The view of Iceland as you fly into Reykjavik is of a harsh and inhospitable place, a somewhat alien landscape. This observation was perhaps influenced by the fact that Prometheus (filmed in Iceland) was playing on the in-flight entertainment system as we reached the coastline. But for the last two weeks this lunar-like terrain with its lava fields and snow-capped peaks has been home to 18 injured servicemen and women, learning how to live on the ice in preparation for an expedition like no other.
Later this year, three teams of wounded military personnel representing the UK, USA, and Commonwealth (Australia and Canada) will brave crevasses, blizzards, 100MPH winds, whiteout conditions and wind chill temperatures of -40 degrees in a 200 mile race to the South Pole. Crossing the Antarctic Circle is challenge enough, but these soldiers, who have seen action in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland also have their own personal challenges to overcome.
Among the group are leg amputees – both unilateral and bilateral, partial arm amputees, those suffering with gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries, burns and partial sightedness. Previous expeditions organised by charity Walking with the Wounded (WWTW) to Mount Everest and the North Pole have included a maximum of one leg amputee team member, so the stakes have been raised significantly this time around.
Fortunately, Light Dragoon Guy Disney of the UK team, knows what he’s letting himself in for, as he was the leg amputee that participated in the North Pole expedition in 2011. For this training session he is joined by five other leg amputees, including one bilateral, on an Icelandic glacier, all with high hopes of heading to the South Pole in November.
While the teams are six strong right now, they will each be trimmed back to four members following a rigorous physical and mental assessment. For one reason or another, not everyone will make the cut. Among the rest of the group are two partial arm amputees, three with gunshot wounds, three with burns, two partially sighted soldiers, one who is completely blind, and five with mental injuries including PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
Uniquely, this expedition is the first of its kind that will include team members suffering from psychological injuries, adding yet another new and largely unknown dynamic to the expedition. It’s one thing to be training on an Icelandic glacier with a psychotherapist, specialist prosthetist and medics on hand but quite another to be in a blizzard, a hundred miles away from the South Pole with almost zero support available.
According to Ed Parker, an ex-serviceman himself who co-founded WWTW in 2010, psychological trauma in the military is still an untold story. “After three tours of duty you have a 20 per cent chance of mental injury,” he says. “And that increases with every tour.”
During the glacier training on Langjökull, Dr Vanessa Lewis provided invaluable advice and counselling to the team members and crew. An expert in working with military personnel Lewis believes that there is still a lot of stigma about mental injury. To keep the headcount down she will not be going on the expedition in November and while she was in a support role it was mainly as an overseer; she did not get involved in any therapeutic counselling during training. All team members who needed help would have their own counsellors and have already established personal coping mechanisms.
Jason Wilkes of the Royal Engineers, and part of Team UK, is very open about his PTSD and committed to removing stigmas about mental injury. A big issue for the team members facing this particular challenge is the alone time. Skiing and pulling a pulk (a custom sled) for around eight hours a day with only brief breaks every now and again means the team members have a lot of time to be alone with their thoughts.
“You’re on your own and don’t talk to anyone for hours. You speak to them for a few minutes on a break, but then you’re off again,” he says. “So I don’t get flashbacks or think about the incident, I let my mind wander and try to focus on my wife and kid. We’re building a new extension on the house, so I actually visualise that going up brick by brick to keep me occupied.”
Just as Lewis will not be going on the expedition due to difficulties in offering psychological support in the field, neither will Jamie Gillespie, the prosthetics expert who has been tailoring each artificial limb to its user and to the task in hand.
A below knee amputee himself due to a motorcycle accident, as well having spent time in the military, Gillespie is well placed to understand the demands the body and equipment need to withstand.
“Skiing all day is quite slow and repetitive so a really a basic prosthesis is fine,” he says. But his company, Pace Rehabilitation, has supplied higher-end prosthetics to what many of the amputee soldiers came out of the military with.
Duncan Slater of the RAF and team UK, is a bilateral below knee amputee who still towers over 6’2” in height, despite his prosthetics being four inches shorter than his true height, can see a real difference. “The legs that the military supplied I could walk on just fine, but the ones provided by Pace meant I could do hill reps almost immediately.”
