23 September 2009

Climbing Everest to fight cancer

World Lymphoma Day was marked in style on 15 September when partners in the fight against lymphoma gathered for tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.


World Lymphoma Day was marked in style on 15 September when partners in the fight against lymphoma gathered for tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

This event highlighted the importance of educating the public about this type of cancer - especially in a community as affected by HIV/Aids as South Africa is. Although the causes of lymphoma are mostly unknown, people suffering from Aids appear to be at a much higher risk of contracting the disease.

Robby Kojetin, who climed Mount Everest to promote awareness of lymphoma and raise funds for CHOC, was the guest of honour.

Here is Robby's story:

Robby Kojetin was confined to a wheelchair for eight months after breaking both his ankles in a rock-climbing accident in April 2006. His dream of scaling Mount Everest might as well have been as far away as the moon.

"I broke all the bones in both my ankles," tells Robby. "I wasn't allowed to put my feet down for the first two months." Robby admits that it crossed his mind to give up on his dream."I thought: maybe this dream shouldn't be mine. Am I big enough for this dream?"

Three years and one month after his accident (almost to the day), Robby, at the age of 31, became the 17th South African to stand, literally, at the top of the world. On 23 May 2009 at 09:15am he reached Mount Everest's summit, 8 850m above sea level.

But it wasn't just "the dream" that lead him through the bitter cold, blasting winds, and some of the most inhumane terrain up to the highest peak in the world. In his backpack he was carrying a large banner divided into 2 000-plus blocks, each block representing a sponsorship of R500 going towards CHOC, the Childhood Cancer Foundation.

Cancer has touched Robby's life personally: his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer some years ago and has survived, but a friend and mentor wasn't as lucky and died of lymphoma. For this reason, he used his Everest adventure to raise funds and awareness for others suffering from this disease. Robby's climb, dubbed the "Climb of Hope", raised R100 000 in donation to CHOC.

Where it all began
His love for adventure and the outdoors came from being a scout. "I always enjoyed hiking, seeing the Drakensberg, and the rest of the country, and just going out and doing stuff," says Robby. It was at just such a scouting event that he met John Black, who shared Robby's love for adventure and climbing. Ten months later they were climbing Kilimanjaro together, and in May John also accompanied Robby all the way up Everest.

Other noteworthy climbs Robby did between Kilimanjaro and Everest were Mount Kenya in Kenya, Mount Stanley in Uganda, Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount Elbrus in Russia.

Then came Robby's accident – shoddy equipment at an indoor climbing gym in Johannesburg led to two broken ankles, and nearly put an end to Robby's dream. "Going to Everest was something to train and heal for – something to get better for," tells Robby.

But it was a long and hard road to recovery. From lack of use, this usually active man's legs wasted away, and the Achilles' tendon hardened from lack of movement. It took many hours of physiotherapy and training to get him back into shape so he could start training for Everest.

Training for Everest
The training consisted of exercising three hours a day, six days a week, for a gruelling 18 months. To keep it fun, Robby started training for triathlons. “How do you get up early in the morning to train for something that is only happening in 18 months? You have to bring in short-term goals to make it easier, realistic and tangible."

The training required a lot of cardiovascular exercise, "because up there your lungs and heart take a lot of strain." He explains that at such high altitudes your resting heart rate is about 140bpm. "You have to make sure that your heart and lungs are ready for this."

"I didn't do a lot of weight training, because bulk muscle uses oxygen and you have to get (the muscle) up the hill and back down again."

According to Robby, you also have to prepare yourself mentally when attempting something as bold as climbing Mount Everest.

"You're going to one of the scariest places in the world. There's never been anyone rescued above 8 000m, so where you drop, is where you'll stay. It's incredibly intimidating, so you have to come to terms with that, and you have to be prepared," tells Robby, who admits to enrolling the help of a psychologist to prepare him mentally for the task.

The top of the world
All the hard work paid off and Robby's dream was realised as he summited Everest. Read Robby and John's blog, which they kept during their trip for a blow-by-blow account of their adventure, and also visit the Climb of Hope website for more information.

Robby is planning a second trip up Everest in March next year and hopes to complete the "Seven Summits", which is the highest peak on each of the continents, before settling down.

– (Wilma Stassen, Health24, updated September 2009)

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