INTERVIEW: Mikey Cleverdon - A Stroke of Misfortune

by Tom Newberry Jun/2017
This article has been read 7,624 times

Mikey Cleverdon's story is one of a classic comeback, a ruthless, yet inspirational, determination to overcome a merciless knock that life can sometimes throw at us. Aged only 27, Mikey suffered a stroke, whilst doing what he does best; up a rope setting a demo route for none other than Chris Sharma.

Mikey on the first ascent of Pe'Ahi V12, 137 kbMikey on the first ascent of Pe'Ahi V12
© Joe Harris

The word 'Stroke' sounds so harmless, a synonym for "caress", however the old English origin offers a more accurate interpretation: "a blow" and "a calamity". There is no escaping the impact of a stroke; along with cancer and cardiac disease, it is the most common cause of death in western countries. In fact, someone suffers a stroke every 40 seconds. For those who survive, over half will be left with permanent and severe disability, meaning it is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the UK. The consequences are a horrifying catalogue of damage that includes personality changes, impaired sensation, paralysis, language problems, deafness, blindness, memory loss and seizures. Yet these disheartening facts didn't deter Mikey's spirit, his objective: to return to form; back climbing V11 and 8a in just 12 months!

A well-known face amongst climbers in his local scene, Mikey is a keen developer, coach and route setter, who for the last decade has been crucial to the rise of standards in the region. Mainly known for his developments on Dartmoor, he has added a number of hard test-pieces. Many of which demonstrate Mikey's characteristically powerful and wild climbing style. None demonstrate this more than his superb power problem at Bonehill, Pehia V12. However, it is his incessant broad smile and distinctive laugh which have been valuable assets to the crags and climbing centres. Maybe, his exuberant energy and pounding positivism are the secrets to Mikey's inspirational and remarkable recovery. I spoke with Mikey to find out more, and see if we could all feed off his optimism and apply his philosophy to issues of our own.


The day of the stoke was an exciting occasion, setting routes for a Chris Sharma demo at the Quay Climbing Centre, Exeter. After a morning's work I had a headache coming on, but decided to head up the rope to attach a few more holds before stopping for lunch and Paracetamol. As I attached the second hold the whole world seem to go upside down. All I can recall was struggling to hold my shunt whilst trying to lower myself. Once I reached the ground I couldn't hold my weight, just slumping to one side. Every time I attempted to sit up I would buckle over again. After that, I only remember a lot of confusion. I was very much in a strange and unexplainable place waiting for my fiancée to come and pick me up; strangely though there was no pain, if anything I was happy and giggling, I was in utter bliss.

photo
4 days before the first stroke anniversary Mikey made the 2nd ascent of End is Nigh V11
© Tom Bunn

The chances of someone my age having a stroke are extremely rare; under 30's make up only 0.7% of stroke attacks. My stroke occurred due to an AVM (arteriovenous malformation) – basically a knotted mess of blood vessels, veins and arteries in the left side of my brain. This created an aneurism which burst. The stroke left me with several severe side effects, both mentally and physically. I often feel very emotional bursting into tears out of the blue. Physically, half of my body feels completely different to the other side. Simple day to day things like being in the shower provide strange sensations, as the water running over me feels totally different on one side from the other. Accompanying this is a lack of mobility and strength on my right side. Initially this meant I struggled to talk and couldn't walk. In fact, I couldn't feel anything in my right side meaning I struggled to hold anything in my right hand, I couldn't tell if something was touching me, holding my hand and had no sensation to pain. As some sensations started to return I had to relearn what they meant, causing many a funny moment. For example, applying shower gel to my hand gave me the same sensation as putting my hand to close to the fire; this meant I would snatch my hand away as if it was painful.

Unfortunately, due an AVM being the primary cause of the stroke, I wasn't allowed to undergo the usual intensive physiotherapy to help re-create the neuro-pathways that enable you to regain complete control of your body. Ideally this takes place within 2 weeks of the stroke as the likelihood of being able to recreate these pathways reduces dramatically after time. As a result, two years on, I am still left with no sensation in my right foot and lower leg, I have hearing issues in my right ear, I still lack mobility on my right side, I suffer memory loss in particular trouble with short term, as well as concentration and communication issues. However, the most frustrating side effect is the heavy fatigue I suffer from. Walking in busy places, particularly supermarkets, is where I suffer the most and within 20 minutes can go from an apparent fit young male to someone who looks like they have just consumed an entire bottle of Jack Daniels! Nowadays I have to plan everything and be prepared to drop things at last minute if I simply can't manage, which unfortunately happens quite often. In a nutshell, I feel like I've aged by 20+ years overnight.

