Pippa Blake couldn’t be prouder of her sons.
In 2006, Jordan Blake won Ironman Canada to rank among the elite in one of the world’s toughest endurance events.
Her youngest son, Ollie Blake, a Whistler ski coach, followed in his brother’s footsteps last August, placing 16 th overall in his first ever Ironman with only minimal training. Next year the two brothers will race each other for the first time.
But what they accomplished this fall, with the help of friends and supporters, may have been their hardest and most rewarding tests of endurance yet. In a world where almost everything has been done, Ollie and Jordan attempted something new by bringing Pippa — who has Multiple Sclerosis and requires the use of a wheelchair — up the long and winding trail to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
“They were so incredible,” said Pippa. “When they told me ‘we’re doing this’, I thought they must be mad. But I also knew they were serious, and if they thought I could do this then I was going to do everything I could to get ready. I started a fitness program with a physiotherapist, and went to Weight Watchers to lose weight — I didn’t want people to get hernias carrying me around. But it was Kristina (Rody, Ollie’s partner in Whistler) who took the planning of the whole project on herself and made it happen.
“It was really the most extraordinary thing, the trip of a lifetime.”
The group was accompanied by three of Pippa’s friends, and seven other volunteers with a variety of skills and experiences. They also hired two lead guides, three assistant guides and two porters, mainly to carry Pippa’s gear — her wheelchair, a toilet that was modified by their guides, and her clothing. When the switchbacks were too steep for the TrailRider, the porters helped by carrying Pippa herself in a specially modified basket — one of the most frightening experiences on the trip, Pippa recalls.
“It’s one thing to be on the TrailRider and facing up the hill, and another to be in a basket looking over the edge to the river crashing below us,” she said.
There were several goals for the expedition. The main one was to help Pippa realize a dream she has held for more than 20 years. She and her husband had originally planned this trek in Nepal in 1986, but decided to leave it for another year when she landed the top administrator post at the National Ski Academy in Collingwood, Ontario. They had always planned to go in the future, but those plans were put on hold indefinitely when Pippa was diagnosed with MS, a degenerative disease that can severely affect mobility.
Her sons kept her dream alive through the years, until Rody — newly graduated with her Masters degree in Rural Planning — put her career on hold for a year to formally plan and coordinate an expedition to Everest. In short order they had recruited a team to assist on the mission, hired a guiding outfit, and landed a few sponsors to help with the expense.
They also expanded the scope of the mission to include a few other goals:
• To leave a blueprint of the journey for other travelers to Nepal with mobility issues;
• To purchase a Black Diamond model of a TrailRider which they would donate to Recreation Integration Victoria;
• To raise awareness of accessibility issues for people with disabilities;
• To raise awareness of Multiple Sclerosis;
• To motivate others living with disabilities to pursue similar outdoor adventures — maybe not to Everest Base Camp, says Pippa, but there are lots of excellent opportunities for camping and trekking right in B.C.
In the process of organizing the trip they founded a new organization called the Rise Above Barriers Society.
The TrailRider was the key to the trip. Designed by Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan — a quadriplegic after breaking his neck skiing at age 19 — the TrialRider is a one-wheeled device that can be simultaneously pushed and pulled through all types of terrain, and then easily folded and carried by a single person. The expedition team tested it successfully on a loop of Garibaldi Lake over the summer, using modified disk brakes to control their speed on the way down.
The expedition took place over 21 days instead of the usual two weeks, to give the team more time to transport Pippa to base camp and back. For all of the team’s combined experience and athleticism, it was a good choice — according to their own guides, the husband and wife outfit of Lhapka Dorjee and Lhapka Doma, this was the first time that their company has managed to bring such a large group all the way to base camp and back without someone pulling out along the way with altitude sickness, illness or injury.
Ollie and Kristina started the trip a little earlier than the rest of the team, hiking the first seven days of trail to the famous runway at Lukla, at an altitude of 2,850 metres — about 400 metres higher than the peak of Blackcomb. They met Pippa and the rest of the expedition on the runway, where most trips to Everest get underway.
The trail goes down slightly the first two days before climbing more or less steadily all the way up to the Everest Base Camp at 5,300 metres. The expedition stayed in Nepalese villages and coffee houses along the route. Not having to carry tents lightened their load, but the freezing temperatures and thin air made it difficult to sleep and get comfortable.
Not that anyone complained. There were only two days of low clouds to contend with early in the trip, followed by two weeks of sun — unheard of in the mountain at that time of year, and well worth the colder temperatures.
The total distance to base camp and back is around 200 km, but the altitude, cold and steepness of the stairways, and Pippa’s limitations meant they could only travel eight to 10 km a day.
No doubt that gave members of the group more time to acclimatize to the altitude, and ensured that everyone made it there and back again safely.
