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Delivered. moves mountains with Caroline Leon

After a devastating climbing accident, Caroline Leon feared she might never walk again. Now she’s setting off on an attempt to climb seven volcanic summits across seven continents.

Dubai-based Caroline Leon has always loved the outdoors and a fitness lifestyle. She puts this down to her upbringing in Sydney, Australia, where she was forever surfing, running, hiking and climbing. As a 16-year-old, she remembers scaling 100-meter cliffs by the ocean to watch the surf break. She’d use neither ropes nor pitons, just her hands and feet. “I was fearless,” she says. “I think that was my problem.”

After university, Leon was bitten by the travel bug, finally settling in Dubai in 2008, where she continued to feed her love of fitness. But then, in 2015, in one devastating moment, her life changed. It could have very nearly ended.

Leon was near the top of a rickety wooden outdoor climbing wall when one of the pegs she was holding on to for purchase came away in her hand. She plunged seven meters on to concrete, landing on both feet. Her injuries were horrific. Her feet, spine and pelvis were shattered, and over the course of two years she underwent 14 surgeries and 23 blood transfusions.

Initially, doctors told her she would never walk again. Yet with support from family, friends and rehabilitation specialist Keith O'Malley-Farrell – plus huge amounts of grit, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness – Leon began the slow journey back to full mobility. “There were days that I’d think I could walk, but I really couldn't,” she admits. “I’d go out on crutches, but the pain was too much. I’d get back home, sit on my bed and cry.” But she refused to give up.

In all, it took Leon four years to learn to walk properly again. Emboldened by what she had achieved, she set off with a friend to climb Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia’s highest mountain. “Unfortunately, about two hours from the bottom, I literally couldn’t walk anymore,” she remembers. “A park ranger had to drive me the rest of the way.” Still, it planted the seed for a daring Guinness World Record attempt: in 2019, Leon came tantalizingly close to becoming the first person to surmounting 15 peaks across the Middle East in 30 days (ultimately, because of security issues, she was only allowed to scale 10 peaks in 28 days).

Now she is about to take part in her biggest challenge yet: climbing seven volcanic summits across seven continents in six months (Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Damavand in Iran, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Giluwe in Papua New Guinea, Picod de Orizaba in Mexico, Ojos De Salado in Chile and Mount Sidley in Antarctica). Plus, with O’Malley-Farrell, she has started a business called A Life of Education, the world’s first online fitness education platform.

Life is looking up, in more ways than one.

6,893

The elevation, in meters, of Ojos del Salado – the highest mountain in Leon’s seven-summit challenge

25

The number of people who had successfully reached the top of the seven volcanic summits by 2020

6

The number of months in which Leon hopes to complete the challenge


Was it scary to start climbing again?

After my accident, I became afraid of a lot of things, including heights. So, the fear was there, for sure. Before attempting the Middle East mountains challenge, I had to deal with a lot of anxiety. Had I planned it properly? Was it a crazy idea? I really started to doubt myself. However, I didn't have any fear when I was actually doing it. It felt right. The whole experience was beautiful, every country was different and the people were so friendly.

DHL sponsored your Middle East record attempt and offered you on-the-ground intel. How is it supporting your seven-summit challenge?

During my Middle East expedition, I went to some countries that were challenging – so the support I had from DHL made me feel so much safer. Everywhere I went, I had a DHL point of contact who would normally meet me at the airport, talk me through local knowledge and leave me with a guide. They also tracked me with an app. When I ran into problems, the ground support from DHL were amazing. In Iraq, for instance, I ended up staying with DHL staff! It made me think: ‘I’m not alone.’ For my seven-summits challenge, DHL is sponsoring me again.

When do you start and finish? And will you be free-climbing the mountains?

I was meant to start in September and finish in December, but things have been delayed because of COVID-19. I’m now attempting to embark in 2022, which means the challenge will take a little longer because of the weather. As for the style of climbing, it depends on the mountain! For example, for Picod de Orizaba, I’ll be on a rope and using crampons. But there are other challenges to consider. In Antarctica, I’ll be faced with sub-zero temperatures. To prepare, I’m doing a lot of endurance training, going on the step machine and weight training. I have to ensure I’m as fit and healthy as possible and that my mind is in a good place.

What was the idea behind A Life in Education?

We launched A Life in Education in 2020 because, when I was in recovery, I discovered a lot of personal trainers were saying they were rehab professionals – but, actually, they didn’t have the skill sets to help my complex needs. So I wanted to bring leading experts in the field together to teach online courses to the health and fitness community – or to anyone who is interested in learning about fitness. Because it’s online, it’s accessible globally, and people can complete their professional development from the comfort of their own homes.

How are you now?

Like everyone, I have ups and downs, but I’ve come to realize that exercise is important for your physical and mental fitness, so I try to exercise every day. Plus, I like to learn from people who have done amazing things, and I try to keep positive. If someone plants a seed of doubt in your mind, it can grow and stop you from reaching your goals. So I’m careful to feed my mind with only good things. That gives me clarity and helps me understand what is right for me.

Published: November 2021


Images: Caroline Leon; DHL