Skip to content

I walked up Ben Nevis because I CAN!

Two years ago (May 2012) I started trekking up a mountain in Nepal; I didn’t reach the top but had to be helicoptered off when I lost strength in my arms & legs, falling over and being unable to stand back up (thank you to the wonderful Nepalese Guides who kept lifting me back up onto my legs).

Setting out on the trek…

Day 1-  I was slow and tripped a couple of times, it’s only looking back that I realise this was the start.

Day 2- The loss of power became obvious. Walking the teahouse stairs was easy first thing but I needed the guides’ help up big steps from the start of the walk. They held a stick between them to give me something to pull on. Small steps and slopes I could manage, with walking poles, so I shuffled on to complete the day… with encouragement and helping hands from the team!

Thankfully the teahouse we stayed at on night 2 had sit down loos, even my “baby giraffe standing up” impression wouldn’t have got me off a squat loo by now. It was apparent I needed help off the mountain. Pack Pony was suggested but I couldn’t hold on with legs or arms, as I demonstrated when 7 Nepali guys were trying to get me up to a flat piece of land above the hotel for the helicopter, which had been called, to land. I wish it had been videoed. Arjun, the hotel manager and a little crowd waited with me and bantered to keep me amused… the thing I was most concerned about was splitting the group. Arjun waited with me for the helicopter and then ran the mountain trails to catch up the rest of the team, who had a 4 hour lead!

The helicopter took me to Kathmandu, 3 days later a private jet took me to Delhi, India (escorted by 2 Doctors and a Nurse) and a couple of weeks in a private hospital I took commercial flight home (escorted by 1 Doctor & a Nurse – always get Travel Insurance) … after a week in Frimley Park Hospital I was transferred to a Neuro Rehab Unit in Woking, the Bradley.

Within 24 hours I’d gone from walking mountains to being unable to move my arms or legs –  I was diagnosed with the AMAN variant of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS).

I was wonderfully looked after in Kathmandu. Through road blocks and burning buses Arjun brought Zoe and Wayne to visit me, and they brought photos and those friendly faces were most welcome in Delhi. As were the visits by “friends of friends” who came to show me I was not alone in a city far from home.

The Neuro Rehab Unit was awesome: firstly I was fitted to a wheelchair so it gave me freedom to move from one place to another on my own for the first time in 5 weeks; and secondly they introduced me to the banana board! What’s a “Banana Board”? It’s just a little curved “plank” of yellow plastic but again it was freedom to me… as I couldn’t use a loo without a lift but with a Banana Board I could “slide” onto the toilet (when someone had taken the sides off the wheelchair as my hands weren’t strong enough yet, but I could sit on a real loo)… oh the joy! And the movement, the wiggling to get from one end to another when your arms and legs are weak… well that’s no more enemas for me! The unit had physio, gym and occupational health all under one roof and a great range of patients in with the after effects of strokes, heart attacks and the many “rare” diseases that make your legs too weak to stand on. The camaraderie and encouragement were wonderful!

  • Wheelchair & banana board – Hydrotherapy on NHS!… in Arm Group the stroke patients got bowls of cold and hot water to put their affected arms in to encourage the return of sensation, the day was soooo hot I snaffled a bowl of cold water for my feet. With my hands I’m “pegging”, taking pegs on and off a card to increase my hand strength.
  • Practicing standing – Making breakfast in the Osterly Frame (leather strap at front blocks your knees if they should give way) the occupational therapists get you to do something with your hands, like making breakfast, to stop you holding on.
  • Practising walking on the treadmill – the harness takes some of the weight so the weak leg muscles can cope.
  • A young lad who’d injured his right arm after a serious cycle accident practiced his fine motor skills by painting our fingernails!
  • Friends’ kids loved the wheelchair, finding it fun to push and great to ride once they got tired!

Literally the day before my birthday (2012) I managed to stand out of the chair on my own for the 1st time… not a proper stand but I got out the chair! And celebrated with a trip to the park to climb my 1st “mountain”! And so the training started… the physios took me outside to a slope to practice walking uphill on a zimmer.

Leaving the Rehab Unit in August 2012 – I’d gone in on a trolley and walked out on crutches!

And so started 5 months regaining strength at my parents’ house, to start I couldn’t get upstairs but gradually I built up the exercise, joining the local gym – swimming has been marvelous, as I feel so free in the water. Although my stamina built up over the days/ weeks/ months my strength /power did so very slowly. So I am very happy to say I can swim a mile in 57 mins, walk 10 miles in 5 hours (yep there’s a reason why the Charity’s logo is a tortoise) and I can walk up stairs, using a handrail… anyone know if there’s handrails up the Ben Nevis trail?

Training

 I can function in everyday life, I can climb stairs using handrails… even managed to carry a cup of tea up last week (meaning I only used a stair rail) and my stamina is good. What is still missing for me is that the nerves/ muscle/ strength needs to get back to my knees, ankles and feet to improve walking, stair climbing… and hopefully, when I get my “bounce” back, running! But all things considered I am lucky not to have experienced the full ravages of GBS, nor the extremes of after effects… and above all my long term prognosis is for continued improvement! So all in all I think…

LIFE IS GOOD!

