Adventurers and heroes. What it means to be brave

Bravery does not mean that one is fearless; being brave means to have the mental strength to face fear, danger and difficulty. A great example of bravery and a good dose of grit to go with it, is Major Kate Philp.

After graduating from Oxford University and spending a year at the Sandhurst military academy, Major Kate Philp was deployed on repeat tours to Iraq and later Afghanistan, as part of the Royal Artillery and as a team leader.

Major Kate’s time on tour ended early when she was severely injured by an ‘improvised explosive device’ (known as an IED) and she lost the lower half of one of her legs because of it. Her rehabilitation after the incident was lengthy and painful and it was after a second round of surgery, a few years after the incident, that Kate decided she needed a goal to help bring perspective to her journey of recovery. She found this in joining a planned expedition to the South Pole with Walking for the Wounded: a charity that supports disadvantaged army veterans both in the recovery of their mental and physical health and empowers them to regain their independence and thrive in society, despite their injuries.

The expedition team and preparation

Major Kate joined one of the 3 teams involved in the Antarctica expedition, which totalled 21 people from 3 different countries, including 12 injured servicemen and women. The UK team was joined by none other than Prince Harry, Patron of Walking with the Wounded. The teams were to cover about 15 to 20km per day and 335km in total, often in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius.

The preparation for the trip was intense: a special Polar guide was allocated to each team to advise on how best to prepare. The teams needed to be able to be on cross-county skis for at least 9 hours a day, carrying the weight of their belongings on their backs. To prepare, the guide advised two long walks a week, bringing along some extra weight; and then to simply increase the duration of these walks (with the added weight) by one hour every month until they were able to walk 9 hours non-stop.

The teams took a couple of trips to Ireland and Norway to fine-tune the physical part of their training, but the overall expedition preparation was as much about forging team spirit and practising living in the inhospitable Antarctic, as it was about the fitness preparation.

For Major Kate, an unexpected benefit of the daunting training schedule was when the team’s doctor told them- as the last part of their training - to put on weight as the trekkers would be burning 7000-8000 calories per day and needed to build up some ‘reserve fat’. In an interview she quipped: “So there followed a glorious month when I would meet friends for a cup of tea and taunt them with the huge slab of cake that I was fully justified in ordering!” said Major Kate.

Alongside the training for the expedition, Kate was also still training herself, to get used to walking and living with a prosthetic. To her great relief, she found that - once on the ice - for her skiing was actually easier than walking

The main challenge to overcome was that Antarctica is a white and seemingly indefinite and unchangeable landscape

Major Kate later said in an interview with Speaker’s Corner, that although the team had been assessed by psychologists during the selection process, nothing prepared her for the mental test she would face. The main challenge to overcome was that Antarctica is a white and seemingly indefinite and unchangeable landscape and that it offers, she said “no physical features to make for a varied view, no visual or auditory stimuli to distract you from the monotony of putting one ski in front of the other.”

Kate struggled physically with the expedition, and the monotony took its toll on her mental health – but she kept going and finished the trip. The times her resolve weakened, she would remember fellow soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq and then felt ‘lucky’ that she was still able to do such amazing things, such as this expedition, despite her injury.

In 2015, Major Kate Philp resigned from the Army and now works as a leadership consultant and keynote speaker, delivering motivational talks by telling the story of how she turned a tragic incident into a positive outcome. Her key message is do something, anything when faced with a challenging situation. Face up to it, ‘own it’ and take action, even if that means you are moving sideways or even backwards before eventually moving forwards. Doing something is better, so much better, than doing nothing. And that is what being brave is all about.

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