Mastering Mountains

This week, we share the story of one of our inspirational staff members – Nick Allen from Macpac Palmerston North and his journey in Mastering Mountains.

Nick knows what it feels like to hit rock bottom – diagnosed with crippling Multiple Sclerosis, he once faced life confined to a wheelchair – a world away from the mountains he dreamed of climbing.

But something changed for Nick, and he attributes it to a radical lifestyle change which he believes this year will allow him to achieve what was once impossible for him – he’s determined to reach Everest Base Camp.  

Nick knows he’s one of the lucky ones – there’s no cure for Multiple Sclerosis, and he can’t be sure of what his own future holds either. But one thing he is sure of is that he’s committed to helping other MS sufferers break free from the constraints of their condition, and experience the outdoors.

Nick sitting on the very top of Cathedral Rocks, Ruapehu

Nick sitting on the very top of Cathedral Rocks, Ruapehu

As a kid, Nick had a map of Mt Everest pinned to the ceiling above his bed. He would fall asleep staring at that map, imagining himself exploring the mountain’s many routes, and dreaming of what his climbing future might hold. In time, climbing Everest became his life’s ambition and greatest passion.

“Spurred on by the accounts of others, and supported by my family, I began pursuing my dream to climb mountains. I was determined to reach Everest – and my mind often darted back to that poster above my bed. It was a goal that I believed was achievable,” says Nick.

That dream was all but stamped out shortly after Nick turned 21.

“One day, I unexpectedly found myself extraordinarily weak, fatigued and unwell. Days stretched into years, and I could not get on top of my health,” he recalls.

Nick stopped tramping and climbing through a seemingly endless series of defeats. He became increasingly incapacitated and found this progression incredibly hard, especially as it isolated him from the outdoors. Eventually he began to think that he would never again be able to access the mountains, leaving him completely devastated.

At the end of the Moonlight Track in the Remarkables

At the end of the Moonlight Track in the Remarkables

Four years later, Nick was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.

“By that point, I was already dependent on a motorized chair to get around. I was unable to walk on any uneven surface because of poor balance, and could not walk for more than five or ten minutes at a time due to fatigue. Mountains began to represent the impossible and insurmountable – a failed dream.”

Nick knew that he did not want to live this way for the rest of his life – he decided he needed to do something if he wanted to change. He got in touch with a physical therapist and a specialist personal trainer and began working out three days a week, focusing on strength, balance and flexibility. He also took a radical approach to his diet, cutting out anything that could negatively impact his health.

“My diet basically focused on avoiding fat, sugar, processed foods and dairy. Needless to say it was a bit tough at the beginning – but it gets easier as you go, and now I follow the diet pretty closely. This, combined with exercise and effective sleep and stress management made a world of difference to my health,” says Nick.

After four years of consistently following this lifestyle, Nick was fortunate enough to reach the point of being able to tramp and climb again – but he knows he is one of the lucky ones.

“I have improved so much that there are now conflicting opinions on my diagnosis. I’m so aware that many people with MS are not as fortunate as I have been, so I have a new goal – to help these people get into the outdoors. To accomplish this, I intend to climb a significant mountain every year.”

For Nick, the outdoors plays a massive part in his physical and mental wellbeing and is key for stress management. When he gets stressed, his symptoms tend to play up, so being able to disconnect, clear his mind and just be present in the bush our mountains is incredibly grounding and therapeutic.

“After a stint in the outdoors, I always come back feeling refreshed and ready to go. Moving and exercising with MS can often be really hard, and the outdoors provides me with objectives that motivate me to keep on going. Knowing that all those boring or painful reps at the gym will help me climb a particular peak or tramp to some remote hut is huge motivation.”

After spending some time speaking to others with MS, Nick knows that he is not alone in his love for the outdoors and the value he places on it for its physical and mental benefits. However, he also understands that there are a lot of people who are, for example, reliant on a wheelchair and therefore prevented from getting outdoors to find this wellbeing.

551513_10206082601849149_2814396260882452608_n“Having once been in this position, I know how hard this is and now I really want to help others overcome this in any way they can. This is why I set up Mastering Mountains and its scholarship fund for people with MS to help them get outdoors,” explains Nick.

Mastering Mountains is a Charitable Trust, and Nick hopes that it can help to change perceptions to encourage people with MS to pursue outdoor activities by highlighting the importance of correct nutrition and exercise, and organizing trips specifically designed for people like him.

The first Mastering Mountains trip will take place at the end of next month in India and Nepal, where Nick aims to reach Everest Base Camp (5,364m), Island Peak (6,189m) and Gokyo Ri (5,375m) and Stok Kangri (6,153m).

“It is a bit scary climbing or tramping with healthy people, as sometimes you worry that you might hold them back, and so I hope to be able to include others with MS on my journey, so that they can get out climbing or tramping in a supportive and understanding environment.”

Nick and his father Peter at Coldwater Hut, Mt Hopeless

Nick and his father Peter at Coldwater Hut, Mt Hopeless

There will definitely be some challenges along the way – Nick’s never been to these kind of altitudes before and is unsure of how he will cope or function.

“From what I understand, you don’t sleep so well above 5000m, which could make things a bit difficult, as the MS can play up if I don’t get enough sleep. So there will definitely be a few challenges, but I am looking forward to facing them and figuring out a way through them. At this point, my strategy is to train hard now and take it really slow and easy when I am over there. My ultimate goal is to show others with MS that it’s not impossible to get outdoors and enjoy yourself – it might be more difficult at times, but it definitely isn’t impossible.”

Macpac is stoked to get behind Nick, providing him with gear to keep him warm in the chilly mountain environments he will find himself in on his journey.

To get behind Nick, you can donate to Mastering Mountains.

Nick with his altitude training mask -- in preparation for Nepal

Nick with his altitude training mask — in preparation for Nepal