The Life Changing Power of Choosing Challenge
Nicaragua, Coast to Coast, differently abled.
Check out this excerpt from Belinda Kirk's book Adventure Revolution. Drawing on lessons Belinda learnt from more than two decades of leading groups into the wilderness around the globe, her own research with modern hunter-gatherers, and the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, Belinda uses Adventure Revolution to show how adventure has the power to transform the timid into the confident, the addicted into the recovering, and the lost into the intentionally wandering.
To read the full book grab a copy of Adventure Revolution here and to meet Belinda in person, join us at The Armchair Adventure Festival this September where she will be talking about her many adventures!
‘Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.’ - John F. Kennedy
Two thousand feet up the side of Concepción, an active volcano in central Nicaragua, the mud-spattered wheelchair lay on its side, its green frame glinting in the unforgiving sun, the metal too hot to touch. Climbing karabiners and straps lay abandoned around it; a coil of rope hung off the seat. Not surprisingly, given its extraordinary location, this was no ordinary wheelchair. It had four equal sized wheels with thick tyres to navigate the rock-strewn terrain, wide handlebars at the back for pushing and brakes at the front for the user to control the speed. This beaten-up piece of equipment looked like it had been somewhere and meant something. And it had: it was currently twenty-seven days into a coast-to-coast crossing of Nicaragua. The clinking of karabiners against the frame, the creaking of rope under tension and the audible straining of human breath no longer surrounded it. Now, in the hot still air, there was only silence.
The chair had been abandoned by Ade Adepitan, who had lost the use of his legs to polio as a child and had become Britain’s best-known wheelchair basketball player. After winning a bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympics, he and his mane of long locks had regularly appeared on TV. And now, his wheelchair defeated, he was half the way up the volcano on his hands and knees, making a bid for the summit with Karl, a one-legged amputee he’d met just weeks before.
I have only to gaze into the distance for all the years to drop away, and I see them again, these two men struggling upwards together. I have many adventure tales to tell, but this became one of the most important expeditions I’d ever participate in. For it wasn’t just my life touched for ever by these five weeks in Central America; the journey had a profound impact on the whole team – novices and experienced adventurers alike – but also, crucially, on everyone who witnessed it.
In late 2004, several months before we faced the volcano, I had been invited to join the expedition, named Beyond Boundaries. Expedition leader Ken Hames, an ex-major in the SAS, was planning to lead eleven people across Nicaragua from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean, a 220-mile crossing. The entire expedition was to be televised on prime time BBC TV. However, not only did the selected explorers have zero expedition experience, they were also physically disabled. The team included two wheelchair users, Ade and Sophie; Jane, who had lost both her lower legs; and Karl, Lorraine and Glenn, each of whom had one leg. Then there were Warren and Toby, each with one arm; Daryl with spina bifida; Amar, who was blind; and Charlie, who was deaf.
By the time we reached the volcano, several team members had dropped out for different reasons. Those remaining had crossed hundreds of miles of thick jungle and dry savannah. The physical effort of pushing wheelchairs through sticky mud and clambering through uneven terrain would be difficult for anyone. But in doing so without being able to see or hear, and with extraordinary strain on muscles, tendons, prosthetic legs and arms, the remaining team members had already overcome what had seemed impossible.
Yet summiting the volcano would prove to be the toughest challenge yet. From its base, the volcano filled the entire sky, obliterating the landscape all around; its sides rose ominously above us and stretched in every direction, overwhelmingly everywhere. The team rigged the wheelchair to straps and pullies so it could be manhandled up the slope by a three-man team and held from rolling backwards after each push. The hauling team of Karl, Toby and Amar worked together to help Ade push his wheelchair nearly halfway up the volcano. That in itself was a seemingly insurmountable challenge. However, the already treacherous rocky terrain suddenly changed from a thirty-degree to forty-five-degree incline. Over the next two exhausting hours, the team covered just 600 feet. The incline had become too steep; the painfully slow progress was just too much to bear. They reluctantly agreed it wouldn’t be possible to take the wheelchair any further. Ade needed to find another way to reach the summit.
It was too much. He broke down and cried. Ade is so strong I couldn’t bear to watch this happen – none of us could. It was soul destroying, and yet completely and utterly human. I cried for the first time on that expedition too. It was the only time I’d witnessed Ade to be anything but determined to get to the top. Seeing his face show a hint of defeat knocked the whole team for six. Ade had been the driving force and morale booster of the team throughout the entire expedition due to his unstoppable, positive energy. Nothing had dented his ability to dig deep and fi nd more reserves, until now.
And for Ade, this was vulnerability in the extreme. Televised. But he resolved to keep going. He crawled and hauled himself upwards. Inch by inch, with either his thighs or knees scraping painfully over the burning-hot volcanic rock, Ade dragged himself up that volcano with all his might. To ease the pain, he’d swap between two positions: pushing himself up with his arms in an outward sitting position and crawling on his hands and knees. Karl remained by his side for every push, drag and strain.
