Forces Wives Challenge (FWC) unites women who have partners in the armed forces through adventure and challenge.
From summiting Pen y Fan in Wales to becoming the world’s first all-female group to recreate the Heroes of Telemark journey across Norway’s Hardangervidda Plateau, FWC has organised many inspiring events and raised thousands for charity.
Military spouse Stephanie Quintrell, accompanied by seven other FWC members, took part in its Ride to Freedom this summer, retracing the steps of those escaping occupied France during the Second World War along ‘freedom trails’ in the Pyrenees mountains. Here she shares her incredible journey…
“Firstly, I’ll give a little background, and how the expedition came about. In 2019 mine and my family’s lives changed overnight when I suddenly became unwell and subsequently was diagnosed with a neurological condition.
“Within 48 hours I had lost my ability to walk and became completely wheelchair dependent. Less than two weeks later, I had lost the use of the fingers on my right hand, started having seizures, was living with intense pain and had a whole host of other symptoms to contend with.
“What followed was a long battle to ensure I received the correct diagnoses and appropriate treatment. Our son was just two years old and as I was a full-time working mum, it took a lot of adjustment for us all.
“After a two-year break from riding my horse when I became ill, I finally got back in the saddle in summer 2021. Around the same time, I became heavily involved with FWC and the seed for an adventure of my own was planted!
Facing the challenge
“I travelled to France to begin what would turn out to be the most challenging but incredible adventure. I became the first person with my level of disability (in a wheelchair full-time) to ride by horseback across the Pyrenees from France to Spain.
“We flew to Toulouse airport, then travelled to the small town of Biert to begin our expedition. When I started planning this expedition two years ago, I never dreamt it would turn out to be such an empowering and important journey, not just for my team and I, but for so many others.
“Our team spent five days in the Pyrenees trekking from France to Spain, to recreate the journey many took before us when they were escaping occupied France.
“Downed airmen and women, as well as Jewish refugees, in fear of their lives, used these escape routes in the mountains to flee to safety.
“These mountain passes are made up of the most difficult and challenging terrain, with sheer drops, steep ascents and descents, and the potential for falling boulders. The route was made even harder by the rapidly changing weather in the mountains.
“We battled extreme heat, a horrendous storm whilst sleeping under canvas at 2200m and long, cold, wet days in the saddle, to experience just a glimpse of what those who used these trails to escape to safety had to deal with.
Our week was full of challenges and there were of course times that I questioned what I had got myself into, but as we completed our trek, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of achievement and gratitude for making it safely through.
“A team effort was needed to enable me to successfully complete the challenge, and every team member showed a selfless commitment to helping me throughout the week.
“For me, this shows the strength, resilience and attitude of forces wives. When the going got tough, the team pulled together in an extraordinary way to ensure we all made it through the week. There would be no one left behind.
“As I sit reflecting on the journey we took, exhausted and weary, I am full of appreciation at being part of the military community. Being a military family brings so many pressures and stresses that are so different to civilian life, but it also brings so many opportunities.
“Being part of a team of women who all understand these stresses and, in many ways, don’t need spoken words to communicate with each other about how we are feeling, is something I will never take for granted.
“When I became unwell and our lives were turned upside down, I felt that my life had lost purpose and meaning. I felt I had no active role to play within my family and in the working world.
“Finding FWC has given me that purpose, and whilst my confidence increased in my professional life, I realised my confidence increased in my personal life too. The expedition gave me a reason to physically push myself and with that came increased fitness and stamina, which then had a positive effect on my family.
“I am more able to physically play with my son, I even get in soft plays with him now and just find a way to get round, because anything is possible if you want it enough.
“When my husband and son came to meet me at the airport on my return to the UK and I saw the emotion in their eyes, I had the most incredible feeling of pride that I will never forget. Pride at what I had achieved alongside my team, but also at being able to show my young son what determination and hard work can enable you to do.”
To find out more about FWC, go to forceswiveschallenge.org