News story

Injured soldiers chosen for North Pole expedition

Four soldiers, severely injured during operations in Afghanistan, have been chosen as the 'Walking With The Wounded' team that will journey, unaided, to the geographical North Pole in April this year.

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The expedition team. Left to right: Captain Guy Disney, Captain Martin Hewitt, Private Jaco van Gass and Sergeant Steve Young

The expedition team. Left to right: Captain Guy Disney, Captain Martin Hewitt, Private Jaco van Gass and Sergeant Steve Young [Picture: Copyright Walking With The Wounded 2011]

The full Walking With The Wounded team was unveiled at an event in London’s Trafalgar Square yesterday.

From 100 applicants, 30 were shortlisted, eight chosen for Arctic training, and four finally chosen to undertake the expedition. They will be joined by two expedition leaders and a Norwegian polar guide.

The four chosen to undertake the expedition are:

Cavalry officer Captain Guy Disney - lost his lower leg during Operation PANTHER’S CLAW in Afghanistan in 2009 when his Spartan armoured vehicle came under heavy fire in an ambush and a rocket-propelled grenade pierced the hull. Private Robbie Laws from The Mercian Regiment was killed in the same incident.

Paratrooper Captain Martin Hewitt - lost the use of his right arm after being shot during a gun battle with the enemy in Afghanistan in 2007.

Sergeant Steve Young of the Welsh Guards - was caught in an IED blast whilst travelling in a Mastiff armoured personnel carrier during Operation PANTHER’S CLAW in Afghanistan in 2009. He sustained a fractured vertebra, among other injuries, and was warned he might not walk again.

Paratrooper Private Jaco van Gass - had his left arm amputated at the elbow in 2009 following a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Afghanistan.

Private Jaco van Gass pulls his sledge across the snow during Arctic training

Private Jaco van Gass pulls his sledge across the snow during Arctic training [Picture: Copyright Walking With The Wounded 2011]

The aim of the expedition is to successfully reach the North Pole with four wounded soldiers, of which two are amputees. They will become the first amputees to reach the North Pole unsupported.

Private van Gass said:

It’s not about me. The main focus is for other wounded soldiers - to show them we have to carry on.

Each member of the expedition team will haul heavy sledges weighing in excess of 100kg, but will be allowed to take one luxury item weighing no more than two kilos.

En route to the Pole the team will constantly be walking on moving ice with temperatures ranging from minus 15 to minus 50 degrees C. Their challenge will be compounded by constantly high moisture levels, making hypothermia and frostbite a constant threat. The team will also be faced with perpetual sunlight.

As well as battling against high winds, blizzards and plunging sub-zero temperatures, they will also have to cope with compacted ridges of ice, some near vertical.

They will also have to navigate a dreaded phenomenon called ‘leads’, stretches of icy sea water that can open up gaps between the ice and which can only be traversed by floating across.

As the ice is constantly shifting, they face the possible nightmare scenario of skiing several miles northwards to the pole, only to drift backwards and end up even further away.

In the early days of the trek, the team may also have to contend with carnivorous polar bears near the coast, although attacks are rare and precautions will be taken.

Captain Hewitt said:

When I was told about Walking With The Wounded I instantly wanted to get involved. I then told a few friends, colleagues and other disabled people about the plan, and whilst some were positive about the challenge, others said it couldn’t be done.

Some would say that there’s a good reason why no disabled person has ever walked to the North Pole unsupported. I don’t like being told something can’t be done! I instantly thought that’s it, the challenge is on. Utrinque Paratus [Latin motto of The Parachute Regiment meaning ‘Ready for Anything’]!

Sergeant Young added:

This challenge is a huge goal to achieve and hopefully it will inspire other battle-wounded soldiers to push themselves and never give up.

And Captain Disney said:

A phenomenal opportunity and a great chance to show what is achievable. It would be hard to say no if I had both legs, now I have one it is a must.

The team plans to set off at the end of March for the Pole from Siberia and hopes, over 25 days, to cover a distance of 12 nautical miles (22km) a day.

Prince Harry, who has expressed a serious desire to take part in the expedition, is also the charity’s patron. He said:

I am so proud to be patron of Walking With The Wounded.

This extraordinary expedition will raise awareness of the debt this country owes to those it sends off to fight - only for them to return wounded and scarred, physically and emotionally.

The debt extends beyond immediate medical care and short-term rehabilitation. These men and women have given so much. We must recognise their sacrifice, be thankful, and, so far as we can ever, repay them for it.

This polar adventure will exemplify the tenacity and remarkable courage of those who serve in uniform. The vision behind Walking With The Wounded - to reintegrate wounded servicemen and women successfully back into civilian life - recognises the unquenchable spirit and drive of these young people.

It aims to harness their determination and energy, whilst adjusting their mindset to face the numerous challenges that lie ahead.

Walking With The Wounded promises to be remarkable. I salute the team walking to the North Pole in early 2011 and I urge everyone to support them.

For more information see the Walking With The Wounded website at Related Links.

Updates to this page

Published 13 January 2011