Video: A Step Too Far

By Sara James Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 4/26/2009 5:00:10 PM ET 2009-04-26T21:00:10

There is nothing typical about Pete and Julia Bland.

Julia Bland: We've never done comfortable domestic. It's always been high octane.My life with Pete has ranged across the most enormous spectrum from the very brightest of golds, shimmering, summertime,  complete and utter frivolity, to horror-movie horrifying, adventures that have gone completely wrong, head injuries, heart surgeries. It's been extreme.

Like most of us, they wanted to live life to the fullest and follow their dreams. But unlike many others, their dreams and challenges - so extraordinary, they were captured on a huge canvas - splashed across newspapers, detailed in a book, featured on television.

Local news: Injured Antarctic adventurer Peter Bland forced to wait for a family reunion...

To the public, Pete was the "ice man". Julia, his stunning wife. Their story was driven by adrenaline-pumping adventure, big ambitions, and even bigger sacrifices. Risks to life ... And love.

Peter Bland: I had no comprehension of the price that I might pay one day for my actions.

Their journey together had a storybook beginning. They met as teenagers in southern Australia where Pete was a farm kid. It was impossible not to notice Julia Knight, an effervescent city girl her friends called "Jools."

Peter Bland: Jools is just gorgeous, you know, she's just like --

Sara James: You felt like she was a step--

Peter Bland: Just out of my league, you know, just out of my league. So-- just, not much. But a little bit.

They became friends... Danced together at parties. But then one day, Pete gathered his courage and asked her out on a date. Jools loved horses, so Pete wooed her with a ride through the mountains near his home, serenading her along the way.

Peter Bland: That date was the beginning of a journey of travel, adventure, experiences like a fantasy.

Julia Bland: There was never any, "Will I, won't I, sort of, go out with him?" It was from that moment on, he was the one.

Jools was raised in a conventional home and was impressed by Pete's sense of adventure, his can-do spirit, his relentless determination.

Sara James: This is a man who doesn't take no for an answer.

Julia Bland: No, he doesn't know the word no. He just has this - incredible energy. Just a great energy.

They were young, in love... And living a dream. They windsurfed in St. Lucia, motorbiked in Greece, sailed the Coral Sea.

Julia Bland: Life was easy, you know? Life was uncomplicated. It was university. It was a bit of work. It was saving up money to get on an airplane and go travel. It was very easy to be in - in love.

Sara James: It sounds like one big, romantic vacation.

Julia Bland: Pretty much was.

After college, Jools settled into a career in corporate public relations. But Pete had no interest in a 9 to 5 job. He earned some money moving racing yachts across the Atlantic, started a shortbread cookie company on the farm, traded commodities overseas.

He was always looking to make a living while exploring the world.

Jools admired the dreamer in Pete and wasn't at all surprised when he signed on for an expedition to the South Magnetic Pole. Little did she know he was about to volunteer to risk his life near the bottom of the Earth.

Of all the things Pete wanted to do in life, going to Antarctica was at the top of the list. One day, when he least expected it, he got his chance... When his best friend had to bow out of a spot on a yacht crew.

Peter Bland:  I said, "Man, I'm there. I'll be there tomorrow morning at 10 a.m." Bang. You know, done.

Sara James:  You couldn't wait.

Peter Bland:  There's no way in the world I'd miss an opportunity to go to Antarctica.

Sara James:  Did Pete come and talk to you before he said yes?

Julia Bland:  Oh no.

Sara James:  And you were supportive of this?

Julia Bland:  Yeah. Look we had-- an understanding that neither of us would ever impinge on each other's wishes and dreams in that way.

And so the very next day, Pete was off - on a voyage he and his shipmates would never forget.

For starters, conditions were terrible... And only getting worse.

Peter Bland: It was a pretty stormy trip. We were in, like, 19 knots, surfing down the face of these waves.

They were being tossed like a toy in high seas, fighting frigid temperatures that glazed the yacht in ice. And then, of course, there were the icebergs.

Peter Bland: And you're on a 60-foot yacht with ten lives onboard. And a quarter of an inch of aluminum between you and the iceberg the size of a small country.

It was difficult and expensive for Pete to call from the yacht, but Jools was used to periods apart and assumed no news was good news.

Julia Bland: As far as I knew the trip was going well.

