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Meet the adventurer: Paralympic cyclist Karen Darke on harnessing negative thinking and future expeditions

At the age of 21, Karen suffered a mountaineering accident that left her paralysed from the waist down. Since then, she’s gone on to become a two-time Paralympic medallist and has hand biked, sit-skied and kayaked across every continent.

Karen Darke climbing El Capitan in 2008.

Photograph by Natasha Sebira
Published 18 Sept 2021, 06:06 BST, Updated 21 Sept 2021, 09:26 BST

Tell us about your first adventure 

It’s hard to define ‘adventure’, but I guess my first really memorable trip as a young adult was at 17 years old — I joined a Yorkshire Schools Exploring Society expedition to cycle in a very remote part of China. I was only 16 when I applied and never imagined I’d be selected as it seemed far too exclusive and expensive, however I was chosen and went on to have a really intense year of training and fundraising. In many ways, I think that’s probably what set me off on my path of adventure.

Since then, you’ve sit-skied across ice caps, kayaked extreme latitudes of the planet, and hand cycled the world’s tallest mountain ranges and longest rivers. Which of your expeditions proved the most challenging, and why?

They’ve all been challenging for many different reasons. My first expedition — hand cycling across the Himalayas from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan and then across to Pakistan — was really difficult as I’d just come out of hospital and was having to adapt to being paralysed. Then, one of my lesser-known journeys, was a 10-week expedition kayaking through the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska in 2003. Although enjoyable, it meant going without a wheelchair for 10 weeks, which was really tough — it had to be flown in by a floatplane or delivered via a ferry, and I only got in it once or twice throughout the entire duration.

Sit-skiing across the Greenland ice sheet was also particularly physically challenging — the extremity of the environment combined with being paralysed meant I couldn’t control my body temperature, so I suffered with lots of issues with my bladder, bowels and pressure sores. In fact, the actual physical journey is usually the least of my worries — it’s all these other layers that always prove the most difficult part. Climbing El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, however, has to be the biggest mental challenge I’ve faced, as a lot of that expedition was about confronting my fears. I believe the cells of our body remember events and trauma, so while the climb was very triggering, it also forced me to overcome a lot of those feelings. 

How do these long endurance expeditions compare to competing at the Paralympics?

The Paralympic journey is tough in a different way, because, although it's not as intense, it's obviously far more chronic — a hard training session, for example, is far more painful than a slow endurance journey. The longevity of commitment and the uncertainty around whether you’ll actually be selected for the team is also difficult. I’m thankful, however, that my expeditions have given me a resilient mindset — I’m able to expect the unexpected and always approach things with all the flexibility and uncertainty that adventure brings.

How do you mentally prepare for mammoth expeditions?

I use a method of breaking down all my fears. In the past, I’d physically write a list, whereas now it’s become more of an automatic mental process. It’s important to embrace the power of negative thinking as it can often prepare us to be safer going into certain environments. For example, I’ve basically elected to give up my freedom and independence this summer, having no mobility on a sailing boat with a group of people I’ve never met. But, I’ve had so many years in Paralympic sport feeling really quite lonely, so I’m looking forward to human connection, problem solving and being part of a team.

Can you tell us a bit more about this upcoming expedition with Ocean X Team, and how the concept came about? 

I’ve been invited on an adventure to sail from Iceland to Greenland, to make a story with an incredible group of women around climate change and individual mindset. The team includes a film-maker, MIT/NASA scientist, polar explorer and a round-the-world sailor.

We’ll be carrying out a number of research projects, including sampling seawater and measuring microplastics; looking at teamwork and mental resilience in small spaces (which they’re hoping to translate to aerospace and rockets at NASA), and we’ll also be stopping and meeting some of the local communities along the southern coast of Greenland to discuss what they're noticing around climate change. Our journey will end at the Extreme E X Prix rally in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, which is an international off-road rally series that uses electric SUVs to race in remote parts of the world and raise awareness of climate change.  

The other aspect — which I'm both excited and apprehensive about — is that I’m going to be hand cycling on the deck to generate electricity to recharge old Formula E batteries. These will then be used for the desalination of water and to charge old filming equipment. I’ve always wanted to use all this time I spend on a bike to generate power, however I’m nervous as my hand bike is going be precariously balanced on this tiny part of the deck inside a cramped waterproof box! Still, it’s a powerful reminder that we can use our bodies in a useful way, and I hope it will add another interesting element to the story. 

How will you be documenting the expedition?

Sophia [the filmmaker] will be making a 10-minute piece for Channel 4 and a separate, slightly longer piece, which she’s currently speaking to Netflix and other organisations about broadcasting. 

Where’s the most delicate place on the planet right now? 

The polar regions are where we see the most extreme changes, but if you look anywhere on any continent, there are so many impacts of global warming. In 2018, I made a programme with BBC Radio 4 and the Royal Geographical Society that explored the unsustainable impact of our energy along Australia’s Murray River. We showed how water was being taken from other rivers and diverted down the Murray, which was completely unsustainable and required whole communities to migrate. These findings, alongside my own journey as an athlete, were used to create a metaphor of what we’re doing to the planet: if we keep on taking and taking and pushing and pushing, eventually we [and the world] will completely burn out.

What’s the biggest change we need to make for the planet?

We often react to these big questions with denial and distraction because we don't know to individually tackle them, however, I think we all need to take more responsibility on a personal level to live more sustainably. Covid has been an incredible opportunity to show we need to do something, and that collectively, it’s possible. In fact, I really believe in the power of trauma and how it can be a driver for positive change. My own experience becoming paralysed and the trauma that that created within my own life, for example, really shifted my perspective and made me travel down a whole different path. Therefore, post-traumatic growth is a wonderful thing and I think that’s what we’ve all entered into on a planetary level.

What advice would you give to those overcoming challenge and managing change? 

Focus on what you can do, not on what you can't — and to be grateful for what you have, rather than focus on what you’ve lost. 

What advice do you have for people wanting follow in your footsteps?

Anything is possible, so if you’ve got a dream, work out how to make it happen. Don’t overthink it and don’t over-plan it. You’ll find that once you’ve committed, all sorts of people and unexpected pathways will appear that you couldn’t have ever imagined. I love the saying, ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power and magic in it.’ Also, while it’s good to aspire to be like others, inspiration is only what we see in another that we have in ourselves.

Describe what adventure means to you in three words

A spiritual experience.

Karen Darke is an Ambassador for the Spinal Injuries Association and set up Quest 79 – a series of gruelling global adventures — to increase awareness of the possibilities of life after spinal cord injury and to raise funds to support SIA’s work. Her 10th and final expedition, The Pole of Possibility, will take place in January 2022 and plant a physical landmark at 79 degrees latitude and longitude in Antarctica.  

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