Sometimes the mission to write a book isn’t driven solely from the urge to write, but the desire to tell a story that will significantly help others. Nick Allen is one such writer.
Since childhood Allen has had a passion for tramping and climbing, his biggest dream to one day ascend Mt Everest.
In 2015 the Kiwi climber achieved that goal by reaching Everest Base Camp, but his real climb had actually begun years earlier, when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). An often-debilitating illness that affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), MS symptoms can compromise vision, balance, energy, speech, brain function and mobility, greatly affecting quality of life.
“When the neurologist first told me that I had multiple sclerosis, I thought my case was hopeless. It felt like a death sentence, and I gave up. I could hardly walk around outside, and I felt deeply estranged from those things that had bought so much joy to my life: the mountains. Worst of all, I thought there was nothing I could do to change this,” recalls Allen.
A new path
Battling not just the illness but the depression that came with it, Allen began to focus on a combination of physical therapy, specialist personal training, nutrition and stress management, eventually getting to a – previously inconceivable – point where he could resume his climbing.
Seeing the major benefits of such lifestyle changes on his condition, Allen – who is also an ambassador for MitoQ and an advocate for supporting cellular health – was keen to share his experience with other MS sufferers, first by founding a charitable trust and scholarship called Mastering Mountains, and secondly by writing a book.
“In retrospect, I wish someone had told me that I could change things,” he says. “I wish that someone had shown me that it is still possible to live meaningfully with a neurological disorder and that you should never stop pursuing those activities that bring you joy. That's why I wanted to share my story. I wanted to show other people — those newly diagnosed, or their friends and family — that neurological conditions like MS do not need to stop you.”
The resulting book, To The Summit (Massey University Press), was published in 2016, and recounts Allen’s personal journey back into the hills and mountains he so loves, culminating in his Everest trek and summit of the Himalayan peak, Imja Tse (Island Peak).
“Sometimes I would look at my feet and the narrow ledge we were following, then cast my gaze off the ledge, down the mountain and into nothing but inky-black space. Wrapped in my down jacket it felt as if I was journeying to a different world, floating free of the earth,” he writes in the book of his Island Peak climb.
The word “inspirational” is overused in today’s social culture, associated as it is with motivational YouTube talks and empty Insta memes, but Allen is the genuine embodiment of the word. “Working with Nick Allen on his book To The Summit was an absolute joy,” says Nicola Legat, Massey University Press publisher, chair of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust and deputy chair of the Auckland Writers Festival. “It’s rare to meet someone so intelligent, brave, determined, open, keen to learn and thoroughly decent. He’s a great writer and a terrific photographer. We were inspired by Nick, and so happy to be on his team.”
Climbing the pages
Anyone who’s written a book will recognize the notion of achieving something akin to climbing a mountain, particularly the overwhelming scale of the task. This is something Allen, who’s done both, agrees is easily comparable.
“Writing, like climbing, brings certain amnesia,” he says. “Climbing is mostly slog and hard work. You sweat and struggle for hours, even days, to reach a predefined point. Sitting there, on that small, often precarious summit, you look back down the route upon which you climbed and feel an enormous sense of achievement. At that moment, you forget the pain and the toil, and you begin to contemplate climbing those peaks around you. I think my experience of writing is very similar to climbing. It's mostly hard work and almost always a struggle. However, once you reach the end of your project and you press send on the final draft, you experience that same sense of satisfaction. You look back over your work with pride and, forgetting the pain, begin to entertain thoughts of writing another book.”
Deciding to share the joy of a reclamation of outdoor pursuit and being able to motivate others to follow your tracks are two disconnected things – the connecting bridge being a long slog of writing, editing and being published – a journey that can unseat novice and experienced writers alike. So does Allen have any climbing tips that he thinks can be applied to the challenge of writing?
“Climbing is a creative endeavor — which is one of the reasons I love it. When you hit a challenging section of rock, it can take a while to figure out how to move forward. You gently move your body in all kinds of positions, trying to find the combination of movements that will unlock the obstacle. Sometimes, fatigue sets in, and it's tempting to give up. And yet, I've learned that it is precisely in this moment that I find my most creative solutions, freeing me to make progress. The struggle is important and should be embraced, not avoided.
“My tip for people in the throes of writing is this: don't avoid the struggle, but embrace it and persevere. The fight forward is one of the most fruitful parts of the process. That being said, I'm no masochist and sometimes the best decision is to call it a day. It's amazing how time and space can give you a fresh set of eyes.”
Nick Allen has long been inspired by books written about mountain climbing and outdoor adventure, here are some of his favorite reads…
High Adventure by Sir Edmund Hillary
“This was the first proper book I read about mountaineering, when I was about 10 years old. It’s a classic. For me, it was the first time I had entrance, albeit vicariously, into that enthralling mountain landscape and all the adventure it offers.”
Hall and Ball: Kiwi Mountaineers from Mount Cook to Everest by Colin Monteath
“I was given this book as a Christmas present by my grandparents, when I was 12 years old. The pictures were amazing and deepened my desire to explore the mountain landscape. There’s one photo that spoke deeply to me, of Jan Arnold returning to base camp after summiting Everest, filled with joy and the thrill of completing a climb. I became determined to know and experience that joy.”
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
“This is an amazing story of struggle and the will to live. I have often think about this book, and the decisions made during that infamous storm on Everest. More than anything, it taught me the importance of good decision making, if you are to survive the mountains.”
Mountains Of The Mind by Robert Macfarlane
“This book changed the way I saw words and the mountain landscape. It is probably one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It also encouraged me to take time to marvel at the beautiful of the world around me — to observe and enjoy. It also sparked a process of reflection, in which I examine my motives for climbing. This has helped me be more present and make better decisions.”