Aware of the social responsibly content work that my creative partners and I have undertaken for organizations such as Sala Bai and The Chain Reaction Project, my friends at Diageo brand Johnnie Walker reached out to us last year to capture the spirited story of two men — Paul Fairhurst and Gregory Burns — as they challenged themselves to a high-altitude trek through the stunning Himalayan Mountains of Ladakh, India. But Paul and Gregory are not your regular hikers…
Three days after moving himself and his family from Shanghai to Singapore, Paul was severely injured in a cycling accident. When he regained consciousness after the accident, Paul found himself paralyzed and unable to feel any sensation from the shoulders down. Faced with an uncertain and frightening new physical reality, Paul was determined to walk his way out of the hospital and into recovery. What has ensued is a grueling and committed test of his and his family’s physical and emotional strength.
Gregory is a five-time Paralympic medal winner. When he was a young child, he contracted polio and was paralyzed by the early childhood illness. Gregory has been an exemplar of living an athletic life as a disabled person. But in addition to his athletic abilities, Gregory is a painter, author and world traveler.
When Gregory and Paul met there was an instant connection. This connection ignited the dream of planning a shared trek that would bring them both to new locations and physical tests.
Our two films — the 4-minute version here and a longer 11-minute version which we also produced, along with a collection of photo reportage — tell the story of these two men, brought together by a shared force of will and resilience in the face of great physical challenges, inspiring each other to ‘Keep Walking’ across the Great Himalaya. What follows here is Paul’s personal account of his challenges and experiences leading up to, and while undertaking, this once in a lifetime adventure.
10th June 2014 – Ladakh, India: Time has clouded my memories. But if I close my eyes, I can be there… on a dusty road… reaching up to touch the prayer flags… taking a small moment to say silent “thank you’s”… embracing a group who had become very special friends…. then being stopped in my tracks by an overwhelming outpouring of accumulated emotion.
June 2011 – Singapore: I cannot recall the impact — that trauma is locked in a deep mental recess, for self-protection. But I think I flew over the handlebars of my bicycle and landed on my head. I do remember the first moments of regained consciousness and the terrible realization…. that I was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Later, the medics revealed the bleak prognosis: incontinence, impotence, infections and respiratory difficulties; a lifetime dependent on care and in a wheelchair. A few weeks later I was told that, at the date of injury, I had a less than 10% chance of ever walking again. All of that, tragically, is reality for many who suffer a spinal cord injury: an injury that all too frequently destroys lives and tears families apart.
July 2012 – Bangkok, Thailand: I’m on a stage, telling my story to 550 Diageo colleagues. I closed with reflections on the lessons I’d learned post-injury, including the power of setting goals. I showed an image of the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and said that some day I’d like to see that with my own eyes.
Of course, the odds of me ever climbing any mountain were very low. But that wasn’t the point. What mattered was that I had a dream that spurred me on. Well, I’ve also learned that the universe is a great provider: it will give you what you ask for. Mind you, I’ve also learned to not expect an easy ride!
For almost a year, I believed I was on a straight line to full recovery. Over time, the trajectory changed. By the end of the first year, the neurological damage had led to excessive muscle tone and spasticity, making it harder to move. The physical, mental and emotional stresses of fighting to simultaneously re-establish my career, hold my family together and maintain my rehab fed my spasticity and triggered chronic pain.
I became fatigued and started to occasionally trip and fall: the injuries were minor, but my confidence was dented. Through the cracks that formed, doubt and fear crept in. My belief almost unraveled. But it remained intact, nurtured by my sense of opportunity.
Summer 2013 – Singapore: The universe, it seems, also brings people to make things happen. Gregory Burns was the first person I met at a friend’s party. He was with his wife, Angie, entertaining a crowd. He saw my limp, I saw his arm crutches, and the crowd faded away. Over the next few hours, I learned his story: paralyzed by polio at the age of one, then a life of marathons, Paralympic gold medals and world records, global adventures, and a career as a painter, writer and motivational speaker.
