6 mins

Walking with the Wounded: Simon Daglish

Simon Daglish, co-founder of Walking with the Wounded, on the highs of the epic Arctic adventure, the team's motivation and a little gossip on Prince Harry

Simon Daglish (centre) with the team at the North Pole (Jon Haldorsen)

You’re one of the founders of Walking with the Wounded. What made you start up the foundation?

Ed and I met up at Sandhurst a number of years ago. We both come from military backgrounds. We were discussing going to the North Pole anyway and thought we may as well do it for a cause, and the first thing we thought of was wounded servicemen. While we were planning it Ed’s nephew was blown up in Afghanistan. He gave me a call while I was on holidays in Greece and said, “Look, Harry’s been blown up and lost part of both his legs and part of his hand. He’s been very badly injured. It then occurred to me how interesting it would it be, if we wanted to raise awareness and we wanted to raise money for wounded soldiers, if they became part of the team that came to the North Pole.

How is your foundation different from others like Help for Heroes? Is it because it has the involvement of these soldiers?

Part of the thing we wanted to prove here and show to the world and other soldiers who are injured is that, tragic as it is losing an arm or a leg or an eye and being wounded, that’s not the end of life. There is so much more you can do. In many ways, I think what the four wounded guys did on this trip was turn a negative into a positive. I don’t think any of them would have thought about going to the North Pole if they hadn’t been injured. Because of their injuries and what happened to them, they took it upon themselves to prove to everybody, and to prove to themselves that they could still do extraordinary things.

How much can training prepare you for a challenge like this?

As long as you’re physically fit, very physically fit, you could do the North Pole. The challenge to any of these extreme environments is not whether you’re physically fit. That just makes it easier. It’s whether you have the mental strength to do it. The difficult part of being in a hostile environment is just generally living. Getting up. Putting your shoes on in -20. When you wake up in the morning your sleeping bag is frozen solid around you and you’ve got to get out of it. You’re walking into a huge, freezing wind. Every part of your body aches and your hands are in agony because of the cold. It takes four hours to boil water to make food that is too disgusting to eat anyway. The complete buggerance of life in those circumstances. It’s only through huge mental strength that you can overcome them. Otherwise you’d just chuck the towel in and say this just isn’t for me.

Can you train for that? Or is it a case of you either have it or you don’t?

To a large extent you either have it or you don’t. Mental training is a very personal thing. When I train physically, say going to the gym, I make sure I do better than I did the day before. And if I don’t, I give my self a punishment of an extra ten minutes. I find that helps build up my mental strength.

“I can do it! I can do it! I can do it!” But everybody is different. Everybody trains themselves within their own heads and in different ways.

It was quite interesting when we were selecting the team originally, it was quite evident with Rob that he didn’t quite have the mental strength to do it.

The injured soldiers did the trek to prove to themselves and the world that they could still do extraordinary things. What drives you to do these expeditions?

I originally went to the South Pole because my son was born with cerebral palsy and I wanted to raise money for his cause. That was my motivation. But once you’ve done one of these things it’s like a drug. Not that I’ve ever been on drugs. I’ve become cursed. You think, “I’ve done that, now I’ve got to go and do this.” And when you do that you’re looking for the next challenge. It’s kind of self-perpetuating. That’s why Ed and I started talking about the North Pole. Having done the South Pole, I obviously had to do the North Pole.

So the motivation comes from within. Once you’ve had this high of achieving something that is unusual, you want to go on and achieve more and more.

Does the appeal lie solely with the polar regions? Would you consider an expedition to a jungle or a desert?

Well, I’ve ridden a bicycle across Australia. And the funny thing is, I absolutely hate the cold. I’d rather sit in a desert. It’s just that the two poles are situated in cold regions. If they were in hot regions I would have been much happier doing them.

I think the polar regions are extraordinary. On both occasions we were walking in snow that nobody had ever walked in before. We were seeing things that nobody would see again. The North Pole is ever-changing. Our North Pole would look completely different to everybody else’s North Pole. It is constantly moving and changing and breaking up. Doing something so unique and seeing that environment is just amazing when you just take the time, stop in your tracks and look around you. You go, “Wow! This is amazing!”

You can get that in deserts too. In both cases it’s the solitude, that nobody else is there. It’s your moment.

Getting Prince Harry involved helped raise the profile of the expedition. How did that come about?

A couple of things. Ed is very friendly with the boy’s private secretary. And I had met Harry on a couple of occasions through a mutual friend. We put the feelers out. It’s such a Harry thing to do that neither Harry or his private secretary had a second thought about it. The idea of Harry actually coming to the Pole, when we asked him to become patron of the charity, wasn’t even in our heads at all. It wasn’t until we went off to the launch press conference that Harry turned around and said, “I’m coming, you know that don’t you?” No, we didn’t. But far be it for me to tell a member of royalty that he can’t come along.

I’ve got to say, Prince Harry didn’t look at all comfortable at the launch, but once he got to the Pole he seemed to be in his element.

I think he said as much in the film, didn’t he? That he lives three different lives. And that it’s the life with the soldiers, doing the same thing that they are, in testing environments, was his sort of thing. I’ve got to say, when we were out on the ice, Harry was brilliant. He was forever cheerful.

Nothing got him down. He thoroughly enjoyed his time out there. The only time we saw his face drop was when we said, “We can’t get you out” and I think he thought, “Shit, I ain’t going to make the wedding.” He was constantly cheerful and constantly full of enthusiasm for the whole thing. And to be fair, has remained so.

You and Ed did the journey as abled bodied people. That must have given you added admiration for the guys doing it with disabilities.

The funny thing is, once you’ve lived with the wounded, which we did during the 18 months we did training, you forget they are wounded. You forget that they don’t have an arm or a leg.

Having said that, you do quickly realise that losing an arm is immense. Your arms are so dexterous. You do so much with them – carry, move, do up buttons, do up zips – that when you lose one it really does hold you back. When you lose a leg you are held back as well, but in those kind of environments it seems to work better.

One scene I found memorable was when Ed fell and hurt his back, you could see on his face that it dawned on him that this was what Steve went through every minute of the day.

That’s right. Although Steve looks completely able bodied, he’s got all his limbs, he looks perfectly alright, actually his injury was probably the most difficult. It was internal, and when it went wrong it was very difficult to do anything with it. It’s much harder to do something with anything inside the body in those environments rather than Jaco, whose arm got a bit cold so we put a bit more padding on it. We couldn’t do that with Steve.

Potentially, he was our greatest risk.

Was there any time on the expedition that you thought, “Hmmm. I don’t think we’re going to get there”?

After the first day. We covered under six miles. We all got into our tents and we were utterly shattered. Dead silence in the tent.

Martin turned to me and said, “We haven’t trained enough to do this. We’re never going to do it.” And I agreed with him.

I said, ”Look, if we do the maths, six miles a day, we ain’t going to make it in time. Shit. We’re in trouble.”

At that point, though, that’s when the training and the planning kicks in. We planned it meticulously and we trained really hard. The thought goes through your head, “We can do this. This is what we planned for. So stick to the plan. It will come right.” And it did. So I think it’s just a case of follow your plan. It will come right.

Back in 2006 you did the Nemis Polar Challenge where you were re-enacting the final stages of the Scott Expedition, using the same methods and kit. Are the improvements in the kit as exponential as we think? Or are some of the old ways better?

Really interesting. The difference between the kit is this: the old kit is more comfortable, functions better and is just so much better for what you need to do. It’s amazing compared to the modern kit. But the difference is that the modern kit is about a tenth of the weight.

To give you an indication, each sleeping bag we used in the South Pole was made of seven reindeer skins. That weighed more than all of our tents put together. It was bloody comfortable, let me tell you, much more than a modern sleeping bag. And it was huge. About as big as one of the pulks we took to the North Pole. And there, inherently, lied the difference. Sacrificing comfort for speed.

When you did the South Pole expedition, you arrived at a scientific research centre, people came out and greeted you. When you got to the North Pole you were reading a GPS and suddenly you realise, “we’re there”. Was it a really different kind of feeling?

Yes. Completely. The North Pole looks very similar to the place where we landed and set off. It all looks they same. And though you are walking to a point, it’s not the same as a physical point, a point on a map. From that perspective the North Pole is a great disappointment because you don’t arrive and touch a pole and say, “I’ve reached the North Pole.” There isn’t one there. Within half an hour the North Pole has moved off anyway.

Or to be more precise you’ve moved away from the North Pole because the ice has moved.

There’s more of a sense of arriving and achieving walking to the South Pole. The North Pole, you get there and go, “Hmmm. Yep.”

The next challenge is Everest in 2012. Are you going on that?

No I’m not. If I told my work that I was off for two months to do something else they’d have a bit of a fit. One day I will do Everest. It’s something I really, really want to do. But I can’t do back-to-back expeditions.

Is it the same wounded soldiers doing Everest?

We’ll still go through the selection process. Jaco and Martin are on the team. Martin is the team manager. They’re both in the selection process and if they pass the selection process they will go. But beyond that we’ve got a whole new team.

The whole purpose of the expedition is to help wounded soldiers rehabilitate, to reintegrate into society. These guys have gone out and done this incredible thing: walk to the North Pole, had a Royal accompany them. Then they come back and it’s, “What’s next?” Is the big challenge helping them move on with their lives?

For Guy and for Steve, they’re returning to the army. They’ll go back to roles they previously did. They’re heading back to Afghanistan. So for them, it’s obviously easier.

For Martin and Jaco, Martin has left the army and Jaco is just about to be invalided out of the army. They’ve got a more problematical and difficult future. For both of them, the army was their lives. It can’t be now. They can’t fight anymore. The army doesn’t need them and can’t accommodate them.

That’s the whole point of the charity. It’s now our job to help Martin and Jaco find knew careers in life. We’ve talked to them about any ideas that they’ve got and we’ll help fund those ideas. We’re talking about adventure schools and other projects they want to get involved in. We’ll help train them for those. That’s the challenge that’s out there for all these soldiers that have been wounded. Life in civvy street is not where they want to be but they have to find a way to cope with that. And hopefully our charity will help them do that.

Walking with the Wounded: The Incredible Story of Britain's Bravest Warriors and the Challenge of a Lifetime tells the story of the team's life-threatening expedition to the North Pole. The book is now on sale in bookshops and online.

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