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THE FALL AND RISE OF KAREN DARKE

Published: The Scotsman, 27 October

IT’S hard to know how to begin an interview with Karen Darke, which of her many incredible exploits to ask about first. In the past decade this Inverness-based explorer has kayaked to the remote San Rafael Glacier in Patagonia, handcycled the length of the Japanese archipelago and scaled the face of Colorado’s iconic El Capitan. She has also completed a gruelling 600km traverse of the Greenland ice cap on a sit-ski, and is now preparing for a record-breaking expedition to the South Pole.

Of all these adventures, though, her 2007 El Capitan climb is the most remarkable – not only because it represents a monumental feat of endurance, but because it was the first mountaineering project she attempted since being paralysed from the chest down in a climbing accident in 1993.

“I think El Cap is the one thing I’ve done which I can genuinely say I didn’t enjoy at the time,” she says. “It had its moments – like waking up and going, ‘Oh my God, we’re in this amazing place, hanging on a rockface, isn’t the sunrise beautiful?’ – but most of the time I was petrified. I also think it stirred up a lot of subconscious memories about climbing and falling; stuff which is probably locked in my memory somewhere that I don’t consciously recall. So yes, in some ways I think El Cap was quite a traumatic experience to put myself through.”

Sixteen years ago Darke was just 21 when she fell from a sea cliff on the Aberdeenshire coast during a climb with friends. She broke her neck and both her arms, fractured her skull and severed her spinal cord. When she regained consciousness in hospital following a dramatic helicopter rescue, she was told that she would never walk again. And so began what she has described as her “lonely journey” back to doing the things she loved – a struggle that is documented in her inspirational book, If You Fall, and something she will no doubt touch on in talks she is giving in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness this week, as part of a new autumn lecture series hosted by outdoor equipment retailer Tiso.

As soon as she left rehab, Darke returned to university in Aberdeen, where she had been studying for a PhD in geology. She took up horseriding and gliding, learned to use a sit-ski and completed the London Marathon in her wheelchair. But the wilderness beckoned – Darke says she has always been attracted to the Earth’s wild places – so she embarked on a string of adventures to some of the most remote and dangerous corners of the planet.

In many cases she was taking on challenges that few, if any, disabled people had taken on before, so she often had to make things up as she went along. For the El Capitan climb, for example, she and her life partner, Andy Kirkpatrick – who is himself a seasoned climber and big wall specialist – devised a special pulley system so she could haul herself up the 3,000ft (915m) monolith inch by muscle-shredding inch. She equates the experience to doing about 4,200 pull-ups.

Darke’s most recent major expedition was a week-long kayak trip to Patagonia earlier this year, also with Kirkpatrick, for a BBC2 Scotland documentary entitled Karen’s Ultimate Challenge. Their plan: to paddle through frigid, stormy seas, roaring tidal waterfalls and a potentially lethal lagoon full of giant icebergs in order to reach the spectacular but isolated San Rafael Glacier.

“Patagonia was almost on a par, in terms of the fear factor, with climbing El Capitan,” she says. “It’s a really, really wild place and there’s just no sign of civilisation – no roads, no power cables, nothing. It was a real wilderness experience.”

Ordinarily, Darke and Kirkpatrick wouldn’t have undertaken such a risky venture without a few more kayaking buddies in tow in case they got into difficulties, but they reasoned that with a film crew following them around in a boat they could be rescued if anything went wrong. As it turned out, the support boat wasn’t as much help as they’d thought.

“All that stuff people say about having a film crew following you and how much of what happens is real and are you really staying in a five-star hotel when the cameras are turned off… there was none of that going on,” she says. “There were times when we realised the boat with the film crew in it was neither use nor ornament because they’d gone off somewhere for a three-course lunch and lost sight of us. They’d be bobbing around in their boat somewhere, eating, while we were out in the waves getting more and more frightened.”

To make life even more difficult, Kirkpatrick injured his back at the start of the trip. “When you’ve got two people who can’t walk it’s a bit much really,” says Darke. “Neither of us could drag the boat ashore when we landed somewhere, so we were both sort of crawling around – we ended up chopping up logs so we could roll the boat along. I’m sure anyone who watched the film must just have thought, ‘What a pair of nutjobs.'”

Patagonia has a reputation for extreme weather conditions, and on the day they reached the glacier it seemed to throw everything it had at them. “It was one of those days that just went on and on,” says Darke. “First we had to cross some really powerful tidal rapids and then a storm hit when we got to the lagoon by the glacier. We landed on a beach and found a hut to sleep in but the wind blew the door in and started ripping the roof off. We had to use ropes to tie the roof down. It was really extreme.”

Maybe so, but Darke’s next project will make that Patagonia jaunt seem tame by comparison. Heartened by the success of her crossing of the Greenland ice cap on a sit-ski, she is now preparing for something twice as hard: a journey in 2011 from the edge of the Antarctic continent to the Geographic South Pole. If she completes this expedition, which she has dubbed the Pole of Possibility, she will be the first person ever to have made the trek using arm power alone.

In addition, however, to the myriad obstacles faced by able-bodied polar athletes, Darke will also have to contend with the added challenges posed by her paralysis, particularly her lack of sensation below the chest, which increases her susceptibility to frostbite.

“It’s an adventure I’ve had in mind ever since skiing across Greenland,” she explains. “It’s a lot further than that and a lot colder and the sastrugi [ridges in the snow created by the action of the wind] are quite a bit bigger, so it will be much harder. Obviously I’ve got a few concerns, but going across Greenland has given me the confidence that with the right planning and the right equipment it’s definitely possible.”

Not content with achieving a world first, Darke is also hoping to use her polar journey to raise GBP 1 million for the British Inspiration Trust, a new charity set up by ex-armed forces Major Phil Packer, who sustained a spinal cord injury last year while serving in Iraq. “With this trip to the Pole I felt like I needed a greater reason to go than just to have another adventure,” says Darke.

“We need to find between GBP 100,000 and GBP 150,000 for the trip itself, which we’re hoping to get through business sponsorship. Then once we’ve done that we’re looking to raise this big chunk of money – which I’m losing sleep over at the moment, because it seems a bit overwhelming.”

Darke explains that the aim of Packer’s new charity is to help and inspire young people with disabilities so they can live “active and fulfilling lives”.

So they can do the sorts of things she has done? “Yeah,” she says, “although it’s all relative to where you are in life and what your aspirations are and what your personality is like. There was a time when sitting up in bed or going to the corner shop was a big challenge for me, so it’s not necessarily about saying everyone should go and have some big adventure, but it is about saying it’s good to challenge yourself and that if you’ve got dreams or ideas or things you’d like to do then keep working at them because it’s all possible – anything’s possible.”

* Karen Darke will give talks at Tiso stores in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness on 28, 29 and 30 October. For more information about the 2009 Tiso Lecture Series, visit www.tiso.com/news/lectures. To donate to the Pole of Possibility fund, visit www.poleofpossibility.com.

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