Photo:BBCKaren Darke is a super adventurer, with more trips under her belt than some of the world's most famous travellers. She has climbed El Capitan, crossed the Tien Shan and Karakoram mountains of Central Asia on a handcycle, sea kayaked a 1,200 mile length of the Alaska-Canada coastline, and handcycled the length of Japanese archipelago and the Indian Himalaya, and she is getting ready to sit-ski to the South Pole. She was also recently awarded British Cosmo's "Fearless Woman of the year" award.
Karen your list of adventures read like those of the most able (and mental) adventurers of all time, tell me which was the most challenging trip, and which did you enjoy most?
I can’t answer that question as they’ve all been challenging in different ways, and enjoyable in different ways. Physically though, skiing across the Greenland icecap was probably the hardest. It was relentless effort, and in the mornings my hands / tendons in my hands were seized and it took half an hour to get moving again each day. No lasting bad effects though!
Mentally, leaving my wheelchair behind for 3 months when kayaking from Canada to Alaska was tough – I thought I would go mad without it in the first week, but I adapted. It just meant doing jobs and helping the team in ways that I could – like cooking and brewing cups of tea for everyone the whole time!
Climbing again – El Capitan in Yosemite – was really tough emotionally, as it must have stirred up a lot of hidden / subconscious memories, fear of heights, of climbing / falling. I broke my leg at the end of it and I’m not surprised – I pushed myself to the limit emotionally and I think a little too far.
You broke your back in 1993, 16 years and 6 almost unbelievable adventures later you have accomplished more than most able bodied people do in their entire lives. What drives you to keep up this kind of pace?
No idea. My genetics. Just the way I am. My mum and dad never sit still, so I’m sure I got some of it from them! Many people ask if its because / a reaction to being paralysed but I don’t think so. I’ve always had a lot of energy and just love getting out and doing stuff, and having adventures. It doesn’t feel like I need motivation for it most of the time – its just what I get out of bed for!
How did your injury happen? I read it was a climbing accident.
Yes I fell off a cliff when I was rock climbing. I was leading the climb ie. First one up. The rock was too steep, and I reached the point I couldn’t hold on anymore. Unfortunatley the gear I’d put in the rock (the last bit) ripped out and I hit the rock beneath, breaking my back at T3, my neck (lucky not to damage my cord there), arms, ribs, punctured lung, skull etc.
Have you had any accidents since you got in the chair?
Yes, Broken my hip across the femur (playing party games), my neck of femur (doing yoga) and my leg (going climbing again).
How do you go about organizing expiditons like this? Do you have sponsors, what kind of support do you need?
Its hard. Previous expeditions have been relatively cheap, so have been either self-funded, or with the help of one or two small sponsors. Greenland was more expensive and we applied for ‘expedition grants’ from places like the Royal Geographical Society, and also got sponsorship for gear and equipment from outdoor companies, and discounted rates / free excess baggage from Iceland Air and Air Greenland. The South Pole is a different kettle of fish. We will need a very major sponsor, or collection of sponsors to help it become a reality.
Your really planning to "sit-ski" to the south pole. I'm familiar with skiing down mountains but isn't Antarctica relatively flat? What are your biggest concerns logistically?
A cross-country sit-ski is different to a downhill sit-ski. You double pole along with your arms (see pictures on the website) and flat is good, as you have no ability to stop and its also hard to turn. The biggest challenge will be the cold –keeping warm, and also the friction that the cold creates for the sit-ski, as it relies heavily on the ability of the skis to glide along. This is easier when the snow or ice is a little warmer i.e. a thin layer of water between the skis and the surface.
Tell me more about the ski. Did you design it? I can't imagine it being off the rack.
The current sit-ski I have is ‘off the rack’ but with the seat from a downhill sit-ski, to give it extra warmth, insulation and support for my bum, hips and torso. Being paralysed from the chest down means that I need a good level of back support and abdominal support, so the seat is kind of customized for me, but essentially is just the seat from a downhill sit-ski plonked on a cross-country sit ski frame. For Antarctica, we are still looking at what might need to be changed / improved etc. to cope with the harsher conditions.
How long of a trip will this be and what are your most major concerns? I'm sure frost bite is a huge worry.
Yes, frost bite, and also the physical aspect of staying healthy, injury free, and not having catheter / toilet problems! There are only so many clean clothes we can carry, and no where to wash, so having any accidents is that department is obviously a big no-no. In Greenland I duct taped my catheter tubes etc. together to make sure they couldn’t work themselves apart, stayed very well hydrated, peed even when I didn’t need to etc. just to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible.
Frost bite in legs / feet is a worry, as I can’t feel them.I’ll no doubt be wearing at least 5 pairs of insulated trousers / layers the whole time, as was the case in Greenland. I’ll also use heat pads and drinking bottles as hot water bottles to ensure everything stays as warm as poss.
What kind of team are you bringing with you and how much do you expect it to cost?
So far there are only three of us – myself, my partner and a friend. The cost is a big issue, and we would like to keep it to a minimum, but with the maximum chance of success. We are still debating whether to have a team size of 4 or 6, and have various people we’re considering for this. The cost is between $40,000 and £60,000 per person depending on the route we choose, and if we have any re-stock points. The time it will take is anything from 5 weeks to 10 weeks, depending also on the route we take. WE’d like to go all the way from the sea (Hercules Inlet) to the Pole, but cost may become prohibitive.
Your trying to raise nearly $200,000 for charity. What's the charity and who do they help?
We’re actually trying to raise £1 million. The first £100,000K is for The Back-Up Trust, a charity that help peole with spinal cord injury lead active / fulfilling lives. Google it or follow the link on our website for more info.
How much have you raised so far and how do people donate?
None raised for the expedition itself so far (though have 3 companies interested, and all of the exped costs will be met through our own pockets and company sponsorship). The charity money so far we’ve raised (not much) £240, and people can donate to the charity online at the website, www.poleofpossibility.com
What do you do for work and do they support your trips at all?
I am self-employed as a training and development consultant. Coaching, facilitating courses, working with social enterprise, etc. I fund bits of my own trips where I can!
Are you familiar with any other disabled adventurers and their accomplishments
Yes, many. In the US, Eric Weihenmayer, Mark Wellman, the team at ‘No Barriers USA’ (check out ‘no barriers’ in Google. There are disabled adventurers all over the world doing great stuff. A Russian guy (paraplegic) skied across Greenland a year or two before we did. It’s great that people are getting out there and doing stuff!