The Point To Pinnacle

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.  
“Two minutes...”
Legs pumping...
“One minute thirty-seconds...”
Keep pedaling...
“One ten...”
Must ignore the burning...
“One minute...”
Not far now...
“Fifty seconds...”
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.    

AMP Tomorrow Maker

I was honoured to be chosen as one of 42 recipients of the AMP tomorrow fund for my forthcoming book 'From Safety To Where…?' due to be published in 2016. 

2015 MAIB Disability Achievement Awards

I'm delighted to be chosen as a finalist in the 2015 MAIB Disability Achievement Awards - one of four worthy finalists. Fingers crossed for the 27th November award ceremony. 

The Realisation of Ultimate Reality - Vipassana

                                                                                                              Some of Team Vipassana. All grins on Day 10...

Well, that was like climbing a multi-day big wall. I went to a secluded forest with twenty-four strangers and sat down on the floor for one hundred and ten hours. Vipassana is a form of meditation, the eventual goal of which, after years of practice, if at all, is the realisation of the ultimate reality (yes, that is why those tiny pitons were called RURPs), or ultimate truth. There is no communication for the ten days you are on the course - no speaking, no eye contact, no messages - there are no pens or paper allowed, no books, no phones, tablets or iPads - no distractions whatsoever. You are imprisoned in the grounds and men and women are segregated. You spend ten days, effectively inside your own head. 

Vipassana is powerful stuff: one woman blew her eardrum out, one guy had a freak-out and left the course in tears, another had some sort of epileptic fit and begun shaking violently. I had a headache for the first three days and a seizure on day seven (my first one in six years). I kept this to myself as I did not want to get thrown of the course because I knew it was one of the most profound events in my life - I extended three fingers of my right hand for the first time in seventeen years! I also started hearing peels of wedding bells on day three, as my headache subsided, and they lasted until day nine. As all the significant events of the day - 4am wake-up, 4.30 call to begin sitting, 6.30 breakfast etc - was all done by bells, I often thought these were in my head and missed meal times. However, Gol, one of the volunteer servers, always came looking for me. You are watched carefully for any kind of breakdown, especially if you are a new student, because this form of meditation can be dangerous.

The process of Vipassana is complicated but kind of works like this: you are asked to direct your entire attention at a single point on the body - the shoulder for instance and passively observe it until you notice a feeling, any feeling - an itch, a pain, a tingling. Before long, wherever I pointed my attention to, on my entire body, there was a mass of sensation. We were told by S.N. Goenka (via video-link from beyond the grave) that this was due to the nature of all matter from rocks and metals to flesh and blood - that all stuff is made of vibrating particles, dying and being reborn. Moreover, by getting in tune with our bodies we notice this mass of electro-magnetic activity. This was easy to accept as it has been known since the early twentieth century that sub-atomic particles orbit a nucleus in an atom and cause vibrations. (Is this Brownian Motion?) This is a ‘truth‘ of ones body, and   once one gets into the ninetieth hour of sitting there, cross legged, with eyes closed, you begin to realise, on an experiential level, that all matter is made of the same stuff.     

During one particularly intense Adhitthana (sitting of strong determination), were you are to sit statue still for an hour, I was enduring great pain from my back and my hip. Thirty minutes was no problem, by forty-five I was in agony and the last fifteen minutes I did my best work. My body dissolved into billions of blue and yellow sub-atomic particles. It then exploded and all these tiny particles went flying around. I began to suspect that someone with an ulterior motive had got us here and then dropped acid in the tank that was the only drinking water. There was a story from Llanberis, the North Walean village where I used to live, about Cliff Philips, a legendary 70s climber, putting acid in the reservoir above and all the townsfolk turning into drop-leaf tables and fish.
Anyway, I found that I wasn’t enduring pain any longer, the pain had disintegrated along with my body. This was the profound moment when I noticed I could observe my pain with equanimity. A good feeling or a bad feeling were both impermanent manifestations of these sub-atomic vibrations. By being non-reactive I could observe my pain as if it were happening to someone else. However, the clever thing is that physical pain and emotional pain both have the same root in the brain (all pain is mental) which means that if I don’t react to any negativity, like a relationship break-up or a bereavement, I can see it clearly and objectively as impermanent. Everything from the mountains we climb, to the people we love, to situations, negative or positive, arise and pass away, are born and then die, absolutely everything. That’s the theory anyway, not to endure but to accept. However, it is easier said than done and takes a lifetime of dedicated practice to realise this.

