In 2015, two days after Helen Smith handed in her PhD in Ecology, disaster struck. Climbing out of the last section of a canyon she had been exploring with friends, the rock she was relying on to keep her safe gave way.

“I ended up falling 12 metres (30-40 feet), and I remember waking up not feeling my legs thinking ‘hmmm, that’s bad, that’s not good’.”

I ended up falling 12 metres (30-40 feet), and I remember waking up not feeling my legs thinking ‘hmmm, that’s bad, that’s not good’.

Helen SmithBush Wheeling Adventurer

Looking back, Helen relives the conundrum she and her friends found themselves in.

She had broken her back in three places, punctured a lung and the canyon environment created an immense challenge for rescue.

“We were unsure whether our personal locator beacon would be picked up within the canyon, and we were unsure of what approach to take. Do we send someone to seek help on foot..do they stay with me? Meanwhile the clock was ticking…”

“I didn’t know how long we waited. As it turned out, it was about 2 hours before we heard the sound of a helicopter coming towards us.”

“The paramedics on the helicopter are just amazing guys. They were fantastic.”

Helen was airlifted to the Sydney North Shore Hospital where she underwent surgery very quickly to insert rods into her back. She remained there for six weeks and a further three months in rehab.

You get a clear sense for the type of person Helen is from the way she talks about her accident.  

As a self-described optimist, Helen knows how lucky she is to have such a “positively naive” outlook on life. When shit hits the fan, Helen’s mindset helps her rollover pretty much anything.

“I really think my positive outlook is the main characteristic that continues to shape my life for the better.”

Positivity is a trait that comes up time and time again with Adaptdefiers and Helen is no exception.

Having spent many years of her life before her injury exploring & experiencing the beautiful Australian outback, deliberately choosing a professional & personal path that would allow her to spend as much time there, the accident left her uncertain if she’d ever enjoy that again.

So that’s how I celebrated completing my PhD...it’s not really how I planned on finishing it.

Helen SmithBush Wheeling Adventurer

“The doctors told me & my family very quickly that I wouldn’t walk again. On a logical level I understood that absolutely. We were also told in some cases the doctors are wrong & I guess my super optimistic brain gave myself the six weeks in hospital to be open to the idea I would be one of the exceptions.”

Helen acknowledges that reaching the six week mark having not made the kind of progress that she & others were holding out for was harder than hearing the news for the first time six weeks earlier.

Moving through rehab and back into the community, it really struck her how disconnected you can feel adjusting to a new life in a wheelchair. The things you think and talk about left her asking the question what do I have in common with my community now?

“The first 2 years post-injury was a real grieving period for me. When you study a PhD its a period in your life when you are completely the master of your own destiny. You can study what you like and how you like it. I loved the fact I could do a 100 Km bush walk whenever I liked and  that was the kind of woman I was. The feeling of never being able to do that again, to have that kind of freedom, was really hard to come to terms with.”

Helen’s injury didn’t hold her down for long though. In rehab she got talking to folks about her love of bush walking and was told there were plenty of “accessible paths” out there that would allow her to get back into the wilderness.

However, Helen quickly realised the common definition of wheelchair accessible outdoor spaces – smooth, concreted tracks 50 to 100 metres long – was not her idea of fun. In true Helen fashion, she set about changing that reality and dove into a pursuit of real dirt track experiences, combining equipment and assistance from others to help her access the “real outdoors”.

Some of the innovations Helen uses to help her & her supporters are fantastic. One example of this is a climbing rope & harness set-up that allows her friends to help pull her through sections of a trip where assistance is required. She calls this Huskying. She also frequently uses $30 K-Mart inflatable rafts to travel down rivers after bush wheeling for several days.

Coming to accept and cherish the support of others has been huge for Helen and realising that you don’t need all the equipment and gear that can weigh you down It’s really opened up the world again, bringing new connections with groups excited about what she is doing.

So that’s how I celebrated completing my PhD...it’s not really how I planned on finishing it.

Helen SmithBush Wheeling Adventurer

Helen had done so much travel around the Australia and the Americas, relishing the low maintenance way she liked to travel. Very little gear was her thing. But in her new life, Helen struggled with how reliant she was going to be on gear & equipment. It was just another reminder of how different her pre and post injury life was.

In 2016 Helen was awarded a Churchill Fellowship – one of 50 awarded each year – that allowed her to travel the world & meet other Adaptdefiers doing similar work in extending access to the outdoors for wheelchair users.

The intention behind the travel was to learn about different approaches to making the outdoors more accessible & bring them back to Australia to implement.

This year Helen did part of the Camino Trail in Spain – about 250 Km to be precise – and she said it was awesome.

“We were pushing 20 Kms a day. Even though they were European trails (not raw backcountry stuff), the experience got me closer to the feeling that doing an extended wilderness expedition is possible.”

Helen doesn’t limit her adventure to the dirt tracks. She has paddled into the world of kayaking, completing a course in New Zealand to learn how to have fun & independence on the water.

“Learning to roll a kayak & right it is such a mental challenge.”

Although Helen hasn’t mastered it yet saying that a hundred days in a pool is probably what she needs, she has joined the outrigger canoe community in Canberra, Australia where she lives to broaden her water fix. Not stopping there, Helen also dove into the world world of scuba diving (pardon the pun) recently & absolutely loves it.

Helen’s adventurous spirit & commitment to pushing what she and others think is possible, makes her a true Adaptdefier. Travelling & adventuring with as much independence as practical is what drives Helen. On long weekends Helen will be out there doing a 50 Km push through the outback, or if she has more time, taking a couple of weeks to explore Australia’s national parks.

In pursuit of her passion for adventure & love of sharing it with others, Helen is inspiring many others to defy what they think is possible & get back out there in the great outdoors.

If you’d rather listen than read…

Listen to the Podcast with Helen Smith now.