‘South Pole trek was about proving to myself what could be achieved’

Scole, Norfolk. Sgt Duncan Slater back from his trek across Antartica who was the first double amputee to make it to the South Pole as part of the Walking with the Wounded.
Scole, Norfolk. Sgt Duncan Slater back from his trek across Antartica who was the first double amputee to make it to the South Pole as part of the Walking with the Wounded.

“It’s too much to take in.”

On Friday, December 13, 2013, Scole’s Duncan Slater made history. The moment he arrived at the coldest place on earth - the South Pole- Sgt Slater became the first double amputee ever to reach the world’s most southern point.

Duncan Slater became the first double amputee to reach the South Pole in December 2013.

Duncan Slater became the first double amputee to reach the South Pole in December 2013.

“Getting there is the end of everything,” said the former RAF Gunner.

“It’s almost like you are a bit disappointed but you are also chuffed to be there - but it is the end.

“Once everyone got there we took all the skis off and all went in (to a huddle) together. It was really quite nice that we all got there together.”

The Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge saw three teams racing against each other. But it was a race with a difference - all of the walkers had suffered injuries while serving their country, and were joined by a celebrity team member. In Duncan’s case, as part of Team UK, he was joined by Prince Harry.

Skiing took place in a nine-hour window, starting at 9am and finishing at 6pm in the evening. Duncan would wake up at about 6.30am, melting snow to fill flasks, sometimes for as long as two hours. The participants carried three litres of fluid a day.

He would eat breakfast and make adjustments to his prosthetic legs, before tents were taken down, sledges were loaded, teammates were checked, and the trek would commence.

After a long day skiing, he would go to sleep at 8.30pm. Surviving on dried rations, as well as chocolate and nuts for energy, between 4,000 and 5,000 calories would be consumed each day.

Harsh conditions would not allow the challenge to continue as a race and on day five, the three teams merged to reach the South Pole together.

There were early warning signs of the poor weather before the expedition had started, with the flight from Cape Town to Novolazarevskeya, Antarctica, being delayed due to a storm.

“The support crew go up there every year,” he said.

“The weather conditions were a lot harsher than they had ever seen at that time of year. The way that the wind blows the snow into big rivets, like a ploughed field almost, they are called sastrugi

“Usually they are about a foot high. You probably think ‘what’s the big deal?’

“But when you are pulling 90 kilos, the amount of energy you use to keep pulling it up every time it dips down into these sastrugi, it’s quite telling.

“The average was about three foot, so it was a lot more than we thought. It was like trying to ski across a building site. It was just a nightmare

“With that, people were pushed to their limits.

“You don’t want to have to take people off Antarctica because you are pushing them too hard.”

Despite the tough conditions, the three teams made it to the South Pole.

All in all, 180 miles were covered over 14 days, with temperatures dropping to as low as minus 48 Celsius. “Everything there is so extreme; the temperature, the living conditions, it is always on a knife edge. You could freeze to death, or have an easy time of it depending on how much effort you put in.

“You are coming from an environment where there is a lot of sights, smells and sounds. When you get out there, there is nothing.

“It is like looking at a frozen ocean with frozen waves, and you can’t see anything on the horizon. It just goes on and on. You might think it’s quite boring to look at, but it’s not. It is beautiful, there is nowhere else like it.

“I never ever thought I would go to the South Pole. I never thought I would do what I did. All the support I have had from the local area is outstanding. People just beat a path to your road to say good luck.

“So I just want to say a massive thanks because I’m one of the lucky blokes. I don’t need help but there are a lot of people out there that do need help.”

“Before we went, part of the hype was ‘you’re going to be the first double amputee to get there’ and really plugging it. I was like ‘I’m not doing it to be the first amputee (to get there), I’m doing it to say this is what you can do if you put your mind to it’.

“You don’t want to be the only double amputee to do it in history - you want other people to do it and go, ‘I’m going to do it better than him’. That would be nice.”

It is a far cry from the summer of 2009.

While serving in the Royal Air Force in Afghanistan, an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) blew up his vehicle. After a year of gruelling rehab, the only option to walk pain-free was to have both legs amputated below the knee.

“I’ll be honest -at its worst, it was at its very worst. “You think the world has ended when the doctor says ‘you will get out of hospital, you will make rehab, but you’re probably not going to walk again.’

“The day he tells you that, you are devastated. You think that can’t be right because before you got injured you were flying and doing anything you wanted in life.

“It kind of makes you more determined because you think ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’.

“It just takes a bit of determination. Just because nobody has done it (a double amputee to reach the South Pole) doesn’t mean I can’t try and do it.”

Duncan has now set his sights on this year’s London Marathon, before attempting the Marathon des Sables - a 150 mile ultramarathon - in 2015. Held in southern Morocco, it is the equivalent of six regular marathons.

Looking to the future, he added:“I need to grow up and get a job.

“It’s just what to do. I don’t know what to do.

“I wouldn’t mind doing motivational-type stuff. With the past year, I have been able to speak to a few kids in schools, and you always get nice feedback from them.

“I wish I had that when I was a kid, because I probably would have done a bit more. If I could maybe get round to a few schools and do a few talks, that would do me.”

n Watch our two-part interview with Duncan online at www.dissexpress.co.uk