In fact, it wasn't. In the scramble to dodge an iceberg, a rope had fallen overboard -- wrapped around the propeller -- and crippled the vessel.

For three days they drifted and bobbed, unable to free the rope.

Peter Bland: Well, everyone said, "That's it. We give up. We're gonna turn around and go back."

Their destination was within sight but Pete's shipmates wanted to turn around and limp back into warmer waters under sail power …skip the risky final few miles of the journey to Antarctic shores.

But Pete had another idea.

Peter Bland:  I saw it as an opportunity.

Sara James:  An opportunity for what?

Peter Bland:  To prove myself.

Prove himself… to the patron of the trip. Pete hoped to earn a spot on the next expedition by rescuing this one...

The catch? The only way to reach the propeller was to dive into the ocean, which was just 30 degrees. The ship's doctor said any more than five minutes in the frigid water could be deadly.

Sara James:  This was like “Mission Impossible.”

Peter Bland: Yeah.

Sara James: You had five minutes. Do it or forget it.

Peter Bland: Yeah.

Back at home in Australia, Jools had no idea what Pete was about to do -- and was shocked when she later learned the details.

Julia Bland: There was no wetsuit on board. They'd been left off on the dock. So he was sort of in wet weather gear that was kind of taped up. I just thought what an idiot. I really just thought, that's crazy.

Crazy because Jools knew something Pete's shipmates didn't -- that Pete had a medical history which made the plunge especially risky for him.

At the age of eight, Pete had open heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart. During his recovery, Pete says his father -- a distinguished judge as well as a farmer --  pushed him to do endless exercises, accepting no excuses -- instilling the lesson that, through hard work:

Peter Bland: Anything, anything can be gotten over if your dream is big enough.

And so, tethered to the deck and wearing little more than rain gear, Pete took a deep breath, and went in -- a kitchen knife strapped to his wrist.

Pete knew the immediate physical risk he was taking. But had no idea of the other, greater cost he might pay for his daring deed.

Peter Bland: You can chuck Pete Bland in a hole and he'll get out of it every single time.  It does beg the question, doesn't it?  Why does he keep on putting himself in holes?

Pete Bland and nine shipmates had been tossed in high seas off Antarctica for three days when Pete volunteered for an icy plunge -- a daring attempt to cut through thick rope tangled around the yacht's propeller.

Back at home, Jools was stunned -- and troubled that Pete would volunteer for what seemed perilously close to a suicide mission.

Sara James: Does he think he's Superman?

Julia Bland: Yes.

Sara James: There's nothing he can't do.

Julia Bland: No.

But Pete had his eyes on the prize. If he succeeded, he'd earn a spot on an upcoming expedition to the North Magnetic Pole - and a chance to make history as the first Australian to get to both poles.

He knew he had just five minutes -- any longer in such frigid water could be deadly.

Off you go, Son. Don't get tangled with the line. Don't go cuttin' the safety line off.

With the crew waiting anxiously on deck, Pete went under... And started hacking at the rope.

Peter Bland: And it wasn't coming free quickly.  And I-- even my little frozen mind knew that the strategy that I'd gone down with to cut this rope free wasn't gonna work.  Because it was too much rope.

Out of breath, Pete had no choice but to surface... Then dive back down and try to uncoil the rope. He had been in the water more than four and a half minutes.

Peter Bland: I kinda just leaned back and just let my hands do the job. And I just did that and I knew, FOOM! As the rope came off, I-- I fell away and up I went.  And I remember they just hauled me in, you know.  I was done.

On the deck, Pete's crewmates knew Pete had passed the five-minute mark. The crew rushed to warm his shivering body.

Peter Bland: I was just throbbing. My head was just f-foom...

When Jools heard how long he'd been in the icy water...

Julia Bland: I mean, if it was life-threatening, you know, if-- if   somebody's life depended on it, that's something, you know. But, I mean, it sounds quite ridiculous that you would do that.

Still, Pete had saved the trip and his chance to step on Antarctic soil. He returned home, on top of the world -- and ready to take a different plunge.

Julia Bland: He got down on one knee, and I-- and asked me, and I actually said, "Are you serious?"  'Cause I thought, "I'm not telling you what my answer is unless I know he's serious, because then you're one step ahead of me.  And you know what my answer will be." I, of course, said yes.

Life seemed perfect…but things were about to take a frightening turn.  Pete was training hard for that "payoff" trip to the Arctic  -- when  he suddenly felt dizzy and sick. Jools rushed  him to the doctor.

