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Why The Adaptive Grand Slam Is The Ultimate Adventure Challenge

A team of disabled adventurers are aiming to be the first to complete an the notorious Explorer’s Grand Slam. As leader Martin Hewitt knows, survival in the toughest conditions means being prepared to throw out the plan and adapt as you go...

Even in a world of jaw-dropping achievements, it’s the gold standard, the absolute pinnacle of adventure. To achieve the Explorer’s Grand Slam you have to climb the highest mountain on each of Earth’s seven continents, and walk unsupported across frozen wastes to the geographic North and South Poles.

Martin Hewitt, leader of the Adaptive Grand Slam, is aiming to lead the first disabled team in history to reach this peak of achievement, which requires all-round climbing and adventure skills to tackle challenges ranging from the technical rock climbing of the Carstensz Pyramid, to the equatorial conditions of Mount Kilimanjaro, to the wildly different problems posed by the North and South Poles.

Not only is the difficulty ramped up by the sheer demands of climbing with three functioning limbs, or communicating with blind and deaf members of the team, but Hewitt’s group are more at risk from the elements too because previous nerve damage increases the risk of frostbite, which often leads to the amputation of fingers, toes, feet and more.

Despite the obstacles in their path the group has already successfully summited Mt Denali, Mt Elbrus, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Aconcagua, with their second attempt on Everest planned for the spring season in 2019. Over anything else, they’ve learned that sometimes survival in the face of adversity means knowing when to walk away...

On Aconcagua it was -40°C with 50-60mph winds so the frostbite risk went through the roof

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Q: This is a challenge that seems almost impossible, so was there a turning point where it went from pipe-dream to plausible?
A: ‘There’s not really a turning point, it’s an ongoing process. There’s nobody to ask how do we do this, because nobody’s done it – you’ve got to look every expedition as different and prepare specifically for that challenge. If there was a turning point it was the start, where we decided to do something that would push the boundaries and change the perception of what can be achieved.’

Q: What’s been the toughest challenge you’ve successfully completed so far?
A: ‘Denali. It’s one of the last bastions of genuine wilderness on the planet, so that lack of infrastructural support, combined with the elements, creates a challenge that’s completely unique.’

Q: What about the extra issues your teams have to contend with?
A: ‘Yes, there are a few additional challenges and complexities for our team, so we have to be innovative in different ways, to think about the ways we communicate because we have people on the team who are blind or deaf as well as missing limbs. The topography presents significant challenges to people with missing limbs; on technical routes, we’ll often put temporary anchor points in on a fixed line because we’re trying to have three points of contact in total.’

‘We also have to protect ourselves from the elements – there’s an increased risk of frostbite – so we have a different layering system from the one that most teams use, which keeps us warm without excessive sweating when we stop. In some cases it’s about working things on the go, in other cases it’s about learning from past experience or doing a lot of research.’

Q: You’ve had two unsuccessful summit attempts – on Aconcagua you retreated but have since completed it – what happened there?
A: ‘On Aconcagua we had a set of very clear weather cut-off points, and we more than hit them. We had a temperature of -40°C, and the wind speed was 50-60mph – consistently, not just gusting – so the risk of frostbite went through the roof. That was an easy decision: if we’d carried on, we would have got frostbite. No team carried on that day, and a team that carried on four days later all suffered finger amputations from extreme cold.’

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Q: You also failed on Everest – tell us about that attempt?
A: ‘Everest was a completely different ballgame. The guy that we used as technical advisor was called Russell Brice, and he’s very accomplished. On Everest it was his call, and during our window there the frequency of avalanches was a concern, plus the time of day they were hitting was very unpredictable. So by the time we finished our acclimatisation climbs on the Lhotse face we made the decision that it wasn’t safe to go back through the ice flow again.’

‘That was a more difficult decision than Aconcagua because it was based on the perception of risk, which isn’t as clear cut as a very obvious frostbite risk that you can base off temperature and windspeed. But once the decision was made I felt it was important to support it, given Brice’s expertise and knowledge, and in hindsight other teams didn’t abandon and 16 people were killed in avalanches that season, so his predictions about the instability were correct.’

Q: How do you keep pushing forward after an unsuccessful attempt?
A: ‘It requires some resilience to start from scratch again, but we’ve never really had a problem with that with our team. They’re always ready to go again, because of the preparation and selection process we put people through. So when we get back I’ve got the responsibility to start again from scratch, and try to get the funding together for another attempt.’

Q: And what’s next in the team’s journey to The Adaptive Grand Slam?
A: ‘Everest is our next attempt next spring, so I’m in the process of sorting out funding, I’m working hard to try and make it happen. We’re very resource light, I’m not part of a huge charity and I’ve got a day job. It’s about using the resources we have, and adapting and improving as we go. It takes some perseverance, but I’m confident that it’s going to happen.’

Find more information on the Adaptive Grand Slam at www.adaptivegrandslam.com

Words: Joel Snape

Mh 3

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