Karen Darke’s heart has always been in the summits of the mountains. A love that had been instilled by her parents, who had always been keen on hiking, she loved any excuse to get her out there; running, hiking, but most of all climbing.
Her love of climbing gave her a tendency to push herself outside her comfort zone and at 21, she was leading a climb up a mountain. Soon it became time to turn back – the track was too steep and too hard for her, but Karen, for some reason, persisted.
“My ego was like ‘no I wanna climb it’.”
So she fell off.
Three days later, Karen woke up and discovered she was paralysed from the chest down. She has since spent the last 25 years in a wheelchair.
”It was the beginning of a whole new life, and initially one I wasn’t really too excited about.Karen DarkeAdaptive Expedition Legend
At this early stage, she just couldn’t envision a world where she could do all the things she loved doing – it just didn’t seem possible anymore.
The reality hit her hard when she was moved from intensive care into a spinal injuries hospital and found herself surrounded by people in wheelchairs.
“The fact that I was facing life in a wheelchair became stark and real.”
Her dreams were filled with wonderful visions of being in the mountains, which in turn made them nightmares for Karen as she continued to wake up in the hospital, faced with her new life.
But being in the rehabilitation hospital, she soon realised while there were people in more fortunate positions than her, there were also people in more challenging positions, with severe levels of paralysis.
“I started to think, there’s still things I can do.”
Another wake-up call came in a tragic way. A friend of hers, who hadn’t climbed since her accident, took to the mountains two months later. He never returned.
“That was a huge kick up the backside to make me wake up and go hey, whatever reason you’re alive, you’re here, you have a life still and you need to make the most if it.”
This taught Karen a good many things and she started to reassess her situation – appreciating what she still had rather than focusing on what she didn’t have, which really helped her to turn things around. She started to focus on moving forward.
Fortunately for her the hospital she was in offered a wide range of adaptive sports. She started going sailing every week with her physio and with support from her friends, she tried nearly every outdoor activity under the sun. From canoeing to adaptive mountain biking, sailing, gliding, she went a little crazy.
For Karen, the activities worked as a distraction, but were also an exploration of what was possible in this new world. Eventually she settled on the sports she really liked.
She started out with downhill skiing, through a British organisation called Back Up. But with no core muscles and a lack of balance, she found it challenging.
“I was terrible at it, I fell over all the time.”
Eventually she picked it up and soon she had rekindled that love for the mountains, which had never really gone away. However, downhill skiing wasn’t enough, and soon Karen was trying out cross country skiing, wanting to get away from the people and the noisy chair lifts, to be fully immersed in the wilderness.
Her first proper foray into cross country skiing was in Finland with a group of friends. A rather miserable experience, it was constantly dark, icy and not to mention how bad Karen was at it. Her lack of core muscles sent her falling, crashing, and her paralysis meant she was unable to regulate her body temperature properly.
“I told myself I wouldn’t be doing that again.”
But her friend had loved it so much, he suggested they try something even harder – why not ski across the ice caps in Greenland?
To Karen, this was the most ridiculous suggestion, but once an idea containing adventure and uncertainty has been planted, it’s hard for her to shake. After two years of planning and training, she and a group of six others skied from the east coast to the west, across the ice caps. It took about a month, and the team had to carry enough food and fuel to survive living in the wilderness.
”I couldn’t have done it without my friends, it was an incredible adventure.Karen DarkeAdaptive Expedition Legend
Fortunately for her, the whole trip passed without incident. Two of the biggest challenges on the trip was having to manage her bladder and bowels. Karen uses a suprapubic catheter which she found fairly easy to manage – it was just a matter of making sure it didn’t get a leak. She also used a bladder wash to wash her bladder out every morning and night. She had to keep the wash inside the sleeping bag with her – otherwise it would freeze.
Her bowels were more complex. Her companions would normally squat and hover somewhere far from the tent to do their business, but Karen couldn’t risk exposing her backside to a cold wind like that for however long it would take to evacuate her bowels.
The tent they used had two endings – one which Karen says became the cooking end, the other, became her toilet.
She would dig a big hole in the snow, and then using a toilet seat specifically designed for this purpose, she would do her business.
As frequent traveller, Karen has to be constantly on top of managing her body. Somewhere as cold as Greenland, she wasn’t likely to catch any bugs or infections. But somewhere like India or Africa on the other hand, she has to be more vigilant than ever.
“I’ve changed the way I manage my bowels in the last few years, from enemas to water, and I never thought about it, I’d never travelled in a country where water might be contaminated.”
