Last year I had a life-changing experience; I became the first visually impaired person to ski from the Antarctic coast, almost 600 miles, all the way to the South Pole. And what an experience it was.
Losing my sight has given me the motivation to take on huge challenges
I have macular degeneration, which means that looking forward it is like looking through frosted glass with blind spots dotted about my central vision. Nine years ago my eyesight deteriorated rapidly over just six weeks. Losing my sight was a hugely difficult process that permanently changed my outlook on life. Perhaps the hardest part to bear was that I would lose my military career, and so the future I had trained for - to serve as a Submarine Officer in the British Royal Navy - would cease to exist. However, I always reminded myself that there were many in a far worse situation than I am.
I can't be cured, but for 80% of the world's blind people, their eye conditions are preventable or curable. People shouldn't have to live with visual impairments if they don't need to, which is why my team and I were keen to use our challenge to raise funds for the work carried out by international development charity, Sightsavers.
If there is one silver lining from my sight loss, it is that it has given me the extra impetus to actually pursue my dreams, not merely think about them. I wanted to really take the bull by the horns and meet those challenges that had always been at the back of my mind. To that end, I undertook a number of endeavours including 18 marathons, climbing the highest mountain in Europe and even setting a world record for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Skiing across Antarctica felt like the culminations of my ambitions, and it was tremendous to be able to support Sightsavers in the process.
I was joined on this epic challenge by my two great mates, Andrew Jensen and Richard Smith, and polar veteran Hannah McKeand. Hannah was our guide - an incredible woman who has now made it to the Pole six times. That's more than anyone else in the world.
The Polar Vision Documentary
On Wednesday we launch a documentary of our expedition, Polar Vision, which can be seen on YouTube, here. Take a look if you want to see a lot of snow and team camaraderie as we make our way 600 miles to the South Pole!
Training was just the beginning
Our training included time in Iqaluit, Canada where we spent a week traversing the ice pack near the Arctic Circle. Here we trained our polar-specific skills and learnt to live in temperatures that could drop down to below 50°F. Back at home we continued our training in local parks by dragging tires, to build up the muscle strength required to haul the heavy sleds. In spite of this, nothing could have fully prepared us for the challenge we faced in Antarctica.
When we were in camp we practiced putting up tents. I had to learn where each little eyelet was and where each pole went, through touch alone. Given the temperatures we often had to keep our thick gloves on which made it particularly tricky.
Skiing for over nine hours each day burned 7,000-9,000 calories. To replenish this dinner would consist of dehydrated rations, beefed up with cubes of butter and anything else heavy on the fats (we had to remember to ditch this diet upon on our return!) A favourite with Richard was Pâté on Pringles... Each to their own!
Each team member took it in turns to lead and navigate. I of course didn't attempt the navigation - we might have ended up in Chile! I was anxious to do as much for the team, even with my reduced sight. Given that it needed to be tasks that were not dependent on sight, I spent a disproportionate amount of time digging holes to either get snow for melting or to create temporary 'bathroom' facilities.
"Braving the elements" took on a whole new meaning
During the 39 day expedition we faced howling polar winds, white-outs, temperatures as low as -31°F and sunlight for 24 hours a day. Trekking on skis across a distance equivalent to 21 marathons, I dragged a sled weighing 130 pounds harnessed to my waist, and all with severely limited vision.
We suffered many falls and bruises whilst crossing the rough terrain. As I found out through numerous tumbles, Antarctica is far from a flat expanse of ice, and I really relied on whoever was guiding me at the time to negotiate the uneven ground below my skis. By the end of the expedition we all had hacking coughs from breathing in such cold air, and feet that were bruised and blistered from the constant movement of the skis. Furthermore, our tents and sleeping bags had become decidedly smelly and we were all dreaming of a warm shower.
Being at the bottom of the world is surreal, exhilarating and humbling
It was a hugely physical and mental challenge, but we did it. We pulled together, spurred one another on and completed the 600 mile trek all the way to the South Pole. It is an achievement we are immensely proud of and we are grateful to everyone that supported us in making the venture a reality. Knowing the project was going to help enable Sightsavers to protect people from blinding diseases, give sight-restoring operations and provide education about eye health to those living in the poorest parts of the world, certainly helped to spur us on.
Having such a personal experience of the impact of visual impairment, I am incredibly passionate about supporting the vital, but often neglected, area of avoidable blindness. As such, it is always wonderful to raise money for organisations like Sightsavers who are helping make a difference to the lives of the 39 million blind people in the world. I hope that the challenges I have set myself, including the Polar Vision expedition, have not only given financial support to sight-related charities, but have also demonstrated that, in spite of the hurdles that sight loss brings, unique and remarkable things can be achieved.
To watch our adventure across the Antarctic unfold, check out our documentary and watch this space for our next challenge!