Some people are fortunate enough to have no recollection of certain terrible, traumatic experiences.
Mount Royal University first-year Open Studies student and Canadian Army war veteran Corporal Mark Fuchko won’t ever forget the day a series of catastrophic events in a small Afghani village cost him his legs from the knees down.
He certainly was thinking about it this past August (2011) when he summited Mount Kilimanjaro in West Africa, one of the world’s tallest mountains outside the Himalayas (5,895 m’s).
There are no words too dramatic to describe what that moment and that trip meant to Fuchko.
“If someone told me I’d be standing at the top of a mountain, when I was injured, and even in the aftermath, I would have said, ‘there’s no way, there’s no way I could do that, my life is over.’ That was a big thing and now I know my disability is only as limiting as I let it be.
Aside from the funds the trip raised for Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital ($1 million), it was a miraculous triumph of the human spirit and a testament to Fuchko’s will and character that Steven Spielberg would have been hard-pressed to create.
The worst day
“We had gone into a town on a block and search mission,” recalls Fuchko to his fateful 2008 tour of duty in Afghanistan.
“We blocked it off all day while we searched for weapons caches, foreign fighters and things like that.”
Fuchko explains that “the enemy,” by virtue of being inter-mingled with the civilian populace had a lot of time to formulate an attack.
The enemy had planted a remote active explosive device on the convoy’s route out of the village.
The vehicle behind his was actually the intended target but it had become stuck in the mud.
Fuchko reversed his vehicle to tow his fellow soldiers out when the device was activated.
“That bomb was strong enough to level the Calgary Tower. I was sitting about a foot from it,” Fuckho says matter of factly.
The explosion turned his vehicle into a heap of burning twisted metal. What he had the strength and awareness to do before being extracted from the wreck 45 minutes later saved his life.
“It was terrible. It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I had to do my own first aid and tourniquet both my legs. My right foot had folded up onto my quad so that I could see the sole of my boot and there was a bone protruding from my left leg.
On top of that, he was sitting on red hot metal with a shattered pelvis and he had to try and turn off the vehicle in case the gas tank exploded.
Fuchko eventually spent time recovering in Germany and Calgary before completing his treatment and rehabilitation at the University of Alberta Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, which is attached to the Royal Alexandra Hospital that he eventually hiked Kilimanjaro to raise money for.
The journey began long before Africa
Initially, Fuchko says he thought his life was virtually over. As his rehabilitation progressed, he resolved to overcome his circumstances.
He began to play sledge hockey. He joined a group of war veterans on a kayaking trip from Seattle to Vancouver.
It was shortly after the river trip in the summer 2010 that one of the organizers of the kayaking trip mentioned he’d be fit enough to climb Kilimanjaro.
The initiative, organized by the Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency's Solider On Fund and World T.E.A.M. Sports, was an opportunity for adventure, a chance to prove he had conquered the tragic event that forever changed his life and to help people.
“I was super-pumped to help raise funds for something here in Alberta where I’m from,” says Fuchko who went to high school right across the road from Mount Royal at Bishop Carroll.
The group also donated some of the funds raised to the Christian Medical Centre in Moshi, Kenya.
Not all sing-alongs and photos
The climb was not easily achieved admits Fuchko noting that just about each day along the trek there were fully able-bodied people who had to turn back because they couldn’t handle the altitude and the fitness demands.
Day 5 was when Fuchko really began to notice the fatigue.
“We slept in a layer of cloud the night before and things like depth perception and the thin air really began to become a factor.
“At that point, you notice that every little movement can be exhausting. It’s tough because visually it doesn’t appear that intense but the air is so thin, you have to restrain your inclination to power up the mountain.”
And for Fuchko, it was even harder because his prosthetic legs aren’t designed for mountain climbing. By the end of Day 5 his knees, where they attached to the prosthesis, were extremely sore.
He says, the motivation and encouragement of his fellow veterans on the expedition helped him push through the low points.
Day 6, the team spent the day at base camp acclimatizing to the air in what Fuchko describes as a “mountain desert.”
At midnight they began the ascent towards the summit, the lip of a dormant volcano.
Part of the reason the guides wait until evening to start the climb is to time the summit with sun rise.
As spectacular as that sounds, Fuchko says he was in so much pain, he wasn’t thinking about much more than getting back to the hotel at the bottom of the mountain in Arushatown.
“I’m actually super glad we started at night because you don’t really see how high up you’re going. When you get to the lip of the volcano and look around in the day light, you realize it’s a pretty daunting climb you’ve just achieved.
“Getting there was a relief that I was able to do it. There were moments when I wasn’t sure because of issues with my legs where they were amputated,” Fuchko says of the final push.
In spite of his pain, Fuchko took a minute to stop and look around and take in what he’d just accomplished. If was a powerful moment.
“Your life’s not over at injury and that realization was great for me. It was something that I needed to show myself.”
— Steven Noble, Dec. 23, 2011