During her stay in Ethiopia earlier this year, while Karen drank bottled water, she was happily filling her bowel irrigation system with warm water from the tap. It wasn’t long before she was ill, catching a bad blood infection from the contaminated water.
“It was a bit of a wake up call and a reminder. I managed to get to a hospital and get antibiotics, but it was pretty horrific before then.”
Her foray into the sports world also eventually led her back to climbing. The trauma of her accident and having lost friends to the mercilessness of the mountains made her reluctant, but at the same time she felt a certain attraction to overcoming that fear and rediscovering the world that used to be her passion.
Her ex-boyfriend convinced her to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and it took them about a week, sleeping on ledges along the way.
“It was a massive mental process, overcoming the fear and thinking of ways to control my mind and be able to get to a place where I could enjoy being there. But at the same time it was a rite of passage.”
As a Paralympian, cycling has always been her main sport, but during a biking trip in the Outer Hebrides, she came across a sea kayaking symposium.
“Before I knew it, I was involved in getting in a double sea kayak. It was an incredible day out, being in the ocean, that close to nature.”
Karen is not a water baby, but she really loved the connection she felt with nature, and soon enough she was hooked. She set up a group, organising sea kayaking activities for people with disabilities. While she had always travelled in a double kayak, not trusting her own strength, she came across fellow people living with paralysis who could use a single kayak. So she gave it a go too.
“I can get on well in a single kayak until a certain level of wind, about force 3 or 4, then I start to struggle, I can’t brace body enough to generate enough power.”
After making a mistake during a kayaking trip in Sweden where she had insufficient padding and developed pressure sores, Karen always makes sure her kayak is lined with foam and a thick layer of gel to prevent any issues. For those just starting out she suggests trying a range of different padding and gels on a short trip to see what works.
Like skiing, Karen has been on many kayaking adventures including a 3 month journey from Vancouver, Canada to Juno in Alaska. She left her wheelchair behind, spending her days paddling and sleeping on beaches.
“It was a really challenging journey to leave my wheelchair behind for that long, I nearly dropped out the week before, I was so freaked out at the prospect.”
It wasn’t really about needing the wheelchair, because the kayak provided her with movement and mobility, it was more about the moments are the start and end of every day where she suddenly became reliant on her team mates. But she soon realised by choosing to put herself in that environment she was inevitably going to lose some independence but in fact people love to help others.
“None of us can do everything, we all have to ask for help, it’s just intensified when you have a disability.”
Now Karen is recognised a professional athlete – something she says that was never a conscious choice, rather something that happened quite organically.
”The only clear choice I have made was in November 2011, one year out from the Paralympics, not to apply for any more work.Karen DarkeAdaptive Expedition Legend
She knew if she wanted to attend the games in London, she needed to time focus and train. Prior to this moment, Karen had only ever raced twice, and had lost both time.
After winning a medal in London she had “podium potential” and started to receive funding from UK Sport. With that and the money she makes from running her own business, she has been able to build her career as an athlete as well as have adventures in the off-season.
Her new mission is her Quest 79 – so name after 79 became a relevant number in her life; she won the 79th gold medal for Britain at the Rio games, and 79 is also gold’s number on the periodic table.
So in search of gold, her quest became to try and ride seven continents, with nine rides, one for each continent plus the two Paralympic games. At the same time raising 79,000 pounds for the Spinal Injuries association.
“It’s something I wanted to do for myself, and I wanted to encourage others to their own quest 79 and find their inner gold.”
Since, numerous people have taken on the challenge including a ten year old boy who has climbed 79 peaks in 79 weeks, raising money for a children’s charity in Africa.
As for the future, Karen is hoping to make the Tokyo Paralympic games, but is unsure after suffering burnout from Rio in 2016.
“I was training too much, it wasn’t really healthy anymore.”
Now she is working on training in a more balanced and sustainable way, nurturing her body, instead of torturing, she says.
Ultimately, she lives her life by this motto: “if what you’re thinking, saying and doing is in harmony, then that’s happiness.”
“Because if I think back to my accident, my thoughts were telling me to go back, but my body kept pushing on, my thoughts weren’t in line with my body. If you keep everything aligned, you’re far less likely to end up in trouble.”
Karen self-confesses that she’s not a social media guru, but you can follow her for updates on Twitter, Instagram and on her website. She has also written a trio of books, all of which draw inspiration from her accident and recovery journey. If you fall, and Boundless and Quest 79 are all available from her website.
Keep an eye out for her next stage of the Quest 79 which will see her take on a journey from Britain, down the Atlantic coast, across the Pyrenees, into Northern Spain.
Her ultimate Quest 79 journey, across Antarctica, is yet to come.
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