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Phil Oakley tackles the world’s deepest caves

We’re proud and delighted to publish the latest adventure from indomitable Bader Grant recipient, Phil Oakley. Phil, who possesses the Bader spirit in spades and personifies the motto: “…it’s what you can do that counts”

Phil apologised in his email that this adventure wasn’t as exotic as previous ones (which can be found by entering Phil Oakley into the Website Search Engines). However, reading this fascinating and personal article makes one acutely aware of the extra problems faced by amputees when undertaking sports such as caving even when as experienced as Phil. It also leaves you in no doubt as to the courage and determination required to complete these personal challenges. Many, many congratulations and much admiration to Phil for succeeding and I’ve no doubt that the “full” descent will be completed at some point in the future! From someone afraid of heights, this report was pretty gruelling for me and I was only reading it


Caving the World’s Deepest Caves – August 2014

 

Phil Oakley and companions before the caving trip
Phil Oakley and companions before the caving trip

 

My adventure this summer was caving in France. I have been caving and potholing for over 20 years before losing my foot. In the RAF I caved with the Combined Services Caving Association (CSCA) who every 10 years organise a major expedition to the Gouffre Berger in the Vercors, France. Discovered in 1950, it was the first cave to pass 1000m deep and contains some of the largest and best cave formations in the world. At 1123m deep, it is still one of the world’s deepest caves and is one of the classic cave trips.   I went to the bottom in 2004 (pre-amputation) so I knew how hard and technical it was. Caving with one foot is not easy as I have discovered. Being throw off-balance is a major problem, as is wading through waste deep water which makes my prosthetic slowly slip off. I also need to be particularly careful when near vertical drops especially when not on a rope as balance is now that bit more difficult. Overcoming and adapting to new situations is a must when disabled and with every cave trip I learn something new. But, having a major problem at 1000m below the surface is not to be taken lightly, especially in a cave that is prone to flooding and in a region known for flash thunderstorms. With only six caving trips since amputation I hadn’t learnt enough about possible problems; also, I wasn’t cave fit.  This time I decided just to go to ‘Camp 1’ at 500m below ground.

 

On a pitch
On a pitch

On the vertical drops (or pitches), the method of SRT (single rope technique) is used. To get on and off the rope I found myself straddling across pitches of 40m. With all my weight (uncomfortably) pressing into the socket, while keeping in balance and while connecting into the rope, required all my concentration. Fitness and agility was required to swing out into the open shafts. I always felt my prosthetic was slipping off while dangling on the rope as it hung from my stump without support and the build-up of sweat meant it was becoming less secure each passing hour.

Drying the sweat
Drying the sweat

 

Going up the rope was especially hard as most of the power now comes from my good leg and arms. One of the most unnerving parts was in the ‘Meanders’ section where for about 40 minutes I was straddling across a rift with drops below of up to 20m with nothing but my feet and bum in contact with the rock to hold me in place. When one foot does not always make good contact with the rock, your mind is very focused on getting the other points of contact right.

In the Meanders
In the Meanders

 

Some formations in the Cave of Thirteen
Some formations in the Hall of Thirteen

After 9 hours of hard caving I was back on the surface – with my two other companions. But this is not the end of this trip: There is still an hour walk back – up hill – to the car park.   I was pleased I did this trip to Camp 1 and back. My apprehension about going into one of the most hostile environments for adventure sport does help push my mental strength to new boundaries. Once on the surface, I did feel ‘if only’? Maybe I should have pushed myself to go to the bottom? But it’s always there to be done again – in 10 years time?

Phil and companions successfully back on the surface
Phil and companions back on the surface after their successful descent

 

Phil Oakley

 


 

* If you’ve been inspired by Phil’s adventures and would like to apply for a Bader Grant to help you to pursue your personal goals  you can find out more by visiting the dedicated page by clicking HERE

Phil Oakley – Trekking in Morocco

We are extremely grateful to Phil Oakley for sending us this inspirational report of his latest venture and for the beautiful images. You can see all the pictures he sent in a gallery beneath the story.

