Aaron Phipps, who after contracting meningitis which had a major impact on his life, is no stranger to challenges – he represented Team GB in the London 2012 Paralympics wheelchair rugby squad. We spoke with him ahead of what could be his biggest challenge yet, as he took on a trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Where did the idea to take on Kilimanjaro come from?
I was a Paralympian in 2012 and I stood down after London because I wanted to spend time with my family, but about three years ago a guy called Mike Taylor from the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) turned up at my house and said ‘we send lots of students up Kilimanjaro every year, do you fancy it?’ At the time I didn’t think anything of being a wheelchair user and whether that was going to make things more difficult.
This is how most things happen in my life – I go ‘yeah, alright’ when the opportunity presents itself and it leads to all types of different things.
We did a bit of research and found that people had done it before in chairs so it kind of snowballed from there really. We wanted to raise as much money as we could for the charity and we decided that it would work well if we did the Silverstone half marathon, which was done in March, the London (full) Marathon in April and then Kilimanjaro in May.
Is there something compelling about saying ‘yes’ to such an incredibly difficult project and proving ‘what disabled people can do’?
I guess almost dying when I was 15 gave me a completely different outlook on life and I think it just made me realise that whether you’re able bodied or disabled – it doesn’t matter, you only get one life. It’s not so much to inspire other people but just to prove to myself that I can do it.
I had meningitis when I was 15. I had flu-like symptoms and went to bed with a fever but in 12 hours I went from minor symptoms to a life support machine; it all happened very quickly. I was in hospital for a year trying to get better. I was poorly in January and I had my legs amputated in March – but at that time I just made a conscious choice that I wasn’t going to let this stop me or beat me. It’s think it’s probably the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me to be honest: worst for obvious reasons and best because it gave me a completely different outlook.
If I hadn’t been ill I wouldn’t have met my wife whom I love very much and I wouldn’t have become a Paralympian and I wouldn’t be climbing bloody mountains! So what if I’m in a wheelchair, let’s get on and do these things. At times it can make for an interesting life. I’m basically going to have to ‘bench press’ my way up a very big hill but I’m going to look good by the end of it – that’s one of the positives.
You can find 99 reasons not to do something and avoid the reason ‘to do it’. I just thought ‘yeah, I’m going to go for it’ and if it is a process that inspires other people who are disabled, then that’s another positive.
I’m an amputee but I can wear prosthetic legs but I’ve got bad scars, so my legs just get sore so I’ve always done sports from a wheelchair – it’s just the norm for me. It’s going to be tough but after spending 15 years building my arms up so hopefully it won’t be too tough.
How are you approaching the more technical aspects of the challenge?
We’ve got a good support network around us with Team Kilimanjaro. They help people go up the mountain and achieve their goals. Team Kilimanjaro put together a bespoke expedition that’s going to support me with a group of people around who are going to help me.
We came across a company called Mountain Trike and they built me a bespoke wheelchair. Tim, who owns the company, is an absolutely top guy and he’s helped to put together a chair for my needs because I want to do as much as I can for myself. I really would like to do as much as I physically can.
Fortunately my Dad is an engineer and welder and team mechanic for our wheelchair rugby team – I roped him into that a few years ago. He’s very au fait with changing tyres and so on as you can imagine. We’ve got toolkits (and spares) with us but we’ve tried to scale everything down as much as we can so it’s light enough to carry – but I don’t think British Airways are going to be happy about what turns up on Saturday for them. A lot of thought and practice has gone into it. We’ve been out in forests as well trying out the chair and putting it through its paces. That’s what it’s designed for but you never know what’s coming.
I fly out to Chamonix near Geneva, spend the week sitting on top of Mont Blanc acclimatising and fly from there to Tanzania.
I’ve also been training with Southampton Solent University. They helped me with my training before the Paralympics. I decided I would try to speak with people who knew what they were talking about. They supported me through London and when this challenge presented itself I approached them again. So we’re doing conditioning sessions in the gym; they’ve got a £100,000 treadmill that I’ve been using on a high incline (setting) and they sat me on there with the Mountain Trike, pushing away.
What are the dangers within the expedition?
The main danger is altitude sickness – and the problem with that is you don’t know how it’s going to affect you. Someone could be fit as a fiddle and go up there and suffer really badly whereas other people sail up there. You don’t quite know how that’s going to hit you.
I can do my best to prepare for that – so I’ve been using specialist altitude equipment – sitting in the evening with a mask on with my oxygen levels lowered to try to create extra red blood cells. Unfortunately a few people do die on the mountain but you know, people walk up there every year and are fine as well.
I’ve also been doing sessions that are what we call ‘pre-hab’ to try to stop me acquiring injuries – so things like strengthening the muscles to support my shoulders so that I don’t injure myself.
I think that I’m in good shape – I’ve done everything in my power to support myself.
And make it he did… here’s Aaron at the top of the mountain.
— Aaron Phipps (@AaronPhippsGBWR) July 3, 2016
Aaron who works for Roma Sport on their innovation and development within its sports and active wheelchair portfolio, is also an athlete mentor for Sky Academy and a motivational speaker. He has been a long term supporter of both Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) and Shaw Trust after contracting meningitis in 1999.
Visit Aaron’s Just Giving Page: https://www.justgiving.com/AaronPhippsKili/
Roma Sport – www.romasport.co.uk