The Summit Beyond Disability

Driven by wild trails and high-risk peaks, the disabled adventurers taking on the world’s toughest feats underline that their physical condition is no obstacle.

First comes the numbing thuds that haunt the head. Then the crackling cough, omitting thick clouds of mountain dust from crusty lips. The rising rays of sun are often the enemy in Moshi, Tanzania but on the morning of summit, nothing is more pleasing than the riddance of darkness and strobing head torches. The last six hours of ‘blood, sweat and continuous traverse’ are soon forgotten when stood in the shadows of this crooked sign. Perched upon loose lava rock and draped in blue, green and red victory bunting, the sign reads “Mount Kilimanjaro, Congratulations you are now at Uhuru Peak, 5895M AMSL”.

Upon summiting, some climbers see a vast plateau of orange tinted cloud, pouring over a rugged Mawenzi peak. Some climbers toast a four-day-warm Kilimanjaro beer to the porters who made their mountain walking easy. But not all of these adventurers share similar bodies. What they do share, is the same emotional triumph despite taking different paths.

But even on Kilimanjaro can a new bracket of adventurer create record-breaking precedent. In 2012, Kyle Maynard became the mountain’s first quadruple amputee to bearcrawl to the summit without the aid of prosthetics since its first climb by Ludwig Purtscheller in 1889. A gruelling ten-day ascent that uncovered the intentions of just one hamstrung explorer helped redevelop the standard of disabled adventurers in today’s current age.

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Kyle crawls on craggy terrain with one goal in mind. – Aconcagua 2016. PHOTO provided by Kyle Maynard.

Alongside Kyle, physical and mental disability affects fifteen percent of today’s global population. It is easy for those to focus less on the uncharted side of life and more so on the disability that holds them back. But now there are a mounting number of restricted figures who show how the barriers can be pushed to embark on adventurous feats.

The outside world peers in whilst those who may feel robbed of confidence ask some of humankind’s most vexing questions: Why do disabled people do what most ‘able’ people wouldn’t even think of doing? Is it a love of adventure? To prove disability is no barrier? Or to bring back the feeling of being able to do something again? As Kyle says: “90% of climbing for me honestly sucks. I’m staring at the ground right in front of my face. No views, conversation. Nothing. But the 10% that doesn’t suck is so incredible that it makes it worth it.”

Miles Hilton-Barber was 21 when he and his brother Geoff were diagnosed with Retinitis Pigementosa, a genetic eyesight condition that would lead to total blindness nine years on. Both of these Durban brothers would go on to achieve world-recording accolades, but without a wild spur from Geoff, Miles would have missed his opportunity.

“My own family underlined to me that blindness would stop me being fulfilled, happy and successful and I should be grateful to even have a job.” It would be 30 years that Miles would live with this ‘victim mentality’. In 1998, he travelled to Fremantle to congratulate his brother on becoming the first blind person in world history to cross an ocean solo. Whilst one brother stood there having sailed from South Africa to Australia, unaided in a self-made yacht, the other’s life radically changed in that snap moment.

Admitting that it shouldn’t have taken his brother’s victory to motivate his disabled-self appeared trickier for Miles than explaining the last nineteen years of his own exploratory triumph. “There’s a bizarre pleasure to do things that even sighted people haven’t done,” he says on his first adventure, the Marathon Des Sables. 150 miles across the Sahara Desert, scolding rays of Moroccan sun and feet bearing blood from the combination of rock and sand rubbing the tender skin from in-between his blistering toes. It was, in fact, these natural restrictions that proved tougher than blindness. Frost bite the enemy in 2000, but this was no hindrance to stop him becoming the first blind person to man-haul a sledge over 400 kilometres across Antarctica.

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Miles fights the frostbite as he battles the sub-zero temperatures – Antarctica, 2000. PHOTO provided by Miles Hilton-Barber

What Miles underlines though is not the performance of his escapades, but solely the reward.

“It took me six and a half hours to run the New York marathon but 240 children got to see what their mum and dad looked like because of the money I raised,” says Miles, who begins to chuckle. “They don’t care if I took six weeks.”

This is an example of a man who with blindness, turned himself from a pharmaceutical advisor to an adventurer; a teacher of how disability does not make you inferior.

Now, the standard of expedition is soaring, none further than a group of adventurers with physical conditions taking on the Explorer’s Grand Slam. Seven summits, two Poles (South and North) and only 55 people victorious. The Adaptive Grand Slam are now just four successful missions away from becoming the first group of disabled climbers to achieve such a feat.

Towering above the rest of the Andes in Western Argentina, Aconcagua is the first mountain that faced team member Jake Gardner after being medically discharged from the military following an armoured vehicle accident seriously damaging his left Humerus.

But Jake is adamant that learning to live with a disability is the tougher job than the extreme mountaineering. “You’re not prepared to have a life changing injury,” Jake says. “You are prepared to climb that mountain.” His left forearm can become exposed, left numb when the slightest chill catches the damaged nerve. But on Aconcagua, his North Face softshell is the secondary armour that squashes his injury troubles. It seems that alongside aiding your climb with supporting equipment, the strongest resistance against failure is shrinking the worry around disability. “Having a handicap goes to the back on my mind when I start climbing,” says Jake. “I don’t think myself or any of the team think of ourselves as any different when we’re stood upon that summit.”

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Jake and the rest of the AGS enjoy a well-earned mountain rest – Aconcagua 2017. PHOTO provided by the Adaptive Grand Slam

The warming arrival of this disabled team is a revolutionary bid to get more people in the same boat as Jake to the snow-capped peaks of each continent. “I’ve always wanted to climb Everest,” Jake says. “AGS gave me the feeling of what it’s like to summit a mountain just like it. Before that, I didn’t know what I was capable of anymore.” For this climber, it has taken Argentina’s fiercest mountain and a similar group of goal-getting climbers to realise his disability should not hold him back. What is made obvious, is that this record is being made not just to make a statement, but also to one day be broken.

Whilst technology can keep a man inside rooted to his sofa, it now solves a huge piece of the disability jigsaw. Miles boasts of the 180 visually impaired microlight pilots in France alone: “100 years ago all I would have had is a white stick.” So now is a time where disabled adventure-seekers are out-seeking those who are ‘able’, using their disability as a lever to set records this world hasn’t yet seen. Flashing a sapient smile, Miles urges: “We mustn’t focus on our disability, we must focus on what we want to do!”

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