In the blistering cold and howling wind, and as the snow battered his weary body, Pretoria local Lysle Turner stood on top of the world. With a South African flag in hand he was shouting to the world about Huntington’s disease (HD).
Turner, a Woodhill resident, summited Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world, to raise awareness about Huntington’s disease. An affliction that has plagued his own family for four generations.
“My generation is the first one that escaped it,” said Turner.
“There was always a 50/50 chance that I’d have it as well, as it is hereditary. I am so fortunate that I don’t, but there are still many people who have to live with it every day.”
According to Huntington’s Association of SA (HASA) the disease is a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive decline and dementia.
“It [Huntington’s] is caused by an autosomal (there is an equal number of copies of the chromosome in males and females) dominant mutation on either of an individual’s two copies of a gene called Huntingtin, which means any child of an affected parent has a 50% risk of inheriting the disease. Physical symptoms of Huntington’s disease can begin at any age from infancy to old age, but usually begin between 35 and 44 years of age. About 6% of cases start before the age of 21 years,” according to HASA.
Turner, who originally planned to summit Everest in 2015, had to call off his previous climb after the Nepal earthquake on 25 April 2015. Turner was already at camp 2 on the mountain when he had to evacuate. At the time 22 people died on the mountain after the earthquake. Turner was one of those fortunate enough to escape unharmed.
“When we evacuated we had to help all the injured get onto rescue helicopters,” said Turner.
He used the disappointment of not being able to finish, the deaths of his fellow climbers and his original motivation as the fuel to get him to the summit on this second attempt.
The entire attempt, from arriving and setting up, to reaching the summit, takes two months to complete, according to Turner.
“A lot of time is spent at base camp, setting up and getting used to the altitude. Base camp is already 5 500 m above sea level,” he said.
His trainers, Devon van Onselen and Diederick Kruger of Centurion Performance Sports, said the challenge was getting Turner used to carrying extreme weights all day.
“When sportsmen approach us, they usually have a very specific goal they’d like to reach. We knew Lysle’s goal wasn’t impossible, but would take a lot of conditioning to get him ready,” said Van Onselen.
“We are so proud to have been able to walk with him on this journey.”
Turner also attributed his success to Van Onselen and Kruger’s thorough training.
After an arduous climb, through snow and blizzards, Turner reached the summit of Everest at 03:30 on the morning of 19 May.
At the top, he waved a South African flag with the names of locals who have lost their lives to Huntington’s disease.
“That night was an amazing experience as my Sherpa Pasang Nima and I had the mountain all to ourselves after the balcony. I reached the summit at 3:30am so it was pitch dark. It took us seven hours,” he said.
“The final small section up to the summit is done without any ropes, and it was pitch black. The wind was gusting and for a second I was very uncomfortable and willing to turn if the wind blew any harder or wait, but that wasn’t an option as my right eye felt like it was starting to freeze. Due to the weather I pretty much took one photo and wanted to get as far down the mountain as possible.”
He said the comfort of having the flag with the names on it helped to give him power.
“Throughout the entire trip my power came from spending time with people on the flag. I had memorized every single name and if there was ever a nervous moment I would repeat the names over and over in my head.
“Reflecting on the times with the people I was lucky enough to meet. Also reflecting on stories that people had told me about their family members. All affected by Huntington’s disease.”
Turner is already planning his next great adventure, but is relishing the time he has with his family.
Lysle Turner on the summit of Everest: