When Chris Downey arrived in the frozen heart of Antarctica on Wednesday, he had tears in his eyes. It wasn’t the cold or the nasty wind, because Mr. Downey, a native of Cold Lake, Alta., is used to that. Instead, the Canadian Forces veteran, who lost an eye and was badly burned in a bomb blast in Afghanistan three years ago, was emotional about the race he’s about to begin – and which he’s determined to win.
Mr. Downey and fellow soldier Alexandre Beaudin D’Anjou, who was also injured in Afghanistan, are the two Canadians in a race called Walking With the Wounded, which pits wounded veterans from the Commonwealth against those from the United States and Britain.
One member of the British team lost both legs in Afghanistan, and a U.S. team member is blind, but they will soon perform a task that would send the able-bodied scurrying. The four wounded members of each team will ski some 335 kilometres over 16 days, in temperatures as low as –45, hauling sleds that weigh 75 kilograms each. The first team to reach the South Pole wins, with no prize except the donations they’ve received for the Walking With the Wounded charity and the awareness they’ve raised about the difficulties injured soldiers face after war.
“The idea is to hopefully have the story reach somebody out there – it doesn’t matter if they are a soldier or not,” Mr. Downey, 32, said in an interview in London before Soldier On, the Commonwealth team, left for Cape Town and then Antarctica. “I see other wounded [soldiers]. I see their injuries that are worse than I have. To be with people that I see as worse than me doing something amazing is enough inspiration for 20 years of my life.”
In May of 2010, Mr. Downey was serving with a bomb-disposal team when an improvised explosive device (IED) blew up in front of him. His friend Craig Blake was killed in the attack, which severely wounded Mr. Downey. Badly burned, in danger of losing the sight in both eyes, one of his lungs collapsed, he was coaxed along by two medics who promised that one day he’d be able to ride his beloved motorcycle again.
He couldn’t have known that he’d end up at the South Pole, alongside two Australians who’d never skied until recently, a fellow Canadian veteran and a British actor, Dominic West (most famous for his role on The Wire), who is the team’s celebrity sponsor.
The other celebrity in the race is a certain red-haired royal trudging with Team UK, but according to Mr. Downey, Prince Harry is just another soldier out on the ice. “Each person has to pull their own sled – it doesn’t matter who you are. Once we’re all in Antarctica, it becomes a race, just three teams racing each other.
“But it’s exciting, of course it is. We all know who the Royal Family is, and here we are having drinks with him, training with him. He’s just a regular guy with us.”
Mr. D’Anjou, 32, the other Canadian veteran, was injured in September, 2009, when the light-armoured vehicle he was travelling in was blown up by an IED. The crew commander and driver were killed in the explosion. He suffered a concussion and permanent nerve damage in his legs and back. He also has post-traumatic stress disorder. He was told by doctors that he’d never be pain-free again, but as he says in a video on the Walking With the Wounded website, his advice to other wounded servicemen and women is: “You have a life – don’t live your pain.” (Both he and Mr. Downey still serve in the military.)
As for polar preparation, Mr. D’Anjou notes wryly that there are sometimes snow drifts eight feet deep outside his home in Quebec City. Neither Canadian is a stranger to subzero temperatures. But Antarctica, they realize, is a different beast: The continuous winds of nearly 50 kilometres an hour, the punishing schedule that will see them trudging with their “pulks” (sleds) as much as a dozen hours a day with only minimal rest.
Earlier this year they trained with their Australian teammates, Heath Jamieson and Seamus Donaghue, climbing glaciers in Iceland and Norway. A support crew will follow each of the teams. “We’ve done winter camping, and in the military you do winter training all the time,” Mr. Downey said, “but this is a whole new game.”