To quote Edmund Hillary "We knocked the Bastard Off!"
Climbing the Totem Pole. Steve Monks on the summit for the 8th time. Photo: Melinda Oogjes.
Eighteen years after the rock smashed into my skull, leaving me partially paralysed, and with expressive aphasia, I returned to the scene of the accident in Tasmania and climbed the Totem Pole, closing a chapter on my life. At the moment I am still in shock, but as the weeks go by I'm sure I will make sense of what it actually means. I aim to write further on it and dedicate the final chapter of my forthcoming book to it.
It was my mate John Middendorf, that convinced me I could jumar up the 65 metres to the top of the sea stack with only one functioning arm and leg. Late last year I began experimenting with all kinds of rope ascending systems, including three to one and two to one pulleys, but these were too complicated for my literally ‘half-a-brain’. In the end I settled on a simple one to one which meant having to haul my full 69 kilo’s with one arm. On the day I counted 126 one armers (well, with a bit of help from my leg).
Steve Monks led me up the Totem Pole and I followed on rope ascenders. Everything went like a dream. Monksy has a great deal of history with the Totem Pole. It was Steve, who made the first free ascent of the stack with Simon Mentz in 1995 and cleaned up the gear and mess left behind the accident. We had a laugh – he was relieved that the huge pool of blood wasn’t there any more!
On the climb all the memories came flooding back – I was at the base, the same place where all those years ago I got soaked up to the chest by the sea, before the rock hit me. I took the identical swing that dislodged the rock. And as I climbed the first pitch I was confronted by the huge rock scar, the hole where the block came from that changed everything.
The crux for me was getting onto the actual summit – I couldn’t do a one armed mantel shelf and so had to face plant on a pile of rope and flop around like a fish out of water. The scariest moment was launching off on the Tyrollean over the void to get back to the mainland. I’d not done a rope traverse for nigh on 20 years.
Crew at Cape Hauy. L - R Top: Melinda Oogjes, Vonner Keller, Steve Monks, Matt Newton.
Bottom: Andy Cianchi, Paul Pritchard, Zoe Wilkinson, John Middendorf. Photo Margi Jenkin.
It was very much a team effort and I feel a deep gratitude for the assistance I received. But couldn’t all of us use a little help now and again? Without the team of 10 people that helped me I could never have climbed the Totem Pole.
on the Tyrollean traverse. Photo: Andy Kuylaars.
The Point To Pinnacle
I had it all planned out. Right down to the therapeutic botulinum toxin I had five days previously: eight injections in my right arm and seven in the right leg to combat the ever present spasticity. So, I was feeling nice and loose and was training every day for Tasmania’s Point To Pinnacle, which the media had coined ‘The World’s Toughest Half Marathon’. It was only three days to the race and I was due to be the first ‘adaptive cycle’ entrant...
... And then my world began to crumble.
I am being shaken from my deep sleep, awakened by Melinda. All is bright light and my tongue feels twice it’s normal size.
“Paul! What’s wrong?”
“Whaa?” Apparently I was clawing at her back and the right side of my face is all droopy.
“What’s my name?”
I didn’t know.
“Can you tell me the kids names?”
I could not.
“Can you tell me the time?”
I attempted to read the digital display on the bedside table, but the two images would not align, “Twenty sixty,” I guessed. It was 12.20am.
Melinda was worried as my airway was being constricted and I was struggling to breathe.
“I’m going to call for an ambulance.”
I attempted to dissuade her. The one thing I could clearly see was the sequence of events about to unfold; the driving ban followed by the blood tests, followed by having to go back on fatiguing anti-convulsants.
Melinda dialed 000 and 20 minutes later I was being bundled into the ambulance by a female doctor and a female ambulance driver. A flashing light pointed to the letters S.T.R.O.K.E., so they had to take me to the Emergency Department of the Royal Hobart Hospital, a place I knew well. Here I spent the night on a stretcher with a thin blanket pulled over my head in an attempt to block out the fluorescent lighting. It turned out I had a rather sizable seizure, my first one for a while. I was still feeling dizzy and fatigued the night before the race but made the somewhat burdensome decision to enter. If I started to feel ictal I could just turn around and free wheel back down the hill.
The three days leading up to the race were spent in bed ruminating on the frailty of human existence. I know I have been closer to dying, on The Totem Pole, at Gogarth, on Creagh Meagaidh, and when I stepped out into traffic in Barcelona. However, on each of these occasions, the feeling, the learning, the benefit I gained from these profound experiences seemed to fade away. Nonetheless, I was learning how to harness these benefits and was now attempting to live each day presently, as if it was my last. If we let ourselves recall these times when we have been close to death, have been made aware of our own mortality, we will find it easier to live in the moment. There then follows a straightforward process of letting people know that we love them; an often challenging three word sentence. It also becomes more manageable to do the right thing and makes uncomplicated life changing decisions.
On the day of the race I arose at 5am, having prepared brown rice and lentil congee in the slow cooker overnight for a ‘power breakfast’. I had abstained from coffee for a few days previously so the expresso was giving me a buzz.
With three thousand entrants at the start line, I was still feeling rather dizzy, but put it down to the early start. As the only person on wheels, sat down, I had to be careful not to ram the sprocket on my pedal cranks into the peoples’ calves. Traveling low like this my eye line is level with the throngs of skin tight backsides and I have a perpetual grin pasted to my face.
As only the second disabled person to attempt the race up Kunanyi on wheels the organizers requested someone accompany me to ensure I did not veer off the road, go over a cliff. The partner I chose was my partner Melinda. Melinda provided the perfect foil to my, at times, over zealous commitment to completing the course. She checked on me at regular intervals even though she was finding it no pushover. However, even though I could be described as very determined, I did take it easy in the initial stages.
Along the route there were front rooms erected on the road side complete with settees and standard lamps; there were kilt wearing bagpipers and young Highland flingers; there was a pop-up cafe supplying coffee at The Springs on the fourteen kilometre mark, and even a DJ spinning Trance.
Above The Springs the forest becomes less massive and the vegetation changes from great gums to telopea, banksia and hakia, the remnants of the super continent of Gondwana. The angle of the terrain rears up by five degrees for the next four and a half kilometers. This stretch of road is the crux of the whole Point to Pinnacle and marked a period of deep digging. Even though my thigh was burning as I pushed with everything I had on the pedal, the other walkers were pulling gradually away from Melinda and I. However, I wasn’t concerned about this, I just wanted to make it to the top of the mountain inside the cutoff time of four hours and forty minutes.
Rounding the Big Bend, three kilometers from the top and at over a thousand metres altitude, one is usually met by a ferocious cold headwind. This I was concerned about - nay, terrified of. However, there was not a breeze on this most perfect of days as the low forest gave way to alpine scenery.
Tim Smith, the race organiser ran beside me for the final three hundred metres. I had three minutes before the cutoff time and seemingly inevitable disqualification. Tim counted down the minutes to when it would be all over for me. Luckily I had just gobbled the last of my energy gels and was feeling a surge of life.
“One minute thirty-seconds...”
Must ignore the burning...
Not far now...
And I make it over the line with forty-seconds to spare.
The mountain erupted in a great cheer. Even though the race winner had crossed the line over three hours previous I received a more rousing reception. All my team mates at the Environmental Defenders Office had waited on the finish line so after hugs and photos with them we set off back down the mountain.