Conquering the North Pole in a Wheelchair
By: Rob Gerth
On April 13, 2009, David Shannon became the first person living with quadriplegia to reach the North Pole.
The first thing that David Shannon and Christopher Watkins, both lawyers from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada will tell you about making a trip to the North Pole is how cold it is. "The cold was so cold," remembers Watkins, "it didn't feel like cold."
Shannon, age 45, has been living with quadriplegia (C-5) as the result of spinal cord injury since he was 18, and Watkins, age 49, who has a significant form of arthritis, met years ago at the courthouse where they both practiced law. They had been planning this trip for the last three years.
Shannon had wheeled from Newfoundland to Vancouver in 1997 to "promote empowerment for disenfranchised communities and greater social inclusion for all Canadians." But as the two new friends got to know each other, they realized they both felt there was something missing in their activities and their goals.
More than just "Because it's there"
"It's a place of mystery, but also in many respects it is the ultimate barrier," adds Shannon. "And one of the real realities with spinal cord injury is trying to deal with the cold. Thermal retention is such a major issue. For me personally this seemed like the ultimate challenge."
Shaping up for the journey
The last six months before the trip were spent testing gear from parkas and long johns to special cross country sit skis. Once they were out on the ice, Shannon would sit in a manual wheelchair strapped to a sled. He would use two walking sticks clamped together like a kayak paddle to propel himself. Watkins would be out in front, pulling a rope tethered to the sled.
Breaking down barriers
"One of the things I think was ground breaking about this," says Watkins, "was at first nobody wanted to touch it. We had to go through a huge series of interactions to convince people this was even possible."
The health risks alone scared off most people – from pressure sores because of how Shannon is seated to the most obvious, hypothermia. Because of his spinal cord injury, Shannon might not be aware of the cold on parts of his body, and would not be able to warm up very quickly should his body temperature drop too far. The day they were leaving for the trip, Shannon was diagnosed with a bladder infection.
It's the usual, what everyone with a disability encounters," says Shannon, "educating the public."
The journey North
"It's an old Soviet-era aircraft," Shannon starts talking faster here. "First of all, I don't think the thing has been washed since the 1980s. The entryway is 10 feet high off the ground. Two guys on the ground lift me up from either side. A 6'5" Russian guy standing in the aircraft just picks me up like a sack of potatoes and hauls me, and throws me on the front seat and that's it!" Shannon is laughing now. "And they start telling me what to do in Russian. And I don't know a bloody word of what they're saying." Watkins in the background, also laughing, "And that's how the ride started." Shannon: "And that's how it all started, eh!"
The top of the world
"It's wild because it's like you are on another planet," recalls Shannon. "The sun is not high above your head, it's on the horizon and never sets."
Shannon says that since his accident, the cold has been one of his greatest fears. "I was very exhilarated by the fact that I was actually confronting the cold here. We got out of the helicopter and started moving across the ice. I had a full down suit on and an arctic parka on over that. At first it felt very tolerable. But I tell you, about a half hour into it, the cold starts creeping in big time!"
The snow would swirl up and ice crystals would dig into their faces. The wind chill made it about minus 50 degrees.
It took two hours to get from the helicopter landing area to the North Pole. Maneuvering the sled was actually easier than Shannon and Watkins expected. The terrain was less snow and more like a frozen lake. The Russian guides used their GPS devices to set the course. At some point they ran ahead and set up an actual pole in the exact most northern spot at the top of the world. "There is nothing there," says Shannon. "It's just an ice prairie."
Both men are at a loss for words when they are asked to describe the moment they arrived at the North Pole.
Shannon: "It was just a celebration."
Fortunately, the helicopter comes and picks you up at the pole.
Handicapped parking at the North Pole?
"We thought the sign being planted up there was something quite special for all those
"We talked about the importance of sending out a message that through cooperation and working through support systems, we really can get past barriers," says Shannon. "We hope that translates into some broader public policy messages around quality of life. There should be no barriers to entering the workforce, getting an education, having transportation."
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The Adaptive Sports Center (ASC)A non-profit organization located in Colorado that provides year-round recreation activities for people with disabilities and their families.
American Association of AdaptedSportWorks to enhance the health, independence and self-sufficiency of youths with physical disabilities by facilitating adapted sports programs in local communities, in cooperation with schools, parks and recreation, YMCA/YWCAs, hospitals, parents and other groups.
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Quad RugbyFormerly known as murderball, Quad Rugby is a game for quads who can push a chair. Fast, rough and very competitive.
The United States Tennis AssociationTennis has been adapted for the wheelchair player: the ball can bounce two times. This allows chair-players to give standup players a run for the their money. The sport is growing fast and is very competitive at the elite level. Click on "community tennis."
U.S. ParalympicsA division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, it is dedicated to becoming the world leader in the Paralympic sports movement and promoting excellence in the lives of people with physical disabilities through education, sports programs and partnerships with community organizations, medical facilities and government agencies.
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