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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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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"
"There is a draw about the North Pole that's reflected by its solitude," says Watkins. "It sits there as a place where nobody can reach -- the untouchable fortress of the North. I think David just knew it was an extreme challenge that would bring a message to the world."

"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 

David Shannon and Christopher Watkins taking a break from a training run in Canada.

Shannon has some bicep and deltoid movement. He straps his hands to a stationary arm bike to get his cardio workout. He uses surgical tubing to do resistance training. Watkins had to go off his arthritis pain medicine because it made him feel tired. They both hit the cross country ski trails to practice with the sled.

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
When asked if they met any people along the way who thought this was a bad idea Shannon responded, "Sort of every step of the way."

"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
Anyone can go to the North Pole. There are outfitters and tour guides. From a base camp, adventurers get dropped off by helicopter how ever many miles away from the pole they want. Then they can ski, dog sled, walk, or sled on your wheelchair the rest of the way. Shannon and Watkins flew to a Norwegian island, and then were picked up by a Russian aircraft which took them to "Ice Camp Borneo."

"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
At Ice Camp Borneo they got a safety lecture and a warning about polar bears, and then the helicopter dropped Shannon, Watkins, and their Russian guides off about five kilometers from the North Pole.

"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."

Sled marks in snow
David and Christopher's tracks on the way to the North Pole.

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."
Long pause.
Watkins: "It was impossible."
Long pause.
Shannon: "I think we both just thought, ‘Wow!'"

Fortunately, the helicopter comes and picks you up at the pole.

Handicapped parking at the North Pole?
When they got to the North Pole they planted a universal accessibility sign. "What we felt was special about that is that it took it out of our hands," says Shannon, "and made it part of what is a much bigger world movement."

"We thought the sign being planted up there was something quite special for all those

Universal accessibility sign at the North Pole
David and Christopher planting the universal accessibility sign at the North Pole.
people who have achieved so much, but also those who are still in their homes facing significant barriers – all the usual barriers us wheelchair users run into. We were hoping maybe in some small way this was something for all of them."

"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."

North Pole

David in his wheelchair.

Learn more
See more video and photos, and keep track of what David Shannon and Christopher Watkins are doing next at their website -- Team Independence.

Find out more about fitness, travel, sports, recreations and living an overall healthy lifestyle in our Resource Center.

Tell us your story
Telling your story is one way to let anyone touched by paralysis know that they are not alone. We've created a place where you can share your journey for your benefit, and the benefit of others. Your story matters. Share it.

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.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Golf for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sports and Competition (PDF)

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.

Blaze Sports501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advances the lives of youth and adults with physical disability through sport and healthy lifestyles. BlazeSports provides sports training, competitions, summer camps and other sports and recreational opportunities for youth and adults with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy, amputation, visual impairment or blindness as well as other physical disabilities.

Disabled Sports USAOffers nationwide sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability. Activities include winter skiing, water sports, summer and winter competitions, fitness and special sports events. DSUSA, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is the governing body for winter sports for all athletes with disabilities, and for summer sports for amputee athletes. Nationwide chapter network of sports and rec programs.

The Handicapped Scuba AssociationPromotes the physical and social well being of people with disabilities through the exhilarating sport of scuba diving.

Hand CyclingWhether for fitness, serious competition, or pure recreation, here's a sport that can be enjoyed by many and provide quite the "ride" at the same time.

International Paralympic CommitteeThe International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement. The IPC organizes the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, and serves as the International Federation for nine sports, for which it supervises and co-ordinates the World Championships and other competitions.

Life Rolls OnLRO is the story of able-bodied individuals, working in concert with those with spinal cord injury, to motivate each other with the inspirational message of achievement in the face of extreme adversity. Life Rolls On utilizes action sports through our flagship program, They Will Surf Again, which pushes the boundary of possibility for those with spinal cord injury (SCI).

National Wheelchair Basketball AssociationBasketball is perhaps the oldest organized sport for athletes in wheelchairs. The game is fast and fun, and played in dozens of cities across the U.S.

The National Center on AccessibilityNSCD provides recreation for children and adults with disabilities. In addition to recreational downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, NSCD provides year-round competition training to ski racers with disabilities. Summer recreation opportunities include biking, hiking, in-line skating, sailing, therapeutic horseback riding, white water rafting, baseball, fishing, rock climbing for the blind, and camping.

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.

World T.E.A.M. SportsUnites people with and without disabilities through unique athletic events taking place all over the world.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.