The REAL Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

This fall, three teams of four wounded veterans—one from the U.S., one from the U.K., and one from the Commonwealth—will head to Antarctica and race each other 335 kilometers on Nordic skis, in sub-zero temperatures, to the South Pole. Their first simulated training session to prepare for this trek (and to select the final team members) took place last month, at the Langjokull Glacier in Iceland, and Men's Health contributor Lindsey Emery was there to check it out. The official unveiling of the teams takes place April 19 in London.

IT'S TOO EARLY AND TOO DARK to be bouncing around in an ice road truck, its giant airy tires creeping their way across the snowy, slippery glacier underneath us. Headed toward nothingness, we come to a halt at a seemingly random spot in the middle of nowhere. It's quiet, cold, hazy, and sprinkled with bright red tents. Each tent houses a few servicemen and women, all wounded in the line of duty, all from different parts of the world, and all temporarily camped out and training together here, on this icy oasis, for 5 straight days.

The campers were brought to Iceland by musclemorphosis.com, a U.K.-based non-profit that funds the re-training and re-education of wounded servicemen and women trying to make their way back into the workforce. Each came vying for a spot on the South Pole Allied Challenge, a 16-day, WWTW-sponsored trek to the South Pole this November. It's one of several extreme expeditions organized by WWTW to help raise funds and awareness for the charity, and to help empower injured veterans everywhere. (Prince Harry of Wales, a WWTW patron, joined the group at base camp during its 2011 trek to the North Pole. He’ll also attend the team unveiling on April 19.] Some have sustained physical injuries, such as below-the-knee leg amputations, while others have more disguised mental injuries—like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—to contend with.

Of the 16 people who traveled to Langjokull Glacier, only 12 will be going to Antarctica.

"So few people have touched the continent, or even laid eyes on it. To be able to say that I did that would be awesome," says team member Therese Frentz, 33, of Del Rio, Texas, who sustained third-degree burns on 30 percent of her body, as well as internal injuries and PTSD, from a suicide bombing in Baghdad. "It will be great to have new stories, ones that are about what I did, rather than about what happened to me." 

Days on the glacier are designed to simulate what days will be like during the actual Challenge: Everyone rises early, eats, packs up their tents, straps on their skis, and then heads out for a solid workout session. They cross-country ski for up to 8 hours in blizzard-like conditions, pulling a pulk, or long plastic sled, that's attached to a harness around their waist and holds all of their stuff behind them. (Oh yeah—and each pulk weighs 125 to 200 pounds.) They forge ahead for 2 hours, stop for 10 minutes to eat, and repeat, sometimes with zero visibility around them.

Team member Captain Ivan Castro, 45, has completed 26 marathons, two 50-milers, and one cross-country bike trip. However, he has never been on skis . . . and he's blind. "The second day we went out, I fell about 40 times, and I'm not gonna lie, there was a little bit of doubt," says Ivan, who's on active duty in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "Being on skis is a challenge, pulling a pulk is a challenge, and not seeing the terrain is a challenge. But I believe that you work hard on your strengths, and even harder on your weaknesses."

At day's end, the teams return to camp, cook dinner, hang out, and head to "bed," hoping to catch some shut-eye despite the blistering winds and low temps outside. Burners on their camp stoves serve as heaters to help keep their tents warm.

Cozy it is not—especially for the U.S. team members, who live in balmy places like North Carolina and Texas. But then again, these guys aren't ones to shy away from uncomfortable situations. They're tough, they're trained, and they're legitimately happy to be here.

"I love being outside, doing outdoor activities. It's difficult at times, but I'm enjoying pushing myself and just being out here with other veterans," says team member Margaux Mange, 27, of Lakewood, Colorado, who sustained multiple brain injuries—including Bells Palsy, Occipital Neuralgia and PTSD—from two devastating IED incidents in Iraq. Margaux, no stranger to adventure, climbed Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador with the U.S.-based non-profit aligned with WWTW for this Challenge, musclemorphosis.com, in December.

Team member Mark Wise, 27, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he knew he wanted to take part in this expedition the second he heard of its existence. "It's such a great experience to be a part of a great team with very similar backgrounds," says Wise, who sustained extensive injuries—a partial hand/forearm amputation, facial reconstruction and burns—from an IED explosion in Afghanistan. "The opportunity to raise awareness and inspire others, like us, who are wounded in combat, is the ultimate goal."

It's the final day of training, and everyone slowly packs up their gear, loads their pulks, and skis off, just as the sun begins to rise. The scene: A beautiful line of brightly colored soldiers—strong, swift, and one step closer to the South Pole.
6 SOUTH POLE SURVIVAL TIPS

If you should ever dare to do an extreme, somewhat crazy, cold-weather adventure like this, here's what you need to know (besides getting a really good guide, of course).

1. Walk yourself warm. If you want to heat up, you’ve got to keep moving. “And if you can’t get warm by walking, do some deep squats,” says U.S. Team Guide Inge Solheim, who also led the 2011 WWTW North Pole expedition.

2. Stay dry. “The problem is not usually getting too cold from the elements—the problem is getting too hot, sweating, trapping that moisture against your skin, and then getting cold from it. You have to stay dry,” says Solheim. Dress in layers: Start with a warm, moisture-wicking baselayer that’s soft against your skin, top it with a midlayer that will keep you toasty and can double as a weather-resistant outerlayer, and finish off with a breathable, yet waterproof hard shell. For example: Helly Hansen’s HH Dry and HH Warm baselayers + Odin Isolator Jacket + Atlas Jacket (hellyhansen.com)

3. Get tired out. The biggest training component for everyone is dragging a car tire around for hours at a time. Tie a strong rope around the tire, attach it to your waist harness, and then walk. “You'll definitely get some weird looks in the neighborhood, but it’s a very similar experience to pulling the sled,” says Wise.

4. Pack the world’s largest, most random First Aid Kit. All kinds of little things can happen out there, Solheim says. For example, a sunburn can cause crazy cold sores, blisters can get infected, and you can chafe or bruise between your thighs. Bring creams, ointments and tablets for everything.

5. Stretch yourself silly. Flexibility comes in handy when you’re trying to crawl in and out of a tent every day, says Frentz. “I think doing yoga regularly will be pretty helpful.”

6. Soak it up. When you’re boiling water in your tent, the steam creates moisture. Place some snow, which absorbs water like a sponge, on the bottom of your tent to dry things off, Wise says. If your sleeping bag is wet, hang it outside in the frost to dry off.