AN INSPIRATIONAL TALE OF UNMATCHED VIGOR AHMED JAFFAR
BY ANAAM IKRAM
Ahmed Jaffar, the Bahraini mountain climber suffering from Parkinson’s disease sits with us for a coffee and it turns out to be the most inspiring cup of coffee we have ever had.
“I have been to the South Pole, then Mount Kilimanjaro, then Mongolia, then Mt. Kilimanjaro again. I’m going to Iceland next August and I am going to Machu Picchu in 2016. So come if you can” he says in the hopes to get us to agree.
The adventure sounds tempting and Ahmed Jaffar’s extremely convincing tone doesn’t make it easy to resist, but more importantly, it is his own inspiring story of his decision to start climbing, dealing with his illness, and the achievements he managed to garner along the way that has reeled us in.
“I’ve always wanted to fly between the planets, and God gave me the chance to do it”
Bahrain born and raised, Ahmed Jaffar is the Director of Mega Mall and Babasons, and having worked in aviation before, his job required him to travel around a lot as part of his field research. An active businessman and an artist who makes sculptures and paints, Mr. Jaffar is perhaps most defined by the diagnosis of his illness, Parkinson’s Disease, and how that did not stop him from reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in January 2014 and marking his victory by placing the Bahraini flag at the top.
Being diagnosed five years ago, he says, completely changed his life, but since he started travelling for his adventures, it made him realise that the best way to overcome this illness was to live his life the best possible way he can, “…travelling made me realise I can regain control of my life.” Initially, after discovering he has Parkinsons, Mr. Jaffar says, he was not sure about the seriousness of the illness but the more he read about it the more he came to understand the severity of this degenerative disease. Being brought down by the illness, Mr. Jaffar says he was monitoring his movements and realised he was not even able to walk much. Searching high and low for cures, Mr. Jaffar’s trip to China resulted in being the most successful, not because he was able to find a cure, but because while he was there he got in touch with a lot of people, started walking long distances and even helped out at a hospital there with patients suffering from ALS. From volunteering in the hospital, to helping the locals with their English language skills, and even being able to start walking up to 13 km a day, that is when Mr. Jaffar truly realised he is in charge of his own life; and working and being active is the one way he can be in control again.
Even for a healthy person, walking up to 22km can prove to be somewhat of a challenge, but for Ahmed Jaffar it has become a norm, with even his trainer admiring his strength and drive, comparing it with those who do not suffer from this disease yet still cannot train as hard as he does. The goal, he says, is to get as much done as possible while he can because the disease will eventually take over.
Painting, he says, is one of the ways he can deal with his illness on nights when it does not allow him to sleep. He has even gone back to horse riding, a hobby he used to have in the past, after a trip to Mongolia. Mr. Jaffar says he does whatever he can to be the best husband, father and grandfather. His perseverance and endurance has earned him a nomination to be an Ambassador of Parkinson’s for the world by Dr. Volk, a doctor Mr. Jaffar is working very closely with to find a cure, and who also got the opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with him. His nomination comes from his achievement of conquering Mt. Kilimanjaro, and also for being vocal about his illness and how he used that as an inspiration for his trips and adventures. Giving talks in the United States of America, Dubai and in Bahrain, Mr. Jaffar says he has helped many people suffering from Parkinson’s to find the strength within them and start being active again.
Highs and Lows: his adventurous journey to the top
Kilimanjaro is a mountain made from 3 volcanos in each other, erupting at different times, and it is now considered (with new calculations) the second highest mountain in the world (even higher than Everest). Mr. Jaffar’s inspiration to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came from when he was already in the middle of another adventure in Antarctica where he met a few people who had just returned from Mt. Kilimanjaro and shared how wonderful their experience had been. That is when he set it in his mind, about the famed peak being his next destination, and while there, he was already inspired to embark on another trip, this time to Mongolia, resulting from talks with fellow climbers who had already visited Mongolia. While visiting his daughter in the United States, she discussed skydiving and Mr. Jaffar secretly went and booked flights to go skydiving. The need to seek thrill and his drive to pursue it has resulted in Mr. Jaffar’s journeys serving as regenerative and therapeutic, helping him stay in control of his own life.
Reaching the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro on 16th January 2014, Mr. Jaffar recounts the journey as initially being tough which resulted in him being slow, but he had done extensive research about the climb and having made up his mind, he says he knew he was going to do it. Having Parkinson’s made it all the more difficult for Mr. Jaffar as these kind of journeys and adventure require a lot of balance. Since Parkison’s disease specifically targets the nervous system the movement of the body is seriously affected and though tremors are a common symptom of this illness, it also causes slow movements and stiffness. Balance, Mr. Jaffar says, is key for all these activities especially when one is on the edge of a mountain at a really high altitude or even on a horse on a narrow passage, as he encountered in Mongolia, and though the horse was trained for such a journey, Mr. Jaffar says he wasn’t as much.
“Each destination has its own problems and fears that we have”, he says when describing some of the worries and precautions that go through his mind before embarking on a journey. In Antarctica there is a passage called “Drake Passage” which is a body of water between the southern tip of South America at Cape Horn (Chile) and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, it also happens to be one of the roughest water masses in the world. Waves can go up to 50metres high and sometimes even more, crossing that over a span of two days, Mr. Jaffer says, was a major concern. But even though there can be hardships along the way. Mr. Jaffar says his main target as an artist was to be able to sail between icebergs – as he finds those gigantic pieces of ice broken off a glacier extremely beautiful – and he carefully picked the time to travel to Antarctica just to witness that.
As for Kilimanjaro, he says the climb itself was quite challenging. Though he wasn’t carrying all his equipment with him, so he is not weighed down by it, the change from climbing smaller mountains to a big one was drastic and the fear of not becoming acclimatised to the high altitude and lower oxygen levels which would result in breathing and performance issues. It is vital, he says, to follow the guides that lead the trail otherwise it can lead to injuries and even deaths, but thankfully everyone on the trail he went on for Mt. Kilimanjaro made it back safely. He credits his safety and excellent climbing experience to Tuskar, the mountain climbing company owned by famous American climber Eddy Frank. The well experienced climber has lead many climbs in the past but this time has given the lead to Mr. Jaffar for the next climb, “…he said you know everything and asked me to lead. It is my first lead and obviously I will be with the crew as these guys know the mountains so well they can even tell you what rock will come next.”
Mr. Jaffar’s stamina and strong will are not just tested on highland, when he is not climbing, Mr. Jaffar says he is constantly training, walking almost 3-6km a day and he follows this routine religiously. However, for his last climb to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mr. Jaffar had appointed a special trainer and trained for 6 weeks in the gym to strengthen his lower body, as that is crucial for the climb. He says his rigorous routine consists of him walking long distances in the morning and exercising in the gym in the evening. That, he says, makes him feel like he is more in control of his illness. Knowing full well he cannot stop the disease from progressing, Mr. Jaffar says being so active, sometimes eases the intensity of the illness, giving him the confidence of someone who isn’t suffering from it.
Since each climb is different, each requires a different type of diet and training. For Mt. Kilimanjaro it is necessary to have strong leg muscles and strong lungs as it requires a lot of walking, whereas for the Himalayas it is important to know which route to take based on such specific factors the exercise will be decided. The strict diet while on the mountains is also a key element in making sure the climbing experience is pleasant. They are given a lot of water and energy bars, two necessities they cannot go without whilst climbing. If the guides have suggested taking a snack at a specific time, it is important to have that snack at that set time even though one may not feel hungry because soon the lack of nutrition in the body catches up and makes the climb difficult.
Mt. Kilimanjaro’s 80 km trip is covered in a span of 10 days, which an average of 8 km a day providing the entire crew with plenty of time to rest in between. Since it is impossible to do 8km straight as the mountain has a bumpy terrain, they are divided into 4 km in the morning and 4km at night. Even then it is not a direct climb, full of twists and turns, and therefore, Mr. Jaffar says, it is important to carry a backpack containing essentials such as medicines, extra glasses, small first-aid kit, water and energy bars.
“I have a map of seven summits,” he says “and that is going to be my target at some point later.” Ahmed Jaffar’s admirable valour is what keeps him going, however it is only natural that his family shows incredible concern over his will to go on these trips, especially due to his Parkinson’s disease.
Even before he went to Antarctica, in January 2013 he says his friends had warned him that he won’t be able to make it, and to prove that he had, in fact made it, Mr. Jaffar recorded videos along the way to show them every time he achieved a milestone. So now they are careful, he says, before telling him he can’t do it.
