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Canadian soldier shows his fortitude on South Polar trek

In this handout photo dated Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, made available Tuesday Dec. 3 2013 by Walking with the Wounded (WWTW), Chris Downey of Team Commonwealth trudges through the snow on day one of the Virgin Money South Pole Allied Challenge 2013 expedition.

Victoria Nicholson/WWTW/AP

Dominic West once played hard-scrabble detective Jimmy McNulty on the television series The Wire, but during a real-life trek to the South Pole last month, the British actor had a hard time keeping up with a wounded Canadian soldier.

Mr. West was part of a fundraising expedition to the South Pole, called "Walking with the Wounded," that included Prince Harry and 12 injured soldiers from Canada, Britain, Australia and the United States. The soldiers were initially grouped into three teams of four – British, American and Canadian-Australian teams – and Mr. West joined the two Canadians and two Australians.

One of the Canadians stood out;: Master Corporal Chris Downey. MCpl. Downey lost an eye, most of his teeth and part of his jaw when an improvised explosive device blew up while he was on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. He spent months recovering and has now returned to duty in Cold Lake, Alta.

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"Chris is amazing," Mr. West said Tuesday after a press briefing in London on the excursion. Mr. West recalled one day when the group decided to stop just short of the daily limit. MCpl. Downey had already collapsed onc,e but pushed the others to carry on. "Chris, through his ice-covered beard, the bastard, said, 'Let's complete the day.' I'll never forget it. I wanted to kill him," Mr. West said. "He then went on and collapsed again."

The trek started out as a race to the pole among the three teams, but after five days the conditions became dangerous and the teams joined together to complete the journey. Mr. West said several team members had severe frostbite.

The group covered about 200 kilometres in 13 days, with each person skiing and carrying a full load of supplies. Mr. West said the weather was largely fine, although temperatures dipped as low as –50 C at times. He recalled taking off his hood one day to fully appreciate the barren landscape. "I looked and it hit me – we are in this vast frozen ocean twice the size of America and how probably no one had ever stepped where I am stepping. I was walking on ice two kilometres thick above a mountain range and at the bottom of the world and something hits you, the fragility of the planet. It's very rare you get to be in such a wilderness."

He added that Prince Harry was just another teammate during the trip, offering tips on skiing and pulling the same load as everyone else. "I think that the attraction for him was just to go somewhere where he didn't have someone's phone camera in his face all the time," Mr. West said. Earlier during the press conference, Prince Harry had been mobbed by photographers as he gave a short speech, facing so many cameras he had to keep his head down for fear of being blinded by the flashes.

It was the soldiers Mr. West said he remembered and admired. One British solider had lost his legs. An American was blind. He said he felt awkward one day when the British soldier, Sergeant Duncan Slater, expressed concern about Mr. West's sore foot. "The guy with no legs is coming up to me and saying, how's your toe," Mr. West recalled, adding that he didn't know how to respond. Later, when the group reached the South Pole, he said, they all drank champagne from Sgt. Slater's prosthetic legs.

Mr. West said the journey gave him a new appreciation for soldiering. "You can't help thinking that where these guys are they've got this incredible will power," he said. Politicians shouldn't "send people to war unless you've got a really good reason. And I'm not sure [former U.S. President] George W. [Bush] did."

He kept his thoughts on the war to himself during the trip, broaching the subject only once. "There's no use getting into it particularly with these guys. They don't want to know whether they did it in vain. They did it because it was their job."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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