Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 October 2019

Dubai climber who broke her back in horror fall set for mountaineering record

Caroline Leon aims to summit all the highest peaks in the Middle East in 30 days

Caroline Leon took this selfie when she climbed Australia's highest peak - Mt Kosciuszko. Courtesy Caroline Leon
Caroline Leon took this selfie when she climbed Australia's highest peak - Mt Kosciuszko. Courtesy Caroline Leon

A Dubai climber hopes to become the first person in the world to summit the highest peaks in the Middle East inside 30 days, despite breaking her back just four years ago.

Australian Caroline Leon, 34, suffered horrific injuries when she fell while training on an outdoor climbing wall in the emirate.

Doctors said the damage was so severe that she was unlikely to ever walk again. But after being confined to a wheelchair for six months as well as undergoing 14 surgeries and 23 blood transfusions, she slowly regained her ability to walk.

On Saturday, Ms Leon is set to undertake a whirlwind journey across 15 countries in the Arabian Peninsula including Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Turkey and Yemen in her quest to make history.

Caroline Leon pictured during her climb of Kilimanjaro. Courtesy Caroline Leon
Caroline Leon pictured during her climb of Kilimanjaro. Courtesy Caroline Leon

“I shattered both my feet, the right side of my pelvis, my pubic bone snapped off and a segment of my spine exploded and had to be artificially replaced,” she told The National.

“I spent two months in hospital and was in and out for the next two years going from surgery to surgery, learning how to walk again.

“It was frustrating but I knew I didn’t want it to be the defining moment of my life.”

The seriousness of Ms Leon's injuries forced her to undergo a bone graft from her pelvis bone to her spine and three of her vertebrae are now fused together with surgical rods.

She also shattered the metatarsal, calcaneum and talus bones in both feet.

Yet despite the extent of the her trauma, she remained determined to rebuild her life, recovering her ability to walk without assistance and then setting her sights on a series of record-breaking feats.

Since the accident, she has climbed the 5,900 metre summit of Kilimanjaro in Africa and conquered Mount Kosciuszko, the highest peak in Australia, which stands at 2,300m.

Out of the 15 mountains she plans to climb this month, the tallest summit will be Mount Damavand in Iran at 5,600m.

“I have always wanted to do something amazing in my life and push boundaries,” said Ms Leon, who was inspired by her experiences to launch her own fitness website, Life of Education.

“When you become used to being in a wheelchair and people washing and dressing you, you get in to this mentality of ‘I’m disabled’. “It’s very hard to break free from that.”

Ms Leon said that simple tasks most people took for granted had been extremely difficult for her on the road back to full fitness.

“Walking was tough, I would be exhausted if I walked to the bathroom and be in so much pain that I couldn’t walk for days,” she said.

Caroline Leon training in the RAK Mountains. Courtesy Caroline Leon
Caroline Leon training in the RAK Mountains. Courtesy Caroline Leon

“It’s like I have come full circle, I want to do something that will show I am healed and that part of my life is done.”

She is under no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead of her when she leaves Dubai on September 7.

“The biggest challenge from a physical point of view will be my feet,” she said. “I ran the Dubai 10km recently and my feet were causing me so much pain afterwards.”

As for the trip itself, she said the main issue would be getting around in time with so much of the expedition spent travelling.

“It’s going to take about 10 days to climb the summits in Turkey and Iran so the rest of the trip will be hectic getting from one point to another,” she said.

“It’s a day here and a day there. I am going to be at airports a lot of the time so my days will be really compressed.”

Caroline Leon training in the RAK Mountains. Courtesy Caroline Leon
Caroline Leon training in the RAK Mountains. Courtesy Caroline Leon

Most people undertaking such a task would be expected to travel with a large entourage but that is not the case with Ms Leon.

“I am going alone,” she said. “I am being supported by DHL for the whole journey though. There will be different teams from DHL who will accompanying me all the way to some of the summits.

“I will have pockets of DHL families throughout different parts of the trip.”

Another facet of Ms Leon’s life is that she is a brand ambassador of Gulf For Good.

The organisation was set up 18 years ago to help improve the lives of children around the world. Now the group is helping to facilitate Ms Leon's training for the world record attempt.

The single-minded climber has already embarked on a number of tasks for the organisation, including travelling to Peru to help build a boarding house for a school.

“Caroline is an inspiration to us all,” said Emma Taylor, marketing manager for Gulf for Good.

“Her history and story of recovery is incredible. It’s remarkable that she is about to undertake this task, given what she has been through.”

Updated: September 6, 2019 03:02 PM

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