Julia Bland: It was his aorta, which had blown up to the size of a football.

Pete had an aneurysm in the main artery carrying blood from his heart. If the aneurysm burst, it could kill him. He needed surgery...and soon.

Peter Bland: I said, "Oh, doc, all right.  Thank you for that. Thank you.  Can you do it tomorrow?  Can you fix it tomorrow?  Or can you leave it for six months?" And he said, "No.  But why?"  And I said, "I'm sorry, Doc.  I'm Pete Bland and I'm gonna be the first Australian to the North Magnetic Pole. And I'd really appreciate it if you could knock that surgery out quick smart. 

The man who didn't know the word "no" couldn't hear the bad news.  Jools could.

Julia Bland: The fellow said, "I don't think you're understanding what this means.  This is a life-threatening situation.  You might not walk again. You know, you need to reconsider your life."

But what seemed most troubling to Pete was when the surgeon told him he'd have to forget about his trip to the Arctic.

Peter Bland:  I cried and I'll never forget it.  And Jools knew why I was crying. Why I was upset. Why I was devastated. And it wasn't because of the surgery.

Sara James: It was because of the dream.

Peter Bland: It was because of the dream. She knew that I'd allowed my dream to be ripped out of me.

Doctors thought his condition was - at least in part - a result of Pete's icy plunge. It seemed Pete's quest for adventure was beginning to take a toll.

Julia Bland: I didn't like the idea of this time bomb ticking away in his chest.  I wanted it out.  I wanted it fixed.

But surgery carried its own terrifying risks:  paralysis, even death. Would this crisis be Pete's wake-up call to step back from a life on the edge?

Pete and Jools Bland were young, in love, and scared to death. Pete had an aortic aneurysm which could kill him if it burst. But surgery could leave him paralyzed, even prove fatal.  Incredibly, at just 28, Pete was undergoing open-heart surgery for the second time in his life.

Julia Bland: I just thought it was just outrageous.

Jools remembers seeing him right after the operation. She'd never seen Pete so down.

Julia Bland: He looked so-- pale and swollen. When he came to he was-- you know, he was very much wanting to get down and make sure his feet were working.

Peter Bland: I got myself in a position. And I went, "Wiggle your toe, Pete. Wiggle your toes." And I wiggled my toes. And they wiggled.

While Pete wasn't paralyzed, there was a long way to go from being able to wiggle his toes to being able to trek to the North Pole. But that trip was a tantalizing lure.

Julia Bland: It was the carrot dangling in front of him.

Jools was beyond relieved, happy to be taking him home. But instead of following doctors' orders to rest, he was soon training harder than ever.

Julia Bland: He was up and about and walking around the farm. You know,  I think one of our neighbors picked him up down the road and brought him home for me at one point. It was outrageous. He was a very bad patient. Very bad patient.

But he was a very exciting partner -- and eight months later, the pair tied the knot.

Julia Bland: It was just a fabulous moment. We'd been through so much together, and we were sort of cemented in this together. So, it was very emotional, you know, it was in sickness and in health kind of thing.

Neither heart trouble - nor marriage - was going to slow Pete down. He was chomping at the bit to get to the Arctic, to reach his goal of becoming the first Australian to reach both poles.

And this time, it was for a cause. He'd turned this trip into a major fundraiser for the Australian Heart Foundation.

Jools was thrilled to see Pete healthy and happy again... But it would mean another long stretch apart. He'd be away for 35 days this time.

Julia Bland:  Usually what I do is, I say, "Right, you're off on your trip. And I shut you out. And I do my life. And then, you come back." 

Sara James: Is that a risky move?

Julia Bland: Definitely. But it's a necessary one. It's self-preservation. Because otherwise, you're worrying about this person, and it's affecting your life.

If Jools shut Pete out too many times, would it one day be impossible to let him back in? This risk wasn't even on their radar. Pete was focused on the trek before him ... 400 miles in sub-zero temperatures.

Peter Bland: It is better than anything I could have imagined. Just pristine and pure and raw.

Pete used the satellite phone to check in when he could.

Hello, JJ. It's your husband. I'm very well. I'm very cold. It's about minus 20.

But Jools' confidence faltered a bit when -- for five days -- there was no contact. Not a word. Had something happened?

