Faced with a life-changing decision, Major Kate Philp had only one question for her surgeon when he told her she should consider amputating of her badly injured leg. “I asked whether I’d still be able to run, play tennis and ski. When he said yes, I said, ‘Then let’s do it’. It was a straight-forward decision. Although I didn’t realise I’d eventually be trying to ski 200 kilometres.
Five years after losing her left leg below the knee, when the armoured vehicle she was commanding was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, Kate, 35, signed up for the South Pole Allied Challenge, skiing alongside other injured veterans. An epic race between three teams (British, led by Prince Harry, American and Commonwealth), it would push everyone taking part to their physical and emotional limits as they battled hostile terrain in temperatures as low as -45°C. It’s an environment that nothing can really prepare you for, says Kate. “You can train to get fit, to get used to the cold and to ski for a long time. But put everything together and add in altitude – it’s debilitating.”
Even the robust man of action Harry struggled. “He found it tough. I know he was very conscious of the fact that he hadn’t had time to train as much as the rest of us.” Under the circumstances, “debilitating” sounds like an understatement, but then Major Philp is not given to overdramatising. The first British woman to lose a limb in Afghanistan, she relates calmly the events of the day that changed her life. Aged 30, she’d been in the Army for six years and served two tours in Iraq with the Royal Artillery before being posted to Afghanistan in August 2008. Her role was a fire support team commander, heading a team of six providing extra weapons support to an infantry company in Helmand Province.
Three months into the tour, the tank she was commanding was blown up by an improvised explosive device as she and her team returned to base after a two-day operation in the field. “I didn’t feel anything at first. I was anxious for my colleagues, then I realised my left leg felt a bit funny,” she recalls. “I felt down my boot and could tell the tibia was broken. It wasn’t painful then, just very uncomfortable. I hoisted myself out of the vehicle and waited for help.”
Kate helicoptered to hospital in Camp Bastion, where she learnt the blast had killed one of her colleagues and injured three others, one severely. Only after she was transferred to hospital in Birmingham did her own prognosis become increasingly bleak: although her leg could be saved, the complex jigsaw of fractures would leave her in pain on a daily basis, and she would almost certainly need a walking stick. The alternative was a below-the-knee amputation.
It was a huge decision for a young woman in her prime – but for Kate there was no debate. “It was a question of function – the cosmetic side didn’t come into it,” she insists matter-of-factly. “For me it was simply about quality of life. It was a case of ‘if this is what needs to happen…’”
Recovery was tough, she admits, not least having to wait months for her wound to heal before she would be fitted with a prosthetic limb. A deep bone infection meant Kate was only given the all clear in April 2010, and she was hospitalised again in 2012 for further surgery. It was then that she received an email asking if she’d be interested in the South Pole Challenge in aid of Walking with the Wounded, the charity for injured service personnel of which Prince Harry is patron. “It felt like perfect timing,” says Kate. “Rehab is quite a solitary path and the idea of a team endeavour was really appealing.”
Like her team-mates, Kate had some idea of what lay in store, having watched footage of the Charity’s expeditions to the North Pole and Mount Everest. Even so, and despite months of endurance and stamina training in the hills near her home in Wiltshire, she admits nothing could really have prepared her team – three fellow injured servicemen, Prince Harry and guide Conrad Dickinson – for the harsh conditions that awaited them when they arrived on the Antarctic Plateau on 1 December last year.
Wind erosion had whipped the terrain into endless sastrugi (sharp irregular grooves or ridges) some three feet high, which made pulling their 80kg sleds heavy-going.
“We’d counted on being able to cover 28–30km a day, but it was more like 20–22km,” says Kate. Temperatures of -30°C, meanwhile, combined with the altitude, were also taking their toll. “Everyone’s breathing was affected, along with our appetite. None of us felt like eating, even though we knew it was vital. You’re trying to force food down and gagging. People were starting to fall over.”
Faced with such trying conditions, they decided to scrap the race element and pull the teams together. Kate, however, was still struggling. “My lowest moment was day four – about half an hour in. I felt awful, like I had nothing left in me. I just didn’t know how I would get to the end of the day but the team rallied round.”
Harry, in fact, proved to be a particular help. “There were a few times on the trek where he came to ski alongside me for a few miles to give me moral support. Or he’d come up and say, ‘Half the day gone, just another half to go,’ to try and keep my spirits up. He was very good for morale.” Like most servicemen and women she sees him not as a member of the royal family but as a fellow soldier. “It’s very clear that he cares a lot about people who have been injured in a job that he loves. He asks a lot of questions. He’s genuinely interested.”
By day five of the expedition, Kate’s blood oxygen levels had plummeted to dangerously low levels, and she had frostbite on her ear and thumb. “My thumb was black right down to the knuckle and the team doctor told me to take a couple of days out. I remember thinking, ‘Should I just risk it?’ But then I thought, ‘I’ve lost a bit of my body already. It would be very stupid to lose another.’”
She rejoined the trek on the penultimate day, arriving at the Pole on 13 December. “There wasn’t exultation, more a feeling of relief. We were all just glad to have made it.” The cold and time on skis had taken their toll, however – damaging the skin on her leg and leaving her unable to wear her prosthetic limb and on crutches for two weeks once she returned home.
Three months on, and the survivor’s relief has been replaced by pride in her achievement, together with a renewed commitment to the job she loves. Currently on a sabbatical, Major Philp will rejoin the Army in May, and hasn’t ruled out the prospect of returning overseas.
“With an injury like mine, I’ll never be fully fit again, but I am fit enough to deploy. If I was asked to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan, I would go, absolutely. It’s part of the job.”
Read Prince Harry’s own thoughts on preparing for the trek