I soon learned of Gregory’s other talent: fomenting big ideas! He took stock of my progress, my challenges and my attitude, and declared that he and I should go to the mountains. So, apparently, Gregory would help bring my dream to life. And, in turn, I would help realize his: I was his key to a conversation with Johnnie Walker about their shared mantra, “Keep Walking”.
30 May 2014 – Ladakh, India: Typically, when I arrive at airports, I decline wheelchair assistance. This time, I didn’t resist being shepherded into a chair waiting at the steps. I’m glad: I might never again be wheeled across a busy runway, amongst snowcapped mountains, with military helicopters circling overhead.
Over the previous six months Gregory and I had settled into our roles: he’s the ideas man; I plan and execute. But this project was a many-limbed beast and at one point nearly fell apart. However, all the while it felt like it would happen — it was meant to!
As plans progressed, an occasional whisper said, “You can’t do this”. I ignored that. But another said, “Are you sure it’s safe?” I had to answer, for the sake of my wife, my two young kids, and my health. I identified the risks and set to tackling them.
When Gregory first threw down his gauntlet, the furthest I’d walked was 5km. Later in 2013, I’d doubled that. But that was on Singapore’s flat roads. Our goal was to trek 35km in 5 days across the unforgiving Himalayas — an altogether different challenge!
For 6 months, I conditioned my body for long distance over consecutive days on varied terrain. Three weeks before departure, I walked 32km over 5 days, adding a huge layer of confidence.
The trek would be at very high altitude. I didn’t know whether my damaged spinal cord increased my risk of altitude sickness. At sea level in Singapore, that seemed like a challenge with no solution, but then I found a high- altitude simulation facility. For three months I trained above an artificial 3,500m on spin bikes, treadmills and step machines. My oxygen absorption levels remained high, my health stayed good and I gained more confidence.
Post-injury I don’t cope well with cold: due to dysfunctional reflexes, I don’t shiver, I spasm. In June, Ladakh enjoys warm days but cold nights, and there’s always the risk of a sudden weather change. Singapore’s outdoor shops were happy as I spent heavily on thermals.
Regardless of temperature, the extreme physical exertion would inevitably increase my tone and pain. Medication would help, but the best strategy was to stretch intensively. For that, I needed expert assistance. I was thrilled when my therapist, Viv Spanopoulos, agreed to join the trek.
Safety was paramount. I wanted an experienced guide who could minimize the risks and build robust emergency plans. I could not have found better than Alan Ward, a mountain leader with an acute focus on safety, experience leading treks for people with disabilities, a quirky sense of humour and a huge heart. Alan selected a trusted local guide, Rigzin Tsewang, whose calm confidence provided great reassurance.
Alongside the risk management, other preparations progressed. To our delight, Johnnie Walker wanted to have the trek professionally documented and brought on board our talented film crew led by director Mike Rogers and photographer Scott Woodward.
5th June 2014 – Ladakh, India: Ponies loaded, we set off through apricot orchards, past whitewashed stupas, beneath astonishing blue skies that would bless us throughout the trek. The terrain became more challenging as we headed towards our first high pass at 3,600m, through valleys wrought by the ferocity of nature into captivating geological patterns.
By mid-afternoon the campsite came into view, but the trail was a series of switchback paths that seemed to always take us closer than further away. My pain kicked in and grew ever stronger, and Gregory’s arms and shoulders were feeling the strain as we pushed through the demands of a very gruelling first day.
We reached our tents after 9 hours and 9.5km — punishing for all of us at this very high altitude. I crashed to the ground sheet, and Viv got to work, stretching out the accumulated tightness, delivered with her special mix of spiritual wisdom and Aussie-Greek humour. We were all exhausted, but elated. As I settled in my tent that night, I knew for the first time that I could complete the trek.
6th June 2014 – Ladakh, India: After the ritual start of cardamom tea and washing water brought to our tents, the second day started gently, but soon we were climbing steeply, towards our next high pass at 3,800m. By lunchtime, we reached what must surely be one of the world’s most spectacular campsites. Gregory set up his big canvases and the rest
of us watched, mesmerised, as his paintings emerged. Gregory titled one of his paintings “Find a Tribe”. The experience of trauma changes many things, including how those affected interact. There’s little room for small talk: conversation quickly reaches levels of intimacy that might otherwise never be attained.
