Prince Harry’s patronage of Walking With the Wounded is not your typical royal patronage. After joining them for part of their 2011 trek to the North Pole, he set a new bar for himself. As far as WWTW goes, it’s not enough for Prince Harry to speak at black tie galas, he has to get his hands dirty. And how could he not? The men and women Walking With the Wounded supports are soldiers just like him but, unlike him, they didn’t return home unharmed.
Although he was unable to join them on their 2012 Everest climb, he’s making up for it by participating in their 2013 South Pole walk. The South Pole trek is an incredible journey. The trekkers will cross roughly 335 kilometers miles of treacherous terrain made of glaciers, mountains and vast crevasses. They will face temperatures as low as -50F and winds up to 50 miles per hour.
This is WWTW’s biggest challenge yet. And they’ve upped the ante even more by making it a competition among three teams. Prince Harry will be leading Team UK while actor Alex Skarsgård will lead a US team and actor Dominic West leads a Commonwealth team.
At the Warrior Games in Colorado this May, I chatted with two of the Americans joining this expedition.
Captain Ivan Castro is an active duty officer who has served tours from Desert Storm through to today’s war on terrorism. It was on a tour of Iraq in 2006 that he was blinded by a bomb blast. Since his injury, Castro has become a one-man testament to the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” adage. He’s served to inspire other wounded soldiers with an amazing list of extreme sports: over two dozen marathons including two 50-mile “ultra marathons;” cycling across the states and Europe; mountain climbs. At this year’s Warrior Games he was competing in almost all of the events, only missing swimming as he had a motivational speech to give in Fargo. But of course none of those compare to what he’s about to undertake.
“I try to do one extreme activity a year. So this year I was very blessed and fortunate to get selected by Walking With the Wounded to go to the South Pole.”
I asked what it was like training in Iceland and he said, “It was very tough. I’m not gonna lie. Since I’ve been blind it’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
“One, I was raised in Puerto Rico and I hate the cold with a passion, just hate it. Second, I’ve never skied. Never been on skis. So you can imagine being blind, never being on skis and now you’re pulling a pulk, which is a sled with all your gear on it, and you’re being pulled by the wind and it’s just horrible. Downhill, my pulk will take me out or my pulk will sling shot in front of me. There was one day where I fell like four times. And that was a very bad day.
“I hate to say this but when that happened I thought to myself, wow, why am I doing this? With everything I’ve done, what am I trying to prove this time? You have to say it’s because it’s a challenge. And also, you get to see the impact that you have. It’s about showing awareness, motivating awareness, breaking down those stereotypes and preconceived notions.”
That awareness is one of the main goals of WWTW’s extreme challenges. Castro says, “I’m a fan of Walking With the Wounded just because there is no challenge big enough for them. Things that are impossible, they make it possible. Who ever thought that four injured Brits were going to make it to the North Pole or attempt to summit Everest or go to the South Pole?
“To show that it’s not [just] about the Brits, now they’re bringing a US team and a Commonwealth team. We all bleed the same. Blindness in the US is blindness in the UK. Amputee in the US is amputee in the UK. They go through the same struggles. They are brothers in arms.
“And to see Prince Harry going along, this is no fly by night organisation. When Prince Harry is going to commit to this, Prince Harry who is a soldier himself, Prince Harry who is deployed, he knows that these situations could happen to him as well. And he cares about it. He’s a very genuine man, a very mature man. He’s a solider, he’s a leader and he cares about those with disabilities.”
I ask if having a prince not only as a patron of the expedition but a participant will have a positive impact on morale, he replies “Absolutely. Prince Harry is able bodied but does Prince Harry have to do this? Does he have to go and endure temperatures 50 below zero? Does he have to eat dehydrated food? Does he have to pull a pulk his weight? The cold and the wind are going to hit us just like it’s going to hit a prince. He’s going to sleep on a floor just like we are. He’s going to have to dig a hole and shit underground just as we do. He’s going to do the same things we do. He’s going to be there and support us every step of the way. That means a lot to us. He’s just a great genuine guy. A humble man, a simple man.
“I’m looking forward to going down there. It’s a race. I told him we’ll be there first; we’ll have some Glenfiddich for them. I’m confident for my team. We’re going to give 100%. “
While a gunner in Iraq in 2006, Margaux Mange suffered a severe concussion after being hit by an IED. This led to severe nerve damage in her head and neck as well as Bells Palsy and PTSD. She fought to stay in the army but was medically discharged after unsuccessful brain surgery. She’s found purpose post-service by taking on physical challenges such as mountain climbing and, now, the South Pole.
Mange found the Icelandic training a meditative experience. “It was very calming. You’re just skiing for eight hours a day and you’re kind of alone with yourself. You have your music playing and it’s just amazing, breathtaking. I mean it’s incredibly hard and there were some very cold times where I thought I was going to lose some areas of my body that I really like.”
Asked if she ever questioned whether she should be making this trip, she replied, “The first day. The first day it was negative 50 degrees and it was white out conditions. If that had happened at the South Pole we wouldn’t go out in it but they said. ‘Nope. We want to introduce you to the hardest day ever.’ I thought, ‘Hmm, why did I do this?’”
Because of her types of injuries, Mange is unable to put weight on her neck and can suffer from severe headaches. Both situations could cause trouble in such an extreme environment. She says, “I fatigue easily and I’m going to have to keep pushing my body to put food in myself. I struggle to eat when I’m tired.”
Mange joined the army at age 18 and found herself a star player on her post’s soccer team. I asked if she would challenge the other soldiers to a game when they’re out on the ice. She laughed and said, “I might, I might. They brought a football out to Iceland so maybe I’ll bring a soccer ball to the South Pole.”
Our chat came moments after she had received her silver medial for cycling – as well as a kiss from Prince Harry. Was it nice being kissed by a prince? “Of course!” she grinned. “And now I get to spend four weeks with him. It’s going to be fun.”
Best of luck to Ivan Castro, Margaux Mange and all the other soldiers taking on this amazing challenge. I’ll be pulling for the home team. Go USA!