During the long hours of sitting the mind inevitably wanders. Besides the usual sexual fantasies, I had a stirling idea for an Homunculus doll for children (like stretch armstrong). There were lots of amputation hallucinations including taking off my useless right arm and having it taxidermied (stuffed) and mounted in a crimp position so that I could take it to the crag and hang it on a finger edge. Then, there was the elaborate self operated guillotine for my little finger that I was going to chop off and film for a youtube clip (I hoped it would go viral).

By the ninth day we were studying the sensations within our bodies and ‘sweeping en masse’. Each person feels something different. I was experiencing a tingling, like pins and needles, throughout my body, inside as well as outside. The tingling began on the crown of my head and ended at the tip of my toes, like a bucket of hot water being poured over me, and then back up as if I was being submerged in a hot pool. What was interesting from my perspective was that these sensations were much, much more pronounced on my healthy left side. Having hemiplegia means reduced blood flow, cold extremities and reduced feeling all down one side of my body, the right side. So, I had to work at noticing the tingling down my one half. 

Furthermore, the feeling I was now experiencing throughout my entire body bore more than a passing similarity to the seizures I endured fifteen years ago, when I had up to ten a day. I took a cocktail of anti convulsants back then but now I suspected that the seizures were the body’s way of attempting to repair itself and the seizure medication was hindering my recovery. I knew this to be a risky hypothesis and so decided to treat it with equanimity: “it is what it is” a great sage from Llanberis used to say, neither good nor bad. 

Now, whatever tiny area I directed my attention at, was like being prodded with a hot poker, yet it was intensely pleasant. However, I knew one should never place a value judgment on any feeling, pleasant or unpleasant, as this risks all ones hard work coming to nothing. One must remain equanimous in Vipassana meditation. 

On day ten we were allowed to speak. It would be too much of a culture shock, and potentially dangerous, for one to be released back into the bustle of the city without a buffer of a day. Everyone had big grins pasted to their faces and someone asked me “how I went?” When I opened my mouth all that came out was a tiny squeak. I had lost my voice and would not regain it fully for days. I felt humbled, for you are forced into accepting the charity of others. All the cooks, helpers and teachers, are volunteers and at the end of ten days, if you found that you got no benefit from it, you are asked not to pay!

Yes, in terms of mental anguish, it was like climbing El Capitan, and yes that was one of the one of the harder ten days of my life. However, more than that, it was also one of the most rewarding and humbling ten days in which I learnt many lessons, not least how to accept and how to be equanimous with pain. 

Velovision Story December 2012.

                                                                  Trikes in Tibet

Australian adventurers Paul Pritchard and Carol Hurst report back from their extraordinary ‘honeymoon’ in the Himalayas, defying disability and taking their trikes on the road to Everest.

Fumbling with the tent I escape into a freezing, cavernous, deep space night. My eyes wander up and I contemplate the constellations of the northern hemisphere. Then I look down to the mountain of switchbacks on the rutted road to Everest, snaking up a pass which seems to go on for ever in the starlight. 
We had been told that we would never be able to pedal our trikes up this pass. Samdrup, our Tibetan guide, just shook his head saying, “How can two disabled people tackle one hundred and seventeen switchbacks at 5200 m?” 
I had placed a twenty Yuan bet with Samdrup that we could do this hill, but his lack of faith still shook me up. Sharyn, our camera-woman, had done the pass several times before, but in a truck. She had confidence in us, but her tales of seeing fit young cyclists standing defeated at the roadside half-way up didn’t exactly cheer us up. 
The ‘Pang La’ pass was clearly going to be the crux of the whole journey. I stifled a shiver... we would to attempt to ride over this mountain of dirt at dawn. 

Carol Hurst and I were making a honeymoon tour of China. We were to go bird watching and golfing, taking in the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors. It was to be dream trip.
At least that is what we told the Chinese immigration department. 
In reality we were attempting a recumbent trike journey of over 1100 km from Lhasa in Tibet - via Mount Everest - to Kathmandu in Nepal. If you so much as mention Tibet on your visa application it will be swiftly screwed up in some consular office’s wastepaper basket. And as for filming in Tibet... forget it! 
Our ploy seemed to work and Carol and I soon found ourselves on a Lhasa-bound train on the highest railway in the world. Ibex, yak and wild ass dotted the plains. Climbing up onto a high plateau the train groaned and people were reaching for the piped oxygen. On disembarking three people were stretchered off suffering altitude sickness. 
In Lhasa, we posed for photographs below the Potala Palace.  A seemingly pre-pubescent soldier, finger on the trigger of his rifle, approached us to let us know that the wind-horse on the prayer flags festooning our trikes is a highly dangerous symbol and is banned in the square. Uniformed snipers positioned on the roof-tops surrounding the Jokhang Temple (a stark reminder of the 2008 riots) studied us as we departed on our journey.
It all seemed rather ominous, but the mood lifted on the outskirts of Lhasa as we pedalled past a huge golden yak, then stopped at a ten meter tall Buddha which ‘magically’ appeared in the rock face. That evening I wallowed in the peaceful waters of the Kyi Chu oblivious to the thundering trucks passing close by our camp.
It is a requirement of the Chinese government that all independent foreign travellers in Tibet have a guide. The guide then requires feeding and transport so we also had a cook, Dawa, and a driver, Mota. At first the whole ‘kitchen sink’ approach didn’t sit easily with me. But now I am disabled, having a truck along seemed potentially  rather useful. 

