“I won’t let epilepsy stop me from saving the world”
Kai Fitchen was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of nine. His confidence plummeted. Seizures at night led him to withdraw from his friends. He started to avoid sleepovers out of fear. Not knowing how he was going to control his disorder, Fitchen lost all motivation to try. As an escape he took to spending time alone in the outdoors, climbing Lion’s Head and Table Mountain as often as he could. These minor peaks would later influence Fitchen’s work as an environmental and epilepsy activist. One day, while reading about Mount Kilimanjaro, he realised that his illness was just another mountain to climb. In the decade since then he’s done more than most achieve in a lifetime.
Fitchen summited Kilimanjaro in 2009 at the age of 15. A year later, he reached peaks of 6 000 metres while also observing the effects of climate change in the Himalayas. But it was while summiting Mount Elbrus in Russia that Fitchen was driven to do more than just climb. Here, he came across vast amounts of litter at the base camp and on the mountain. The explorer and epilepsy ambassador founded My Kape, a sustainable climbing initiative that educates locals to take care of the mountains. “Climbing has brought me huge respect for our natural world and it’s something I want to protect and help people get to know it a little better,” he says. In 2012, Fitchen travelled 14 000 kilometres from Cape Town to Mount Kenya and back, presenting eco-programmes to over 600 students along the way.
Two years later, Fitchen embarked on his most challenging summit yet. The Kape 2 Atacama expedition was a six-month journey through the Andes. He intended to get there by sea, then walk, cycle or use public transport to reduce his carbon footprint. But at the last minute, his sailing partner and sponsor backed out, forcing Fitchen to hitch a ride to South America on a stranger’s boat. Upon arrival, Fitchen became violently ill from the local fish that he was surviving on. While making his way along the mountain range, his climbing partner abandoned him at the 5 400 metre point of Tocllaraju, a peak in Peru, without a tent and food supplies. He joined a new group and finished the expedition.
Despite numerous strokes of extraordinarily bad luck, Fitchen has remained determined to keep climbing and educating people along the way to protect and preserve mountainous areas. “I don’t want to be identified just for the fact that I have epilepsy,” he says. “I want people to see that you can do these things, you can travel the world, and do new things and a disability shouldn’t stop you from doing even more.” Fitchen’s achievements are an inspiration for epilepsy sufferers, and a reminder to South Africans of the beauty of our natural heritage.