Business Traveller

Paralympic hero Karen Darke is cycling across 7 continents

Essi Auguste Virtanen, CNNPublished 9th August 2017
(CNN) — Karen Darke was paralyzed from the chest down in a climbing accident more than 20 years ago, but it hasn't stopped her winning Paralympic gold or continuing her life as an extreme adventurer.
For Darke, 46, it's rarely about the destination; it's about the journey that takes her there.
The Briton won the gold medal for hand cycling at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. But the real prize, she tells CNN Travel, was the "inner gold" -- "a discovery of what is possible when the power of thought, clear intention and good people come together."
And Darke still pushes the boundaries of her abilities with expeditions around the world, from long-distance handbike rides in the Himalayas to sit-skiing across Greenland.
Her latest adventure is Quest 79, a project to undertake a total of nine handbike rides on seven continents while raising money for charity and encouraging others to take on their own challenges.
Darke believes the biggest obstacle to living and achieving our dreams isn't our bodies, but our minds.
"Our emotions are so tightly connected to our thoughts," she says. "Paying attention to what we're thinking can have a massive impact on how we're feeling. I've really learned to pay attention to my thoughts and try to make them positive, not negative."
Karen Darke quest 79 cycling Tibet
Karen Darke continues to explore the wild places despite her disability.
Vicky Sherwood
Having completed the first two expeditions of Quest 79 last year -- which took her to the Rio games and a second trip through the Patagonian wilderness -- Darke is now preparing for the next expedition, which she's dubbed The Express Way.
It's a 3,000-kilometer ride from Canada to Mexico, which takes place this fall. She's also started plans for next year's The Water Way, down Australia's Murray River, and The Sacred Way, following the River Ganges.
The plan is to finish the quest either with a ride in Antarctica or at the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020.


It might sound straightforward and gung-ho, but Darke's journey has been far from easy.
"There was a time when I couldn't sit up in bed and get out of my bed so even sort of going 79 meters would have been a big deal," Darke recalls.
She was 21 when she fell 10 meters (about 33 feet) off a sea cliff while rock climbing in Scotland, breaking her skull, arms, neck and back. After three days in a coma, she woke up and was told she was paralyzed from the chest down. She's been in a wheelchair ever since.
"This may sound trite, but I was really down for about a week. I was really struggling, like really," Darke says. "Waking up was like a nightmare."
However, what opened her eyes was seeing other patients around her with even less muscle function, and the news of a close friend dying while climbing, only a few months after her own accident.
"It just kind of made me realize that I was still here, and I had to make the most of the situation," she says.
Darke, who's from Halifax in northern England, says what she loves about traveling is "escaping the chaos of modern life," going back to the "basic elements" and enjoying the wilderness.
"I think when you're immersed in it you get to see the sunrises and the sunsets and the really special moments that often we miss when we're just busy."
Karen Darke Quest 79 London 2012 silver
Darke won Paralympic handcycling silver at London 2012 and went one better at Rio 2016.
Andrew Kirkpatrick

'Stay flexible'

Her first expedition after her accident was a handbike ride along the Silk Route from Kazakhstan to Pakistan in the Himalayas in 1997, which she still thinks is her most significant one so far.
Other expeditions followed, including more Himalayan rides, sit-skiing across Greenland in 2007 and climbing the 3,000-foot cliff El Capitan in Yosemite in 2008.
"Every time I go on any expedition I'm always intimidated by it," she says. "I'm always overwhelmed by it. It always seems very challenging because there's always lots of things to be scared of and lots of things to plan for."
She's learned that the key to expeditions is to stay flexible and accept that "you can't plan everything." But the biggest challenge she faces is looking after her health in extreme environments. For her, maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding infections are crucial. Even everyday things like going to the toilet add another layer of complexity to the expedition.
"I tend to be quite vigilant about looking after myself so I usually just up the game when I go into the wilderness and make sure that I'm doing even more stuff to try and keep things right and safe."
Karen Darke Quest 79 El Capitan
Positive thinking is fundamental to getting the most out of life, says Darke.
Natasha Sebira

The road to Rio

Darke joined the British Para-cycling team in 2010 and won silver at the London Paralympics two years later. She was desperate to go one better in Rio, but setbacks like a car accident in 2013 and an infection in the fall of 2015 made training challenging.
But it didn't prevent her from winning.
"I don't know how to put it other than, if you set an intention and then work towards, it might take a long time but for some reason I had this type of deep belief I could do it," she says.
Since finding out her gold in Rio was the 79th Paralympic medal for Great Britain, the number has taken on special significance for Darke and keeps cropping up. Gold also happens to be number 79 in the periodic table of elements.
Quest 79 is about three things for her: riding around the world, which she has always wanted to do; doing it with different people; and inspiring others to find that "inner gold" that sparks excitement in them and makes them challenge themselves.
"I just really believe that we all inspire each other in different ways," she says.