On the morning of 16th January 2016, 21 year old Katie Backhouse left her home in Kingsteignton to make her way to work at the Haldon Forest Diner. It was the first icy day Devon had suffered in a while and Katie texted her boyfriend a photo of her car temperature gauge showing -1°c before setting off.

That morning Katie didn’t make it to the Diner. At around 7:50am, between the A380 and A38 - on a journey Katie had done many times before - her car skidded on black ice and careered off the road. 

When Katie failed to show for work, a member of staff at the Haldon Diner phoned her dad, Mark. Unable to get hold of Katie on her mobile, Mark feared for the worst and set off to find her.

A parent's nightmare

Mark said:

“I was met with every parent’s nightmare. My daughter’s car was in a ditch and all I could see were flashing blue lights. I jumped out of my car and immediately slipped on the black ice; it was deadly. I remember hearing the air ambulance and the next thing I recall is seeing the air crew heading toward the scene. There is something calming about those red overalls. Among a scene of fear and devastation they appear as ‘superheroes’ reminiscent of characters from cartoons you read about in your youth. I knew Katie was in safe hands and I got to see and speak to her as she was transferred to the helicopter; I will always be eternally grateful for those precious moments with Katie.” 

Katie had suffered numerous facial fractures and a head injury, and was flown to Derriford hospital. She faced a long period of rehabilitation and after an initial stay of 10 days in ITU, which was then extended by a further 3 weeks, Katie was transferred to the rehabilitation unit. Katie said of that time “I remember arriving at the rehab unit and feeling incredibly sad as I thought I was being transferred home. I was heartbroken. I thought it was all over and I was all better.” But Katie was determined to get home as soon as possible. After a stay of 6 weeks, Katie had made good progress and was discharged a month earlier than anticipated.

At the time of the incident Katie was studying for a BA in Primary Education at Plymouth Marjon University. It is a credit to her determination and commitment to her recovery that she graduated with a 2:1 degree in summer 2017. 

From injury to inspiration

Katie is incredibly grateful for the support she received from her family throughout her recovery; following Katie’s airlift, her brother Tom was inspired to raise funds for Devon Air Ambulance, stating “she is an inspiration to all and has changed the outlook of everyone who has followed her journey to recovery. Experiencing my sister’s accident from the side of her bed meant that I had a first-hand view of the incredible support offered by everyone involved in both saving her life and returning her to the amazing woman she is. I was in awe of Devon Air Ambulance, these were the heroes I wanted to give something back to. Combined with an innate love for the outdoors, the Walk Wild UK Challenge was born.” 

Tom’s Walk Wild Challenge would see him walk the length and height of all 15 UK National Parks in just one year. In total, the walks would span several hundred miles and several thousand metres in elevation. If successful, Tom would be the first recorded person ever to do it. 

From Exmoor to North York Moors

The Walk Wild Challenge kicked off on the 14th January 2017, quite fittingly in Devon, on Exmoor National Park. Tom covered 43 miles over 2 days and journeyed across the spine of Exmoor, taking in two counties, its highest peak, largest lake, the source of the Exe, several moorland villages, “Doone Country” and traversing through open moorland, mined hills, woodland, deep river valleys and coastal cliffs, varying in height from Dunkery Beacon at 519 metres to Lee Bay at sea level.

Continuing into February, Tom set out to walk the 106 mile South Downs Way, from Winchester to the white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, East Sussex. This would be the longest walk of the Challenge to complete in just 3 days, but Tom soon realised the ambition of this challenge, and after suffering an ankle injury he took the decision to end the walk at an impressive 48.5miles.

Undefeated by his injured ankle, Tom went on to walk the North York Moors followed by the Brecon Beacons, which encompassed the first wild camp of the year beneath the summit of Pen Y Fan. The second day of the challenge saw Tom walk the difficult route to the highest point where he was accompanied by the training Royal Marine Reserves who supported him up the mountainside. 

Tackling the Ten Tors solo

In May, Tom undertook his most notable achievement when he completed a 55 mile Ten Tor solo challenge. Run by the Army, the event is one of the largest and most prestigious walking events in the country. It is usually only open to teenagers and Tom is not only the first adult to have been granted permission by the event organisers to take part, but he is also the only person to attempt a solo walk. Tom set off on the morning of Saturday 6th May and had until 5pm on the Sunday to complete the challenge. Walking more than 69 miles in 36 hours, Tom became the first person to complete a 55 mile Ten Tor solo. 

Next on the agenda, Tom tackled one of the most remote and mountainous regions of Scotland; the Cairngorms. Here, Tom trekked up some of the highest mountains in the UK, which were still patched with snow in July and where he was privileged to see a herd of reindeer. Tom described this walk as “the most enjoyable and exhilarating of the Walk Wild Challenge”. 

The wildest walk of the Challenge took Tom along the spectacular Pembroke Coast. The route was designed to encompass the coast and the moor before wild camping beneath the summit of Preseli Mountain, a ridge that runs through the heart of West Wales and takes in incredible views of the Gower, Snowdonia, Cardigan Bay and St Davids. 

Weathering the storms

On arrival in the Lake District Tom was greeted with an electric storm, once the weather had settled he hiked 25 miles from Buttermere to Great Gable. Unfortunately, whilst descending Scafell Pike, Tom fell, rolling his ankle and causing it to swell significantly. Still over 11 miles from his accommodation, he had to overcome the pain to climb three more mountains, carrying his bag and trekking over difficult terrain. 

Later in the year Tom returned to Scotland and walked 5 of the Munros of Loch Lomond, including the highest point, 1,174 metres on Ben More. The weather held and Tom enjoyed views across the whole of Southern and central Scotland. 

In addition, the Walk Wild Challenge has taken Tom through the Yorkshire Dales, encompassing moors, valleys, hills and villages, and the New Forest where he witnessed more wildlife than on any other walk, including the near threatened red squirrel. 

As a young entrepreneur and businessman Tom has been incredibly committed to have found the time to fit this challenge in to his very busy schedule. His Walk Wild Challenge will continue with the Norfolk Broads, which he intends to run over two days, followed by Northumberland, the Dales and the Peak District in November. Tom’s ultimate walk will take him to Snowdonia - he is just waiting for the first snowfall of December!

Tom has carried his kit, wild camped part of the way, suffered injury, blisters, aches, pains and even broken bones. This is a true challenge of endurance, not just physically but also mentally. It is admirable that Tom has found the motivation to continue, to put himself back into the wild after returning to the comfort of home between each walk, all the while spurred on to raise funds for Devon Air Ambulance as a way of saying thank you for saving the life of his sister Katie.  

Six years later...

Katie told us: “I got married in August 2021 after it was postponed from 2020 and it was a beautiful but very emotional day. My dad and I had a dance together before my first dance with my husband Sam. It was to ‘This is me’ from the movie The Greatest Showman (this is something myself and dad associate with me and my accident). It was an emotional day for my dad and he said giving me away and having our dance together was the best thing ever, before he handed me over to Sam!”

Katie’s parents will always be grateful to Devon Air Ambulance for saving the life of their daughter and continue to fundraise for the Charity. They are planning to walk the South West Coastal Path this year.

Have you got a story to share about your experience with Devon Air Ambulance? Because of patient confidentiality we only hear from about 15% of our patients, so do contact us with yours. It's stories like Tom's and Katie's that help our message to be heard.