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For Tony, it’s no legs, no worries


For Tony, it’s no legs, no worries

It would be easy for double amputee Tony Christiansen to dwell on the cruel hand of fate life has dealt him. But as Lindy Andrews reports he’d rather chase his dreams

Inspirational speaker and double amputee Tony Christiansen is packed and ready to take on Mount Kilimanjaro - Picture: John Borren

Inspirational speaker and double amputee Tony Christiansen is packed and ready to take on Mount Kilimanjaro - Picture: John Borren

He might be leg-less but that hasn’t stopped Tauranga man Tony Christiansen from clocking up a long list of achievements.

He’s an inspirational speaker, qualified scuba diver, Tae Kwon Do black belt, surf lifesaver, speedway driver.

Now, he's aspiring to even greater heights by becoming the first double leg amputee to climb Tanzania's 5,895m Mount Kilimanjaro.

Tony is the kind of bloke whose exploits leave you gasping. This week, he was packing his woollies and freeze-dried rations in readiness for his biggest physical and mental challenge to date - a 12-day wheelchair trek over hostile volcanic slopes where temperatures plummet to a bone-freezing minus 20C at night and soar to a blistering 35-38C by day.

Hot on his heels - make that wheels - will be a television crew and two disabled Koreans; one a young woman who is blind, the other an experienced mountaineer who lost both forearms to frostbite while climbing in Canada.

Tony's right-hand man will be Wellington man Matt Comeski, a veteran climber highly recommended by Peter Hillary.

But for all concerned, there is far more at stake than mere stardom. Their mission is to foster the hopes and dreams of disabled people all over the world but in particular places like Africa and Korea where they are, at best shunned, at worst smothered at birth.

"I didn't just get up one morning and think: 'Oh, Mount Kilimanjaro is a bit of a go this year'," Tony said.

"I'd done a previous doco with the same producer - Jeong Hoe - which was shown in Japan and Taiwan and highly acclaimed at the Korean television awards."

Already, the Mount Kilimanjaro project has attracted plenty of interest from the world's leading television networks and the Tanzanian government has pulled out all the stops to help.

In his last few hours on home turf, Tony is busy making a checklist: food, gloves, $1,000 sleeping bag, vacuum flask, boots. Boots? Well, not quite.

For the times when he will be forced to drag his American-designed and built climbing wheelchair over exceptionally steep or rocky terrain, there are two pairs of hi-tech, locally-designed vinyl pants.

"I'll go as far as I can (in the chair) then, I suppose, I'll be getting out and doing the rest on my backside," Tony says.

And then there's the two pair of gloves he'll have to wear at a time to protect the hands which will propel his abbreviated body over the sharp volcanic rocks.

Tony and the documentary team will spend their first 10 days on Tanzanian soil visiting impoverished villages in the Lake Victoria and Serengeti regions.

"Part of the Kilimanjaro experience is that we will go to villages and talk to people less fortunate than us," Tony said.

"Within that, hopefully, we can do something for the locals in a culture where, if you are born with a disability, you are smothered."

Likewise, the harsh reality of the villagers' subsistence lifestyle means people who are injured or develop crippling illnesses in later life are seen as unproductive and consequently, shunned.

That's something Tony - a mental and physical mountain of a man cut down by a train accident when he was nine - wants to see change.

On December 12, the party will begin the grueling trek skyward. Kilimanjaro - a dormant volcano that last blew its top in the early 1700s - dominates the east African savannah, sprawling over 1,176 square miles and consists of three peaks; Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo, the tallest.

For the able-bodied, the climb is a three to four-day doddle. Only a handful of people - of the 11,000 who climb it each year - die on its slopes.

Usually, it's altitude sickness that claims lives. But their slow progress over 10-12 days will buy Tony and the rest of the crew some insurance against the lethal effects of oxygen depletion. They'll have plenty of time to acclimatize.

The last time Tony climbed a mountain, it was Mauao - height, a mere pimple at 231m. So how does he think he'd handle the 5,895m slog up Tanzania's highest peak?

"It's all an unknown," he said. "But I'll be the first person in a wheelchair to have climbed it and that's got to be worth the experience."

Medical checks have revealed that he's in good shape for the trip. His lung capacity is excellent, his heart rivals that of any racehorse and he has the kind of upper body strength professional weightlifters would kill for.

Even so, it won't be easy. The hardest part will be the last 2,475m. Most climbers make the trek from the last base camp at 3,420m to Kilimanjaro's summit - known as Uhuru - in six hours or so.

But Tony and his team will have to spend two, maybe three, nights out in the open to cover the distance. There's nothing magical about the US$10,000 climbing chair, other than the fact that it has mountain bike tyres and suspension so that it won't tip over. It's not electric either, so he will be reliant on his arms and hands at every stage of the journey.

"It's purely manual," he said. "When it gets rough, I'll be hooking a rope on and pulling it. The last couple of kilometers I'll be doing on my backside."

Only one photograph exists of Tony Christiansen with legs. "I was nine years old and a skinny little runt," he says.

But what if he hadn't become a double amputee? Would he still be chasing dreams, trying to change the world?

"I'd like to think so," he said.