After Afghanistan, a battle with ice and solitude on the way to the Pole

PRINCE Harry is not there when I meet the Walking with the Wounded trek team. They have just finished an eight-day training excursion in the glacial wilderness above the Norwegian ski resort of Beitostolen; their longest yet, an expedition that saw them trapped in their tents by 50-mile-an-hour winds for 38 hours on end. But the charity’s royal patron is hoping to join the team for a part of their epic Polar journey.

If His Royal Highness is expecting an easy time, he is mistaken. The four wounded soldiers at the centre of this trip have been training hard, are spirited and have everything to prove. They plan to make the full 250-mile trek across the wind-blasted Arctic wasteland, facing down the threat of cracks in the constantly-moving ice, frostbite and polar bears, in 25 days. Should they succeed, they will be the first amputees and severely disabled people to make the trip.

Their guide is the legendary Norwegian adventurer Inge Solheim, who has been trekking in the Arctic and other extreme environments for nearly two decades.

The wounded soldiers will also be joined by logistics expert Henry Cookson, a former City boy who worked for Goldman Sachs before quitting to join his first Polar expedition at 28; the charity’s founders, Ed Parker and Simon Dagleish, and of course, army commitments allowing, the Prince himself.

I speak to Solheim as the team break camp on the shores of a vast frozen lake. He is keen to stress the enormity of the task the four wounded men face. “This is a full-on, hardcore trip,” he says. “To prove certain points to the world”. He tells me the team have opted to trek unsupported, dragging all of their supplies and equipment themselves on carbon-fibre sledges or “pulks” which will each weigh upwards of 100 kilos when fully laden with provisions, tents and gear. Helly Hansen, which is providing the team with high-tech cold-weather suits, estimate the team’s clothing will receive six years worth of wear in a single month.

“The North Pole is the most challenging place,” Solheim continues. “It’s also the most rewarding place. You feel such a sense of achievement when you've – not conquered the place, but lived there, worked through it alone and with your team – and it’s an amazing feeling to stand on top of the world, knowing that you have come there of your own means. All of us will change from this experience.”

The four servicemen at the centre of the expedition were all injured while on tours with the British military in Afghanistan. Guy Disney and Martin Hewitt are captains; the former lost a leg below the knee in a rocket-propelled grenade attack, the latter was shot in the shoulder in a firefight, which left his right arm paralysed.

Stephen Young, a sergeant, suffered a broken back after a vehicle carrying him ran over an IED – improvised explosive device – throwing him against the roof. Jaco Van Gass, a private and the baby of the expedition at 24, lost an arm below the elbow and suffered internal and external blast damage down his left side in another RPG attack.

They tell me that they work together as a team to cover areas where their injuries might have left them weaker.

“I can’t put up a tent, or cook, as effectively as some of the others,” says Hewitt. “But then, Guy simply cannot pull the same weight that I can – he’s pulling on a prosthetic leg. And while he’s extremely robust and very capable, he will not pull as much as I can… I’ve got two legs that are fully-functioning. So if needs be, I’ll pull more weight than him. It’s this teamwork that’s essential.”

Disney goes further. “I can still run faster than some people, carry more weight than some people. What I hope about this trip is that people look at it and think ‘that’s actually quite hard, that’s something that not every able-bodied person could do.’”

The more time I spend with them, the clearer the military-honed resilience and extraordinary courage of the four men becomes. Van Gass compares the trek with the battlefield. “On a tour [of duty], you’re fighting an enemy that are shooting back. At the Pole, it’s the elements that you need to attack and conquer. The wind, the cold. Controlling your body temperature. Covering up against the risk of frostbite.”

I ask Young about how he deals with the punishing routine. “You’ve got to break it down,” he tells me. “That’s how I did it when I was injured. I went from being someone at the peak of fitness, to lying on a bed, people washing me. I found that very, very difficult. I had to set myself small goals, like, ‘I will clean myself today’. It took weeks at a time. But every time I achieved one, I’d say ‘right: what’s next’.

“I remember setting myself the goal to walk to the window. It was four metres away. I got up one day and walked to the windowsill and back, and I was absolutely drained, exhausted. But that is exactly what you need to do.”

The eight men will have a month-long window to reach their goal. During this time the metre-thick ice will be moving beneath them – if they are unlucky and it moves against them, they could trek for a day and gain no distance at all. Beneath the ice, in which massive cracks can appear, the Arctic Ocean is three or four kilometres deep. The team will have to put on weight before departure – polar explorers need 15-20 per cent body fat as energy reserves; they will burn around 8,000 calories every day.

As soldiers, the team are used to pushing their bodies to extremes. I get the impression that the training has been cathartic, allowing them to approach their injuries as physical barriers to be overcome instead of existential catastrophes. The psychological challenge facing them is, if anything, tougher than the physical one.

Solheim outlines what the team can expect to be happening in their heads as they trek across the vast and shifting ice-floes. “I’m preparing the guys for the emotions that will occur, because I’ve seen them 100 times before. Homesickness, regret. You’re walking alone and isolated inside your little hood for hours every day, getting time to think about things that you might have forgotten or suppressed. Some people can fall into a depression.”

“We will all go through phases on the trip,” he continues. “The important thing is that we lift each other when we can.”

Solheim himself is relishing the prospect of the lonely walk through the wilderness. “For me it’s a luxury to be able to follow a chain of thought from A to Z without any disturbance,” he says. “Nobody is calling you.”

Hewitt is also looking forward to having time and space to think. “Your mind goes everywhere you can imagine. You’re thinking about all sorts. Home, family, friends, past experiences, what you want to do next. Somewhere warm, somewhere hot...”

He grins. “...Beautiful women, and a beach – you’re dreaming then. For me, I’m going to spend a lot of time on this trip thinking about the future.”

So what is the next step for the explorers? There is talk of a South Pole trip, and Disney tells me that he and Hewitt want to become professional adventurers together. But the answer from everyone is the same. “Let’s get to the Pole first. Then we’ll see.”

FACT BOX | HOW YOU CAN HELP
More soldiers committed suicide after the Falklands war than were killed during the conflict. Walking with the Wounded exists to prevent that statistic from ever happening again. It raises money for a large number of third sector organisations involved in the rehabilitation and retraining of wounded British service personnel, including Enham, set up in 1918 to care for “the effects of amputations, neurasthenia, shellshock or fever”; BLESMA, the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association; Skills Force, which sends mentors into schools; The Warrior Program, an NGO that provides psychological assistance, and aims to act pre-emptively to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder; and Help for Heroes, the most high-profile servicemen’s charity, founded in 2007 by Bryn Parry.

WWTW Founders Ed Parker and Simon Dagleish met at Sandhurst, and founded the charity after Parker’s nephew lost his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. It aims to raise two million pounds from the Polar expedition.

To donate, go to walkingwiththewounded.org.uk