A SCOTTISH soldier who lost both his legs after an attack in Afghanistan has become the first double amputee to reach the South Pole - alongside a team including Prince Harry.
Sergeant Duncan Slater, from Muir of Ord, near Inverness, was part of a team of 12 injured servicemen who joined Harry on the 200-mile charity Walking with the Wounded “South Pole Challenge”.
The team arrived at the South Pole at noon yesterday after more than three weeks of pulling sleds in atrocious conditions.
Congratulating the team for its “amazing accomplishment”, Harry said they would be celebrating their achievement with “a few whiskies”.
Actors Dominic West and Alexander Skarsgard were also on the trek with teams from Britain, the Commonwealth and the US, who pulled 11-stone sleds, or pulks.
Prince Harry, who is patron of the expedition, had taken part in the charity’s trek to the North Pole in 2011 but withdrew early to attend his brother’s wedding.
Speaking from the South Pole finish line yesterday, a beaming Prince Harry praised the whole team but singled out Sgt Slater’s achievement as “remarkable”, stating that the soldier “simply doesn’t find walking to the South Pole a big enough challenge, which is why he really enjoyed the race”.
He added: “I think everyone back home will appreciate the fact that just being able to walk 62 miles in these conditions with no legs is a pretty amazing feat in itself.”
Harry, an army helicopter pilot who has served in Afghanistan, had spent several days in 2011 trekking with wounded servicemen on the similar expedition to the North Pole but had to return for his brother’s wedding.
This latest challenge had initially been a race between three separate teams but organisers suspended the competitive element last week due to “difficult terrain”, which had led to safety concerns, and the groups were combined into one team to complete the arduous walk.
Ed Parker, the expedition’s director and co-founder of the Walking with the Wounded charity, which organised the challenge, said: “We always knew that this wasn’t going to be easy, but that is what makes the challenge so exciting.”
A documentary charting the adventure is due to be broadcast next year, the charity said.
Sgt Slater, who served in the RAF, was seriously injured when his armoured vehicle was blown up by the Taleban in Babaji in Helmand Province in July 2009, resulting in both his legs being amputated below the knee and replaced with prosthetic limbs.
The 34-year-old former gamekeeper, who is married with a young daughter, underwent an arduous training and selection process in Iceland.
Speaking to The Scotsman last month, he described how he coped with it: “You’ve got a hood up, goggles on and in complete isolation, unable to speak to people for maybe ten hours a day, skiing behind each other.
“I use the silence when I’m training to think of what I want to do with my life.
“In my mind I go back to when I was a gamekeeper. I did deer stalking and grouse and then moved to an estate nearer the coast where it was pheasant and roe deer.
“I think being Scottish gives you a quiet confidence. Everyone is telling you how hard it’s going to be but I’m thinking the way Scottish people do – ‘just get on with it’. We tend to be understated. The quiet reliables.”
‘It proves that so much is possible when you think nothing’s left’
Extracts from the charity’s website:
We skied another 17km today, and just over the horizon is our ultimate goal. We’ve got 27km to go, 17 of which we are going to do tomorrow. And, all being well, we are going to ski to the South Pole between 12:00 GMT and 15:00 GMT on Friday.
Everyone is beginning to get quite excited. We can see the end in sight now and everyone is thinking quite a lot about the journey that is behind us. It isn’t just the last three weeks up here in Antarctica but the year it has taken us to get here. A lot of people have overcome many, many injuries and issues to be here and it feels very special that this group of people is now finally on the cusp of achieving our aim. The support we had from back home has been felt by everyone and is hugely appreciated. So for these last few steps, please keep watching us. Please keep spreading the word.
The money we are raising is going to help young men and women who have been injured get into work and jobs. That is why we are doing this, to try and highlight that they do need our support. So please keep helping us, keep supporting us.
Come Friday afternoon, I hope that you are going to hear some, really, really exciting news about 12 quite extraordinary people. Thanks for your support. I hope you are all tucked up nice and warm in your beds back in the UK. It’s -24ºC outside, with a wind chill of -32ºC.
Ed Parker, expedition director and Walking With The Wounded co-founder
Once you get over that fear, you just have to get past all your pain. If you are constantly thinking about your pain, it is going to overwhelm you. So I noticed over the days that you just stay in a mode of “Here now”. If you start thinking about the future or the past you are stuck.
That’s where I am at. I know that everyone out here is in pain, and they’re suffering, but if they just talk with other people and find happiness, then this is where they’re going to be. I’m staying in the moment and I am gonna be happy where I am at. I have a plate in the back of my head because I was hit with an IED in Baghdad and it caused nerve damage. So they had to do brain surgery to try to alleviate the pain, and it didn’t do anything so I am stuck with a 24-hour headache.
Margaux Mange, team coach
My major injury is burns that I have on 30 per cent of my body – my arms, my torso, and also my hands. And what has been a big problem for me out here is my hands not getting enough circulation.
I ended up getting frostbite because I had not been attentive enough to what I was doing with my hands … I’m very diligent about wearing my gloves, but also my arms were getting too cold so we’ve fashioned some socks and put them on, because I get very hot in my core but the warm blood wasn’t getting down to my hands.
I feel very well with my frostbite now and there are no worries about it at all, and I will be very careful with my hands and stay on top of it and make sure that everyone else is taking care of their hands.
I am very excited about getting to the Pole and I am very excited about getting a plane out of Antarctica!
Therese Frentz, team coach
We’re here! I am about 10 metres away from the Pole. Everyone is sort of scattered now. We’ve been here for about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour. It’s an amazing feeling, it really is.
Every single one of these 12 deserves it. I mean, they have dug out blind to get here. Duncan you know: it’s just remarkable the fact that someone with no legs has made it here, and to have done it in record-breaking time, no doubt.
And Ivan as well. When I look across, I see him being guided around, you know, totally blind, from America. He absolutely hates the cold, and you know he’s not doing it for himself; he’s doing it for his buddies back home, and that goes for everybody, every single one here.
All 12 of them have different reasons for being here. But what an amazing journey it has been for every single one of them.
This charity really does do amazing things. It’s not just for the small minority that are here but hopefully in time to come through the documentary and all the stories back home … It will just prove to everybody that there’s so much that can be made possible when you think that nothing is left.
But I’m so proud, I’m so chuffed and I’m so privileged to be here with all these guys and girls, and well done to Ed and Dags and everyone who’s organised this, what an amazing accomplishment. I think we’ll be having a few whiskies tonight and then everyone’s looking forward to getting home.
Prince Harry, expedition patron