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Walking With The Wounded: Training In Iceland

John Summerton

I wasn’t really sure what to expect as the giant glacier bus – an ingenious conversion from a Russian missile launcher – rumbled to the edge of the glacier. It was dark and we were enveloped in cloud, so visibility was limited to just a few meters. Slowly, through the mist, the contrasting shapes of the camp came into view.

I was in Iceland, writes Sidetracked Founder John Summerton, on the Langjökul Glacier to meet and follow the Walking With The Wounded teams as they trained for their latest and most ambitious expedition to date. Walking With The Wounded is a charity that funds re-training and re-education programmes for wounded servicemen and women. It stages extreme expeditions to illustrate the extraordinary courage of injured servicemen and promote awareness of their need for support. In November 2013, three teams from the UK, USA and the Commonwealth of Nations will race to the South Pole. The three teams are each made up of 6 volunteers but only 4 from each team will be chosen for the polar challenge.

Their Icelandic training schedule on the glacier was an extremely tough test: two hours on skis pulling their pulks weighing 130lb followed by 10 minutes rest time and repeat. For eight hours each day covering 15-18 miles on average. The days and nights were spent working and surviving in gale force winds and temperatures well below freezing. The teams had to familiarise themselves with the kit, test out survival skills and work with frozen prosthetics. As they decamped on their final morning I met with a few of team to chat about the experience in Iceland and find out a bit more about their motivation for this expedition.

I wandered over to the British camp where I met with Jason, Guy and Duncan. Jason Wilkes served in both Iraq and Northern Ireland. He spoke openly about his battles with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), his commitment to fighting the stigma of suffering mental illness and overcoming his own challenges surrounding this condition. “We’re not all invincible following the life changing experiences that we’ve endured. PSTD is a silent killer, but I don’t want to remain silent”. He also talked about coming to terms with mental injury and hopes to inspire others through his involvement.

Sergeant Duncan Slater’s vehicle was blown up by an I.E.D (improvised explosive device) whilst on operation serving in Afghanistan in 2009. The only unbroken part of his body was his right arm. After 12 months of rehab, both his legs were amputated to enable him to walk pain free. “It’s all about inspiring others, those in a similar situation to us but also in normal everyday life. I volunteered for this expedition to show what amputees can do, and to have the opportunity to help a charity that is willing to do so much is beyond words.”

The stories like this continued throughout the camps and were humbling beyond belief. As the teams packed up the gear and prepared to ski out, they worked seamlessly, continually helping and supporting each other. Spirits were high, the competition between teams jovial, but escalating throughout in an ambitious, yet powerfully supportive and sportsmanlike way. Inge Solhiem, an accomplished polar explorer explained the challenges they will face on the 9000ft high Antarctic plateau and the need to enforce strict personal and team administration for their own safety.

From the US team, Ivan Castro, who remains in active service, was completely blinded during operations in Iraq when motar shells landed near him, killing two men in his unit. Ivan is a huge character and is proving that despite his injury, life is still out there to be enjoyed. “They’re not disabilities,” he says, “they are just added challenges and for this expedition, we’re not too concerned about who reaches the South Pole first, the challenge itself is the victory.”

It’s all about inspiring others, those in a similar situation to us but also in normal everyday life. I volunteered for this expedition to show what amputees can do, and to have the opportunity to help a charity that is willing to do so much is beyond words.

These men and women are facing their mental and physical challenges and fears to prove to themselves and to others that nothing is impossible. They may or may not make it to the South Pole but their impressive determination, the spirit they embody and the camaraderie among their close knit group speaks more than the physical achievement of reaching the pole. Their goal, I think, is one they’ve already reached – raising awareness and making us even more proud of our armed services.

The expedition and charity has huge support. Glenfiddich are the UK team sponsors, Arqiva are providing all the extensive communications support and Helly Hansen have been incredible in not only providing all the gear for the teams but also working with the soldiers on an individual basis to extensively customise the gear for protection and comfort within the extreme conditions that they will face.

Later in the day, the clouds lifted, the sun shone and Iceland revealed her beauty. Towering snow covered mountains surrounded us, and the massive expanse of the glacier was awe inspiring. Lower down, the harsh, unearthly landscape, barren and foreboding was everything I hoped for. I desperately wanted to spend longer exploring the area but time was against us. However this brief taste has left me yearning for more. I’ll be returning to Iceland. Soon.

In the evening, once the teams had decamped and been transported back to the comfort of the hotel for a much needed shower, we shared food, beers, some glorious single malt and dubious fermented shark (an Icelandic delicacy called Hákarl). They are just normal people who enjoy a good time and from out the blue had their lives brutally changed. Yet none are down spirited. If anything they thrive to make more out of life, to jump in to any opportunity to prove to themselves and to others never to give up, no matter what adversity you may face.

To get a brief glimpse of what these wounded heros can do was a unique privilege. Sidetracked is all about encouraging and inspiring people to embrace life and the Walking With The Wounded teams are doing just that. We’ll be following the progress in the build up to the South Pole expedition in November this year. In the meantime, check out their website, follow them on twitter and find them on facebook.

Written by John Summerton

Towering snow covered mountains surrounded us, and the massive expanse of the glacier was awe inspiring. Lower down, the harsh, unearthly landscape, barren and foreboding was everything I hoped for.

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