Tibetans are notoriously stubborn with regards to customer service, though matters improved once our crew embraced the idea that we were on pilgrimage. Just like thousands of other pilgrims on the roads of the Himalaya, we headed slowly towards our respective goals. It was Carol’s aim to make it all the way to Kathmandu, whereas my interest always lay in Mount Everest. I was a mountaineer and climbing mountains had been my life. I had forsaken a ‘real’ job at an early age to summit mountains in the Himalaya, Patagonia and Baffin Island. 

Then in 1998 on a climbing trip to Tasmania my life unravelled. A boulder fell on my head while climbing the Totem Pole on Cape Hauy. The rescue took a whole day, during which I lost half my blood through a hole in my skull. I ended up in hospital for a year with paralysis down my right side and had to learn how to walk again, talk again, feed and dress myself. 

Our first days riding took us to Chusul, where we met the Yarling Sangpo, tributary to the great Brahmaputra river. As you ride up the river the scenery gets grander and more serene, but the surface is dry and harsh: I often couldn’t see Carol for dust. We rode fifty-three kilometres that day, seventeen kilometres further than she has ridden before: a marvellous achievement and a promising start. 
The river valley soon gave way to a narrow gorge, with dangers aplenty looming on every side: yaks precariously perched on cliffs, loose boulders overhanging the road, and big concrete trucks thundering past. On one downhill stretch we passed a bus-load of monks at the side of the road. With a fervour normally reserved for rock stars they waved, danced and cheered us on. So much attention do our trikes command that at one point we caused a traffic jam as tourists queued for a photo with us.
As we left the gorge a huge Tibetan mastiff began to chase me. I tried to speed up, but at close to 4000 meters altitude I just ended up gasping like a landed fish, moving along at little more than a brisk jog. Soon the hound was right in my face, and all I could do was present my spastic arm to it as one would a rubber chicken. But just as its teeth were closing on my arm Sharyn came to the rescue and charged it down.
After a week of riding we were ready for our first rest day at the 'Braille Without Borders' vocational farm near Xigatse. Paul Kronenberg, one of the founders, told us how some blind kids are locked away through shame on the part of their parents, in the belief that blind children must have done something terrible in a previous life. This was reflected in many people’s reaction to me as I was limping around Lhasa’s streets: one onlooker even spat at me. Any kind of disability is viewed like this. Paul and his team were challenging this and, by cycling across Tibet, so were we. Disabled people can do everything that the able bodied can. And that needs celebrating. 
Shortly after we left Xigatse, rain began to pour. When you’re lying prostrate on a recumbent trike, this is a special kind of treat. We got soaked, and darkness was falling. Just as we were beginning to contemplate spending the night out, Samdrup found us a monastery to sleep in. Next morning, after breakfast with the young monks, we tackled our first major climb, the Tra La pass. At 3975m, this is only a baby pass in Himalayan terms, but we were pleased to manage the climb nonetheless. 
We set up camp in a quintessentially Tibetan landscape: flat plains with yaks and distant mountains. The setting sun was beautiful even with the silhouetted power-poles which Tibet seems to grow so well. 
The next day when, according to the official paperwork, Carol and I were supposed to be playing golf a long way across China, we were actually grinding ourselves painfully up the Gyatso La. At 5220 m this was the highest pass of our journey. We climbed it over two days, and the second day of the ascent dawned ruthlessly cold and in cloud. We passed nomads living in yak hair tents as they have for thousands of years before eventually, after two interminable hours, we surfaced into sunlight. My lungs were silently screaming as I tried to keep up with Mel, our physiotherapist and, as it turned out, pace-setter. 
Carol was also hurting on this climb, and she had to stop every kilometre to massage her deadened feet. Carol was a keen adventurer when, in her twenties, she developed osteoarthritis in her hips. When her avenues for outdoor activity narrowed, Carol took to white-water paddling with determination, becoming six times Classic Wild-water Australian Champion. Now, her customised trike was allowing her to crank up passes in Western Tibet. Slow but steady, we kept on to the top. 
Our first view of Everest came a full week before we reached it. The landscape was otherworldly: huge Chinese slogans on mountainsides informed us of I don’t know what as we passed, and as the sun set the silhouette of a dzong, a fortress built on a high outcrop of rock, dominated the broadening night. 

