Back from the grave - and into the land of ice

Click to follow
The Independent Online
No one has ever driven a team of dogs 6,000 miles across Alaska. Now a young woman is to attempt the trip, to celebrate her recovery from cancer.

If you want to see courage personified, take a look at Wendy Smith, who on Tuesday set off for Alaska to make the first complete transit of the North American continent under husky power. A strongly-built Englishwoman of 35, with an attractively gentle voice, she is now at Bird Creek, near Anchorage, training her dog teams for the 6,000-mile marathon; but the fact that she is alive at all represents an extraordinary triumph, as much of determination and will power as of modern medicine.

In 1986, at the age of 24, she joined the army and rose to become a captain, assistant adjutant of 49 Field Regiment, serving in Germany. Then, in 1988, she was diagnosed as having Hodgkin's disease - cancer of the lymphatic system. Swelling lymph nodes filled the space between her heart and lungs, and pushed up into her neck.

Until that moment she had been prodigiously fit, running for the army, caving, playing badminton, and devoting six to eight hours a day to physical training. Suddenly she was faced with a ghastly regime of chemotherapy, for which she travelled back and forth between her home in Swindon and the Queen Elizabeth military hospital in Woolwich.

In an attempt to defy reality, she continued to run a two-mile circuit round a lake near home. At first she could manage three laps - six miles; then she could do only two, then one. Finally, half-way round the first lap, she collapsed. "I got real jitters there by the water," she recalls, "because I had to admit to myself, for the first time, that my body was in big trouble." She was on the ground for 20 minutes, "having a good think", before she managed to drag herself home.

Like countless other cancer patients, she found that the treatment made her feel sicker than the disease, and reckoned the ordeal the worst she has ever had to face: "I lost my hair, my appearance, my fitness, my energy. I had moments of terrible depression." The nadir came when agonising abdominal pains were diagnosed as an infection in the gut: for a week her family thought she was dying, and so did she.

She began to dream about her own funeral: "What surprised me was the fact that I was so cheerful. I was looking up out of the grave, and I kept making these quips about what a dreadful hat so-and-so had on."

Nevertheless, her regime became so appalling that there were moments when she felt that dying would be the easiest option. The "first chink of light" came when she read the jockey Bob Champion's account of how he had beaten cancer and fought back to win the Grand National. She found it inspiring that another immensely physical person had survived the disease.

After nine months a sudden, unexpected recovery set in, and doctors pronounced her cured. Scared that the cancer might return, and that she might not have much time left, she resigned her commission six months early and joined Outward Bound as an instructor.

To find out whether her body would do the things she wanted it to, she ran a half-marathon within a month of leaving hospital, went on a couple of mountaineering courses, and travelled widely. She led treks in the Borneo jungle, and, becoming fascinated by TE Lawrence, followed one of his routes across the southern Jordanian desert on camels. The journey took place during Ramadan, and she and her companion neither ate nor drank during daylight hours. She recalls, "Climbing mountains in that climate, without drinking, produces a steep learning curve."

In the past three years she has led treks in Morocco, the Pamirs, the Caucasus and Nepal, gaining the confidence to set up an expedition of her own. It was a chance sighting of huskies on television that decided her. The dogs seemed to her "to combine adventure with speed, excitement, the wilderness and winter scenery - also to give the chance of an intimate relationship with another species".

She first went to Alaska in the winter of 1993-94, working for free at a kennels where she fed, mucked out and repaired equipment - but also, from her first day, trained huskies. Next winter, 1994-95, she went out again, this time to train young dogs for Rick Swenson, five times winner of the Iditarod - the premier long-distance husky race. Swenson has ultra- modern kennels, housing 250 dogs, at Two Rivers, west of Fairbanks, but Wendy chose to go off on her own, with a small pack, to a cabin "in the middle of nowhere". With no road, no communications, no electricity and no water, she learnt to look after herself and her charges the hard way, in temperatures often 40F below zero.

Now, for her great trek, she has been sold or given 20 Alaskan huskies by some of the world's leading mushers (drivers). After 10 days' training in Alaska, she and her four-man back-up team will drive eastwards in their truck, covering much of their route in reverse.

The starting-point of the trek will be Searsport, on the coast of Maine, whence they will set off on 15 November. The first part of the route will be on dirt tracks, with Wendy - the sole musher - driving from a three- wheeled rig built for her by apprentices at Delta Training in Birmingham. As soon as enough snow is lying, she will transfer to a sledge, which will be much faster. The Canadian police have stipulated that she must have two snow-machines out, one ahead and one behind, to warn other snow- machiners that there are dogs on the go.

Whenever no trail exists, one of the team will forge ahead, breaking a new track. At night the whole party will camp on sites snow-shoed out beside the trail or road. After a slow start, Wendy is hoping to average 50 miles a day, and to complete the route in six months. Because she will need a lot of fat, to keep out the cold, she will have every excuse for indulging her one serious gastronomic weakness - for mayonnaise and bacon sandwiches.

"We won't hit true wilderness till we get to Whitehorse, in the Yukon," she predicts. "That's when the real adventure will start. We'll travel the final 2,000 miles down the Yukon River, on the ice, and the temperature may hit 70 below." From previous visits she knows that the Yukon is "some mammoth river", a mile wide, with banks in places 400ft high.

As she left England, she professed herself undaunted by the physical hazards ahead. The only thing that frightens her is the possibility that she may fail.

But she has every intention of succeeding. Naturally, she wants to become the first person to make the crossing; but, far more than that, she is determined to show the world that cancer is not invincible, and to lighten other sufferers' darkness by "putting out a stunning image of survival".

Funds are still needed to finance the expedition. Call 01865 863391 for further details.