Woman with MS to climb Ben Nevis in wheelchair inspired by canine helper
Published Date: 16 May 2010
By Emma Cowing
AT 47 years old, in a wheelchair and in constant pain, Sally Hyder is not a typical extreme sportswoman. But although she has multiple sclerosis, she is taking on a remarkable challenge by aiming to become the first wheelchair user to ascend Ben Nevis unaided.
Later this year, Hyder plans to climb Britain's highest mountain in a battery-powered "off-road" wheelchair. Although wheelchair users have ascended the 4,406ft-peak before, the path becomes so steep towards the top that they have previously had to be carried to the summit.
But Hyder, who lives in Edinburgh, said she was planning to complete the ascent without any help. "I am aiming to be the first to get up unaided. If the machine gives up, I'm going to crawl. I'm going to get to the top without somebody carrying me.
"Getting to the top of Ben Nevis is not a done deal, but if I manage it, I will be absolutely ecstatic. I will feel this total exhilaration and freedom, instead of being shackled down by this stupid disease."
Hyder has been training for the wheelchair ascent by climbing the Pentland Hills with her husband Andy and has also tackled the mountain bike trails at Glentress Forest in the Borders, including the notorious black-graded route.
It is not the first challenge Hyder has taken on since her MS diagnosis. She has also learned to scuba dive, and has had three children, one of whom, Melissa, 11, suffers from a learning disability and is autistic. So inspirational is Hyder's story that she has recently signed a publishing deal with HarperCollins to recount her experiences in a book due to be published next year.
Hyder was diagnosed with MS, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, aged 27. A keen walker, she had climbed a number of Munros and in 1988 her husband proposed to her at Everest base camp during a climbing holiday in Nepal. She last climbed a Munro on her 40th birthday – an ascent she achieved on crutches – and had resigned herself to never seeing the top of a mountain again, until now.
The attempt on Ben Nevis in August will use the mountain's well-trodden Pony Track – also known as the tourist route – which, although a gradual climb for most of its length, does have some steep, rocky sections. However, she will not be alone. Among her support team will be members of her family – her husband and her two older children Clara, 15, and 18-year-old Peter, as well as her assistance dog Harmony, a golden labrador/retriever cross she received from the charity Canine Partners last year.
Hyder is only the third person with MS in Scotland to be given an assistance dog, who is specially trained to help her around the house in a variety of ways. She is now hoping to raise money for the Canine Partners charity by making the ascent up the mountain.
"I wouldn't be doing this climb if it weren't for Harmony," she said. "I'd stopped thinking I would ever see the top of a mountain again but when I got Harmony I started taking her out for walks, and gained so much more freedom in my life. For the first time in five years I was able to put my own washing out. I decided I wanted to do something a bit different – I wanted to go up, not just straight ahead, so I started researching my options and came across the off-road wheelchair."
Hyder will go up Ben Nevis in a BOMA, a battery-powered off-road wheelchair invented by 34-year-old Chris Swift, an extreme sports enthusiast who has been using a wheelchair since he was 19.
Swift said: "I essentially designed it as an off-road vehicle. A lot of people have described it as a mountain bike for wheelchair users as it has very strong tyres and it can climb up steps and over rocks."
Hyder admits that before Harmony's arrival at the home last April, the family were finding it difficult to cope.
"The entire family had become disabled by my and Melissa's needs. I was getting to the end of my abilities and I was so frustrated. In my dreams I could run and then I'd wake up and it would be like being tied down. I felt more disabled than I'd ever been. But Harmony's completely changed all that."
As well as helping Hyder by performing tasks around the house, Harmony has also begun to assist Melissa, calming her down during tantrums and sleeping on her bed when she needs reassurance.
"It's not just the physical feeling but actually just as important is the massive emotional wellbeing you get from having a dog like her around," says Hyder. "She adores me and I adore her."
Andy Cook, chief executive of Canine Partners, said he was delighted by Hyder's determination. "Sally's goal of being the first person in a wheelchair to climb Ben Nevis unaided really highlights the independence she now enjoys thanks to Harmony. And although for safety and welfare reasons Harmony is not able to go all the way to the top, she has given Sally something immeasurable and more precious – the confidence to take on the challenge in the first place."
Canine carers can transform lives
Canine Partner's assistance programme trains dogs to make life better for people with physical disabilities, most of whom use wheelchairs.
Dogs are taught how to help with a range of household and personal chores including opening doors, carrying shopping, taking off shoes and socks and helping empty the washing machine. Puppies are placed with volunteer families for twelve months, then face 19 weeks of advanced training.
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