Wounded Alberta soldier races to South Pole

Alberta soldier Chris Downey and Quebec soldier Alexandre Beaudin D'Ainjou, both hurt by explosions in Afghanistan, are in the final stretch of training ahead of a gruelling, three-week expedition to the South Pole.

Part of multi-team 300-kilometre trek for charity across Antarctica

Chris Downey, pictured here in cold-weather training in Iceland last winter, is racing more than 300 kilometres with other injured soldiers to the South Pole. Downey lost his right eye and was badly burned and scarred by a bomb in Afghanistan in 2010. (Chris Downey)

An Alberta soldier hurt by a bomb in Afghanistan is in the final stretch of training ahead of a gruelling expedition to the South Pole.

Downey, originally from Cold Lake, Alta., has trained for the past year in preparation for a three-week race to the South Pole. (CBC)

Chris Downey had been working with a bomb-disposal unit in the Panjwaii district in 2010. His team had just finished defusing an improvised explosive device and was walking back to base when another IED went off. The blast killed his colleague and friend Craig Blake.

"It went completely silent. The most intense heat you've ever felt in your life. I felt like I was completely burning. Every muscle in my body was tensed right up."

I like being challenged.— Soldier Chris Downey

Downey, 32, who is originally from Cold Lake, suffered numerous injuries: he lost his right eye, teeth and part of his lip, was badly burned and scarred by shrapnel all over his body, and suffered a collapsed lung.

His recovery included arduous rehabilitation, starting with simple tasks such as cleaning out his mouth while it was wired shut.

"I like goals. I like being challenged," Downey told CBC News.

He was later contacted by Soldier On, a Canadian Forces initiative that promotes physical activity among injured serving and ex-service military members. They asked Downey if he wanted to take part in the Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge.

"I got an email asking if I'd like to walk 300-plus kilometres in minus 40 with 50 km/h winds. Who wouldn't say yes to that?" said Downey, who still works with the military on the bomb squad and as an air-weapons systems technician.

Prince Harry supports trek

The South Pole Challenge, which is financially supported by fellow Commonwealth soldier Prince Harry, consists of teams of four wounded soldiers, from the U.S., U.K., and, in Downey's case, Australia and Canada.

Prince Harry, shown at the launch of the Walking with the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge, plans to join the trek, despite recently breaking his toe. (Walking with the Wounded)

The teams will fly to the edge of Antarctica in November, then ski 335 kilometres over three weeks across the snowy landscape, arriving at the geographic South Pole around Dec. 17.

Quebec soldier Alexandre Beaudin D'Ainjou, who was also injured by an IED in Afghanistan, is also on Downey's team.

Downey has been training for the past year, including cold-weather training in Iceland in March. When he returned to his home in Peace River, Alta., he simulated the squall-like conditions in his home.

"I started doing things like turning my treadmill towards the white wall in the basement so I could run facing a white wall."

To prepare himself mentally, Downey has starved himself of music during his two- to three-hour training hikes, hoping the addition of an iPod during the actual trek will give him a boost.

He is worried the trauma of the explosion will revisit him, but sees the trek as an opportunity to move beyond it.

"This trip will actually be an opportunity to be in your head and actually deal with it for once."

Race fulfils a promise

Money raised through the race will support other injured soldiers.

Downey hopes the expedition will also change the public's perception of wounded service men and women.

"To the outside world, you're a guy missing an eye or a guy missing a leg or something different. But when we're together we're as normal as can be."

Changing people's perceptions, however, isn't the only reason Downey is racing.

"I made a promise to Craig, once I found out he passed away in the hospital, that I wouldn't waste a single minute of my life."

To this day, Downey believes it was his friend's body that absorbed enough shock from the blast to spare his life.


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