Come on, baby, do your thing. Do your thing. Everyone's crossin' their fingers.

Jools didn't know that the satellite phone had frozen. The team not only was fine, but about to reach their goal. Pete had made history.

How sweet it is! Here we are at the North Magnetic Pole.

And the media were anxious to tell his story of overcoming such great odds.

Sara James: You had the biggest smile on your face.

Peter Bland: Yeah, big smile.

Julia Bland: He was a hero, you know? People very much relate to him. They can relate to that-- that-- that spirit of adventure and wanting to overcome odds.

Pete returned home, bursting with pride over all he'd accomplished. He could turn his passion for adventure into a full-time career.

Julia Bland: He'd had a sort of epiphany of how you can be a sort of commercial adventurer in a sense. And that was something that he was gonna work on because he wasn't always gonna just have a normal job.

It had always been a point of friction for Pete and his dad, who thought it was beyond time for Pete to zero in on a stable, traditional career. But Pete seemed to have found the perfect compromise -- a marketing job that gave him enough time off to try to make history again. This time with old friend and fellow adventurer Jay Watson.

Julia Bland: Jay would come around and they'd sort of bring out all their maps and hide them out in the back room.

Sara James: They're scheming and plotting?

Julia Bland: Scheming and plotting. Scheming and plotting.

Jay Watson: We loved these adventures. We loved being out there in the elements.  We loved sort of being amongst the wilds. We wanted to be out there and amongst it.

But to get financial backing, their adventure needed to be dramatic and unprecedented. Pete and Jay hatched a plan to become the first team in the world ever to cross the Antarctic Peninsula unassisted... No sled dogs, no food drops.

Pete had survived open heart surgery twice and now was going to attempt one of the most arduous treks a human can make.

Peter Bland: It's a pretty much, you know, James Bond 007. It's full on. You're skiing. You're kayaking. You're ice climbing. You're doing this world first crossing of the Antarctica Peninsula and it's pretty special.

"World first" had become Pete's mantra.  This time, he and Jay would film their historic trip for a television documentary.

While she didn’t object, Jools realized she now had a very different, far more conventional dream.  It prompted her to offer her adrenaline-junkie husband a most unorthodox deal.

Julia Bland: I said-- you know, I'd quite like a baby. And-- and if I get to have a baby, then you get to do another trip to Antarctica sort of thing. I mean, I must have been deranged. I don't know what came over me.

And so as Pete and Jay sorted out details, Jools gave birth to Olivia rose.

This time, Pete's time away put huge pressure on Jools. She'd have to organize everything from caring for the farm's livestock to paying the bills - on top of caring for a baby.

And most stressful of all for Jools, of course, was the possibility Pete could die. He was in one of the most treacherous places on Earth. Now that they had an eight-month-old baby, Jools couldn't help but feel vulnerable.

Julia Bland: He tried so hard to be this super human being. When in actual fact, if he had just tried maybe to be a normal person and cope with a normal life - it would have meant that my life would have been a little bit more easy.

But nothing could stop him now. Adventure had become Pete's obsession. Just weeks before Pete and Jay left, a major sponsor backed out. Pete scrambled, found another.

Julia Bland: There was a lot of pressure.  There was a lot of-- chaos around the putting together of this trip.

Pete's mom was downright terrified.

Julia Bland: She was out in the driveway begging him to stay.

This adventure would push Pete to his physical limit...  And threaten to destroy the dream he'd built back home.

Peter Bland: Everyone was saying, "Don't go." I wasn't listening back then. I'm listening now.

Pete and Jools Bland were beginning the greatest adventures of their lives. But the once inseparable pair were each flying solo -- for the first time, pursuing very different dreams. Hers at home with Olivia, his in the Antarctic.

Julia Bland: There's a little voice in my head that says-- this person has a journey.  And who am I to stand in the way of that journey?

Neither of them realized just how much was at risk this time... The perils not only to Pete's life, but to their marriage.

Peter Bland: Sometimes you don't know the price of something until you've paid it. 

Pete and Jay had chartered a yacht to drop them off in Antarctica's hope bay-- then sail around the Peninsula to pick them up when they completed their journey.

The best friends made a pact: if something catastrophic happened to one of them, the other would press on -- alone.

Jay Watson: I guess that eases your mind if you tell the other person to do that as a friend.

Of course neither of them expected to have to put that pledge to the test.

