Military Speaker, Sean Rose set to attempt World Record25/01/2014
After retiring from competitive ski racing, Paralympian Sean Rose could have settled for the quiet life... not a chance. The self-confessed adrenalin junkie is preparing to attempt a world first, by becoming the first disabled athlete to cross Europe's largest ice cap by snow-kite.
After retiring from competitive ski racing, Paralympian Sean Rose could have settled for the quiet life... not a chance. The self-confessed adrenalin junkie is preparing to attempt a world first, by becoming the first disabled athlete to cross Europe's largest ice cap by snow-kite. LYDIA FALLON chats to the St Neots-based 'speed freak' about the epic challenge ahead.
People set world records for the strangest things; from the tallest mohican to the largest gathering of people dressed as sunflowers, a quick Google search for 'weirdest world records' left me scratching my head in bemusement; surely no-one actually wants to be the proud owner of the world's longest fingernails? Apparently they do (Christine 'The Duchess' Walton).
But amongst the absurd sometimes lies the sublime, and very occasionally you hear about a challenge which truly deserves to be recognised as a world first. The '4 people 6 legs' expedition certainly fits the bill.
In April, intrepid adventurers Sean Rose, Rob Brown, Kieron Jansch and Mike Dann will attempt to snow-kite across Vatnajökull in Iceland, Europe's largest icecap. A tough enough trip at the best of times - we're talking plummeting temperatures, live volcanoes and 2,000m peaks - but one made even more challenging due to the fact Sean is paralysed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair.
Never before has a disabled athlete crossed this vast and unforgiving frozen landscape, let alone by the power of wind. Which of course begs the question, why on earth has Sean decided to be the first? "It's just right up my street," he smiles, when we meet at the St Neots home he shares with his wife and two children. "I was looking for my next challenge and it really excited me; no-one had ever attempted it before and I was salivating just thinking about it.
"I love something that takes me out of my comfort zone, that makes me breathe heavily and makes my veins stick out - it's what makes me tick."
Snow-kiting is certainly not for the fainthearted. The extremist of sports, it involves the use of large and very powerful kites to pull people along the snow on skis or snowboards. A firm favourite of adrenalin junkies the world over, a skilled 'kiter' uses the wind in the same way a sailor would, and can reach speeds of up to 100km per hour.
Sean, 42, will be using a unique, specially built buggy as his mode of transport, a piece of equipment he, rather impressively, designed himself. "Our first model was quite a heavy, crude piece of equipment, and although there was definitely room for improvements, it worked which was the main thing," he explains.
"The following year we went back to the same glacier with an upgraded model I'd built on my deck at my last house, it was like a big boy Meccano set. It was even better than the previous one; lighter and more compact. Then we tested my most recent one in April last year and it worked really well. I was zipping along, sometimes even quicker than the stand-up lads!"
Following an illustrious ski racing career which included a World Cup gold medal and two Winter Paralympic games, Sean is certainly not new to the snow, but snow-kiting, he says, is a whole different kettle of fish. "We reckon about 80 per cent of snow-kiting is kite ability and only about 20 per cent ski ability, so although I had 20 per cent of it nailed, I needed 80 per cent of training to make it happen," Sean says. "It was completely new to me, apart from as a kid flying a kite I had never done anything like it before."
Was it love at first flight? "Yes!" he laughs. "The kites are so powerful and I guess it's a bit like riding a horse; the wind just has a mind of its own, and like a horse you never know what it's going to do. You have to react to it all the time, and although you can never really tame the beast, you can get to a skill level where you can control it.
"But if you get the kite in the wrong part of the wind window, as we call it, it will take over and it will spank you - but that's the joy for me."
And of course the actual snow-kiting is only a small part of this Icelandic adventure. Be it freezing to death, falling down a crevasse or stumbling across a temperamental volcano; there's plenty that could go wrong, but apparently, that's half the fun. "We will prepare for the worst and expect the best," laughs Sean. "There could be -30° temperatures and 100mph winds, or there could be not enough wind to get going. There might be equipment failures or the physical demands might get too much, but that's what makes it so special. There are so many scenarios that could happen but I think that's what attracts us all to it."
Having retired from competitive racing in 2011, Sean had been suffering from a severe case of itchy feet, and the 4 people 6 legs expedition has proved a very welcome distraction for the father-of-two. "I gave up skiing because I had young children and it wasn't a lifestyle that was appropriate. I called it a day but did soon get itchy feet and was constantly looking for my next challenge" says Sean. "We do live in Cambridgeshire, one of the flattest parts of the world and I'm a mountain man. I feel alive when I'm near mountains and doing outdoor pursuits, so living in this area, as lovely as it is, I just crave the mountains and that's another reason I was pulled back into this challenge."
So what do Sean's friends and family think of his penchant for danger? "My wife didn't think it could get any worse than the downhill ski racing," he laughs. "So when I gave up skiing she thought it was great, but then this challenge came along and she's worse than ever. But when she met me she knew exactly what I was like and that hasn't changed."
The notion of crossing Vatnajökull had been a dream of team member Robert for over eight years. He approached Sean, Kieron and Mike three years ago, and the quartet were united by their shared love of adventure. The first seeds were sown and planning for this epic challenge began in earnest. They went on their first training trip to Iceland last year, it was a much smaller glacier - only 60 square miles compared to the 300 plus (roughly the equivalent of London to Paris) they will face in April - but, it was a success and Sean says it gave the team the confidence to "pull the pin and make the challenge happen."
The team will be raising money for spinal cord research foundation Wings for Life, and it is clearly a cause incredibly close to Sean's heart. "They are trying to make inroads to make people better and help with the day to day problems people with spinal cord injuries can face," he explains. "I really wanted to give something back; it can happen to anyone and it can happen tomorrow. We refer to able bodied people as AB's but really it is TAB's - temporarily able-bodied - you never know what's going to happen."
And Sean knows this first hand. An ex-RAF physical training instructor, it was while teaching a group of pilots to ski in February 2000 that Sean broke his back. "We were on a local hill to me and I hit some wet snow. I went over the front of my skis and head first like a javelin into the snow. My legs carried on, hit the snow and I crushed a vertebrate in my back," Sean remembers.
"I instantly knew. The lads came up and started kicking snow at me and telling me to get up, and I said 'Guys, I can't move.' That was it, that's how quick it can change."
Sean concedes it was a 'horrendous' time, but while lying in a hospital bed, unsure of what the future might hold, he made a vow not to ever let his disability hold him back. "The doctor came in the next day and showed me the X-ray and said that my back was smashed to bits. I asked him for pen and paper and wrote down a bucket list of sports I could still do and ones I wanted to try. If they weren't going to be as good as they were before the accident then I just crossed them off. I still have that list somewhere," he smiles.
Despite the accident, skiing was of course top of that list. "It was about a year after my accident that I went on my first ski trip to Colorado and I was really apprehensive because I thought I'm going to be watching people do what I used to do and I'm going to be on this disabled piece of equipment which will be really boring. But I got on it and after two or three turns I forgot everyone else on the mountain and I just wanted to make this thing go faster," chuckles Sean.
What followed is the stuff of fairy tales. Sean had big dreams and he achieved them, travelling all over the world during an incredible ski and water ski career, and winning countless medals along the way. He hopes his success, and the challenge in April, will show other people with disabilities there's no limit to what can be achieved. "I've always had the attitude to just go for things but not everyone has that mind-set. I hope what we're doing will spur people on to think 'You know what I'm going to get out of my wheelchair and do something.' If you put your mind to something, and have a passion to make it happen, anything is possible."
To sponsor the team, visit their Just Giving website.
Back to all