Five excruciating hours later, they reached the summit. A completely shattered Ade lay on the ground and, gripping onto Karl’s hand, quietly wept. ‘Karl, man,’ he said. ‘Thanks, man. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, full stop. Without a doubt!’ He’d reached the summit by crawling and pulling himself up more than 3,000 feet without the aid and security of his chair.
Ade explained to me in 2020, sixteen years after the summit, that he’d returned from his ‘seismic challenge’ of an adventure for ever changed. He recalled how he’d felt at the time of abandoning his wheelchair: ‘My heart sunk as I thought, what am I going to do here? I always saw getting into a chair as a way of getting from A to B in a more dignified manner, a way of keeping my self-respect. I had a flash back to when I was called “black monkey” because of the way I had to crawl around. My wheelchair gave me a chance to do so many things; it was like discovering the greatest invention in the world. It has been my biggest source of empowerment. So, getting out of it on the volcano meant I had to deal with ideas of lost independence, all captured on camera and shown to the world.’
When I asked him how he felt about it now, he had a different outlook: ‘The way I looked, I thought people would see me as weaker if I showed vulnerability, but now I see that it’s a strength to show it, and I worry less about how others perceive me.’ Even after all this time, he saw that relatively brief period in his life as a major turning point, which he still thought about every couple of weeks, calling it his ‘watershed – a life affirming point’ when he realised what was possible. ‘My life is split into before and after Beyond Boundaries. Challenging and achieving the impossible is something I’m used to talking about and dealing with as an athlete, but when you do something you didn’t think you could do – that is special! That empowers you, supercharges you, cements who you are and what you should be trying to achieve.’
Ade explained it was different to sport, because it was out of his comfort zone completely. He was used to the basketball court, having trained all his life and prepared himself for that from age eleven. But he had never prepared himself for the unforeseen challenges of being an adventurer, which, Ade said, freed him.
Adventure opened Ade up to pursue possibilities he’d not have considered before. Fifteen years later, now a household name, Ade’s latest TV series Africa with Ade Adepitan, showing him discovering Africa by (albeit more conventional) wheelchair, had recently aired, and Ade was bringing his passion for adventure to others and inspiring more people with his charity work.
For me, the way Ade explained his life as split into ‘before and after’ his adventure conjured up an image of a butterfly. They are of course a symbol of change, but it was also because of the sight that had greeted us when we reached the summit of Concepción. The landscape was barren on the final ascent; we climbed hot, dusty rock with choking sulphurous fumes billowing around us. But as we reached the top, a bright yellow shape flew across my path. Looking up, the air seemed to be alive with shifting colours, the unforgiving parched landscape suddenly transformed by a kaleidoscope of shapes and tones. I remember, as we sat to take it all in, hundreds of butterflies filling the air, brushing our bare skin, occasionally landing to share our seats of rock. The moving current of wings was surreal, otherworldly, amid this human drama, and I remember feeling awestruck by this extraordinary scene and uplifted by the delightful wonder of multicoloured butterflies fluttering all around us. The beauty of it was overwhelming. It was like they were spurring us on and celebrating our achievement and our transformation. In the midst of adventure, even though it had so far been defined by pain and heartache, this moment of magic made us feel deeply alive and grateful to be so. And it was this that defined the experience. But it wasn’t until we arrived home that the symbolic serendipity of the butterflies hit home. That expedition took us all through our own version of metamorphosis.
Nobody returned home the same. The enormity of the task and the level of jeopardy had been extreme. The coast-to-coast crossing alone had been a huge undertaking for any team, whether able bodied or differently abled. Miles of thick jungle with few pathways had merged onto endless stretches of baked savannah. Add to that the uncertainty about how different medical conditions would react to the rigorous conditions and climate, and we had literally been walking – or rolling – new ground. Yet it was the incredibly demanding nature of the challenge that had given it such immense power as a catalyst for change. Every one of us, from the participants to the filming and safety crew, had been pushed so far outside our individual comfort zones. But we’d all noticed, once we’d emerged on the other side, that our sense of what could be achieved had changed. After accomplishing more than we thought we could, that’s when we saw ourselves and the world afresh, with a renewed perspective about our own capabilities. It was extremely powerful. Indeed, how we all felt about ourselves and our sense of accomplishment was more deeply experienced than any of us had expected, like nothing any of us had ever known before.
What a story! Incredibly inspiring and the ultimate account of how choosing challenge can have a positive impact on our lives. To learn more about Belinda's Adventure Revolution read the full book here and don't forget that you can meet Belinda in person at The Armchair Adventure Festival 2022. Find out more and grab your ticket here.