7 October 2020

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After graduating from Emma in 1987 with a degree in Maths, David Collinson (1984) went on to qualify as an Actuary, become a partner with consulting firm Watson Wyatt, and then found Pension Insurance Corporation in 2006.  In 2017, however, David took on a completely different sort of challenge, founding the Wild Wheelchairs Project, as he tells us about below:

A person in silhouette, hanging on climbing ropes, from a mountainThree years ago I was introduced to Alex Lewis.  We had both just returned from the Artic having separately completed canoeing expeditions through the icy waters of the North.  This wasn’t a particularly remarkable achievement on my part but, given that Alex is a quadruple amputee, was a somewhat extraordinary feat for him.  Alex and I immediately got engaged in a discussion about what we could do next, and the Wild Wheelchairs Project was born. 

We devised a three–pronged project:

  • Climb a Mountain: Alex and I would try and climb Ethiopia’s tallest mountain, the 4550m peak Ras Dashen, situated in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. We recruited local double amputee (and champion wheelchair basketball star) Emebet Ale Dires to join us on the expedition.
  • Build a Factory: We would fund and manage a project to build a wheelchair manufacturing facility in Bahir Dar, providing badly needed mobility support for the disabled people of that region.
  • Make a Film: In conjunction with good friend and award-winning commercials Director Simon Ratigan, we would make a film of the project. 

The slight hiccup was that in order to ascend the mountain Alex and Emebet would need some additional kit to help them get up the steep mountain paths, so we commissioned a group of students to design and build a unique, solar powered, battery assisted, four–wheeled, off–road handcycle. This amazing vehicle could be fully steered and driven by someone with no arms and no legs!

My time at Emma spent grappling with the complexities of the Mathematics Tripos taught me that even if you find something difficult, that is no reason not to give it a go! So armed with this philosophy, Alex and I pursued our Wild Wheelchairs Project. 

I am delighted to say that exactly a year ago we reached the summit of Ras Dashen, and in addition the building of wheelchair facility was completed, and it is now busy making a whole variety of mobility aids.  Simon captured some fantastic footage on the trip and is busy working on the documentary which we hope to release in 2021. 

I think the overall spirit of the project was beautifully captured by Emebet, who when asked whether she was worried at the prospect of having to climb Ras Dashen, simply said “Anything is possible!” 

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