After being seriously injured in Afghanistan, rifleman Chris Parkes set out to conquer Africa’s highest mountain – as an amputee. He tells us his terrifying, but life-affirming story
Chris Parkes recalls the day of his incident: ‘It was really quiet, which is not a good sign in Afghanistan. When all the kids have disappeared and people aren’t coming out of their houses, they’ve usually been told to stay away.’
Rifleman Parkes was on regular foot patrol. ‘There was a big white flash and I felt a massive pressure on me, almost as if I’d been hit by two cars coming from opposite directions. When I opened my eyes I was on my back and dust and blood was falling down on my face.’
It was a week before Christmas in 2009 and he had been in Afghanistan for less than a month.
‘I kept on asking for my rifle, but they wouldn’t give it to me,’ he continues. ‘It’s a sort of comfort blanket when you’re a soldier. When you’ve got your rifle, you know that you have some control over what happens.’
He remained conscious throughout the ordeal, on the flight back to Camp Bastion, and then the long journey back to the UK. ‘Because I remember it, I’ve kind of made my peace with it,’ he says, without a trace of self-pity.
Chris joined the army aged 20, set on a military career. ‘My dad was in the army, so I knew from a young age that it was what I wanted to do. I’d signed up for 25 years. I didn’t really have a plan B.’ The injuries Chris sustained, though, swiftly brought that dream to an end. He lists his catalogue of wounds with an astonishing matterof- factness: ‘My left arm was hanging off at the elbow, my left leg was gone below the knee, I lost two fingers and there was gunshot in my right leg.’
On his return to the UK, he endured hours of reconstructive surgery, followed by months of physiotherapy, and he’s still healing.
‘I have no bitterness or sadness about what happened,’ Chris states. I mention that few people could bring themselves to say the same. He explains: ‘It’s the army. If it happens to you, it happens to you.’ He says that he understands the man who fired at him was just doing his job, in the same way he was, while patrolling. ‘It’s funny how people always to refer to it as my “accident”. It wasn’t an accident. He certainly meant to blow me up.’
Although his attitude is to ‘crack on’, he concedes that his left leg ‘slows me down a little and sometimes I get phantom pain. But it won’t stop me from doing anything.’ The hardest to come to terms with was leaving behind the military life.
‘My battalion are back in Afghanistan now, which makes it harder. Not being there, when I feel I should, is really difficult to deal with.’
During his recovery he became involved with a charity, Pilgrim Bandits: ‘They encourage guys to do challenges, to push themselves, despite whatever injuries they may have, to try and gain some sort of independence again.’
Chris was determined to remain active and it was this mindset that led him to his next literal – and metaphorical – mountain: Kilimanjaro.
He and fellow amputees, along with a group of ‘civilians’, journeyed to Tanzania with RJ7 Expeditions to conquer the gruelling climb earlier this year. ‘It was something I always wanted to do,’ Chris says, ‘and I knew it would be one of hardest challenges I would face as an amputee.’
After the first day of climbing even the relatively gentle rainforest terrain, he began to realise what he had taken on: ‘I immediately felt as if I had bitten off more than I could chew.’ He initially insisted on carrying his own equipment, despite frequent offerings of relief by their Tanzanian porters. ‘The army teaches you to carry everything you need and to be prepared for every eventuality, so I wanted to take everything myself. But it wasn’t a good idea.’ He eventually relinquished some of his load, taking the hefty 30kg of kit down to a more reasonable 5kg. ‘It was the first of many times swallowing my pride on the trip,’ he grins.
The higher they climbed, the tougher it got. ‘As an amputee, your feet can’t really balance properly as prosthetics are designed to work on a flat level. I staggered and limped a lot, which was really frustrating.’ As the terrain shifted to volcanic rocks and boulders, the problems intensified.
‘My leg kept falling off. Every time I had to stop and use an Allen key to tighten it back up and eventually I just had to tape it on.’
Despite their added difficulty, the amputees – all ex-soldiers – stayed at the front of the group. ‘We might be wounded, but we’re still soldiers in spirit,’ he states. ‘I did not want to be beaten up a mountain by a civilian.’
Each day was more gruelling than the last. The constant sweating, fatigue and increasing altitude sickness were taking their toll by the time they reached the high camp – the final stop before Kilimanjaro’s summit. They slept before the final push, waking to eight inches of snow and news that two people had just passed away in another climbing group. ‘You are genuinely at the mercy of the elements up there. The atmosphere was solemn, to say the least.’
The sub-zero temperatures caused Chris’s leg to freeze shortly after they set off. ‘It was like a pirate’s peg leg, I had to drag it behind me.’ More disabling, though, was the nausea. ‘There was a constant flashing pain in my head. Most of the time I was on my hands and knees, just trying to move a metre. I couldn’t walk any more so I had to crawl.’ The team doctor caught up with Chris and instructed him to stop while she ran some tests.
‘I was seriously miffed that I needed nurturing at this point,’ he says. To Chris’s horror, the doctor said he could not go on. He was just 400 vertical metres from the top, but the oxygen levels in his blood were perilously low. ‘I begged her to let me continue,’ he says, sadly, ‘but she said if I did, I would most likely die.’
He pauses, a dejected look on his face. ‘I didn’t survive Afghanistan to die on a mountain. So I turned around.’ The disappointment, he explains, was like nothing he had ever experienced. ‘I cried for the first time in 10 years.’
He had to be medically evacuated off the mountain, but since they were so high up, it took a further two days for him to get down on a rudimentary contraption. ‘It was effectively a wheelbarrow – a stretcher bed with a wheel at the front – which I was tied to with bungee ropes,’ he says. Six Tanzanian porters accompanied him down and, though Chris initially wanted to be left alone, he began to talk to them.
‘Those guys worked harder than I’ve ever seen anyone work. They literally run down the mountain. And they don’t complain, they’re incredibly happy people.’ One of the porters who was helping to carry him, made a passing comment that tapped into Chris’s military mindset. ‘He said: “Black or white, we’re all brothers. We’re all here to look after each other.” His words really hit me hard,’ says Chris. ‘Immediately the whole experience, just for that one conversation, was worth it. It gave me perspective.’
Chris is now determined to recover his fitness, focus on his training, and is planning to return to Kilimanjaro in September. ‘I had pride in myself and in being a solider. Climbing that mountain is a new purpose and I will achieve it.’ Chris reveals there are days when he feels at least twice as old as his 24 years and yet his strength, mental and physical, shines through his naturally sunny disposition. As our chat comes to a close, he reflects on his situation: ‘If I let people see me as just an injured soldier, they will. I am determined to be who I am, as a person foremost and an amputee least of all. From Afghanistan to that mountain, I am so lucky to be alive. I will not waste my life.’
And with that, he strides off.
Read exclusive extracts from Chris’s climbing diary here.
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Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918