Director Alexis Girardet is quite the action man; he’s part of the crew that took wounded servicemen on their recent trek to the south pole with Prince Harry – through 200km of gruelling conditions, at a dangerous altitude of 3000 metres above sea level, on the Antarctic plateau – across the world’s most challenging environment.
Prince Harry is “a kind of natural fit to go and do these expeditions… he was very strong,” explains modest Girardet, who’s also got a CV full of adventure experience.
“I’ve been to the South Pole, I went in 2008-2009 with Ben Fogle and James Cracknell for a series called On Thin Ice for the BBC,” he says. “We spent seven weeks down there then, so we’ve got quite a bit of experience, you know, filming in those kind of environments. I’ve done a lot of adventure-based stuff, Everest and all the remote parts of the world. I seem to end up going to those, which is nice, I’m very fortunate.”
Charity Walking with the Wounded came up with the idea to raise awareness and money for wounded servicemen through challenges. “They basically came up with the idea of taking these guys on big adventures,” explains Girardet. This time “they very cleverly somehow managed to get Prince Harry involved.”
Harry was the ideal fit physically and mentally to take up this challenge, maintains Girardet. “Like all the army guys, he’s military. They’re trained in organising things, keeping themselves on top of things, making sure that they’re fit enough, putting up with eating rubbish food, putting up with sleeping on the hard, cold snow,” says Girardet. “Harry’s been through that process.”
During the trek, Harry told stories about his experience at Sandhurst, and a long run he undertook. “They have to cover a vast distance,” explains Girardet, “It’s the kind of thing that people can drop out on, they are tempted to drop out.” On the run there are people offering the soldiers an easy way out, a change to jump in a van. “There’s people going ‘Come on, if you don’t want to do it, jump in the back of the ambulance’”, says Girardet “[the soldiers have] got blisters and sores and they’re wet and tired and hungry. The whole point is to push yourself further and further, and [Harry] had exactly that moment where he thought ‘Oh I could just nip into this truck and get a lift back…’ but he and his mates thought ‘we’ll carry on'”.
It’s this kind of mentality needed to complete a challenge like trekking to the South Pole, believes Girardet, and Harry has it in “buckets and spades,” he says, “His view is, basically, I’m here to help, I’m here to do it, and I’ve got some experience of what I’m doing in terms of living that life, so I’m just going to get on with it. I think for all of us, if you’re in those environments and you’ve got a guy skiing next to you with one leg or no legs or whatever, you kind of feel a little bit like you can’t say ‘Oh I’ve got a bit of a blister and it hurts, I’m having a tough day.’ That’s another big factor that we’ve all got over us, is that you can’t complain when somebody’s just been blown up and taken within an inch of life and survived being rebuilt and put back together again and then they’re skiing next to you to the South Pole, and you just think ‘I can’t really complain, I’ve got to get on with it.’”
However, it hasn’t been all easy trekking for the royal, whose skin nearly froze during a previous hike to the North Pole. “He got a thing called frostnip,” explains Girardet, “which is where you get this kind of waxy thing on the skin,” he says, “if you put your hand on it or warm it up straightaway, you’re okay. If you don’t, then it can quickly develop into frostbite, which is actually frozen skin; that’s where you can start to get serious damage.”
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A fellow trekker, rushed over to Harry to warm him up. “He grabbed him and put his hands on his ears and said ‘You’ve not been looking after your ears.’ Because it’s very easy to forget these things. You get very hot, despite the fact that it’s -40,” explains Girardet. “Because you’re exercising so hard, you get very hot so you sort of take your hat off to cool down a bit. Then your ears are exposed and you start to get frostnip and you don’t notice it until you get used to the kind of feelings and the sensations. And once you get used to the sensations, you think ‘Ah, I’m getting a bit frostbit, I’ll sort that out.’ Yeah he did get a little bit of frostnip, which was nipped in the bud as it were, and he was fine.”
Aside from frostnip, Harry had icicles hanging off of his beard. “The worst one is where you get them on the end of your nose,” chuckles Girardet. “It’s called a snoticle. Basically, your nose is constantly running because you’ve gone somewhere cold, your nose starts to dribble a bit, so you get all the snot coming out of your nose, and you can build up an icicle that could be a couple of inches long hanging off the end of your nose by the end of the day! And the worst thing is, you start licking it,” he laughs. “I’m not saying Harry did that for one second!”
Despite the harsh conditions, it’s possible to actually visit the Antarctic in many capacities, urges Girardet, “on the edge of Antarctica, you might see a penguin, a seal or an albatross,” he says. “As soon as you head inland, which is what we did, to the plateau, there’s no sign of life at all. You don’t see a bird, you don’t see vegetation, you don’t hear anything, it’s a sterile, pure clean environment.” Some people ski the last degree to the South Pole, “people get dropped off by a plane, ski with a bit of kit, and there’s a polar guide to make sure everything’s alright, come to the South Pole, have their celebration and then get flown out again.” Meanwhile, “there’s plenty of cruises that go to the South Pole to see the wildlife, go around the continent,” or the very rich can have an extravagant experience on the continent. “People can probably pay to be flown straight to the South Pole to have a glass of champagne and come out again,” says Girardet, “And then normal people like us get to watch it on the telly.”
This eerie and peaceful environment on the Antarctic plateau is so intriguing, says Girardet. “There was one point when our sound recorder said ‘Stop everybody. Listen.’ There is no sound at all. Planes don’t fly over there. No vehicles, no police sirens, nothing at all. And he made us stand there for about two minutes while he just recorded nothing, literally just silence. That can also add to the psychological effect I think.” Girardet continues, “I think for Harry, it was a nice moment for him to escape from what must be the weird world that he lives in… as fourth in line to the throne and part of the royal family. It’s just a totally different life, and I think for him to come on these trips is partly supporting the guys, which is the paramount point of him being there, but also a moment for him to escape a little bit and not have the craziness of his life all around him. It’s a nice escape for a couple of weeks I’m sure for him, before he goes back to all his duties: military ones, royal ones, and all the things that he is doing back at home.”
Watch Harry’s South Pole Heroes at 11:10pm, Wednesday 19 on ITV and on ITV Player.
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