From a wheelchair to walking on giants

Winter Journal 2018 | Nick Allen

You can define Nick Allen fairly accurately by listing the many facets of his life that are important to him: he’s the founder of Mastering Mountains Charitable Trust, he’s a Product Specialist at Macpac HQ in Christchurch, he’s an avid outdoors man, devoted husband, award winning author, good bloke… and the list goes on. But there is one thing in Nick’s life that he has stubbornly refused to let define him – Nick has Multiple Sclerosis. He got around in a mobility scooter for two years before he was diagnosed, but once the challenge he faced was given a name, he knew exactly how to beat it. This is Nick’s story.

It was during a hill climb that I first really noticed something was wrong. A mate and I were training for the cycle race around Lake Taupo. I was 20, liked to win and was flooring it, trying to beat him up a section of hill behind Manukau City. The view along the ridge running Redoubt Road was great. It reminded me, just a little, of what it’s like to be on the top of a mountain. Mountains have always been my passion. That’s why I rode this stretch of road nearly every day, clocking up over 400 kms per week. I had been inexplicably sick for the last couple of weeks and I had just started trying to get back in shape for the race. I had no power in my legs as I tried to surge up the hill. It wasn’t fatigue, it was different. I wasn’t sure what, but something was wrong.

A few months later, I stood at the bottom of the staircase at home, holding the handrail close. I wasn’t sure I could trust my legs to make it to the top. Since the race, I had pushed hard to regain strength and keep pace with life. But I couldn’t do it. My body was crashing. I had to quit my job. Success had become climbing the stairs.

Poor balance and leg weakness made it increasingly hard to walk. I was 23 when the doctor told me I needed a wheelchair or mobility scooter. I chose the mobility scooter as the lesser of two evils.

Eighteen months on, I’d listed the scooter for sale. I had mixed feelings as the new owners came to take it away. The scooter had enabled me to do things that otherwise might not have been possible; travel, attend university – and I did have moments of fun in it. Drifting around corners on the snow-covered footpaths of South Carolina was a highlight. But overall, I hated the mobility scooter for what it had reduced me to. It was an obstacle that left me feeling deeply isolated. Things that are supposed to be exhilarating – for example, asking a girl out, had become completely terrifying. I hated it most for preventing me from satiating one of my deepest desires: I longed to be in the mountains. Isolated from them, I was miserable.

Nick and Bex in the Port Hills overlooking Lyttelton, Christchurch | Winter Journal

I sold the scooter because I had just been diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS). MS is an incurable autoimmune disease that attacks your brain and spinal cord. It is found increasingly in young people. Progressive MS becomes more and more debilitating with time. I thought a diagnosis would come as a relief – I would finally know what was wrong with me. It didn’t. I walked out of the neurologist’s office, sat in my car and cried. I think it was the permanence of this disease that was crushing. I was 25, and I thought my life was over.

The diagnosis and my rapidly deteriorating mobility kicked me into action. I knew I needed to do something radical if I ever wanted to get into the hills again. Selling the scooter was an act that I hoped would back me into a corner – there would be no choice but to beat this thing. I cleaned up my diet, started specialist rehabilitation at the gym, hoping only that I might walk freely again.

After nearly 2,000 gym-hours in preparation, my body felt strong, but my heart was racing. I was just beneath the knife-edge summit of Imja Tse (6,189m), in the Everest region of Nepal. I was metres away from achieving my most ambitious goal. I couldn’t believe it. I was about to stand on a Himalayan peak and achieve something I’d thought was impossible five years earlier. I pushed forward, and the ground fell away before me. There was no more ridge, only summit, and the unadulterated delight of being. The air was still and the sunless sky erupted in colour. I looked around me at the faces of Himalayan giants towering above. The sheer force of beauty was overwhelming; the staggering enormity of scale, profoundly grounding. I had never felt so alive.

Nick Allen at the summit of Imja Tse, Everest Region, Nepal | Winter Journal

Three years, a wedding, and an award-winning book later, my wife Bex and I find ourselves in Christchurch. I still have problems with my legs and keeping mobile is a constant battle. I see the Southern Alps almost every day on my way to work as a Product Specialist with Macpac. Mountains are still my passion, and I often think of that moment on top of Imja Tse. It motivates me to keep moving, to keep pushing upwards. Bex is my greatest support and I couldn’t do it without her. We got married last year. Together, we run Mastering Mountains Charitable Trust – the foundation I started in the years that followed my diagnosis. It has been exciting to see it grow. By the end of December 2018, we will have awarded a record three grants in a calendar year. A few weeks ago, one of our grant recipients climbed Rangitoto (Auckland, NZ) unaided. She used to be in a wheelchair and last year, she couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time. The Trust is paying for her rehabilitation with the help of the Macpac Fund For Good. It’s stories like this that energise Bex and me. They remind us that no mountain is too big to overcome.

For more information on Mastering Mountains you can visit www.masteringmountains.org