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Mikey making good use of his stronger left side on Psycho Cowboy V10
© Tom Newberry

Oddly, my ambitions are set higher now than prior to the stroke. I want to and have climbed harder than ever since the stroke. I believe more than ever it is the psychological that prevents us from achieving our personal goals. After overcoming the initial "it's all over" thoughts, I started to believe that I could achieve anything; my mind wouldn't hold me back. Despite at this time being bed ridden in hospital, unable to walk, I wanted to climb hard again and was determined to do so. I generally have a highly positive and optimistic outlook on life, that's where I am lucky I guess. Occasionally my mind goes in the completely opposite direction, but I know everything has an opposite and that's what I focus on when things are down. It's cliché but you really never know what's round the corner for you, good or bad, but I feel there is always a balance somewhere. I guess you just have to live every day and try to spend as much of your time doing what you love; that and never give up on your dreams.

It was one of my proudest moments making the second ascent of the superb End is Nigh, 4 days before the year anniversary of the stroke. My first V11 since the stroke was followed 2 weeks later by an 8a+ sport route at Ansteys Cove, meaning I had returned to form within 1 year and 10 days of the stroke. Needless to say I was super stoked. Now 5 years on and I have managed to continue progressing, realising a lifelong ambition of bouldering V13 with the FA of Waterman at Bonehill. This year I also joined the GB para-climbing team and look forward to representing my country in international competitions.

Mikey undergoing torturous surgery to burn out the AVM..., 108 kbMikey undergoing torturous surgery to burn out the AVM...
© Mikey Cleverdon

Returning to V11 and 8a seemed the most obvious goal to set myself. From what the doctors and physios were telling me I thought it would be highly unlikely, but that made me want it even more. I wanted it to be routes/blocs I had not done before so I could just go through the journey of working something, learning it and eventually sending it, as that process is what I enjoy about climbing. The journey back was hard though; it took 6 months to get the green light to start doing light exercise again. But when they gave me the OK to start climbing I just went at it 'A Muerte'.

I was so happy to start moving around on rock again. Naturally I was inclined to spend more time on steeper terrain, but bouldering hard and knocking myself about was something I was strictly told to avoid; doctors felt that spikes in blood pressure for brief moments could still set off a secondary stoke or seizure. So to begin with I started off with simple traversing and easy climbs, occasionally on good days I returned to my preferred steep and thuggy style but mostly I was restricted to slabs, something I started to resent.

photo
Bouldering on the beach with Chad in Scotland
© Beckie Guttridge

I found it hard to get over the frustration of not being able to perform due to lack of strength and in particular feeling on my right side, and on bad days still do struggle to remain positive. Not being able to feel footholds I'm standing on has made slab climbing somewhat interesting and on trad extremely scary. It took lots of physio sessions and tedious exercises to regain balance controlled movement. I combined climbing with other general exercises, taking walks out on the moor and later tackling new activities, such as Slack lining. It feels like I'm floating when stood on my right leg, very strange. I have worked up to walking a 25 metre line now, which is fairly unbelievable and something I wouldn't have put money on pre-stroke let alone now. More recently I have been following a structured training programme, but still have to be prepared to sack off sessions, sometimes for several weeks at a time, due to heavy fatigue that builds up from everyday stuff.

I feel it took a lot of determination, optimism and a bit of luck I guess, to be in a position to bounce back and be able to climb again. The journey has taught me many things about myself and life in general. I really do believe that we can all achieve our dreams, whether that's climb V13, compete for GB at world cups or do 1-5-9; it's just our head that stops us!

Mikey is supported by eKonomical-FLOODIT lamps, Lyon Outdoor - La Sportiva, Dewerstone Clothing and Proto-col Green Magic nutrition specialist Jenna Goddard.

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