However, it was also tougher than they expected.
“It was really tough, I don’t think anybody anticipated how tough it would be — which is a good thing or we might not have started or, once we started, kept going,” said Pippa.
“We went slowly and just took it one day at a time. We didn’t even think ahead too much, which was a good thing. The team dynamics were quite overwhelming, the people were so into it and so respectful of each other.”
Pippa also credits their guides for keeping the group on the move. Although one experienced North American guide told them they would never make it to base camp — providing more motivation for the expedition to succeed — the decision to go with local guides meant they had the guides’ family, friends and other forms of support the entire way.
“Everybody contributed something,” said Pippa. “Even the older ladies at the back had an important job, because they talked to the other groups that we passed that had been to base camp and were on the way down. Once they knew about it, people were very keen.”
A few of the groups even assumed that Pippa was a wealthy woman who was paying to be carried to Base Camp, until others members of the expedition explained the purpose of the journey.
Making the final trip to base camp was harder than expected, which meant the group basically had to turn around almost as soon as they arrived, but it was still an emotional moment for the team.
“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the group,” recalled Ollie Blake. “It was a pretty emotional day for everybody. It was such a challenge, but that made getting there all the more special.
“From the third day I think we all knew we were in trouble, when we realized that we would have to carry the TrailRider more than we thought. There are a lot of stairs, and rough sections that are awkward, and you’d run into teams of yaks in the worst possible places. It’s a good thing we didn’t know what was coming, but kept telling ourselves that it would get easier.”
Some of the switchbacks were so steep and tight that they had no choice but to carry Pippa in the basket. She was actually lighter than their porters’ usual load, but it was a frightening experience.
“I knew coming in that I would have to surrender all my independence on a trip like this,” said Pippa, “but I remember being in the basket on this porter’s back and thinking that if he went over the side, I’d go over with him. When I was on the TrailRider, there’s sometimes four people helping you along so there are a lot of points of contact, but with the basket there was the one porter. That’s when you just take a deep breath and have faith in those around you.”
Ollie says the entire team was exceptional, but credits the guides for keeping the group motivated.
“They were as committed to this trip as we were,” he said. “They worked harder than anybody to get to base camp and back.”
For Rody, an accomplished marathon runner, the trip was made more difficult by the fact she contracted food poisoning early on. That illness turned into a cold and later the flu, as the altitude made it harder for her to rest and recover. She didn’t start to feel better until the group started to climb back down.
Unable to help out as much as she liked, other members of the team stepped up in all sorts of ways.
“We couldn’t have found 10 people more committed to our goal,” she said. “We had 14 people who had to agree to take a month off work, and pay about $4,000 out of pocket. In retrospect I think we could have found more sponsorship, but we wanted to get going as soon as we could.
“I wouldn’t recommend the trip to everybody. To take someone with that level of disability somewhere like Base Camp, you really need family and friends around and lots of support.
“We thought that maybe people would get tired and wouldn’t be able to help with Pippa and the TrailRider, but it was such an unbelievable group where people were almost fighting to get a spot where they could push or pull. Of course it also helped that Pippa is just an amazing person to be around.”
The day before heading to Base Camp, the group also headed to the lookout at Kala Patar, which was the highlight of the trip for many. It’s at a higher altitude than Base Camp by about 250 metres, and offers a far better view of Mount Everest. The team took several photos from the lookout point.
While the trip to Base Camp was tougher, Ollie said everyone knew they were going to make it.
“We basically had to carry her the whole way because it was just a field of boulders, and everybody was starting to get tired, but just being in sight of our goal just gave everyone this huge burst of energy,” he said. “Nobody was turning back for anything.”
The climb down was much easier, and the TrailRider was a lot better at going down obstacles like stairs and boulders than going up. Although the team brought eight sets of pads for the disk brakes, they didn’t even go through the first set.
Pippa has already done several slideshows on her trip, most recently to a group of MS patients. She has already been contacted by several people who have read about her trip, including one MS sufferer from Kimberley who is now planning to use the TrailRider to summit Mt. Fisher.
“I get e-mails from people who said they have given up, but read about our trip and decided they can still do some things,” she said. “If I can do it, they can do it.”
Not that Pippa’s travelling days are over yet. She’s already looking into her next trip, the Camino de Santiago in Spain — a 20-day pilgrimage from the Spanish coast to a cathedral in Santiago that is recognized as a World Heritage Site. It’s a much easier trail, and would require a much smaller team.
“Of course I’m keen to get right back out there, but it’s probably going to be a year or two,” she said. “It just feels good to be on the move again.”
Rise Above Barriers Society — www.riseabovebarriers.com
Khumbu Adventures — www.khumbuadventures.com
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