With only a few weeks to go before the Walking With The Wounded team – including four injured servicemen - leaves on a record-setting trek to the Geographical North Pole, WideWorld was invited to their training camp in Norway.
As the seven-strong expedition team make their way over the final hill to break camp on the edge of a vast frozen lake there is only one thing on their minds – lunch.
The team has just spent the eight-days in isolation in the mountains north of the Norwegian ski resort of Beitsotolen. Their purpose was to tests themselves against freezing temperatures and harsh environments that are close to what they will encounter on their 25-day trek across the frozen north to the Geographical centre of the Arctic, which begins later this month.
As the team instinctively begins setting up their campsite, there is a real buzz of excitement in the air. The general consensus is that the training has gone well, and despite having seen some temperamental weather over the eight-days it has allowed the group to test several aspects of their preparation – especially with regards to their injuries. “The weather provided us with a plethora of different circumstances,” explains Captain Martin Hewitt while chomping down a hearty portion of reindeer stew. “We had relative extreme cold to start with, it got down to about -30C which wasn’t as cold as we liked, but it was cold enough to test out the kit – which held up well.”
Hewitt is one of the four servicemen at the centre of the expedition. Each of the four received life-altering injuries while on duty for the British military in Afghanistan. They are championing the Walking With The Wounded charity that is seeking to raise funding and awareness for people who have to deal with life-altering injuries on a daily basis.
Sergeant Steven Young suffered a broken back after his vehicle ran over an IED (improvised explosive device), while Captain Guy Disney and Private Officer Jaco Van Gass lost limbs (the former his left leg below the knee; the latter his left arm at the elbow) as a result of rocket-propelled grenade attacks. Hewitt himself was shot through the elbow during a firefight, rendering his right arm paralysed.
Testing the kit for durability
One of the main aims of the in-situ training week was to test out the durability of their kit – all supplied by adventure clothing gurus, Helly Hansen. The quality of gear is always an essential element in any polar expedition, but with the addition of the disabilities carried by the team, the full functioning of the tailored gear is paramount to the success of the trip. “We were interested to test out the kit, especially on Martin and myself,” explains Van Gass, “seeing whether our missing limbs will be able to hold up with the conditions and testing out our various custom-made heat packs in different circumstances – I am happy to say that so far everything has been working well.”
According to the boffins at the Helly Hansen lab, who are not only supplying but also designing bespoke kit to suit the injuries of the team, during the expedition’s estimated 250-mile trek to the pole, their clothing will receive approximately six years worth of ‘normal use’, due to the conditions they will encounter.
Each day of training sees the team Nordic skiing for five hours through the frozen Norwegian terrain, in order to acclimatise to the conditions they will be facing. However, the week looked to focus on more than just skiing for hours on end to test out the kit. On two occasions, the team faced winds of 50mph and were forced take refuge into their tents for more than 38 hours. However, it seems as though the poor weather proved to be somewhat a blessing in disguise for the team.
“On a couple of days the wind speed picked up significantly and varied a lot over the course of the training,” says Hewitt. “It is frustrating but it teaches you lessons – it tests the team’s administration, as well as our teamwork and our equipment. We were able to learn where we are going wrong and the places we can improve on, but all in all we are coming along.”
Joining the four on the expedition are WWTW co-founders, Edward Parker and Simon Daglish, logistics expert Henry Cookson and legendary Norwegian adventurer (and Helly Hansen’s own ‘action-man’) Inge Solheim – who will be their guide.
Disability comes to the forefront
For Daglish, despite spending 18 months selecting the team and organising the expedition, the training seems to have highlighted the magnitude of the task. “Although we’ve always known the difficulty of what we are in for, despite the immense mental strength of the boys, in these extreme conditions having a disability really comes to the forefront,” says Daglish. “You can’t spend five minutes doing up a buckle with one hand, or opening up a tent with your teeth – the conditions will punish you.”
It is partly for this reason that he believes that this will be such a challenging task. “Everything that we do not only has to revolve around nature and all she has to throw at us but also the capabilities of our team. That is what makes it so fascinating – and that is probably why no one has attempted it before, because it’ll actually be rather difficult!”
In the likelihood that the team encounters similar bad weather during their expedition, streamlining tasks such as setting up camp is something that they have been focusing on. “In our three-man teams we’ve got it down to about 10 minutes,” says the youngest member of the team, Van Gass, in his thick South African accent. “It is all about the simple little things, like when you collapse the tents in the morning by just making sure that you take care not to tangle the rope guides, so that once you opening it in the evening you can go straight to work.”
Pulling a 100kg sled to the Pole
“We practice fine-tuning what you actually need in your tent and what you can leave in your ‘pulk’ because you want as little as possible in your tent making it as comfortable as possible,” explains Van Gass. By ‘pulk’ he is referring to the large carbon-fibre sleds that the team will be dragging behind them as they go. During the expedition the pulks will be filled with all of the team’s supplies and equipment, with each of them weighing as much as 100kg.
After hearing of the weight being pulled by the team members, it is not surprising to see some of the boys go up for a second helping of the reindeer stew. “Weight is an issue,” Hewitt declares and although he receives a brunt of friendly banter for that statement, all the team are well aware that they all need to put on more weight before they set off. “The body will burn fat more efficiently than it will muscle – therefore I could do with putting on an extra half stone of fat,” he continues. “There will be a deficiency on a day-to-day basis on the calorie intake to the calorie expenditure. We are likely to burn around 8000 calories a day, and realistically only take on 6000-6500. Therefore our bodies will need a reserve, and putting on that weight before setting off is crucial.”
After refuelling and under the instruction of Solheim, the team begin packing up the camp and preparing for the brief three mile ski back to civilisation – a journey that WideWorld had made earlier on that morning – but after taking a surprising amount of time, and multiple embarrassing faceplants, it seemed the best idea to leave it to the professionals.