Over the last year, I have had the pleasure to get to know the team from Walking With The Wounded. In April 2011 they successfully accomplished their North Pole mission. The article below was written in April, two months before they set off on their adventure. Enjoy.
In April 2011, a team of British Army solders will walk to the North Pole. Not particularly challenging, you might think. After all, these chaps are super fit and used to walking long distances with heavy packs in extreme conditions. The difference is that 4 of the 8 team-members have been injured in combat in Afghanistan. The aim of this challenge, Walking With The Wounded, is for all four of these team members, two of whom are amputees, to reach the Geographic North Pole. If successful, they will be the first amputees to reach the North Pole unsupported. This is no token effort.
The dangers of Arctic travel are very real – polar bears, open water “leads” and frostbite – which are further exacerbated by the unique physical challenges for members of this team.
One of the team members is Martin Hewitt, who was a serving Captain in the Parachute Regiment when he was injured leading an assault on an enemy position in Afghanistan. The desire for adventure and challenge, that initially led him to the army, burns strongly within him: throughout college and university he was a mountain leader, dinghy sailing instructor, ski instructor and keen mountaineer. And he is not about to let the small matter of losing the use of his right arm prevent him from achieving impressive feats. ”Whilst rehabilitating in Headley Court,” he explains, “I was introduced to adaptive sport through the Battle Back programme. I was lucky enough to make a rapid transition to Alpine ski racing and, before I knew it, I was racing for my country.”
Headley Court is one of the world’s most impressive rehabilitation centres, but Martin had to undergo 13 operations over a 2-year period. And each one had its associated period of rest, rehab and recuperation. ”I was forced to learn patience,” says Martin, “But I was busy learning to adapt to life with the use of one arm. I had to relearn how to carry out everyday tasks with my non-dominant hand, whilst training to race.” Despite having been a military ski instructor, Martin had little experience prior to his injury. On an adaptive skiing trip, run through the Battle Back programme, the military ski team captain asked him to co-create, and then captain, the Military Adaptive Ski Team. An opportunity which Martin jumped at. ”I was very fortunate to have a very experienced coach in Mark Scorgie. He got several of us to a level of racing where we were attracting the attention of the national team within our fist year,” explains Martin,
“I was invited for trials for the British team and managed to be selected to race on the development squad, initially, and now racing professionally on the British main squad.”
The injury provided unique challenges beyond the, already impressive, feat of learning to ski race. ”I have to use my core to compensate for a loss of use of my arm,” says Martin, “And work hard not to over-rotate my left arm, particularly in slalom, where I use it to take gates on both sides. The key is to remain stacked over the ski and work hard.” This training, conditioning and core strengthening would turn out to have major benefits for Martin when it came to preparing for Walking With The Wounded. Martin was selected for the Walking With The Wounded team in May 2010, giving him renewed focus and drive beyond the intense preparation for ski racing that coming winter.
In fact, the core training and balance that he developed in ski racing meant he was uniquely prepared (in terms of mental awareness, as well as physically) for the impact of not being able to use his right arm, “I’m less stable on the ice, as I haven’t got the use of my right arm to distribute my weight using a pole on my right side,” he explains, “This means I need to ensure my core stability and leg strength are capable of compensating for this. Personal administration with the use of one hand is more challenging. In order to combat this, I’ve adapted my equipment and created a number of standard operating procedures on the ice that enable me to overcome my injury.”
Despite having been more fascinated with mountains when he was younger, the unique plans of the Walking With The Wounded expedition excited Martin, as did the goal of “raising awareness that our wounded are capable of pushing on post-injury and will go on to lead fulfilling lives. I’ve learned that, despite a dis-abilitating injury, it is still possible to compete at the highest level in sport. That great expeditions and adventures are still possible, providing that I’m willing to adapt, evolve and dedicate the time and effort to the task at hand.”
Sometimes the challenges are hard, but Martin’s philosophy is to “Stay focused, adapt, and overcome.” And he always tries to reward himself with a holiday somewhere hot afterwards, with plenty of single malt whisky. When the going gets really tough, Martin reminds himself, “Of why I’m doing it. I think of the other injured lads whose injuries are significantly more serious than my own and I remind myself of how lucky I am. I then get a grip and think of the pride paratroopers have in the ally-est regiment in the world (“ally” meaning awesome, or very good, is one of those wonderful and unique words used by British Paratroopers that mean nothing beyond the confines of the Regiment. Other examples include “scoff”, “lizarding” and “hat”).
“Through our endeavours we can demonstrate that one can still achieve great things post injury,” concludes Martin, “If one has support, drive and determination, a dis-abilitating injury should not stop you from reaching your goals.”
And will this be the end of Martin’s adventures? He returns a wry smile and finishes with 3 words, “Watch this space!”
Martin Hewitt is one of 4 “Wounded” members of an 8-man team that will walk over 800 miles to the Geographic North Pole this April. They are currently preparing their kit in Oslo, and on March 24th they head north to Svalbard to begin their journey.
You can find out more about Walking With The Wounded and follow the team’s journey at:http://walkingwiththewounded.org.uk/
You can also follow the team on Twitter: @supportthewalk
Martin also has a blog at: http://www.martinhewitt.co.uk/