Team headed for South Pole includes adaptive athlete with spinal-cord injury

Published: December 20, 2011  |  Source: marinij.com
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TAL FLETCHER JR. is a certified pilot, a helicopter ski guide and a licensed skydiver and paraglider. Now he will add South Pole explorer to his résumé.

The trip is an adventure of a lifetime, but it isn’t an adrenaline or notoriety grab for the 36-year-old Redwood High alum. His main responsibility on this trip will be to act as a guide in helping his friend Grant Korgan become the first adaptive athlete with a spinal cord injury to reach the South Pole.

“My goals are to bring everyone home safe: 10 fingers, 10 toes. Then I actually want to get (to the South Pole) and then I want to help Grant tell his story,” said Fletcher, who grew up in Marin and now lives in the Lake Tahoe area. “I’m not much of a checklist guy. I don’t care about how many stamps I get on my passport.”

This trip, simply called “The Push,” will take Fletcher, Korgan and lead guide Doug Stoup on a 10-day, 100-mile cross-country ski trip to the South Pole.

Other than allowing Korgan to achieve his personal goals, this trip will help two foundations dedicated to helping those with spinal cord injuries: the High Five Foundation and the Reeve-Irvine Research Center. The High Five Foundation, based in Truckee, helps winter athletes who suffered life-altering injuries while pursuing their sports recover from those injuries and get them back into their perspective sports. The Reeve-Irvine Research Center is dedicated to finding cures to spinal cord injuries and neural degenerative diseases.

This trip is about much more than one team’s quest to push their physical limitations.

“This is a fantastic metaphor of the human spirit,” Korgan said. “Every single person has the ability to do anything they want in this life.”

Fletcher, Korgan, Stoup and a small group of cinematographers will land in Union Glacier, Antarctica, on Jan. 5. They will have two days to acclimate to the freezing temperatures before getting dropped off 100 miles from the South Pole. Their goal is to arrive at the South Pole on Jan. 17, the 100-year anniversary when Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was one of the first groups to reach the South Pole.

Fletcher and Stoup will use cross-country skis, while Korgan has been fitted for a custom sit-ski, forcing him to propel himself forward using sheer upper body strength. Each athlete’s fitness will be further tested as everyone must be completely self-sufficient. They are responsible for dragging a 175-pound sled each behind them full of food, cloths, a tent and 10 days worth of cooking fuel.

A trip to the South Pole is nothing to take lightly. To ensure that these athletes are as prepared as possible, they traveled to Spitsbergen, Norway, in May; Caviahue, Argentina, in September and Fairbanks, Alaska, earlier this month to test their training methods and their gear.

The purpose of the Alaska trip was to see how Korgan’s body reacted in the zero-degree weather, the closest conditions they could find to the South Pole’s subzero temperatures.

“You can’t really simulate the South Pole, but we are doing our best,” Fletcher said.

To accomplish their goal, Fletcher, Korgan and Stoup are going to have to work as a team. Everything they do will be a group effort, from setting up and breaking down camp each day to keeping a steady pace to ensure they reach their destination.

“It has been a real journey of friends coming together to support a common goal,” Korgan said.

To aid Korgan’s recovery and help him build his upper body strength, Fletcher got two hand cycles so that they could go out and train together. The most touching part to Korgan was that Fletcher didn’t ride alongside him in a normal bike, but insisted on riding with him on a hand cycle.

“(Tal) is the world’s best friend,” said Sarah Fletcher, Tal’s mom. “He is so giving of himself, both physically and emotionally, to his friends.”

Fletcher, who has had friends suffer life-altering injuries and even die in accidents while following their passions in the snow, keeps his loved ones close by.

“Unfortunately I have lost way too many friends,” Fletcher said. “I’m going to spread some of their ashes (once we get to the South Pole) so they get to see a part of the world they have never been able to see over their lifetime.”

While Fletcher realizes how lucky he is to not only be healthy, but to also have the opportunity to travel to the South Pole he never loses sight of what is really important.

“My experience will be great, but what we are standing on the edge of is telling a story of inspiration and determination to the entire world,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher won’t wait until he returns home to spread the word. He plans to call students at his alma mater at Kent Middle School in Kentfield via satellite phone to update the sixth-grade class on his journey.

“The kids will be incorporating our process into their science and math classes,” Fletcher said. “I think for us, this will be just the beginning.”

By Mark O’Meara
Marin Independent Journal