We began climbing the Pang La, or ‘Pain La’ as it is apparently known to cyclists, at first light. The hot water we had put into our bottles soon froze. By mid-morning we were at hairpin nineteen, and a local woman who stopped her car wouldn’t take no for an answer until I’d eaten some of her hard-boiled eggs. This side of the pass has only forty-six hairpins (the hundred and seventeen Samdrup had mentioned would be on the descent for us), and snow flurries began as we reached the upper stages.   

Carol and I summitted the Pang La (5150 m) together in cloud, rolling through the tunnel of prayer flags which adorns most of the region’s passes. Passengers in cars were scattering paper 'wind horses' printed with Buddhist prayers for luck on the descent, and after a brief rest we followed, descending the endless switchbacks in glorious swooping curves, a joy after the strenuous climb. 

The worst was behind us but pedalling the remaining distance to Everest Base Camp was still a gruelling exercise: uphill and on dirt all the way. At it’s zenith the sun blazes down on the cyclist, and the thin air makes every exertion more difficult.  

Personally, I was realising a lifetime dream in seeing the goddess mountain up close again. For the thirteen years since the accident, I've spent every day learning to walk and talk again. From my first day back climbing, and from the first ride on my trike; everything I've done has been to get me here, today. When I was first recovering I never thought I'd be able to travel again, never mind pedal all the way to Everest Base Camp. It's been a long and tortuous road. 
On the return from Everest we reached the Nam La (5100 m), a sandy singletrack where I had to weigh my panniers down with rocks to prevent the rear wheel spinning. Riding below Choy Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak, I sheared a quick release pin, so rough was the road. Mel lashed the seat back to the frame with an inner tube. 
On the way down I remember a kid throwing a pebble at Sharyn’s head with remarkable accuracy, but even more memorable was the sight of tarmac. After eight days of rough roads I kissed the metalled road surface!
The last pass, the Lung La, was into a headwind. The back of my knee hurt. Mel came to the rescue yet again and fed me anti-inflammatories. I tried all the tricks in the book to take my mind off the job - a three kilometre stretch, straight uphill - mantras, headphones, bead counting, you name it. I finally made it through the arch of prayer flags miles behind Carol and am faced with a wall of mountains: Shishapangma, Phola Ganchen, and Melung Tse, all giants in their wedding gowns. 
Now began the deepest road descent on Earth. We screamed down from the ice and frost of a Tibetan morning to the tropical lushness of a Nepali afternoon. The quality of the road deteriorated from brand spanking Chinese bitumen to dirt, landslides and Nepali mayhem. 
On day twenty-six we entered Kathmandu, riding through a convoluted matrix of villages and back streets, past monkeys and metal workshops, bakeries and brick works, temples and shrines, and everywhere a jam of cars and motorbikes. 
After much struggle and hardship we had finally made it. We had ridden 1158 kilometres over the Himalayas. For me it affirmed once again that life is an incredible gift that should not be squandered. 
This tricycle trip across the roof of the world had certainly been no ‘honeymoon’!
Paul Pritchard

Paul, Carol and their team also made a film of their adventure, which is to be released under the title “The Journey” by Griffen Media.  You can watch a taster online at:
Photos: Sharyn Jones

The trikes
The recumbent trikes we used were from Australian manufacturer Greenspeed, and we chose the heavy duty Magnum model. The length of the journey made comfort a priority, and the adjustable riding position was a major bonus. Only on day twenty-one did I get vaguely saddle sore. 
Although cycling in the Himalayas sounds intimidating, the long passes are generally at an easy gradient to help the local trucks and buses cope with the lack of oxygen. Mountain passes tend to be steeper in Europe where the vehicles are better maintained. 
Cyclists too need to cope with the lack of oxygen, and low gears are essential. I fitted a Rohloff hub to the rear and a Schlumpf crankset gearbox to the front to save my lungs and legs from rough roads – and being all enclosed these units survived the bumps and the dust. As I can't change a tyre I used a liberal amount of Slime anti-puncture fluid in the fat Schwalbe tyres, and thankfully I did not get a single puncture. 
The team only had to make a single repair to my trike: the quick release pin which sheared under the seat had to be beefed up to an 8mm bolt. This journey was probably the most severe test run any trike could endure, and it stood up admirably.

If you want to see the excellent photos of Sharyn Jones' a hardcopy is available at Velovision