not just ‘f irst dis­abled chal­lenges’.

What is more, we chal­lenged com­monly held mis­con­cep­tions about what dis­abled peo­ple can and can’t do. For peo­ple with a dis­abil­ity it is a pow­er­ful mes­sage: that we can have agency in our own lives.

For peo­ple with a dis­abil­ity it is a pow­er­ful mes­sage; that we can have agency in our own lives.

To climb the Totem Pole (above), Paul had to de­velop a one­handed tech­nique fol­low­ing the ter­ri­ble brain in­jury (left), af­ter which doc­tors thought he’d never walk or talk again.

The Low­est to High­est jour­ney (above) took the adap­tive cy­clists from Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre (–15.2m), 2152km to Mt Kosciuszko/ Tar­gangil (2228m).Paul (left) with Dun­can Meerd­ing (in the back seat) on Day 40 at the sum­mit of Dead Horse Gap (1580m).

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