Two former Canadian soldiers who suffered serious injuries in Afghanistan reached the South Pole on Friday in a gruelling 250-kilometre trek that tested their limits – and, at times, threatened to knock them out from the expedition.
"It pushes your will, it pushes your strength," said Chris Downey of Cold Lake, Alta. Working in a bomb disposal team in Afghanistan, he lost his right eye and suffered severe burns and a collapsed lung during an IED explosion.
In audio recordings shared exclusively with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Downey and his fellow Canadian, Alexandre Beaudin D'Anjou of Quebec City, shared their reflections on the last night of their trek with the final destination 10 kilometres away.
"We can see South Pole station. We're all excited to be there tomorrow," said Mr. D'Anjou, who suffered serious injuries when an IED explosion damaged the light-armoured vehicle he was travelling in. He has struggled with chronic pain and little feeling in his left leg.
Led by Prince Harry, the Canadians and 10 other former soldiers – all with combat injuries, and some who lost limbs – skied to the South Pole earlier today, ending a remarkable three-week journey in which expedition members faced icy conditions that were harsher than they expected.
The expedition was aimed aim at raising public awareness of wounded soldiers and to help raise money for groups that support them.
In a video recorded Wednesday and posted to the Walking with the Wounded website, Prince Harry reflected on arriving at the South Pole on Friday the 13th – "unlucky for some, lucky for us," he said.
"I think everyone is feeling a bit tired, but slowly getting into the rhythm. Only just got into the rhythm now and it has almost finished," said the prince as he skied, with the vast snowy Antarctic surrounding him.
The teams arrived in the Antarctic in late November and were immediately hit by a strong storm that cut in to their training – and acclimatizing – time.
Hard ice formations, the effects of high altitude, minus 35 C temperatures and strong winds – all took their toll on the former soldiers and forced the expedition organizers to remove the competitive element from the trek. Initially, three teams from the United Kingdom, the U.S. and the Commonwealth were to race to the South Pole.
The conditions tested even the most experienced. A South Pole guide – someone who had made a dozen previous trips to the South Pole – who was leading the Commonwealth team that included the Canadians was pulled from the trek by the team doctor after experiencing breathing problems early on in the race.
For the former soldiers – all of whom had been training for their first-ever South Pole trip – the daily demands were intense, skiing up to 20 kilometers while pulling pulks carrying over 100 pounds in supplies. On top of that, there would have been the challenges posed by their combat injuries.
"I spent a lot of time training for this and even with all that training it's still challenging – it pushes those limits," said Mr. Downey, who said he collapsed on the second day because of the altitude and extreme dry air.
"[The Antarctic] certainly doesn't just greet you with a big warm hug. It makes you earn every single step, that's for sure. It's quite obvious now that there's a reason why nothing lives [here]…," he added.
For Mr. D'Anjou, the terrain was bumpier than he expected and made for difficult skiing.
"It's been the hardest volunteer experience of my life," said Mr. D'Anjou, who struggled with back injury problems earlier in the race.
With files from Tu Thanh Ha