Not content with a challenging trip to Borneo earlier in the year, Bader Grant recipient Phil decided to tackle the summit of Jebel Toubkal in Morocco in October. Our congratulations to Phil on another successful personal challenge – he is an inspiration to us all.

Here is the story of his climb:

TREKKING IN MOROCCO

Jebel Toubkal – A fearsome challenge…

During October 2013 I was doing my biggest mountain challenge since losing my right foot: To summit Jebel Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco.  At 4178 (13,671ft), it was the highest mountain I had attempted as an amputee.  When I lost my foot to a very rare type of cancer in 2008, I thought my time in the mountains had come to an end.  My surgeon reassured me hill walking would be possible after amputation, but at the time, I did not believe him.  I suppose it is natural to be a bit negative when told your foot needs to come off!  However, he was right; within five months I was walking up Snowdon.  Since then, I have done many mountain routes and rock climbs in the UK and in Scotland – including winter mountaineering.

Phil Oakley and his group with Toubkal in the background

I went to Morocco with a small group of teenagers from my school and a friend who runs ‘Outdoor Ambition’.   We hired a Berber mountain guide – with three mules and muleteers to carry our heavy camping kit.  This helps contribute to the local economy as well as getting to know the Berber people and learning more about the area and life in the mountains. It is also a very popular option when trekking in Morocco.  Having the mules meant I did not need to carry a heavy rucksack making the trekking a more pleasurable experience (and relieving the pressure on the stump).   Jebel Toubkal is a very touristy mountain – on that ‘must do before I die’ bucket list – so most people do it ‘in a day’ rather than spend time in the mountains and appreciating the culture and scenery.  Our trip was six days trekking across the mountains before making our ascent of Toubkal.  During these six days, we ascended over 6000m, crossed very rocky terrain, ascended and descended very steep slopes with sheer drops.  The going was difficult – especially with one foot.  The youngsters in our group were certainly challenged, developing their physical and mental stamina, not to forget their appreciation and respect of different cultures and people.

Tackling some typical mountain paths

I found the ascents relatively easy: it was the steep descents which caused me the most problems as the foot doesn’t flex for the downhill.  I had to take care, as a stumble could have been potentially serious on the rocky slopes; using walking poles certainly helped with stability.  Day temperatures were in the mid to high twenties.  We would trek for about 5-6 hrs with a leisurely lunch break. Some days we started trekking at 5am to beat the day’s heat.   This also meant we got to our camping area by early afternoon, giving us time to relax and wash in the mountain streams. One of the unusual highlights for the youngsters was using mule-dung for the campfire, as wood was difficult.

Phil and his group victorious at the summit of Toubkal

Trekking in Morocco provides a fantastic option for those of all abilities. With an experienced Berber guide, suitable routes can be selected, days varied.   Accommodation can be either camping or in Gîtes.  With warm weather and only 3 ½ hours flight, Morocco is a great adventure destination. Moreover, as an amputee, the support of mules with that reassurance of a lift makes trekking more pleasurable.

By Phil Oakley

                 

Phil Oakley reports from Borneo expedition

Phil with his dive buddies

We are very grateful to Phil Oakley for sending us a report of his recent amazing trip to Borneo with Camps International.

Phil, a lower limb amputee, and Bader Grant recipient, doesn’t let his amputation stop him travelling all over the world. He has already written a report from the Amazonian Rain Forest where he was in July/August last year and is now heading off to Morocco in 2 weeks to climb Jebel Toubkal. He has kindly offered to send us a report of that climb on his – probably exhausted! – return so check in to see it. All at the Douglas Bader Foundation wish Phil the very best of success with this climb – his first since becoming an amputee.

 

The DBF BADER GRANT SCHEME:

Phil is an inspiration in true Bader spirit, which is why the DBF was delighted to be able to help him to achieve his goals with a Bader Grant. We will be expanding our Bader Grant initiative next year so please do contact us if you’d like to apply for a Grant to help you achieve one of your own goals.

