The inspirational story of Stockbridge quadruple amputee Alex Lewis’ expedition to Ethiopia

PUBLISHED: 13:55 08 April 2020

Alex Lewis in the solar powered handcycle

Alex Lewis in the solar powered handcycle

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A pair of Hampshire adventurers are demonstrating that disability shouldn’t limit ambition in a series of international challenges.

Alex Lewis, Emebet Allie Deress and David Collinson at the top of Ras DashenAlex Lewis, Emebet Allie Deress and David Collinson at the top of Ras Dashen

When three-year-old Emebet Allie Deress lost her legs in a car accident, some residents of her Ethiopian village told her mother she should be left in a ditch to die.

It was partly to counter entrenched ideas like this that the wheelchair basketball player, now 21, was invited to join an expedition to scale Ethiopian mountain Ras Dashen in October 2019 alongside Stockbridge quadruple amputee Alex Lewis.

Alex’s story was told in an unforgettable Channel Four documentary. What was initially thought to be man flu turned out to be Strep A – something which is normally no more than a sore throat. In Alex’s case it developed into toxic shock syndrome and septicaemia which led to the then 33-year-old having both his arms and legs amputated, as well as undergoing extensive facial reconstruction. Alex’s life changed beyond all recognition – but as his partner Lucy Townsend said in the documentary The Extraordinary Case of Alex Lewis he now has more drive than he’s ever had. Since his experience Alex has gone skydiving, sea kayaking in Greenland and river rafting in Namibia. He also helps universities in designing and testing biomechanical aids, is an ambassador for the military charity Pilgrim Bandits and has developed new careers as an interior designer and motivational speaker. And now he is part of Wild Wheelchairs, alongside Twyford adventurer David Collinson.

The seed of their ten-day expedition to scale the highest of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains was sown when David and his artist wife Nadine met Alex at the launch of the Winchester Portrait Exhibition in April 2017. “It was an exhibition of photographs of 108 people who had made a difference in Hampshire,” says Nadine. “Alex was number 108. He spoke at the event and we were blown out of the water – he was so inspiring.”

Alex Lewis and Emebet Allie Deress look back out where they've climbedAlex Lewis and Emebet Allie Deress look back out where they've climbed

David, 54, had previously enjoyed adventures in Ethiopia, Namibia, the Arctic at Svalbard and around the Pyrenees. Having heard that Alex had just visited Greenland, David suggested the idea of climbing the Ethiopian mountain – and the concept for Wild Wheelchairs was born.

The plan was for Alex and Emebet – who they met through a church foundation in her hometown of Bahir Dar – to approach the mountain using a solar-powered handcycle developed for the trip by six University of Southampton Masters Engineering students. They also launched a fundraising appeal for £40,000 to turn an existing wheelchair workshop in Bahir Dar into a sports wheelchair factory – helping the work of Laureus Sport for Good and Cheshire Foundation Action For Inclusion to provide opportunities for the disabled. Part of their education work happened spontaneously during the trip. “We were going through these incredibly poor areas with this incredible technology,” says Alex. “An important part of the trip became to encourage people out of their homes to see what we were doing and link it back to the wheelchair factory. ”

The first stop was a town called Cheru Leba. “It was market day,” says Alex. “There were hordes of people who followed us as we went through the town. We stopped and had a coffee, and a disabled guy came out and met us. It was a seminal moment in the whole trip. From then on we stopped at every town we could for coffee or beer.” Filmmaker Simon Ratigan is documenting the Wild Wheelchairs expeditions and already has more than 100 hours of footage, capturing highs and lows from the fears about the solar-powered handcycle, which finally started working two weeks before the trip set out, to battles with bureaucracy and the weather.

Alex Lewis and Emebet Allie Deress talk about the refurbished wheelchair factory in Bahir DarAlex Lewis and Emebet Allie Deress talk about the refurbished wheelchair factory in Bahir Dar

“The handcycle cost us seven days of delays,” admits David, who organised the trip with the support of Mark Chapman from Ethiopian-based Tesfa Tours. The lithium-ion batteries had to be couriered separately and the cycle itself was put into a bonded warehouse in Addis Ababa on the eve of a major festival which was about to close down the city. “We had to get the Ethiopian ambassador on the phone from London,” says David. “Our medical gear was also delayed.”

“Whenever there was a problem everyone had a sense of humour about it,” says Alex. “It was the best way to get around it.”

The biggest challenge came when the expedition got closer to the mountain. “David our weatherman said the weather would be fine, ambient and lovely,” says Alex. “It wasn’t – it was torrential rain, wet and cold, horrible. It was like North Wales in the winter. On day eight we found there had been a landslide and the heavy rains had washed away a bridge. We came back on ourselves and did a detour of 70km. At that point though we did think we weren’t going to get there.”

There was a small window of time for Alex and Emebet to reach the 4,550m summit and get back down before darkness fell. After using the handcycle as far as they could, Emebet started to climb using her arms as leverage, while Alex was in his own words: “Carried up by a fleet of men like an Indian prince” just shy of 300m from the top before climbing the rest of the way using special sports prothesis. He was belayed to the final plateau with ropes, with his original surgeon Dr Geoff Watson from Winchester Intensive Care Unit at the top. “I had a couple of beers at the top which were incredible,” says Alex. “I couldn’t believe I’d got there. It took thousands of people to get me to that point. When we took the photos I think we’d just got the gravity of what we had just done. Quadruple amputees shouldn’t really be up there – but with the right people everything is possible.”

Alex Lewis with the solar powered handcycle developed by engineering masters students at the University of SouthamptonAlex Lewis with the solar powered handcycle developed by engineering masters students at the University of Southampton

In July Alex and David will travel 500km across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in ten days – coronavirus permitting – using a Mark II version of the solar-powered handcycle. “The original handcycle won the National Instruments design award,” reveals David, adding that the team of six students were honoured in the Engineering Impact Awards’ Student Design Showcase at the NIWeek 2019 conference in Austin, Texas. Both Dr David Marshall and student designer Tom Parker went to Ethiopia in the support team.

“The students were passionate about it as a real-life project,” says Rosemary Court, from the Alex Lewis Trust. “They were determined that the cycle was going to work.” One of the students, Christopher Charalambous, stayed with the project for an additional six months to see the project through to fruition. The souped-up version of the handcycle, which is being designed by a new team of Southampton masters students, will have a little more power, while a lot of attention is being paid to the tyres, which could cause problems on the rough desert terrain.

“The nearest training we can get to the Gobi Desert is Salisbury Plain,” says Alex, who is hoping to make contact with a Mongolian amputee to join them on the adventure. Proceeds will go to help the Ethiopian wheelchair factory. “While we were out in Ethiopia we met a guy who was getting around using two blocks of wood in each hand and dragging his legs behind him,” says Rosemary. “He was so excited to get into a wheelchair he crashed it in the testing area. He had never had that independence before. There are so many people out there who need it. Those born with congenital defects are seen as cursed – there is a social taboo. They are often not allowed to leave their villages, or even their huts. It’s something the Ethiopian government wants to change.”

David and Alex are already looking towards 2021, with a home-based challenge to travel across eight counties in the south of England. “We are conscious that we are having a great time in Ethiopia and Mongolia but it’s not being replicated at home,” says Alex. “It’s important that Wild Wheelchairs develops to do something in the UK.”

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