Interestingly, Gillespie warns that an above knee amputee wouldn’t be able to cope with the conditions on an expedition like this, mainly because the hydraulics powering the knee would freeze up. Also, the battery powering the electronics would suffer in the cold, never mind the fact that the user wouldn’t have anywhere to charge the limb anyway.
The fact that the days are largely spent cross country skiing compounds the problem, and given the power loss in the limb, it would be difficult for an above knee amputee to pull their 75kg pulk loaded with gear.
Still, when I put the question to Ed Barker over dinner on the final day, he smiled and said he was “working on a plan” to get above knee amputee participants involved in a similar expedition.
Until then however, the crew have got their hands full with the current project. “Last time, for the North Pole expedition, we had only one guy with a leg amputation (Guy Disney),” says Gillespie. “But this time there are five guys so the chances of something going wrong with a prosthetic limb are significantly increased. In fact it’s almost bound to happen.” And in the field, there’s little Gillespie could do.
The guys (and girl) with prosthetic legs will all carry spares, but there are still a few question marks over how they will hold up, basic and sturdy as they are. For one thing, the cold temperatures of -40 degrees could make the carbon fibre the sockets are made from brittle, especially those spares which are sitting in a pulk all day with little to protect them from the elements.
When I met some of the UK team in their tent, the amputees were warming the silicon liners that sit between the stump and the prosthetic over the tiny cooking stove. It turns out almost everything freezes overnight and there’s only so much the team members are able, or willing, to keep in their sleeping bag.
The changeable nature of stumps can also be an issue, especially on the lower extremities. Skiing on prosthetics all day can make the stump swell, while the cold can make it shrink and amputees are all too familiar with issues of socket fit. “Stumps change size and if one guy can’t get his leg on one day, the whole group has to wait, which is not good in a race situation,” says Gillespie.
Almost as if to illustrate the point, during training, Duncan Slater suffered a knee twist injury, which while not serious caused his stump to swell up so much he couldn’t get his socket on, effectively putting him out of action.
Guy Disney, who has already braved similar conditions at the North Pole, demonstrated a modification Gillespie came up with earlier to counter this problem. He cut a fillet into the socket and attached a ratcheting fastener, similar to that that of a ski boot to it. This set up gives the socket just a little flex as well as giving Disney the ability to tighten it up just a millimetre at a time to account for the varying size of his stump.
“Jamie Gillespie has got it so comfortable I can spend 12 hours on the leg,” Disney says. “This limb has done the North Pole, a tour in Afghanistan and I’m now heading to the South Pole with the same leg, so it’s held up well.” Unfortunately, while the fillet remains in place on the limb, the fastener came off in Afghanistan, meaning Disney can no longer tighten the socket without putting a thicker liner on his stump. The prosthetic can be fixed up for the race, but this is exactly the kind of challenge the team will be facing on the expedition.
A Helly Hansen representative was on hand to show the modifications his team had made to the arctic gear worn by the teams and crew. Prosthetics are more hard wearing on the garments, which adds another concern, as a failure in a pair of trousers could be disastrous in -40 temperatures. The tiniest of holes can let cold air in, and cold air can lead to frostbite pretty quickly.
As well as cordura reinforcements to stop the trousers getting destroyed from the inside by prosthetics, Helly Hansen added zips and velcro to give wearers easy access to their limbs so they can remove prosthetics and drain excess sweat off the stumps during breaks.
In the case of Ibrar Ali (, Yorkshire Regiment, UK) and Mark Wise (1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, USA) who have forearm and partial forearm amputations respectively, Helly Hansen removed excess material from their jackets and gloves and added insulation to counter problems caused by loss of circulation.
Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the team seem less concerned with their stumps than they do with their fingers, toes, noses and ears. Experienced polar guide Inge Solheim believes that frostbite is largely caused by carelessness, but even seasoned explorers fall foul. Take Sir Ranulph Fiennes for example, who very recently had to abandon an Antarctic expedition after frostbite took a good number of finger joints on his left hand.
