Page last updated at 05:02 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 06:02 UK

Arctic test for wounded soldiers headed for North Pole


The BBC's Frank Gardner joins the team training in Svalbard

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent in Svalbard

On a bare, rocky outcrop, flanked by snow-clad mountains, a group of white reindeer are watching the valley below with curiosity.

They are probably unsure what to make of the sight before them: a long line of gasping, cursing humans, poling their way through the snow on skis and dragging heavy sledges behind them.

It's approaching midnight but the weak sun is still well above the horizon, where it will stay until the autumn.

At 78 degrees North this is, after all, the Land of the Midnight Sun.

The men have been traversing this bleak landscape for over 12 hours now, stopping every two hours for the briefest of breaks.

But what is not immediately obvious is that beneath their survival gear several of the skiers are missing limbs; one has a paralysed arm.

Captain Martin Hewitt
Captain Martin Hewitt. Pic: Mark Georgiou
Age: 29
Parachute Regt
Injury: Right arm largely paralysed by a gunshot wound in Afghanistan in 2007
Has surprised and confounded sceptics who thought his weak arm would make trekking too difficult
Biggest worry: frostbite to the arm

This is the 'Walking With the Wounded' team, a group of serving and ex-British Army soldiers who have set their sights on becoming the first amputees to walk, unsupported, to the North Pole next spring.

Backed by their patron, Prince Harry, their aim is to show that life can still be challenging and rewarding even after catastrophic, life-changing injuries.

Of the four hopefuls, three got their injuries recently after being blown up or shot while serving in Afghanistan; the fourth lost his lower leg to a landmine when he was deployed to Rwanda in 1994.

They have come here to Svalbard, the last landfall between Scandinavia and the polar ice cap, for their winter ice training, a foretaste of the massive challenge that awaits them. That is, if they make the grade.

Over 100 applicants have already been rejected, many because their amputations are too recent, too raw to survive the chafing involved in a 300-mile polar trek.

"It's tough", says Rob Copsey, at 39 the oldest member of the team.

"This has been far harder than I expected, I'm going to have to work even harder at my fitness."

Lieutenant Guy Disney
Lieutenant Guy Disney. Pic: Mark Georgiou
Age: 28
Cavalry officer in Light Dragoons
Hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Afghanistan in 2009
Right leg amputated below knee
Very fit but has been told he needs to bulk up for the North Pole
Target: to gain 8-10kg this summer

Reluctant to blame his 'tools', Rob is having to cope with an ill-fitting prosthetic leg that is causing him considerable pain.

Sitting in his tent at one in the morning, nursing his red and swollen amputation stump as his boil-in-the-bag dinner cooks in a pot of melted snow, he admits he'll be taking painkillers tonight.

Two tents down the hill, his team mate Guy Disney is looking alarmingly fresh despite the day's exertions.

"The weather has been so balmy and mild", he says of the zero-degree temperature, "but still, it's been a really good test.

"I think we all feared our injuries wouldn't do that well. It would be no good coming for a gentle walk.

"You've got to work hard to find the injuries so we can work around them."

His lower leg blown off by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade in Helmand less than a year ago, the 28-year old has had to do a lot of adapting to changed circumstances.

Lance-Corporal Matt Kingston
Lance-Corporal Matt Kingston. Pic: Mark Georgiou
Age: 25
Loves eating so much has acquired nickname 'the Pie Man'
Since his injuries he's already trekked to Everest base camp in 2009, climbed three peaks over 6000m and ran this year's London Marathon in 6hrs 15mins
Target: lose his excess puppy fat

The idea of 'Walking With the Wounded' may have been dreamed up by a wine merchant and planned in a London pub but sending men into the Arctic is a serious business and the organisers have left little to chance.

As well as engaging a professional prosthetist to advise on false legs and stumps they have hired Inge Solheim, one of Norway's most experienced polar guides, to help bring the team up to scratch.

I catch up with him just as he is unravelling a tripwire around the campsite. It's hard to think there could be anything more dangerous than the weather in this pristine, snowbound landscape but Svalbard's greatest attraction is also a serious hazard.

"Polar bears are potentially very dangerous and we have a lot of them in the Arctic," he said.

"Mostly they are just curious but a girl was killed and eaten while camping here on Svalbard some years ago. So, we take precautions."

The tripwire is rigged to a small explosive charge on a pole to frighten off the bear. If that fails - and a 700kg adult polar bear can get very hungry indeed - there is the flare pistol, again to scare it off.

Rob Copsey
Rob Copsey. Pic: Mark Georgiou
Age: 39
Ex-soldier with the Royal Engineers, now works for UK Border Agency
Lost his lower leg to a landmine while serving on a humanitarian mission to Rwanda in 1994
Fitness fanatic but the oldest and slowest member of the team
Target: to improve fitness and get fitted for a better prosthetic leg

Last resort is the rifle, which must be carried by every outdoor expedition in Svalbard.

But at the same time polar bears are a protected species and a shooting brings down the full weight of a governor's legal inquiry with a 30,000 euro fine if it was proved to be unnecessary.

"Believe me", says Inge, "you would have to see scratches on my face before I shot a polar bear. I love those animals so much."

But Inge, a veteran of several polar trips, is more focussed on shaping this team for the task ahead.

"Would I take them to the North Pole tomorrow?" he says.

"Not a chance. They are not ready. This training here in Svalbard is just the beginning.

"This week we are working on getting their routines perfect because they will need to put up tents and cook their food in a snowstorm.

"They will need to drag their sledges and equipment over high ridges of ice. It may be minus 40 degrees. They still have so much work to do."

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