Polar trek a tribute to fallen comrade

MCpl Downey treks on the Antarctic landscape

MCpl Chris Downey treks along the icy Antarctic landscape with his pulk. In the distance is a member of the U.K. team and the film crew.

When MCpl Chris Downey stepped from the plane into the icy, hostile environment of Antarctica Nov. 25 there was only one thing on his mind: closure.

Along with fellow Canadian Armed Forces member Cpl Alexandre Beaudin D’Anjou and other wounded veterans from the U.K., the U.S. and Australia, he landed at the South Pole to tackle Walking with the Wounded 2013 – South Pole Allied Challenge.

A week later three teams embarked on one of the most high profile and toughest expeditions of modern times –  walking 330 kilometres to the geographic South Pole in a treacherous environment.

But for MCpl Downey, it was also about remembering and saying good-bye to a fallen comrade.

“When I initially heard about the expedition through Solider On I couldn’t pass it up,” says MCpl Downey. “I’ve always had a thirst for adventure and after my time in Afghanistan I had a debt to repay, even if it was a personal one.”

Three years ago, on May 3, MCpl Downey witnessed the death of his friend PO2 Douglas Craig Blake. The two were assigned to dispose of an improvised explosive device (IED) located 25 kilometres from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The terrain was so rugged they had to leave their vehicle and hike to their destination. When the mission was complete, they began the walk back to their vehicle. For PO2 Blake one step would be his last. A nearby IED detonated and killed him. MCpl Downey was severely wounded. He suffered shrapnel wounds, burns and lacerations to his thighs, upper body and face, a collapsed lung, a broken and shattered jaw and right hand, two aneurysms, the loss of his upper lip, all his front teeth, and upper gum, and the complete loss of his right eye.

“After that day I promised never to waste a minute of my life, and the gift Craig gave me,” says MCpl Downey. “I took this as my opportunity to show Craig I was doing the most I could and I was moving forward.”

The group’s first point of contact with the “deepest south” was Novolazarevskaya Station, or “Novo” for short.

“When I first got there it was -5 Celsius, and I was struck with how normal everything looked,” says MCpl Downey. “It wasn’t until later it hit me my year of training had paid off and I was here. It was pretty emotional for me.”

At that point the race was on.

The two Canadians were on Team Soldier On along with actor Dominic West of “The Wire” fame.

“He was hilarious. When we’d set up camp he’d have us all in tears we’d be laughing so hard. He’s a great, down-to -earth guy.”

As for the expedition’s royal companion, MCpl Downey says Prince Harry, a member of the expedition’s Team U.K., really was just another team mate.

“He’s a really relaxed, personable guy,” he says. “To us he was just Harry, just another adventurer. If it wasn’t for the fact we all knew who he was, you’d have no idea he was a prince.”

MCpl Downey describes the trek itself as 14 days of exhaustion, wind, and freeze dried rations.

“They told us after a few days we’d dream of our tents, and I didn’t believe them,” he says. “But when you’ve spent the whole day cross-country skiing in a place where the sun never goes down, and the moisture from your breath is frozen to your face, you want nothing more than to curl up in your tent and sleep, even if it is in the ‘day’ light.”

Setting up camp was a fairly simple, yet utterly integral process. If equipment was improperly prepared, or if the environment was able to get into the double lined tents, it could have lasting and even severe consequences.

“First thing we’d do after double checking the tents is drag in a block of ice or snow and start melting it,” he says. “It’s the only way you can get water up there, since it’s too heavy to carry two weeks of it. With roughly three litres per day needed per person, and extra needed to boil your rations it can take quite a while.”

As for the food, MCpl Downey says it was about what could be expected from Antarctic cuisine.

“It’s all freeze dried, so it’s as good as it gets. Calories are what is important, so you eat what you have to,” he says. “Beef jerky and noodles, dried fruit, whatever could keep for a long time. Our guide recommended we all carry one kilogram of butter for extra calories, so there was butter on and in everything for me.”

For five days each team hustled through the barren ice and across the sastrugi, hoping to be the first to reach the South Pole. It was on the fifth day, when all three teams met at a rest point, event organizers announced the cancellation of the expedition’s race aspect.

“At first my competitive side was disappointed, but it obviously made the most sense,” say MCpl Downey. “We were all pushing ourselves pretty hard and there were more than a few injuries, so they wanted to take some of the pressure off us and focus on what was important, getting the 12 of us to the pole.”

After the teams merged MCpl Downey says the mood shifted drastically. Instead of a white knuckle race to the bottom of the world, the trek became about teamwork, camaraderie, and the thrill of adventure.

As the team neared the South Pole, MCpl Downey struck out on his own. He had a goal to reach.

“I unhooked from everyone about a kilometre and a half from the pole,” he says. “It was important to me that each step I took was Craig and mine alone. I basically spoke to Craig. I told him what I’d done, and what I was doing with my life. I thanked him for what he’d done and the gift of life he gave me.”

The team knew MCpl Downey’s intentions, and gave him space for what he had planned next.

MCpl Downey laid out a flag on his pulk and in the centre he placed a photo of PO2 Blake, a picture of himself while injured, a diver’s coin to honour PO2 Blake’s career as a clearance diver, and a bracelet PO2 Blake had made, which MCpl Downey had been wearing in the blast and had worn every day since.

“I said goodbye, and thank you for giving me the gift of my life,” he says. “It was difficult. It’s been such a long road, but it was time to move on. Craig would have wanted me to move on.”

After paying his respects, and hopefully leaving the pain from that chapter of his life behind him, MCpl Downey joined the rest of the team at the South Pole.

“We all joined hands around it, moved in, and touched it at the same time,” he says. “It was a pretty great experience. We were all thrilled to be there.”

Then the team took the opportunity to take some silly photos.

“I ran around the pole, to say I ran around the world, and I did a headstand so it looked like I holding up the planet once the picture is upside down” he says. “It really was a chance for us to blow off some steam after a harrowing trip. It was such a great experience.”

After reaching their destination it was time for the team to fly out of the South Pole and head back to civilization. After weeks in the barren south MCpl Downey says he was happy to reach home, and brought back a burning passion with him.

“Once you get a taste for adventure like that it doesn’t go away easily,” he says. “I’ve got plans in motion to make it to the North Pole in 2015, and a hundred more ideas swirling in my head already. It should make for a very interesting time.”

More information on the South Pole Allied Challenge and blog posts written by team members including MCpl Downey can be found at www.walkingwiththewounded.co.uk.

-Shawn O’Hara, Staff Writer

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