Former Royal Marine Andy Merry works as a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London. He was diagnosed with MS last year and has since raised over £27,000 to support the work of the MS Trust by climbing the highest mountain in the Alps. We caught up with Andy just after he returned from his challenge in June to ask him about his experience of climbing Mont Blanc for MS.
When were you diagnosed with MS and how have you dealt with your diagnosis?
I received my diagnosis on 7 March 2016. It wasn’t unexpected and in fact it was quite a relief that it wasn’t something even more scary. I have MS and there is nothing I can do to change that and so I might as well play with the cards that I’ve been given. I have had a very full and active life so far and I don’t really see why this has to change. I will have to adapt the things I am able to do and maybe think about things more carefully, but apart from that I have no intention of going down without a fight and will continue to do the things I love.
How do you think your background in the Royal Marines has affected how you have coped with the challenges of having MS?
There are four elements to what we in the Royal Marines call the Commando Spirit. These are; Courage, Determination, Unselfishness and Cheerfulness in the face of adversity, combined with the Commando Values of Excellence, Integrity, Self-Discipline and Humility. These attributes are drummed into a Royal Marines recruit throughout their training and beyond. To me MS is just another test to pass, another obstacle to get through. I have never chosen the easy path, always pursuing excellence and doing the things that will test me the most. MS is no different.
Why did you want to support the MS Trust’s work?
Within 30 seconds of receiving my diagnosis I was handed an information pack provided by the MS Trust. I went home and read every word and then spent the next few days on the website reading up on all things MS. The Trust was there quite literally from the start so it was the natural choice for me to support them in their wonderful work.
You have just climbed Mont Blanc with a team of friends and family. How was it?
Hard!! Climbing Mt Blanc was a challenge I set myself a few months after being diagnosed. My first reason was selfish I must confess. I wanted to do something I love doing before MS stops me from doing so, the MS Trust was my next thought.
I had trained very, very hard for this adventure and had no doubts about how hard climbing this monster of a mountain would be, however it’s only while stood up there, above the clouds, that you get a real sense of the sheer scale of it. It was a long hard slog that became harder with altitude. On one part we found ourselves scaling a 600m near vertical wall in the dark whilst wearing crampons and avoiding the rock falls that at one point hurtled past us on either side.
What were some of the toughest moments?
Above 4000m it’s hard to breathe and movement becomes very slow. My legs were tired anyway from the effort of climbing so high, I lose the feeling and ability to lift my right leg causing it to drag along, not ideal when wearing crampons as they catch and I frequently stumble or fall.
What I hadn’t realised is that my MS balance issues have brought about vertigo in me. I have never suffered with this before so never gave it any consideration. Climbing the 600m wall and walking over thin ridges with considerable drops either side was not where I’d hoped to discover this new phenomenon.
It was the stumbling and the vertigo that ultimately prevented us from reaching the summit. I was told by Rick our guide, that the final push for the summit would involve a 300m walk across a ridge that was at best, 1½ ft wide with a drop off on each side of at least 1000m. In his words, “one slip and you will fall to your certain death”.
As a team we talked it over and weighed the options up, but each time we arrived at the same conclusion… this is not worth dying for. We would continue to climb until we reached the ridge and then turn back. This was the toughest thing of all but is a decision that I do not regret. On our way back down the mountain my leg was giving way all the time and I was tripping, stumbling and falling very regularly, so I am comfortable that it was the only and right thing to do.
What has it meant to you to take on this challenge?
I have enjoyed every minute, from all the training to the actual climb itself. It has taken my mind away from some of the down sides of MS and has given me a focus and a goal to aim for. I have loved spending time with my son Luke and my brother Simon as we have climbed this huge mountain together.
What has always been more important to me than reaching this personal goal and raising lots of money is the inspiration that I hope I have given to other people with MS to get out and do something that may at first seem to be beyond their abilities.
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