Sunday 19 November 2017

WATCH: Cancer survivor Nikki climbs terrifying Irish ridge on crutches

'Falling is part of life'

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Just a handful of people have climbed Donegal's Sturrall Ridge. This week Nikki Bradley did it... on crutches.

The Sturrall Headland soars 200m out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Donegal's Slieve League peninsula, near Glencolmcille.

Surrounded by cliffs and thrashing seas, its ridge is hard enough to reach simply to admire the view. Let alone climb it. On crutches.

But that's exactly what Nikki Bradley, who was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer at age 16, did this week - teaming up with climbing guide Iain Miller to tackle the knife-edge ridge and its sheer drops (see video above).

"I felt like I spent the entire day on the edge," Nikki says.

"There isn’t an actual path to follow, just a track made by sheep… it was wide enough for Iain’s feet, but I had to walk sideways a lot to fit the crutches."

Iain Miller and Nikki Bradley on Sturral Ridge. Photo: Iain Miller (UniqueAscent.ie)
Iain Miller and Nikki Bradley on Sturral Ridge. Photo: Iain Miller (UniqueAscent.ie)
Nikki Bradley on mount Errigal, Donegal. Bradley is a survivor of Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie)
Nikki Bradley climbing Sturrall Ridge in Donegal. Screengrab: Iain Miller, uniqueascent.ie.
Nikki at Sturral Ridge. Photo: Iain Miller (UniqueAscent.ie)
Nikki Bradley abseiling from Fanad Lighthouse. Photo by Declan Devlin (declandevlinphotography.com)
Nikki Bradley in training. Bradley had two hip replacements following a rare bone cancer diagnosis at the age of 16. Photo: Donegal News
Nikki Bradley on a 45-foot abseil in Iceland. Bradley, a bone cancer survivor, runs the 'Fighting Fit for Ewing's' campaign. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie).

"I fell about 50 times. I slid down an entire section on my bum. But that’s all part of it. I love the adrenaline."

Was she not worried about the danger? About an accident?

"I would never do something like this by myself. I would never do it without having a professional guide and expert like Iain on hand," she says (Miller, who runs adventure company Unique Ascent, has undertaken several pioneering climbs).

"But there’s always an element of danger in my life. I fell off a chair in 2011, broke my femur and spent Christmas Day in hospital."

"The way I look at it is, I can fall on my ass and break the biggest bone in my body, or I can go and have an adventure and most likely return home safe."

"Falls are part of life."

Nikki Bradley on mount Errigal, Donegal. Bradley is a survivor of Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie)
Nikki Bradley on mount Errigal, Donegal. Bradley is a survivor of Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie)
Nikki Bradley in training. Bradley had two hip replacements following a rare bone cancer diagnosis at the age of 16. Photo: Donegal News
Nikki Bradley on a 45-foot abseil in Iceland. Bradley, a bone cancer survivor, runs the 'Fighting Fit for Ewing's' campaign. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie).
Nikki Bradley abseiling from Fanad Lighthouse. Photo by Declan Devlin (declandevlinphotography.com)
Nikki Bradley climbing Sturrall Ridge in Donegal. Screengrab: Iain Miller, uniqueascent.ie.

Diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, at age 16, Nikki has had two hip replacements and is likely to lose a leg in the coming years.

Based in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, the 30-year-old is now cancer-free, but describes her journey since the disease - including two hip replacements and extensive nerve damage - as "probably worse than the cancer itself".

In fact, that journey has been so unusual, consultants have told her she is one of less than 10 people to have lived through something similar.

In 2013, Nikki learned she would remain on crutches for the rest of her life.

"It was kind of what I needed to hear," she says now. "Too many years had been wasted waiting to get better. I decided to take my life back."

Resolving "not to be miserable", Nikki launched her 'Fighting Fit for Ewing's' (FFFE) campaign, which highlights the importance of exercise in rehabilitation.

"Within a few months I was off all painkillers for the first time in 10 years. My pain threshold sky-rocketed. I am living proof that it actually works!"

Nikki Bradley on a 45-foot abseil in Iceland. Bradley, a bone cancer survivor, runs the 'Fighting Fit for Ewing's' campaign. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie).
Nikki Bradley on a 45-foot abseil in Iceland. Bradley, a bone cancer survivor, runs the 'Fighting Fit for Ewing's' campaign. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie).
Nikki Bradley in training. Bradley had two hip replacements following a rare bone cancer diagnosis at the age of 16. Photo: Donegal News
Nikki Bradley abseiling from Fanad Lighthouse. Photo by Declan Devlin (declandevlinphotography.com)
Nikki Bradley on mount Errigal, Donegal. Bradley is a survivor of Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie)
Nikki Bradley climbing Sturrall Ridge in Donegal. Screengrab: Iain Miller, uniqueascent.ie.

Since then, she has climbed Mount Errigal. She is also the first woman to have abseiled from the Fanad Lighthouse - another adventure undertaken with Miller.

"Trying to get over the railing with two hip replacements, head first, was the most terrifying thing I had done… I could feel the sea splashing off my face."

"I did it three times," she laughs. 

This year alone, Nikki has climbed a route of the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland and attempted a Guinness World Record - for the fastest 5km on crutches.

"The challenges are to to push myself and see what I can physically do with my setbacks; but also to provide a little splash of inspiration," she says.

"If someone is sitting at home, putting something on the long finger, and they see a post from me on Facebook, it could be just the little push they need."

Nikki Bradley in training. Bradley had two hip replacements following a rare bone cancer diagnosis at the age of 16. Photo: Donegal News
Nikki Bradley in training. Bradley had two hip replacements following a rare bone cancer diagnosis at the age of 16. Photo: Donegal News
Nikki Bradley abseiling from Fanad Lighthouse. Photo by Declan Devlin (declandevlinphotography.com)
Nikki Bradley climbing Sturrall Ridge in Donegal. Screengrab: Iain Miller, uniqueascent.ie.
Nikki Bradley on mount Errigal, Donegal. Bradley is a survivor of Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie)
Nikki Bradley on a 45-foot abseil in Iceland. Bradley, a bone cancer survivor, runs the 'Fighting Fit for Ewing's' campaign. Photo: Paul Doherty (pauldoherty.ie).

"I have had those situations myself where I felt a bit down or a bit sorry for myself, but then been inspired by seeing inspiring people online."

"There’s a bit of a pay-it-forward thing here."

Climbing the Sturrall Headland involved a 10km round trip, but once she and Miller reached that remote summit, how did they get back down?

"We abseiled," she laughs.

"I went home and immediately started planning the next one."

Learn more about Nikki Bradley on nikkibradleyspeaks.com and on Facebook here. Iain Miller's Unique Ascent is at uniqueascent.ie.

NB: The activities described in this article were undertaken with a professional guide at Nikki's own risk. Climbing can be extremely dangerous, and should never be undertaken without suitable levels of expertise or fully qualified guides.

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