These journeys also sparked the spirit of taking on challenges within him and he therefore had to convince his family to not try and stop him because this was something, he says, he needs to do for himself. Now however, Mr. Jaffar says, they trust him when he says he wants to go on an adventure and they are comfortable with that idea. Though he might be experiencing a truly unique and indescribable feeling while climbing the mountains, Mr. Jaffar says his mother’s condition is what truly worries him when he is up there. The lack of communication facilities is a great issue which makes him hesitant to go especially when keeping his mother’s condition in mind. Though the lack of communication during these trips is a considerable problem, Mr. Jaffar says his family realises the positive impact these travels have on him, and for him it is not just about reaching the top, but the whole preparation process as well that serves to be just as significant.
Mr. Jaffar says though his family is concerned, they are also obviously very proud of him and this has led to him going for a second time and actually taking the lead on his own ‘Ahmed Jaffar Trail: Climb With Ahmed Jaffar’, in which he is encouraging more people from the Middle East to join him. “People should consider this sport, and should see it as a sport without fear, a sport for all ages”, and so far has even gotten Sheikha Noora to go with him. Though currently, he says, there are not a lot of people signed up, he is hoping that when the documentary being made on him by Bahrain TV is aired, more people will be willing to come along. He says people are usually hesitant to go on these trips since they tend to be very expensive, between BD 2800-3000.
Even though it is not the easiest thing to do, climb a mountain or go to the Antarctica, the sights that Mr. Jaffar says he has witnessed are truly magical, “Antarctica was a place that I still dream about, I want to go back if I can and Kilimanjaro, the beauty of it is that when you see the mountain, you feel it is very small and very close, but what you don’t realise is that it takes days to climb!”.
Mr. Jaffar even describes walking through the clouds with thunder and lightening taking place below him, rather than above (as we are all used to), something not many have witnessed.
“I’ve always wanted to fly between the planets, and God gave me the chance to do it”, Mr. Jaffar says referring to his trip to Antarctica and Kilimanjaro. Though they were not literal planets, the feeling of being able to do something so out of the ordinary and being in places that seemed almost out of this world was surreal. He says he even prayed when he reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro because he never thought he would have made it to the top, but there he was, waving the Bahraini flag with pride before planting it there permanently, “it is something that I cannot forget and it is something I am going to do again in Iceland and in Kilimanjaro, it’s beautiful and an unbelievable feeling.” He says this also further aided him on a spiritual level to witness God’s creation in its purest form and for that he is very grateful. Talking about these experiences, he says, makes him just as emotional as he was when he first encountered them.
Mr. Jaffar says he plans to visit Iceland in August and again Antarctica next year in January. Mr. Jaffar’s travels and stories serve as a true inspiration for many to the point where he has even been asked to write a book about it. Though he does not keep a memoir or a journal, he says his excellent memory helps him recount his every endeavour. He meant to keep a journal, he says, but during the climb it is difficult to keep one because he was either too tired or too occupied with enjoying the sights to write about it.
As far as a permanent cure for this illness goes, Mr. Jaffar says he knows that there is not one at the moment and currently he takes his doctor prescribed medicines from the hospitals in Bahrain. He also does a lot of physical activities like travelling, sports, painting and living his life to the best of his abilities. At the same time, he says, he is also in touch with doctors in Europe who are part of a research centre in Vienna, Austria, who are doing research on Parkinson’s disease. The doctors, he says, have invented a vaccine that can prevent Parkinson’s in the future and are even close to a cure. The centre is partially financed by American actor Michael J. Fox who is also suffering from this disease and so both, Fox and Mr. Jaffar, are in touch with the researchers, to the point where initially Mr. Jaffar couldn’t get an appointment with them for six months and now he says he can call them up as and when he needs. Mr. Jaffar has also offered to partake in an experiment which requires staying in Vienna for a year in order to be one of the first one’s to be considered to try the medicine for the cure. The previously mentioned Dr. Volk is also part of this study.
Though his passion for these extreme expeditions may be unmatched, Ahmed Jaffar says those who wish to become climbers need to love to travel. He says these climbs changed his life and he has no plans on stopping now as he looks forward to more of these trips in the future.
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