On a mission to reach his peak
Former army medic Terry Ledgard served with the SAS in Afghanistan, but when his war ended he needed another challenge. Now he and a mate have their sights set on the world’s highest mountains, as TIM HILFERTY reports
MIL I - TARY veterans know the feeling. That restlessness. The struggle with the mundanity of civilian life. The nagging voice asking “what next?” Terry Ledgard had it. He’d returned from Afghanistan in one piece. In his usual determined way, he fought his demons and overcame PTSD.
He’d used his skills as an army medic to land high-paying jobs in occupational health and safety in the mining and oil industries. He was working all around the world. He should have been happy. But he wasn’t.
“About 2013, I wasn’t enjoying ‘normal’ life,” Ledgard, 34, said. “It was like Groundhog Day.”
“There was no satisfaction or challenge.
“So I said to myself: ‘I can either continue like this or I can do something.”
With mate and former SAS “Voodoo Medic” Brad Watts, they came up with a plan.
They y would climb the highest mountains on all seven continents.
“When you go to war you think, when I get back I’m not going to take it for granted,” Ledgard said.
“When you come back there’s a sense of restlessness.
“This is a healthy channel for that restlessness.”
“Healthy” is a relative term.
Ledgard and Watts would risk death from avalanches and altitude sickness. They could lose digits from frostbite. And it would cost them – is costing them – a fortune.
Today, Ledgard and Watts are in Antarctica. They are part of a 12-person expedition to climb Mt Vinson, at 4892m the tallest peak on the continent.
The weather forecast is promising. Winds of 50km/h are predicted to ease. But it’s cold. Like -36C all day (there is no n night during December in Ant Antarctica). And with the wind-c wind-chill factor, the temperat perature can get down to -55C -55C.
Make a mistake on V Vinson, and it could be your last. Or at least your last with a full set of fingers. In 2014, on the flanks of Mt Aconcagua in Argentina, Ledgard t took his gloves off for ju just 90 seconds while he adj adjusted some equipment. “T “That’s when I learned that gloves only work if your hands are already warm,” Ledgard said.
“I couldn’t feel my hands for the rest of the day, I had to look to see if I was holding my ski poles.”
If everything goes to plan, Ledgard and Watts will unfurl their Voodoo flag on the top of Mt Vinson on about December 15. Ledgard should be back among family and friends in Whyalla by Christmas. Just over three weeks on the frozen continent will have cost him more than $75,000.
Ledgard was a born soldier. He pushed himself hard in training, and excelled during the SAS selection course.
He wanted to join the Voodoo Medics, Australia’s elite combat medics, and wear the famous sandy beret. He wanted to go to Afghanistan and serve his country.
Then came the ankle injury. With his goal so close, he had to tap out. His body had let him down.
In 2007, after he healed, an opportunity came. He could transfer to the SAS and serve on secondment as a medic in Afghanistan. At the same time, a spot opened up on another SAS selection course. The choice he made shaped his life.
“It’s my one and only life regret – not getting that beret,” he said.
He blames “fear of failure” for turning his back on the brutal training course. But his “cop-out”, a tour of duty in Afghanistan, would see him face enemy action, save lives, and see others slip through his fingers.
“That time in Afghanistan – it was the most satisfying time of my life. The most rewarding job I ever had.
“Adventure, mateship, living Anzac values as well as helping people.”
He said the PTSD that he struggled with for years on his return “was worth it”.
“You can come out the other side as long as you make the conscious decision,” he said.
Part of that conscious decision was writing the book Bad Medicine, a brutally honest, funny and tragic account of a knockabout kid trying his best to live up to the Anzac tradition.
You don’t make the decision to climb the seven summits lightly. For Ledgard and Watts, it came out of a dream to climb Mt Everest.
To join a guided Everest expedition, you need experience on high peaks.
They did a mountaineering course on New Zealand’s Mt Cook and the idea evolved.
That was the time to wrestle with the moral dilemmas that mountaineering throws up. Am I prepared to risk my life chasing this goal? Would I give up on a summit attempt to help someone in trouble? Is it fair on my loved ones to put them through this stress?
“It’s a selfish game,” Ledgard admits.
Once the decision was made, they started knocking them off.
Kilimanjaro – essentially a high-altitude trek – was ticked off first. Kosciuszko is a walk in the park.
Then came Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in both the Southern and Western hemispheres.
“It’s an ugly mountain,” he said. “It’s like walking around a gravel pit tearing up $10 notes.”
Earlier this year, Ledgard and Watts summited Mt Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. A couple of years earlier, they were turned around just 500 vertical metres from the top as a storm closed in.
“That’s why you have a guide,” Ledgard said.
“You are not thinking clearly – I wanted to negotiate. But it was the right call.”
In a few days, Ledgard will
be on the upper slopes of Mt Vinson, with nothing but snow and ice as far as the eye can see. So will he be enjoying the view?
“I’m hating it. I’m in the hurt locker,” he said.
“I just want to get to the top and, more importantly, get down.”
On Aconcagua, Ledgard battled gastro leading up to summit day. But he’d come so far, and spend so much and he wasn’t going to turn back.
“It was granny steps. I just had to keep coming up with an excuse for taking the next step,” he said.
Still, despite the thin air, the dodgy guts and the shifting, rocky ground, Ledgard found time for a cigarette at 6300m.
“I think that’s a record. I’m proud of that.”
Assuming Ledgard and Watts get to the top of Vinson, they’ll make an attempt on Denali, in Alaska, mid next year. And then it’s Everest in 2020.
But what comes next for Terry Ledgard? Will that restlessness return? Will normal life, without a ridiculous challenge, be a bore? Ledgard has a plan. “First I’m going to write a book on the seven summits,” he said.
“Then I’m going to start my own business – I want to be in the captain’s chair.”
And maybe even settling down after half a lifetime of adventure and danger.
“I do see myself settling down at some point,” he said.
“But not while I’m climbing mountains.”
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TOP OF THE WORLD: Terry Ledgard and Brad Watts on Mt Kilimanjaro and, left, Mt Vinson in Antarctica.
ARMY LIFE: Terry Ledgard treats a local in Afghanistan.
FOCUSED: Former army medic Terry Ledgard is climbing the Seven Summits.