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The first quadriplegic who reached the North Pole

David Shannon and Christopher Watkins at the north pole with a flag which has the wheelchair symbol
David Shannon and Christopher Watkins at the north pole with a flag which has the wheelchair symbol Image credit: cbc.ca

It’s not uncommon to spot a wheelchair accessible sign when you are out and about, but you may be surprised to hear there’s one planted in the snow at the North Pole.

Back in April 2009 David Shannon braved the artic conditions to become the first quadriplegic to reach one of the remotest – and coldest – places on earth.

The lawyer from Thunder Bay became paralysed after a spinal-cord injury, although the life-changing accident only made him even more determined to complete the gruelling expedition with his travel partner Christopher Watkins.

Their mission was to raise awareness of the obstacles which can hinder disabled people when there is a lack of accessibility.

To highlight their goal the two lawyers marked their final destination by putting an accessible parking sign at the North Pole.

In a statement Shannon, who was 46 at the time, said: "This sign represents all peoples who have faced challenges or adversity in their lives and have dreamed of overcoming them.

"If we as people work together in our homes, our cities, our countries and in our global village, there is no dream that cannot be realized."

Shannon reached the North Pole on April 11, 2009, seven days after leaving Thunder Bay and travelling to Longyearbyen, Norway, an island north of the Arctic Circle. The two men then flew to Borneo Ice Camp before jumping on a helicopter which dropped them on the ice.

From there Shannon and Watkins hiked and sled for two more days until the finally reached the North Pole.

Shannon told Abilities.ca: “I could see a vista of ice and snow with ice ridges created by the explosion of the ocean current under me.

There were points where there were cracks in the ice; sometimes it was smooth going, and then there would be deep snow-blown powder or snow boulders. All the while, the wind was unrelenting and it would blow fine ice pellets into my face, creating icicles on the beard that had appeared after 12 days without shaving. When I looked to the sky, the sun hung low to the curve of the earth with a luminescent glow that I had never seen before. Although with this positioning in the sky, one might think that it was near dawn or dusk, the sun never set over the course of 24 hours.”

He became a quadriplegic at the age of 18, his travel partner Watkins, who was 46 when embarking on the expedition, has a severe form of arthritis.

Explaining the significance of the flag Shannon explained: This sign represents all peoples who have faced challenges or adversity in their lives and have dreamed of overcoming them. If we as people work together in our homes, our cities, our countries and in our global village, there is no dream that cannot be realized.”

The challenge marked almost a century to the date when Matthew Alexander Henson and Robert Peary became the first explorers to reach the North Pole.

Watkins said: “Essentially, to have a quadriplegic reach the North Pole almost 100 years after Peary and Henson showed that while change may take time, through broad positive action, there are no dreams too big to dream, and there are no challenges too big to overcome.”

The North Pole does not have a time zone and no land mass.