Why we do this stuff, I don't know.

They planned to trek 195 miles in 23 days.

Pete and Jay braved physical dangers -- from whiteout conditions--  to a close shave when Pete fell through the ice -- but they were beating every obstacle thrown at them. At least so far.

Peter Bland: I gotta say, this is one of the most beautiful things, apart from my darling wife, that I have ever, ever seen.

Sara James: Were you in any sort of contact with Pete and Jay?

Julia Bland:  No, not at all.

Each was in his own world. Back at home, Jools had her hands full, between the new baby and running the farm.

Sara James: What were you juggling?

Julia Bland: Cattle - that wouldn't move from one paddock to another without forcing on horseback. We had shearing as well.

She took breaks to nurse Olivia but there was little time to sleep.

Pete was counting the days until his family reunion. But he was also jubilant that he and Jay had put those early setbacks and jittery nerves behind them and were halfway to their goal. Being "unassisted" wasn't easy.

Peter Bland: Wouldn't say no to a bit of support right now.

Jay Watson: Exactly, we need - we need the dogs now.

Peter Bland: Dogs and a helicopter.

Jay Watson: And if you bring the chopper in.

Peter Bland: Chopper, oh, here he is.

After skiing and kayaking for 19 days, Pete wrote in his diary: "I am really looking forward to seeing Jools and Olivia. I am missing them a lot."

Pete never questioned that Jools would be there for him at the end of an adventure. She always had been. But this time, the miles between them were nothing compared to the growing emotional distance.

But the end was -- literally -- in sight. All that lay between Pete, Jay and mission accomplished was an easy eight-mile ski down to the yacht waiting to take them home.

Pete would never get there. Jools was in the shower when the phone rang. It was the captain of the yacht.

Julia Bland: And he said, "Jools, there's been this accident". It's that sinking in your stomach. And it's that heart-racing panic. And - and I just thought, "What on Earth am I gonna tell his mum?"

Pete and Jools' lives were turned inside out in one big flash of white. The horrible news came in an early morning phone call to the farm.

Julia Bland: I had a bad feeling. I had a really bad feeling about it.

Pete was just half a day away from completing a historic crossing of the Antarctic Peninsula with his best friend Jay Watson... Just a day away from heading home to Jools and their young daughter.

But the weather had turned ugly... And so the men decided to hunker down for the night, wait out the storm.

Jay Watson: The tent was getting battered. We were getting battered.

That's when Pete stepped outside to grab supplies...

Jay Watson: And he - he sort of yelled out to me, "Look, I'm just gonna go get supplies out of the kayak."

Then…nothing.

Jay Watson: The uncertainty of what - where Pete was, was after about five minutes, I was like, where - this can't be right, you know. Where is he? So I yelled out a few times.

No response. Jay poked his head outside the tent…saw nothing but white…and then a glove.

Jay Watson: All I could see down the slope was a glove, his glove in the snow. And this big scar where the actual avalanche had come down the slope. So that's when I knew -- knew he'd actually been taken by the avalanche.

The fierce wind had masked the massive rumble of an avalanche, which had swept away his best friend.

Jay Watson: I thought, how is this gonna play out, you know, Pete's got a family, a wife, you know? I was half responsible for this whole expedition, this whole trip.

Julia Bland: I didn't think it was going to-- work out well. I just thought-- this just doesn't bode well for him and for us.

Her only comfort: that Pete was with Jay, his best friend, and someone Jools trusted.

But Jay had no idea if Pete was even alive.

Jay Watson: I knew if he'd gone down the mountain, he would've gone off this cliff edge into a crevasse.

Jay scrambled to the edge of the crevasse, peered over... And his heart sank.

Jay Watson: I could see him down in the base. He was on his back. He was looking like he was tryin' to move but he just couldn't.

Back home, Jools was getting bits and pieces of information - her imagination filling in the blanks.

Julia Bland: I don't know if they had mentioned that there was an avalanche. Either way, I knew that he was in terrible, terrible strife.

She had no idea Pete had made a fourteen story free-fall onto solid ice, and lay sprawled like a broken doll. Had he broken his back? Jay made the dangerous descent to Pete's side, tried to talk to him.

Sara James: What did you say to him?

Jay Watson: I obviously went straight to him and - and started chatting. And I just knew straightaway that I wasn't getting any response whatsoever. Just a distant look in his eyes. There was no registering me or the situation or where we were. It was just nothing.