According to WWTW founder Ed Parker, this is one reason why the expedition needs a very robust safety net – a key element of which is communications.
UK broadcast specialist Arqiva has been seconded onto the expedition to provide for all communications and safety needs. Around 28 satellite phones will be taken to ensure plenty of spares.
Everyone will be equipped with a handset but each team will only keep one device switched on at all times. The Lithium batteries used in the Iridium handsets don’t particularly like the cold so team members will probably take the battery out of the unused handsets and keep them in layers closer to the skin to keep them warm.
Each unit has an SOS emergency button which dials a pre-programmed phone number and sends the long-lat location and the handset’s battery status to three email addresses. In the whiteout conditions the expedition is expecting, getting lost or falling into a crevasse is a real danger. But the other reason one device on each time will be kept active is so that the interactive map tracking each team can be updated in real time. It is a race after all.
The expedition is classed as ‘unsupported’ – that is to say support personnel such as the prosthetics expert, psychotherapist, and physiotherapist among others who were present during training will not be joining the expedition. However, there will be four turbo jeeps, carrying extra supplies following the group.
One jeep in each pair will be running mirrored equipment used to get video and media from the teams onto the internet and back to the UK during the expedition.
Two of the turbo jeeps will carry an antenna on the roof, connected to a low orbiting satellite constellation moving around the Earth at a rate of knots. The maximum uplink connection is about 128kbps which presents two problems: bandwidth constraints when uploading video; and handover issues. To combat this Arqiva has developed and worked with software clients that can compress the video to make optimum use of the bandwidth, as well as remember where the upload got to if the session is interrupted.
Getting a two minute HD video clip every day off the ice with accompanying photos is what Arqiva wants to achieve but the team is also going to try a live webcast from the South Pole.
“When we went to the North Pole and Everest we had a couple of Iridium handsets with us and that was it. These were great for talking to people but we weren’t able to send back any images or other information,” Ed Parker says. “One of the key parts of WWTW is telling stories, trying to engage with as broad an audience as possible, and to get people to find out who these brave men and women are. In this sense Arqiva is helping us tell the story to the media.”
For visitors or tourists like myself, getting across a glacier means hopping into a converted missile carrier the tour guide from Arctic Trucks bought from NATO for £200k and modified with supersized tyres and a passenger cabin. Decreasing the pressure in the tyres from 30lbs to 3lbs spreads the surface area of the wheels by five fold and allows the vehicle to ‘float’ on snow with the same effective pressure as a man on skis.
Indeed, for the team, the only way across the glacier is on skis and under their own steam. Guy Disney is particularly wary of the wind and sudden blizzards. “A 24 meter per second wind makes it difficult to stand up, especially for amputees, and not many of us are used to bindings and skis either,” he says.
This kind of challenge goes double for USA team member Ivan Castro (82nd Airbourne, 1st Battalion) who is completely blind and tethered to guide Solheim for most of the day. “I’ve fallen over more times than I can count,” he says.
The UK team are aiming for a pace of about 27km per day. Bear in mind however they are doing this at an altitude of 9,000 feet and because the air is thinner at the poles they will be experiencing an equivalent altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level. The teams won’t be acclimatising so they face a very dry, rasping cough, altitude sickness, as well as the swelling of their stumps.
Yet they are optimistic. “If we can ski all day we can do it,” says Disney, adding, “the Antarctic is completely flat and we will be much fitter by November.”
It’s a tough physical and mental challenge that lies ahead, and by their own admission, the troops will need to adopt tunnel vision and great concentration in order to reach their goal, whilst still competing against the other nations. But these men and women are soldiers after all, and is this expedition that much different from being out on deployment?
“It’s a bit of a military way of doing things,” smiles Guy Disney, “but often the only way to get through something like this is just to look at each other, smile and make a joke of it.”
As Ed Parker says, one of the key reasons he founded WWTW was to tell stories. And come December of this year, 12 of these troops will have a hell of a tale to tell.