 

 BORNEO 2013 – A Report by Phil Oakley

After last year’s adventures in the Amazon rain forest, this year I found myself in Borneo with the charity organisation called Camps International.  I went with four students from my school, who were teamed-up with two others schools.   Camps International provides young people with the opportunity to help with worthwhile projects in various countries around the world. Our projects included helping to complete a community centre in a rural village, laying bricks for a kitchen and toilets (including making the bricks) for a new kindergarten and painting at a new rural school.  A more adventurous project for the teenagers was to spend three nights in the jungle, sleeping in hammocks.  With great anticipation and nervousness, they were taken into the jungle by boat along a crocodile infested river.  After several sightings of crocs lying on the mud banks, everyone was nervous sleeping so close to the river.  But their fears were soon forgotten once they got stuck into the re-forestation project.

 

A croc on the riverbank in Borneo. Photo by Phil Oakley

 

A marine conservation project took the teenagers to the remote island of Mantanani. Here they helped clear the beaches of washed up rubbish, helped educate the locals in marine conservation (as well as themselves), building communal village toilets (with a filtration system) to help prevent human waste ending up in their water source and building a craft shop from washed up water bottles so the locals can sell their crafts to visiting tourists. Some of their time on the island was spent gaining the PADI open water diving qualification. During their dives they found ‘Nemo’ (these are the reefs where this lives) and saw evidence of the very destructive practice of ‘blast fishing’ by some locals.  Being a PADI Advanced diver myself, I dived for the first time without a dry suit.  My fear was that my leg would come off being directly exposed to the sea water.  But, no problem.  It stayed on during each dive, even down to 17 meters (although I had it tied on with chord).

The group on Mantanini. Photo by Phil Oakley

 

During the trip I was very much involved in all the projects.  Initially the Camps International staff didn’t realise I had one foot and assumed I just had a bad knee!  Once they realised, they were impressed with how it didn’t stop me from being a fully able participant. Even the 45 minute daily walk to one of the project sites didn’t cause a problem, despite the numerous students and teachers in other groups who complained and tried to get lifts!

 

I would like to thank the DBF for supporting me on my latest adventure.

 

My next adventure during the October half term will be mountain trekking with some of my students in the Moroccan High Atlas Mountains.  The main objective is to summit Jebel Toubkal.  At 4167m (13,672ft) it is North Africa’s highest peak. This will be my first major peak since becoming an amputee.

 

Phil Oakley

 

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Phil Oakley – Borneo Community Expedition 2013

During August 2013 I will be going to the Sabah region of Borneo, to help with various work based community projects:  I will be going with four of my students from school and will be working along side 25 other students from the UK.  This four-week expedition will be a challenge with physically demanding projects, high daytime temperatures and humidity.  I will particularly find it challenging, being a below knee amputee.  Our projects have been planned and organised through the organisation Camps International, whom have established many long-term projects in remote village communities, helping improve everyday lives of these communities.  The projects employ local people throughout the year, who work alongside students from the UK.

Borneo – Orangutans

 

Although I do not yet know the projects I will be involved with until closer the time, previous projects have included assisting with ecology and wildlife conservation, re-forestation and helping protect the endangered wild orang-utans, design and construction of a safe outdoor kindergarten playground, a community recycling centre for collection of rubbish that would normally have been burnt. 

 

Borneo building project

Towards the end of the expedition, we will live in a remote island community to help develop their marine conservation projects, helping protect turtle nests and educate the people about the dangers of bomb and cyanide fishing, both prevalent aground the island.  Since losing my right foot to cancer 5 years ago, I have completed my PADI advanced diving qualification and this will allow me to help with the dive conservation projects. To go on this expedition I need to contribute to expedition funds and I am very grateful to the Douglas Bader Foundation in helping with a contribution towards my costs. 

 

 

Phil Oakley