Pete was bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth. Jay didn't know whether Pete would even survive the night. As for the pledge that he and Pete had made -- that if one were unable to continue, the other would go it alone --

Jay Watson: You might think that way. But it's-- it's-- in practice, it do-- it's not-- not quite that easy.

Back in Australia, Pete's national fame meant his family's private drama had become a very public spectacle.

News crews descended on the farm. Jools hid her fear and spoke.

Julia Bland: It's the sort of thing that Pete loves to do and that's the man that I married and it's to be expected and I've always embraced what he's done and encouraged it. I may have to re-think that strategy.

Back in the crevasse, Jay placed a tent over his unconscious friend, tried to keep him warm. He contemplated carrying Pete out, but feared he might injure him further. Yet staying in the crevasse meant another avalanche could bury them both.

Jay Watson: It's certainly something, you know, I've tried to shut out. I mean, I knew what was down there. I knew it was a pretty ugly spot down there.

The captain of the yacht radioed for help -- but couldn't get any quickly.

I've just been talking to the helicopter pilot; he says it's impossible to land there, it is just not possible to land; it is far too dangerous.

Jay stayed by his friend's side for three long days… melting icicles to give Pete sips of water… his bouyant buddy now helpless as a baby. Meanwhile, information was trickling in to Jools.

Julia Bland: They're trying to get him out. We're trying to get a chopper in. The weather's really bad. And he's unconscious but he's alive.

A team from the yacht made the torturous climb up to the crevasse. Using a door from the boat as a stretcher, they hoisted Pete out of the crevasse, then dragged him to a spot where a helicopter could safely land. Pete was flown to a hospital in Antarctica, while Jay set off to finish the journey the pair had begun so optimistically.

And Jools -- who hadn't slept in days - scrambled to get the first flight she could to South America, where they'd take Pete as soon as he could be moved.

Julia Bland: I didn't know which end was up. I just knew I had to get on that plane and through those doors.

Pete's femur had been forced out of his hip socket, he had multiple broken ribs. But those weren't the worst injuries of all. Jools knew Pete had also fractured his skull. How bad was the injury to his brain? Would he -- and they -- ever be the same?

Julia Bland: He looked like a stranger. You know, he had a beard. And he was scrawny. And he was battered. He recognized me. He didn't know Olivia's name. I just thought, "This guy is a wreck. He's a train wreck."

Pete Bland was recovering from a 14-story freefall into a crevasse in Antarctica. His wife Jools rushed to his side...and was stunned by what she found.

Julia Bland: He wasn't making any sense. Just a stranger. And I just thought, where's my husband? What's going to happen?

Pete groped for word, was difficult to understand, and -- most heartbreaking of all -- didn't realize how jumbled his mind was.

He wrote in his diary: I hat to be where everywhere just have cross date day.

Pete and Jools had overcome so much in their life together... But had never faced an uphill climb like this before.

Jools brought Pete back home to the farm where, once again, she would have to nurse him back to health. She was relieved that Pete's injuries were no longer life-threatening, she was deeply worried about his brain damage. Her husband was simply no longer himself. Would he ever be?

Julia Bland: It's all you can do to sort of buy the groceries and cook some dinner and get through the day in that situation.

Jools worried Pete's judgment was impaired. They both knew his memory was affected. He took time off from work.  His obsession now was re-learning the names of people he'd known for years, memorizing numbers... Drilling himself even harder than his father had, when he'd forced Pete to do those detested exercises as a boy.

Julia Bland: It was very disturbing to have your husband want to spend dinner with you-- wanting to memorize your credit card number.

Sara James: This was not the Peter Bland who had left.

Julia Bland: This was-- this was a whole new scenario.

Just 32 years old, the ice man was battered and broken. Doctors said it would take eight years to know whether Pete's brain could create new pathways around the damage.

Pete had no memory of his fall or the three days in the crevasse. He watched the footage of the trip over and over again. Jools couldn't bear to see the reminder of what had shattered their dream. She was anxious, angry, overwhelmed. Her life was now consumed by helping Pete get better.

Julia Bland: I felt completely isolated and alone. I was sitting with a man next to me but I was absolutely alone.

Her husband, a stranger.

Julia Bland: I couldn't work out this person. He was really disturbing. And I remember thinking, "I'm just so sad."

