A HEROIC CHALLENGE
PUBLISHED: 17:27 27 November 2013 | UPDATED: 17:27 27 November 2013
Prince Harry calls them courageous and unquenchable. And he knows what he is talking about - having joined the determined members of Norfolk-based charity Walking with the Wounded in their quest to the North Pole two years ago, the prince has just set off on their latest challenge, a daunting race across the Antarctic.
Certainly anyone embarking on such a mission could deserve to be called brave, but it is the extraordinary spirit of the team members who are injured servicemen and women that has chimed with Prince Harry. He is patron of the South Pole Allied Challenge, organised by Walking with the Wounded and his commitment to the charity, set up by Melton Constable wine merchant and ex-Army man Ed Parker, is undeniable.
This spring, Prince Harry announced he would be patron of the challenge and revealed his pride in joining the British contingent – Team Glenfiddich - on the expedition.
Speaking at the launch, he said: “These men and women have given their all in the cause of freedom. That they should once again step into the breach - this time facing down the extreme physical and mental challenges of trekking to the South Pole – just underlines their remarkable qualities.
“So, what are these qualities? Courage, to be sure. Physical strength, endurance, a sense of comradeship - absolutely. But there’s something else, something deeper than that. Something that draws me back to this charity and these people time and again – and always will. It’s toughness of mind. An unquenchable spirit that simply refuses to say ‘I am beaten’.”
The expedition is now underway, with the prince and the team pushing themselves to the limit during the gruelling 335km trek across the extreme and unrelenting environment of the Antarctic. Each of them - whatever their background - will face their own personal challenges along the way as they bid to reach the South Pole, relying on one another to survive the harshest conditions on the planet.
The South Pole Allied Challenge has been organised by Walking with the Wounded to illustrate the true courage and determination of injured servicemen and women, and to raise vital funds to help them in the transition from military to civilian life.
Three teams from Britain, the Commonwealth and the USA are taking part in this expedition, each comprising of polar experts, charity representatives and those who have been seriously wounded in conflict - many of whom will complete the challenge using prosthetic limbs.
Prince Harry is a long-term supporter of the charity and took part in their trek to the North Pole in 2011. He joked about reuniting with them for the latest adventure.
“So, here we are again: Inge Solheim, the Norwegian slave-driver/heavy snorer, our leaders Ed Parker and Simon Daglish – they who share a mere follicle between them - and some new friends, the stars of the show, the men and women of the Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge.”
In September, members of the teams – including Prince Harry – spent the night in a giant freezer to simulate the gruelling polar conditions and there have been a series of training events, including a boot camp at Stody Hall Barns in Norfolk. Speaking as they prepared for the trek, Ed said that many strong friendships have already formed.
“Those taking part will have an extraordinary life-changing experience and we have seen the impact it is making already. Walking with the Wounded is not just about this one-off expedition, and having Prince Harry as our patron is fantastic as it raises the profile of the whole charity. He completely understands who these people are and the challenges they face, he has served in Afghanistan. He will just be one of the team, pulling his own sledge, putting up the tents, cooking the meals, and in my experience he wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Charity chief executive and former Army man Ed took part in the last challenge to the North Pole, but he said he found things tougher going this time as he prepared for his role in the US team.
“I am feeling older and slower,” he laughed. “There are a few things on your mind, but the one thing you don’t need is a niggling suspicious you might not be fit enough physically. It is a very harsh environment. When you are on the plateau, it is completely flat, with no features at all, nothing to focus your eye on. Whatever direction you look, it is exactly the same. It is very disorienting.”
Among those taking part is Duncan Slater, who lives near Diss and served in the RAF for 10 years. When an improvised explosive device blew up his vehicle in Afghanistan in 2009, he suffered devastating injuries and is now a double below the knee amputee. Duncan’s wife, Kim, featured in our glamorous make-over at Houghton Hall this spring when she spoke of her pride in her husband and how he had battled back from his horrific injuries to be chosen to take part in the South Pole challenge.
As well as tough training to prepare for the trip, Ed explained that the prosthetics used by those who have lost limbs are key to the success of the team.
“We have had them in the cold chambers to see how they react to the extreme temperatures and the guys have been doing long distance work with them to check their fit. When we are in the polar conditions, the key is to how the stump fits into the socket as your leg can swell when you are in the Antarctic and you don’t want any sores.”
The teams left the UK on November 17, and after a stop in Cape Town for briefings, they flew to the Antarctic on November 20 to a Russian airbase.
“It is a good halfway house, it is fairly temperate there – about –5C to –10C,” Ed laughed. “From there, a seven-hour flight took them to the starting point where the temperature will be around -35C at an altitude of around 3000m.
“As soon as the wind starts blowing you are in danger of wind damage and then add in polar storms, where the snow gets whipped up - you can’t leave your tents because the visibility is so poor. You just hunker down. Once the tents are up though and the stoves are going, it is like the most welcome haven of goodness. You can never appreciate how good it feels to be in there.”
Route to new life
Walking with the Wounded was set up in 2010 by Ed Parker, who served with the Royal Green Jackets in the 1980s and 1990s and who now runs Edward Parker Wines from Stody Hall Barns near Melton Constable, and his old Army friend Simon Daglish to raise funds for specialist education and training programmes to help injured members of the armed forces in their career transition from the military to civilian life. Around 16,000 servicemen and women have been injured during conflicts spanning the past decade and the aim of their charity is to provide help after the initial medical care and rehabilitation, to ensure they can make a successful future for themselves.
Money raised by the charity goes towards anything from providing lodgings for a former member of the UK Armed Forces on a residential course to putting trainees through full vocational courses to set them on a new career.
To make a donation or find out more, see walkingwiththewounded.org.uk