Conquering Ben Nevis in a wheelchair

Conquering Ben Nevis in a wheelchair

New Disability Horizons contributor, Mark Cooper, who has cerebral palsy, tells us about his mammoth journey climbing the 1,344 metres to the top of Ben Nevis.

Hi! I’m Mark Cooper and I regularly campaign in my local area to get better access for people with disabilities. One of my greatest achievements was getting the law changed in Scotland to improve disabled access to pubs.

I also love the outdoors, particularly the beauty that the UK has to behold. As a child I spent many happy holidays with my family in the Lake District. We would go for walks crossing boggy fields and other rough terrain, which was relatively easily as I used a buggy that was designed to be able to handle such conditions.

When I grew out of the buggy and transferred to a wheelchair, such things were not as easy. So the lure of spending time in the countryside has been something that has been on my mind for some time.

When, in March 2011, I saw a call out on Twitter asking “would you like to climb Ben Nevis and raise money for charity?” my immediate thought was “yes I would!” The question came from a local organisation I used to work for, Capability Scotland, which provides services for people with disabilities and campaign for equality. When I left, in October 2010, there was quite a lot of talk in the office about potentially organising an event where disabled people led teams up Ben Nevis. A similar event had been run in conjunction with Scope a few years earlier, and I had always thought how great it would be to do something like that. So I got in touch with my old boss to let him know that I would be interested in taking part and I was thrilled to hear that my name was already on the list!

So work began to get my team and me ready for the climb using a custom-built wheelchair used by Scope for the previous climb. But on our first training weekend, I realised that this task was bigger than any other challenge I had faced before. Firstly, I had never been up a mountain of any kind, and secondly I had never met most of my team before. As we struggled up our first hill together, it dawned on us all how much we had to improve to successfully complete the challenge.

Over the next few months my team, which we all named Captain Coopers Barmy Army, trained with me in all weathers, working extremely hard to make sure we’d be in tip top condition for the Ben Nevis climb. Although it was a team effort, the team members and I had our own mini challenges, too. For the team their task was to get used to handling the chair and lifting me. My challenge was to lead the team and guide us safely.

People joked that I had the easiest job because all I had to do was sit there. But I can assure you that I felt every bump of the training and on Ben Nevis itself, not a pleasant experience. Also, the wheelchair was designed like a go-cart so I had to steer the front wheels and communicate to the team when I saw an obstacle ahead, such as a sharp rock. My concentration had to remain at its best, and I had to work hard to keep the team motivated and us all safe.

The day of the challenge arrived, and as I sat at the entrance to my tent, looking up at Ben Nevis, half covered in mist, it dawned on me that in 12 hours my team and I could have climbed the mountain and be resting victorious at the end. Spurred on by tea and a breakfast roll we set out on the adventure of a life time.

It was hard going, a long slog, and the closer we got to the top, the further away it seemed. We met many walkers, who were on their way back down, and they kept saying we were nearly there. But the top never seemed to appear.

Sadly, once we finally made it to the top, the fantastic views I had been promised were a little less impressive due to low clouds. But we had done it; we had climbed the highest mountain in the British Isles (1,344 metres).

However, we still had to get back down before really celebrating. It was a tricky descent because we were all drained out of energy, but we made it safely to the bottom… tired but happy. Even now, we as a team can’t believe we did it; we achieved such an extraordinary feat.

After such a monumental achievement, in October 2011, my family and I were decided to travel back to the Lake District. I mean, if I can climb Ben Nevis, I can do anything! We found some useful information about local routes and walks that would allow us to enjoy the countryside without the pitfalls. We were impressed that such guides are out there and I look forward to many walks to come.

I hope the story of my Ben Nevis adventure will encourage you to go out and explore your local area, even if it is a bit bumpy!

By Mark Cooper

Have you achieved a similar feat of endurance? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at editor@disabilityhorizons.com, tweet us @DHorizons, or let us know on Facebook. For more stories like this, take a look at our Travel section.

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  • An inspirational achievement which shows that, no matter what the level of disability, we are all capable of more in our lives.

    Hearty congratulations on your success Mark