This post was originally published on November 10, 2011.
[Editor’s Note: Thanks to Elena for finding this great “Chero” (childfree hero.) If you have a favorite Chero, please send me a post about her.]
A week ago, when I was having my first coffee in the morning, I spotted a “chero” story in my local newspaper here in Berne, Switzerland. It was titled The Second Life of Nicole Niquille, but maybe it’s rather about Ms. Niquille’s third, or fourth life… so I would like to share this story about someone who has re-invented herself more than once in her life.
Nicole Niquille is 55 and lives in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. She will shortly be appointed an honorary member of the Swiss Mountain Guide association, which has more than 1500 members – only 25 of which are women. Ms. Niquille is only the third woman to be awarded this honor; the association has decided that she is clearly a pioneer of professional mountaineering. And she has reached this goal despite – or maybe because of – many obstacles in her life.
Ms. Niquille was 18 when a severe motorbike accident left her badly injured and with her left foot nearly severed from her leg. The doctors managed to save the foot through several surgeries, but it never regained its full flexibility. It was only in her hard mountaineering boots that she wasn’t affected by this. So she fell in love with climbing the alpine mountains on her doorstep, because “it was a good reason to fight: my own body, and the mountain.”
She trained hard and learned everything necessary to survive in the mountains, how to climb the sheer and icy mountainsides of the Alps, and how to guide other people in this hostile environment. Going through professional mountain guide training, she had to fight for the respect of the men in that profession, and after her successful exam, she became the first female professional mountain guide in Switzerland. That made her an attraction, and many happy and successful years followed. Until one day, 17 years ago, when the second accident happened.
She wasn’t even climbing, but collecting mushrooms at the foot of a mountain near her hometown, together with her former husband and a friend. A small rock, only as big as a walnut, was loosened higher up on the slope by an animal and fractured her skull. She spent 21 months in hospital and was initially completely paralyzed and not even able to speak. In this situation, she really considered suicide “as soon as I am capable of it again.” But slowly her injuries mended and her will to live returned, though the accident left her a paraplegic.
Today she says, “At first, I was aggressive and angry. Then I made a decision for a new life and new goals.” She left her first husband, because “He only saw the patient in me, not the woman I once was.”
At 38 years old, she found her new project: A small auberge (guesthouse) near the Lac de Taney in a remote side valley of the Valais mountains (1440 meters above sea level). In her wheelchair, she managed the guesthouse until 2010, as a manager, host, and expert and counselor in mountaineering questions. It was there she found the love of her life, her second husband. She also used part of the big sum of money she received from the state invalidity insurance to build a hospital in Nepal, which treats 1000 patients a month. This humanitarian project, she says, is “like the child I never had.” When the hospital was destroyed by an earthquake in September this year, she travelled to Nepal to personally oversee its reconstruction.
The obstacles in her life, she says, lead her to advance inwardly, to go on an inner journey.
Elena lives in Berne, Switzerland. She is a social scientist, social worker and enthusiastic amateur fiddler.