On 7 May 2015, former British Army and Queen’s Dragoon Guards Lance Corporal, Peter Bowker, who lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan, set off with four companions to ski nearly 600 km (373 miles) across the Greenland ice cap. His successful attempt to make the world’s first unsupported crossing of the vast ice sheet by an amputee relied on Inmarsat satcoms for medical and emergency back-up, and to share the adventure in real time with the media and supporters.
In celebration of World Space Week and ‘Discovery’, team project manager and former Royal Marine Commando Richard Morgan, looks back at the mission, and how Inmarsat’s connectivity enabled a global audience not only to discover the remote arctic landscape but also the true heroic spirit and determination of Peter.
With only a matter of weeks to go until our 65 Degrees North team set off on the epic 600km trek across the Greenland ice cap, an incredible offer of support came through from Inmarsat.
They agreed to provide us with two IsatPhone 2 satellite phones, along with all the airtime we needed for the phones and two ultra-portable BGAN terminals. This would provide us with reliable, simultaneous broadband and voice connectivity, so that we could stay in touch with the mission team and family back home.
It also meant we could share every step of the journey in real time with over 6,000 people in 43 countries, who were following our project via social media. It would enable people to not only discover a world seldom seen but also to see what could be achieved through sheer determination, no matter how harsh the environment.
It was an opportunity that we felt extremely privileged to have as it helped us to raise even greater awareness of Peter’s reason for undertaking this expedition; to raise much-needed funds for the Help for Heroes charity, and achieve his goal of inspiring others.
Storms, katabatic winds and painful blisters
Within 48 hours of setting out it quickly became apparent how vital having the IsatPhone was when our team doctor was shaken up after a fall down a small crevasse, and Peter took a tumble that caused his prosthetic leg to detach. It was important to us that we could report this information immediately to the support team and reassure family and friends that we were safe and unharmed.
The vast, spectacular environment tested the team mentally and physically to their limits; sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, always challenging.
The landscape stretched as far as the eye could see on blue sky days, twinkling in the sun. On cloudy days the landscape blurred into the sky and it was like being in a white box when, during whiteouts, you were lucky if you could see the tips of your skis. Temperatures were often -37C.
Messages of support improved team morale
We were able to share these magnificent views via BGAN and take our worldwide supporters on the same incredible journey with us. To log in to our social media channels from the middle of the Ice Cap where there is no cellular connectivity, and see the wonderful messages of support was surreal and uplifting.
A very special moment for the team came when we were answering questions on Twitter from the children at Ogmore Vale Primary School in Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, Wales. They were so inspired by Peter’s challenge that the children went on to raise £1,500 by doing a sponsored walk pulling tyres!
In addition, calls to our satellite phone from Patrons, family, celebrities, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and CG Major General Martin Smith, kept team morale high and pushed us all on through the most challenging times.
Battling through the pain barrier
The ice cap threw everything it had at us. Storms left us unable to safely move from the tents for five out of the 27 days and it was vitally important that we could let the support team know we were safe on these days as we knew the trackers would be showing no movement.
Peter developed painful blisters within days that worsened with every kilometre – seeing him battling on despite his obvious pain pushed the rest of us on.
With the end in sight the ice cap threw its final and toughest challenge at the team when team member Kirk fell down a deep crevasse, which then led to the decision for the team to rope up for the final few kilometres.
New world record set
This decision led to a poignant and symbolic ending as the team were all attached as one when Peter reached the final rock at 01:36 on 4 June – signalling the moment he became the world’s first amputee to cross the Greenland Ice Cap unsupported.
This was an incredibly emotional moment for the team but especially for me as Project Manager. Seeing Peter’s dream realised in that moment, after almost three years of planning, was worth every painful, challenging moment.
I can not stress how important it was for the team to be able to share every step of this expedition via social media and TV and radio interviews, thanks to the equipment provided by our sponsors at Inmarsat.
To date, over £20,000 has been raised for our ‘Charity of Choice’ Help for Heroes.
About the author
Richard Morgan is the second youngest 65 Degrees North Ice Team member and was Project Manager and Expedition Lead. Richard is a former Royal Marines Commando who went on several deployments, significantly to Norway where he took tuition on all aspects of Arctic warfare and survival techniques. He has since joined the Police Service and still enjoys the teamwork and challenges that present themselves through his day to day working life.
Richard led the Heroes Challenge UK team that recorded a British first: an endurance effort completed over 10 days in 2013. He has a passion for the outdoors and is busy preparing the next exciting challenge for the team of 65 Degrees North.