Pre-trek, my relationship with Gregory was dominated by the “To Do” list. Now, as we walked in this remote, demanding environment, we explored not just the strengths we’d built and the lessons we’d learned, but also the baggage we carried and how that shaped us. As our small tribe passed by the Mani walls, we laid down prayer stones to lighten that load.
7th June 2014 – Ladakh, India: Day three was a big one, reaching the highest point of the trek at 3,900m. We needed all our energies, but Gregory had slept badly and awoke unwell. As we climbed, he became dehydrated and fatigued. Gregory dug into his deepest reserves, and I focused intently on helping him through. We diverted our thoughts from the distance ahead, and focused on each individual step, every one of which moved closer to the goal.
Eventually, we reached the high pass. As I stood in the blustering wind, admiring Gregory’s titanic willpower, he said three words: “You’re a rock”. Those words struck deep, and as the group moved down to a sheltered lunch spot, I hung back and found a place on the hill to be alone, to reflect on
how strong this journey to recovery had made me, bringing many tears of gratitude. Although I can walk without aids, my movement patterns are impeded. I cannot flex my right foot well, causing foot drop, and when I walk I fix my gaze downwards to safely navigate uneven surfaces. As a result, I see a lot of the floor and the boundaries of my world are very small. I’d hoped that Ladakh might change that and it did: many times I was rooted to the spot, awestruck by the plunging valleys, distant mountains and enormous skies — and energized by life.
9th June 2014 – Ladakh, India: A scheduled two-night break allowed Gregory to recover and all of us to recharge ahead of the most challenging day, a 9.6km trek over two high passes and our last big climb to 3,900m.
This was a long, lung-busting slog up a steep, switchback path. It called on every ounce of our physical strength. The trail path was thin, in parts no wider than our boots. I had the luxury of climbing forwards, with my walking poles supporting my leg strength.
Gregory moves with arm strength only and needs a wide base to plant his crutches. This path was too narrow for that, and so Gregory had to scuttle sideways — all the way up! For added fun, the path was covered in the finest scree, several inches deep. The scree would not hold under Gregory’s sticks, so Rigzin scrambled downhill in the sand, using his boot to reinforce Gregory’s every step. Great teamwork and an immense achievement!
10th June 2014 – Ladakh, India: During the short walk out of the valley, Gregory and I were told to hang back from the group. As we turned the last corner, we saw the surprise finish line, fashioned from prayer flags. Our celebrations began. I held myself together for a little while but then, as I walked towards the vehicles, the scale of my achievements hit home, blowing the lid off three years of accumulated fear, sadness, relief and joy, and striking at my heart with overwhelming gratitude: for my recovery; for the gift of this exceptional journey in the company of an extraordinary tribe of lifelong friends; and for the night that Gregory popped into my life and helped change it forever.
Postscript: 19th June 2015 – Bath, England: It’s been a year now since my family and I relocated to the UK. That has brought many positives, but physically the trajectory has changed again. Living and working through the winter in a big house that’s hard to heat and is all stairs has caused my spasticity to spike and worsened my mobility. It has felt as though I am being paralyzed again, this time slowly and very painfully. I have fought incessantly to stop the backslide. Then, three months ago, a rare condition left me deaf in one ear. I’m told that is likely total and permanent. As Gregory says, “You take your knocks, you get back up, and you carry on.” There is no choice; that’s what I’m doing.
A Personal Message From Paul – Millions of people worldwide live with spinal cord injury and each year another 250,000 are injured. There is no cure for paralysis, but there is hope. Scientists now believe that paralysis will become curable and several research initiatives are showing promise. But the research is expensive and currently governments and pharmaceutical companies will not fund it. So it’s down to others to find the money. Paul supports two charities at the forefront of those efforts: Spinal Research and Wings for Life. To donate via Paul’s fundraising page, click here. To follow Paul’s ongoing journey, visit Paul’s Blog.