Dubai: If a human being falls from a height of 7 meters you can expect a lot of damage to happen to the bones. They wouldn’t just break. They would shatter, dislocate, splinter…
In 2015, Dubai based Australian, Caroline Leon fell down a seven meter outdoor rock climbing wall in Dubai. “When I landed I fell on both feet, so they were completely smashed. I shattered my pelvis, my pubic bone was completely detached and a part of my spine exploded. That and the whole right side of my body broke,” she told Gulf News during an interview. It took her 14 surgeries to get everything fixed and reattached, as well as 23 blood transfusions.
Then it was off to two years of healing and rehabilitation. Then another two years to learn to walk again. It also took that long to look like a ‘normal human being again’. “I left the hospital when I was 45kg,” she told Gulf News. “I looked like a bag of bones. It took me a long time to put the weight back on.”
Today Caroline Leon is the first female mountaineer to climb 10 of the highest peaks across MENA region in a record time of 28 days. She summited mountains in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. She also had her sights set on climbing mountains in Yemen, Palestine, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq, but due to some political instability or bad weather she could not complete her journey.
Summiting 10 mountains after the accident was a major achievement for, and it took her a long time to get there. When she was finally able to walk again, she had a very prominent limp. “I could only walk 100 meters then I needed a lot of rest. I had to stop all the time. The pain was sometimes unbearable.” After years of rehab and learning to walk, stretch and move properly, I decided to start climbing again. I wasn’t going to let my injuries stop me from living. Everything still hurts when I climb to this day. But I decided that I did not want to let my accident define my life. I promised myself that if I could get myself better. Then I will climb again and I won’t carry this guilt and resentment with me forever.
However, I honestly don’t think that I will ever be the same that I was before my accident. I didn’t really how amazing my body was. When you break everything, it really changes things. I have come to the realization that I will never be the same that I was before. But I am not disabled anymore,” she told Gulf News.
Caroline has been living and working in the UAE for the last 11 years. She is the co-founder of a fitness education centre. Her first climb in 2019 was Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia's highest mountain, at 2,228 meters. “When I climbed it, I couldn’t complete the entire trek because I didn’t make it to the bottom. I ended up getting the ranger take me to the bottom. I was literally just 2 kilometers away from completing it but I was in so much pain I couldn’t finish. And now, seven months later I am the first solo female to climb 10 mountains in the Middle East. I had planned to do 15 countries in 31 days. But I only managed to do 13 countries in 28 days and could do ten mountains. I didn’t fulfil the time frame for a Guinness World Record, but no one has ever done it before.
Caroline’s favourite climb was Mount Damavand in Iran. It’s a potentially active volcano and the highest peak in Iran as well as the highest active volcano in Asia. “Everything was fine before I arrived, but then there was the situation with the Australian couple that was detained in Iran for several months. The news broke just when I arrived, so I was a bit nervous about being an Australian woman there by myself.”
This just showed me that even though I had done all of this planning, the closer I kept getting to everything, the more things would unravel. The climb in Iran took 5 days. It was the highest mountains I had to tackle.”
It’s safe to say that the experience changed her internally as well as externally. “It showed what my body was capable of. Here I was summiting mountains that are 5700 meters in rain, snow, cold and sulfur in the air. I had a lot of dark moments where I asked myself what I was doing. But I just kept myself going.”
“What surprised me were that places that are portrayed as the most ‘dangerous’ in the media, were actually the most wonderful. When I arrived to Iraq, it was so beautiful. Everywhere that I went people invited me over to eat Iraqi food at their house. I was like in the outskirts of Iraq, so I looked really out of place. Everyone was so warm and lovely and hospitable, they gave me so much food all the time, and I was planning my meals in my backpack, worrying I would run out. That’s the thing… Every single day on my path, I had people supporting my journey. I had people in villages giving me food, I had DHL coming on board to sponsor me, the Gulf for Good charity even wanted to help me because I had raised money for charity with my climbs. So no matter how much you plan, somehow you find help in unexpected places.”
What Caroline learned about herself during this experience?
1. That you are capable of literally anything. No one except yourself can stand in your way
2. Life is so much easier it is when you just go with the flow.
3. Make sure you do things that make you marvel at the world’s natural, breathtaking beauty
4. Trust yourself. Always.
When Caroline isn’t climbing she loves to do yoga and Pilates. She was raised by the ocean in Australia, so she also loves to dive and paddle board. She used to surf but her feet don’t allow that anymore.