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Himalayan challenge a dream for BA grad

Nick Allen training at the Massey University Recreation Centre days before heading for the Himalayas

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When BA graduate Nick Allen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) five years ago, he felt his life was practically over. Five years on, he is out of his mobility chair, super-fit and on a mission to climb Himalayan peaks for his campaign to raise awareness – and funds – to help other MS sufferers follow their dreams.

The Massey University student departs September 1 on an epic two-month journey to India and Nepal with backpack and climbing equipment, ready to tackle several peaks – including one over 6000m.

 Now 30, Mr Allen’s fit, healthy and positive demeanour today is in stark contrast to his health status in his mid-twenties when he was first diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.

“By that point, I was dependent on a motorised chair to get me around,” he says. “I was unable to walk on any uneven surface because of poor balance, and I couldn’t walk for more the five or ten minutes at a time, due to the fatigue. Mountains began to represent the impossible and insurmountable, a failed dream.”

After 18 months of depression and suicidal thoughts resulting from a sense of hopelessness, he decided, with the support of his parents, Peter and Alex, to get in touch with a physical therapist and specialist trainer. He researched and adopted strategies from the Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS) programme. This involved making radical dietary changes, adopting a careful programme of exercise and gradually began to regain his strength.

Nick Allen climbing in the Nelson Lakes this year

Life-changing exercise and diet

It might sound a simplistic summary of success but it was tough, he says. Now, several years of intensive exercising and sticking to a special diet, underpinned by his extraordinary tenacity, have enabled him to do the unthinkable – not just move without wheels but to climb mountains.

His training has been through Massey’s School of Sport and Exercise, which has a special agreement with the local Multiple Sclerosis society and where final-year students are given an MS patient to work with and rehabilitate.

Mr Allen signed up for the scheme, which has been running for a few years, and was allocated student Liam Barendsen. “He has been just amazing and has worked with me since the beginning of the year,” Mr Allen says. “Together we’ve made a great deal of progress. Sport and Exercise have been a massive help in getting me ready for the trip.”

Training involves a mix of running for cardio fitness, as well strength and weight training at the University’s Manawatū campus Recreation Centre. He’s also been climbing in the South Island in recent months though to date, the North Island’s Mt Ruapehu – at 2797m – is the tallest peak he has climbed.

During his two-month trip in September and October, he aims to surpass that height, with plans to climb the Himalayan Peaks of Stok Kangri (6,153m) and Hampta Pass (4,300m) in India, and in Nepal, Island Peak (6,189m) and Gokyo Ri (5,357m).

Nick Allen and his trainer Liam Barendsen at the Massey University Recreation Centre.

Nutritious fare vital for reaching peaks

From food supplies to physical training, preparations have been rigorous for the formidable challenges ahead. He’s cooked gluten and dairy-free dehydrated meals packed with the nutrients and energy he needs to reach those summits and – critically – keep his body warm at high altitudes.

Curries, spaghetti bolognese, beef bourguignon and Mexican dishes had to be slow-cooked, dried, processed, powdered and vacuum-packed, a laborious task taking several days of toil in the kitchen. He’s grateful too, for the dark chocolate and drinking chocolate supplies donated by Whittaker’s and Avalanche.

Mr Allen is fully aware of the risks and hazards he faces. With his MS diagnosis, he has to take extreme care that he eats well to avoid a relapse. Sleep is also critical, and get enough in freezing altitudes will be a challenge.

However, he’s not dwelling on possible setbacks. He’s doing what he yearned to do since he gazed at a map of Mt Everest on the wall of his bedroom as youngster and imagined being there.

Raising awareness of life with MS

He says his MS diagnosis – and his battle to overcome it – means he takes nothing in life for granted. His charitable trust, Mastering Mountains, is the platform for sharing his trek to the Himalayas and – he hopes – one that will inspire others with MS to know that the condition is not a death sentence and can be managed.

Originally from Auckland, Mr Allen lives in in Palmerston North, where he is close to the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges for climbing or tramping. When he’s not out in nature or studying, he works at Macpac Palmerston North.

Explorations of the intellect and imagination with the BA

His discovery of a love of studying humanities subjects – especially English, creative writing, history and philosophy – has also led to him appearing in a new marketing campaign just launched to promote the BA – a degree he genuinely champions.

Despite the physical and mental fatigue during the early years following diagnosis, he completed a BA (Honours) two years ago, with the help of disability support services at the Manawatū campus. Prior to that, he began an engineering degree in the United States and worked as an engineer for a while until illness forced him to take a step back.

He completed his BA (Honours) year exploring concepts of memory, justice and reconciliation in the biography of South African Anglican cleric, Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu.

What he really valued was being able to integrate several disciplines – English, history, philosophy, politics and political philosophy – in his research and learning. It was both “thrilling and enriching”.

“I’m very passionate about the BA now. You get to see the world in a whole lot of new ways,” he says. “You discover new ways of thinking about and understanding things. And you realise there is a lifetime of learning ahead.”

He is devoting all his energy to his Himalayan adventure this year. And in 2016 he’ll launch into high-altitude academia for a PhD comparing South African and New Zealand literature to investigate the mechanisms of ethical reconciliation.

Mr Allen will be blogging throughout his trip, and will have a GPS tracker so supporters can follow his progress. Check his Mastering Mountains website, and related Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter #nzernick

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