Pete was doing everything he could to get better... And it was paying off.

Peter Bland: I just saw it as a challenge that I had to fix.  And I had to get out of it. And I had to rebuild myself.

Jools tried to keep their life together as normal as possible and became pregnant with their second child.

Both Pete and Jools felt a surge of hope when Angus Jay Robert Bland was born. They named him after Jay Watson, who'd saved Pete's life.

Julia Bland: If it wasn't for Jay, Angus wouldn't be on the planet.

But their joy over their new son was soon tempered by devastating news. Baby Angus had two holes in his tiny heart.

He needed surgery, just as Pete had as a child.

Peter Bland: They tell you it's not your fault, they tell you it's not congenital. But, I gave my son the same heart condition that I had.

First Pete and now her baby son. Jools blamed herself...wondered whether her heartbreak during her pregnancy had caused Angus's troubles.

Julia Bland: I sort of feel like with Angus, when I was pregnant with him, I feel like I had a broken heart.

Jools and Pete Bland had been through more in their 20s than most couples have in a lifetime. And now, their six-month-old son was undergoing open heart surgery.

Julia Bland: you're cutting open your baby's heart.  You just hope that everything is gonna go okay.

It did. The operation was a complete success.

Sara James: They bring Angus out, and what did they say?

Julia Bland: They said, "he's fine." You know, "he's fine."

Things were looking up in the Bland family. Both Angus and Pete were doing remarkably well. Thanks to his hard work, Pete was making a faster -- and fuller -- recovery than his doctors had thought possible.

The man who couldn't string together a simple sentence after his accident  was motivating others as a public speaker.

Peter Bland: If you've been to where I've been, you grab opportunities with not one hand, you give them a bear hug.

And two years after Angus was born, along came Dougal, a healthy baby boy.

From the outside, their lives seemed to be back on level ground... But Pete was struggling with who he was, and why. Learning to understand what had caused him to pursue this risky lifestyle in the first place.

Sara James: Who are you trying to prove this to, Pete?

Peter Bland: My father. It sounds stupid. I do everything for my father. I do know subconsciously a lot of it was about saying I am good enough.

It was an epiphany which brought forgiveness.

Peter Bland: "Dear Dad,You were a great dad.  You were inspirational, brave, determined, and generous."

As his father had since died, Pete poured his realization out on a paper napkin...

Peter Bland: I never thanked you for making me do my exercises. I only blamed you. You were a great dad. I miss you every conscious moment.

Pete realized he no longer needs to be best or first. He's content just being Pete, no longer tries to be Superman.

But his realization came too late to save the relationship he treasured most: His marriage.

Peter Bland: I have never been into a crevasse as deep as this. I have never been on a journey as long as this. I have never taken anything that's drawn upon my strength and resources anywhere near this.

Pete's adventures had cost his family dearly, both financially and emotionally.

Julia Bland: The impact on me has been more than I think is fair. To be honest, Pete's come first a lot. He's had to come first medically. And then, the children come first as well. So you get kind of lost in the wash. It's that frustration, that you need to, that you're a person as well, what happens to you? Where do you go?

Earlier this year, Jools asked Pete for a separation, and moved off the Bland family farm. The kids divide their time between the two.

Over the eight years since Pete's accident, Jools found a way to deal with her frustration and uncertainty.

Sara James: Is this the place where you just let it all out?

Julia Bland: This is the place, this is a padded cell (laugh).

With Pete's help, Jools converted this barn into an art studio. What began as a kind of self-prescribed therapy turned into a career. And last December, Jools had her first gallery exhibition.

Sara James:  Where does the Peter and Julia Bland saga end? 

Julia Bland:  I'm not exactly sure. But-- I have a great feeling about it.  I think that-- if we put fear aside and fear of how things might turn out, and trust, I think that it-- it'll all work out how it's supposed to.

Jools says she's determined to follow her path even as Pete follows his.

Pete regularly ventures to Antarctica. But rather than attempt risky world firsts, he leads groups of business professionals. Teaching them the difficult life lessons he has learned, here on the continent that cost him so much.

Peter Bland: I remain the adventurer. I am Pete Bland. And I'm an adventurer with a message. Test the boundaries. Go beyond the comfort zone that might be holding you back. And seek the goal beyond. But make sure you take full due diligence on the price that might be spent upon others who love you dearly.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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