An extreme past time

Photo courtesy of David Granillo

by Samantha Taylor

The evening sky merges from light blue into a hazy orange mist above the Afghanistan desert. It has been a hot day but now dusk approaches. There’s no fighting here. None of the typical images of this country even threaten to touch your eye. What we see above the sand, on top of the highest mountain, is a group of men dressed in their combat gear simply ironing a shirt.

This unusual and somewhat intriguing behaviour is the result of one man’s joke taken right to the edge. It’s a form of escapism between these soldiers and it’s known as extreme ironing.

This bizarre sport was originally created by Phil Shaw, otherwise known as ‘Steam’. In Leicester, during the summer of 1997, Steam decided to spend the evening doing his favourite hobby: rock climbing. Unfortunately, he also had a large pile of ironing to do. So instead of choosing between the two he had the wild idea of combining them, thus creating extreme ironing.

Since then the sport has been taken all over the world, with Nintendo even including it in one of their Wii games. Extreme ironing, as defined on its official website, “is an outdoor activity that combines the danger and excitement of an ‘extreme’ sport with the satisfaction of a well pressed shirt.”

Many people all over the world enjoy doing it and our group of men in Afghanistan are just a few of them. In August 2009, perched 7000 feet above the ground on the mountain Gharib Ghar, the crazy yet daring soldiers, ironed their shirts and took pictures to show their friends back on the ground.

The brainwave came from Billy Reid, a soldier in the British Army. He said: “We had only been in the country for about a month and had already been to the top of Ghar three times. The guys and I were just spinning some dits (funny stories) and I just randomly came out with it and then the penny dropped so to speak. The idea was sold.”

Photo courtesy of David Granillo

Imagine what it’s like to be in the battle zone. Being away from your home and your friends and family can push any individual to the limit. Any form of relief would surely be welcomed. Doing something out of the ordinary is an amazing way of winding down, even if you’re only laughing at the pictures.

Billy said: “Sometimes this job can be very monotonous so anything abnormal or funny helps us all with morale. It gives folk something else to talk about apart from the usual. Also it’s a poke in the eye for Terry Taliban in its own little way, if you catch my drift.”

David Granillo, a friend of Billy from the American and British Paratroopers who was also at the top of Gharib Ghar, agreed with this: “it’s all a joke and we have a good laugh. When we show the pictures to friends in the combat zone, anything like that will raise the spirits of your buddies.”

As well as mountain top ironing, the boys have also participated in mine field ironing, although they prefer to keep the details of that one under wraps.

Being in Afghanistan would be tough but unusual activities make the situation easier.  Extreme ironing is crazy and dangerous but fantastically exciting. Billy said: “Others went after us but we were the first ones. Our other friends thought it was a brilliant idea. They just wish they’d thought of it first.”