Master Cpl. Chris Downey is unlikely to ever forget the emotional and physical journey he endured to reach the South Pole on Dec. 13 as part of the Walking With the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge.
While on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010, the Royal Canadian Air Force soldier was seriously injured by a homemade bomb. As a result, he suffered two aneurysms, serious burns, a shattered jaw and hand, and the complete loss of his right eye.
The blast also killed one of his best friends and fellow soldiers Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake.
As a tribute to Craig, and to raise funds for the men and women injured in combat, the 32-year-old Cold Lake, Alta.-based soldier signed up for the gruelling 335-km trek to the South Pole. He was joined by Quebec soldier and teammate Alexandre Beaudin D'Anjou, who was also injured by an explosive in Afghanistan.
Prince Harry, patron of the WWTW, also participated in the trek as a member of the UK team.
HELLO! caught up with Chris shortly after he and his comrades arrived at the remote destination. He shared his motivations, his goals, and his impressions of the red-headed royal.
How do you feel?
I feel amazing. A few guys here are making an igloo and collecting ice and snow for family back home!
So you’re actually still down at the South Pole then?
We’re actually about 50 km from the South Pole right now. The way it works is we go to the Pole, celebrate and enjoy the moment and then we set up camp about 20 km away. They just don’t want you staying right at the Pole.
Can you describe the conditions for our readers?
It’s a very unique environment for sure. First off, it’s one view forever. It’s completely white and continuous sunlight 24 hours a day. So it’s not easy on your eyes when you’re skiing. That’s probably the hardest part. Thank God most of us had music. As for weather, it was in the minus 30s and minus 45 and 50s with the wind.
The thing with Antarctica is it’s the driest place on earth. The air is extremely dry not to mention we’re over 9,000 feet of elevation but because of the air pressure, it feels anywhere from 10 to 12,000 feet at any given time. On your lungs, that’s what it feels like. So that part I’m not used to. Being from Alberta, I’m not in the mountains, so when I first got here my biggest struggle was the altitude and my breathing was extremely hard. I had a hard time with it.
What made you want to sign up for this?
What good Canadian wouldn’t want to ski 300 km in freezing temperatures? [Laughs] There are three things that got me through this. The first being, I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, always love taking chances, and going to the South Pole is one of those things that doesn’t come around very often.
The second reason – and probably the thing that pushed me the most, and has pushed me the most in my entire recovery – is a promise that I made to my friend that was killed, about not wasting a single moment of my life after the gift that he gave me by saving my life. That pretty much pushes me to do anything.
And lastly, I’m from a small town and most of them there know my story. So to be able to share my story with a lot more people, hopefully at least one person hears my story and makes their first step … I’m just hoping to help somebody.
How did you stay so positive after your injury?
I’m very fortunate. When I got injured, as soon as I woke up in Germany, the people that worked there just happened to be the perfect combination of people to be with me. They knew I was very competitive and that I don’t like to say no, and right off the bat they could see that I liked challenges. And they gave me challenges – something as small as being able to clean my mouth with a little sponge – and just being able to do that myself was a huge step at that time.
Then, as soon as I arrived in Ottawa, my entire family mobilized to be with me, and it only takes about five minutes to be with my family to see how to stay positive. They’re just such amazing people, and you just can’t back off because of that – you want to strive for more. My mom, she’s probably the strongest person I know and she’s only 5 foot 2.
What did your family say when you told them that you wanted to do this?
They just said their real opinion, especially my mom. She’s supported my brother and me in everything we’ve ever done, so she would never say 'Don’t do it,' or ever say anything that would go against it, so she was thrilled. She gave me the, "Only you would do something like that."
What was your reaction when you reached the Pole? How did you celebrate?
For myself, it was a very private moment. At about a kilometre and a half away from the pole, I skied away from everybody because I said that I was going to reserve the last kilometre for Craig, just to have a chance to finally say goodbye … I basically skied the last kilometre completely by myself, next to everybody, but out of line. I just wanted the footsteps to be my own and with Craig. I spoke to him the whole time, just saying goodbye.
By the time I reached the Pole it was extremely emotional. I was in tears. There were a lot of things going on. I was finally saying goodbye to my friend as I was reaching this giant pole. Then we kind of all got together around the Pole before anyone touched it, and we got within each other’s arms, and we all approached it together. [We made] a big circle around it and when we finally got to touch it, it was an amazing moment and we were all smiling and crying at the same time.
Every emotion was going on at once. Everybody hugged everybody and then after that we just started taking a bunch of fun pictures. I did a headstand … I ran around the pole to say I ran around the world. [We were] just really enjoying the moment. We stayed there for a couple of hours, actually. I took pictures with the Canadian flag, something for my mom, and really just relished the moment.
Prince Harry was also on this epic journey. Can you tell us a little bit about what he’s like?
When he’s with us and he’s out here he really is just one of the guys. He’s another soldier. It’s just like being with all of your buddies. Same jokes. Same conversations. We were out here playing cricket in the middle of Antarctica. Tackling each other. Without knowing that he is Prince Harry, you wouldn’t know that he is a royal. The whole time it was amazing – himself, Dominic West and Alexander Skarsgard, the film stars [who also made the trek] – there was never once where it felt like it was about them. They constantly made it about us and about the story. So [Harry's] just a down-to-earth guy with a granny, as he calls her.
Can you walk us through visiting Buckingham Palace?
We went into the palace and we were all there gathered together waiting and Harry was in there with us, and he was like, 'I’ll be right back I’ll go get my grandparents." [Laughs] It was just nice, it was like being at his home with his grandparents. He made it very personal. And they were great. [The Queen] was very quick at responding with her jokes and her comments. I was lucky enough to be selected to give the gift to her on behalf of the whole expedition, which was part of the trophy that we gave her, so that was quite special for me, too.
What did your family think of that?
My mom had a pretty good comment [about it]. She said that before Walking With the Wounded, I’d never been in the UK. I was born there, but I left when I was three years old, and she said, "I can’t believe this: You’ve been to London three times and you’ve already been to the queen’s house. [Laughs] They love it. It was pretty special. I felt pretty special.
What’s next for you? Are you still working with the Forces?
I’m still full-time, still doing the same job as I was before I was deployed. I’m already getting things lined up to get to the North Pole in 2015 and I have some other opportunities that are coming up for this year as well; kind of adventure stuff to support the wounded.
Thank you for sharing your story.
It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. People say it’s a once in a lifetime, but this truly was once in a lifetime.