But I really wanted to “reclaim the mountains”, get back out into the hills… and my lovely brother, Alex, agreed to walk with me (and carry my food and water!) so the date was set for Saturday 12th July 2014 to climb the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis. It’s a ten mile round trip with 1344m climb, which I reckoned would take anywhere from 10-15 hours (I slow down a bit more on a hill).

When going backwards is actually a great leap forwards!!!!

The countryside was opened up to me again when I discovered I could clamber over a stile backwards, using arms and pushing back legs, rather than powering down through knees! Awesome feeling!

There aren’t many mountains in Lincolnshire so I used the footbridge over the London to Edinburgh line for my hill training. As it’s only about 10m high, to match the Ben Nevis height climb of 1344m I’d have to climb up it 134 times!

One done, only another 133 to go!!

You can’t plan for everything…

It’s been a long 2 years fighting back from being bedbound by Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). By January 2014 I felt, with training, I would make it even though I was (and still am) using handrails to climb stairs; Alex (my brother) agreed to walk with me. The date was set and so started months of planning, preparation and training (kit checks, weekly 10 mile walks, gym sessions on a treadmill at 15% gradient and walking up & down the steps of the pedestrian footbridge at Tallington)… finally the time of truth was coming close and I… I was stung on the foot by a bee! Not the preparation I’d planned, my right foot became swollen, itchy and very hot, after an 8 hour drive to Fort William, Scotland I cooled down by paddling in River Nevis, it felt sooooo good!

And so came Saturday 12th July 2014 and John, Alex, Sonia (behind the camera) and me were ready for the off. Research showed that there were no handrails up the Ben Nevis track so walking poles were in hand and waterproofs on already, the weather forecast was not so good, double rain drops all day, thankfully not too much wind.

The steps were uneven but you could weave a path taking the route of lowest height change, more steps but more manageable (for me). Then the steps turned into rocks… and the cloud had closed in around us… but it sure felt good to be out in the mountain again!

And the rocks turned into the side of the mountain! Thankfully there are bridges over the 2 trickiest streams, the rest have nice flat stepping stones. Near halfway point (the Red Burn) just above the halfway lochan, the cloud cleared as we made our way across the plateau to the 2nd half of the climb up the zigzags to the summit.

The start of the zigzag is a fairly nice path stone steps. The weather closed in as worked our way up to the zigzags. As we turned to head up the final climb to the summit at the top of the zigzags we crossed as a snow patch… even in these conditions snow does just make me smile!

Boulders have been cleared from the main track on the final haul up to the summit, although the summit itself is still a boulder field, needing careful crossing so as not to twist an ankle when you’ve just reached the top! The low visibility meant no views from the highest point in Britain, which was a shame, but also that we couldn’t see the sheer drops, which was a bonus, but also the danger… careful navigation off the summit is required.

Time to summit was a brilliant 5 hours, being only 1 hour (25%) over the guide time of 4 hours to ascend Ben Nevis.

It was cold wet and crowded at the summit, and with no views we didn’t hang around for longer than it took to the “we made it!” it photos… but of course the challenge wasn’t completed yet… we still had to get DOWN!

The ruin in the background is the old Hotel… I think we all would have paid quite a bit for a hot chocolate right then. There is a hot chocolate vendor when you climb up Poon Hill in the Himalayas (the place where I succumbed to GBS) to watch the sun rise over Fishtail Mountain!

Cold, wet and encouraged by my relatively fast ascent, the boys talked of being home for tea by 5. As we dropped off the summit, headed back across the snow patch and down the shingle path into the top of the zigzags the hailstones and sleet greeted us… and I soon realised I was going to be slower on the way down. This cold was sapping my strength, when I went to re-tie my boot laces I couldn’t push the bunnies ears through, my hands were finding it hard to grip the walking stick handles and my left leg, still my weakest, was locking out meaning that even on the good, even paths I couldn’t walk my “fastest” pace of 2mph. Thankfully the temperature rises quickly as you drop height.

The finish line

When the nerves have not yet fully grown back in my feet and ankle muscles I have movement but not strength. Stepping up you can ensure you place the foot on a flat stone but stepping down where the ground is uneven is much more tricky, my feet and ankles had no strength to correct their position meaning careful selection of every foot landing site is required before stepping down to avoid twisting an ankle… and if the steps were too steep I admit I sat down! Inelegant but my focus was on getting down safely.

I was especially pleased I had the “Going Blinking Slowly” sign on my back on the way down; and Confucius’s words rang in my head “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop”!

After 11 hours out on the mountain (6 hours to get down, guide time 3 hours) we were welcomed home triumphant by Sonia… and the time really didn’t matter… I’D DONE IT!

Jubilant we found the energy get into dry clothes and go for a scrumptious feed at the Ben Nevis Inn!

Next morning I admit that I ached… my hands from gripping the walking poles for support and balance, my core muscles from compensating for lack of foot/ankle balancing and of course my thighs from walking up a whacking huge mountain, the tallest in Britain (did I mention that?!)… but a great breakfast at the Achintee Farmhouse B&B, and a short recovery walk and I was feeling “on top of the world”, well at least Britain!

Thank you again to all those who’ve encouraged and supported throughout this journey, and in expectation of it continuing as I continue to Get Better Slowly (GBS slogan)… and aren’t we amazing we’ve raised, with Gift Aid, over £4,200 for GAIN!

THANK YOU!

Heidi Haxeltine

Read More