Nick packing for a climb

Mountain to Climb

Nick Allen is a man with conquest on his mind – first the Himalayas, then the seven summits. But far more important is conquering himself, and the multiple sclerosis that would try to keep him grounded.

It’s been nine years since fatigue, muscle cramps, balance and bladder problems and restricted mobility started occurring, and five years since Nick Allan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Nick had childhood dreams of climbing Mt Everest, so with his symptoms under some sort of control, what better place to start than tackling the Himalayas?

Always smilingNick will soon start the two 6,100-metre climbs, Stok Kangri in India and Island Peak in Nepal, mixing mountain climbing and trekking. The climb will raise awareness of and also fundraise for people living with MS. It will even go ahead with or without his doctor’s approval – “perhaps I should have it, but it was sort of a case of well, it’s do this, or die. Not doing it was not an option”.

As if the Himalayas weren’t enough, “if it goes well and I can manage the altitude okay, I would like to do the seven summits.” The seven summits are the tallest peaks on each continent, including Mt Everest. Nick hopes to be the first New Zealander with MS to conquer the seven summits. Nepal is just the trial run for bigger things to come.

Everything in me didn’t want to step into that wheelchair because I sort of knew that that was like surrendering my legs

“I am grateful for MS, I wouldn’t change it – well sometimes I would, but more often than not I wouldn’t. I think that when you’re fit and healthy and focused you don’t stop to enjoy and appreciate things.” Having been in a wheelchair and unable to do what the majority of us can, he admits there was a lot he took for granted.

At 19 Nick started experiencing symptoms of MS, especially with his bladder and legs. “I was too embarrassed to say anything about the bladder problems! But with my legs I just thought I was unfit so I started training harder.” Having a shower became a herculean task, leaving him wiped out.

MedsIt wasn’t until Nick was 25 that he was finally diagnosed. “In some ways it was a bit of a relief, because there had been all of this stuff that was going wrong, so finally there was a reasonable answer. Then it hits you, that this is it. In that first year I was in denial of the fact I had MS, I wasn’t adopting any solutions.

“But then I was like, hang on a second, I’m going to end up in a wheelchair and I’m never going to get out of it. And at 25 I was like, man, do I really want to spend the rest of my life like this?”

While over in the United States Nick’s worst fear came true; he did end up in a wheelchair and lost his vision. “When I moved there stuff started getting really bad, I was struggling. I started to have those thoughts of, ‘What’s even the point of continuing to live?’

“Mum dropped everything, booked a ticket to come pick me up then flew me home.” With Nick in a wheelchair the family relocated to Palmerston North. To get out of the wheelchair his Dad had to massage Nick’s legs every night because he was in so much pain. “Everything in me didn’t want to step into that wheelchair because I sort of knew that that was like surrendering my legs. It was the very opposite of how I wanted to be perceived.” It didn’t take him long to trade the wheelchair in for a camera – how else could he capture the view from the top?

If it goes well and I can manage the altitude okay, I would like to do the seven summits

He was able to get his symptoms under control with a drastic change in food and exercise. He credits his new lifestyle to the Jelinek diet, designed by a man who has MS himself. The diet includes very little fat, no sugars and no dairy. Initially Nick wasn’t so set on the idea of having to give up his sweet tooth. “Now if I have sugar it’ll just kill me, I’ll get headaches.”

Along with his diet and fitness, Nick has painkillers to manage tingling, a common symptom of MS. He says it is “as if you were being shock-blasted constantly. I felt like I was going to rip my skin off my face”. To control the spasticity and muscle cramps he has to stretch every morning, midday, afternoon, evening and night. As for fatigue, he chooses to not be decimated by the symptoms of MS; instead he has slowly built up stamina by exercising within his body’s limits. “Without being all airy-fairy, I’m sort of more in touch with myself and can sense my body’s limits.”

If they fit, pack themAfter being diagnosed Nick didn’t go tramping with anybody for fear that he would slow them down and become a liability. So a huge milestone for him was last year when he and a friend completed the Ball Pass on the side of Mt Cook. “What was crazy was Dad had said to me don’t overdo it, and I was like I’m going to do it come hell or high water and I got to the top and was smashed. I sat there for about an hour recovering.”

With a glow in his eye, Nick describes the unbelievable feeling he experiences when reaching the top of a climb. That moment alone explains why all the struggles, defeats, training and pain have been worth it. “My absolute favourite thing is when you reach the top and there are all these clouds beneath you and this real sense of just being on top of everything. Then in the distance you can see peaks that you wouldn’t normally be able to see and it’s just the sense of ‘I’m on top of all of this, but also look at everything there is out there’.”