Ski 2,600km in 110 days across Antarctica. Could you even contemplate the pure mental strength that would require?
Two doctors, one Australian, one New Zealander, will attempt something no person has ever accomplished. Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson launched a $250,000 Kickstarter fundraise with the backing of the Australian British Chamber of Commerce on July 7 to help fund the Last Great First Expedition.
The pair will drag lightweight aluminium sleds packed with 200 kilograms of survival equipment across Antarctica unaided. Half of the weight they pull will be food, so as they eat, their loads will at least become lighter.
If you think this doesn’t sound too bad, consider that Antarctica is not an ice shelf like its northern Arctic cousin. Antarctica has significant geography; mountains, ravines, glaciers and snowdrifts. It’s not flat like
the Nordic ski course at your favourite ski resort.
It’s easy to become blasé about human feats of endurance when Mt Everest now looks like rush hour in Tokyo, and racing across America on a bicycle is yesterday’s news.
Antarctica is not as crowded as the Himalayas in the climbing season, so maybe that’s a bonus for two 39-year-old doctors hoping to complete what they’re rightly calling the Last Great First Expedition.
The Last Great Explorers
Henry Worsley was a ramrod straight Brit whom I met in Geneva in 2009. A quiet man, Worsley at first didn’t exude any particular aura. Worsley was the godfather of my business partner’s son.
This restrained man’s demeanour only changed when prompted about his most recent travels. They weren’t travels, as I might have imagined when first introduced; instead, he started to recount Himalayan treks and sojourns into equatorial jungles.
I remember that my partner prompted him about the next expedition he had planned, and Henry went on to describe some Arctic training he had been doing with some ex-SAS and Royal Marine Commando mates.
You see, Henry Worsley was planning to nordic ski across the continent of Antarctica, unaided.
I only met Henry twice, though my business partner told me some stories about that man’s exploits in Iraq and Libya. It was only when my partner showed me a letter framed in his son’s bedroom that I understood a bit more about Henry.
In the letter Worsley wrote to the toddler, he described what it was like to lead a team on one of his expeditions. He didn’t travel like an average person; he explored. Strings of small triangular Sherpa flags festooned the bedroom. And on the dresser were little souvenirs from far off places.
My first thought was ungenerous. The little boy whose room I’d seen was going to be very spoilt by his godfather and parents, if that’s how his first memories were formed. In recollection, though, I think I was envious of that four-year-old. How many children get a godfather who is larger than life, like Henry?
Henry Worsley died in 2016, 50 km short of completing the first solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica. The solo explorer was medevaced to a hospital in South Africa. They said he died of an abdominal infection, but who knows what the trek across Antarctica had done to that quiet man?
High School Physics
Go to a gym and put 200 kilograms on a bar. Now try and move them across the floor by pushing or pulling from one end. Then lift one end of the bar to kneecap height and do the same exercise. Feel the weight and bulk of the load.
Consider the following. A sled stands atop a snow-covered hill, approximately 500 metres to a flat piece of the terrain below. The slope is 30 degrees. The sled has little to stop it from sliding to the bottom, so like a high school physics problem, you can calculate a string of answers to describe the object’s terminal velocity and the force required to halt the sleds progress.
Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson will have to exert a force at least equal to what you just calculated to slow the sled. If they fail to produce said force, they’ll be sent sliding down the hill with obvious dire consequences. A best, they’ll end up getting dragged to the bottom; at worst it will end the expedition for one or both of them.
Training To Survive
Gareth Andrews looks like he’s taken up one of those slightly wacky exercise fads as he drags a truck tyre suspended from his waist by a rope along a Sydney beach. He has a heavy-looking pack on and helps propel himself using two ski poles.
To cover the distance from the Bay of Whales, across the Ross Ice Shelf to the other side of the continent, the two doctors will need to train as they’ve never done before.
There’s a three-kilometre rise in the 100 kilometres up the Transantarctic Mountains to the South pole. If they make it that far, along a new unexplored glacier, they’ll still have to tackle 4 metre high sastrugi – snow dunes, before the final run to the opposite coast.
In 1911 Brit Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set off on a race to the South Pole. Amundsen beat Scott by 34 days.
The aim of Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition was to gather scientific and geographical information. Scott’s entire party of five died on the return journey from the pole; some of their bodies, journals, and photographs were found by a search party eight months later.
Maybe even more famous were the exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. That expedition left Britain in August 1914, five days after the start of the Great War.
Shackleton’s would become a classic tale of survival and leadership. The expedition lost its ship, was stranded on ice flows at various stages and forced into open boats to traverse a course across the South Atlantic to rescue at South Georgia and Elephant Islands.
Preparation And Endurance
Andrews and Stephenson will have some advantages over the early explorers. The duo will have satellite phones and GPS; no dead reckoning in the fashion of Shackleton’s ace navigator, Frank Worsley.
As doctors, the two have readily calculated the physiological demands of the journey.
Every 10 hours of daily exertion will cost approximately 5,000 calories per man. That 5,000 calories are the same as what a rider on the Tour de France expends in a single stage, but more than double what the average person spends in a typical day. They estimate they’ll lose 15 to 20 kilograms of body weight each over the 110 days.
Food will be energy-rich but lightweight. Mostly the men will have to rehydrate their rations. Between main meals, there will be snacks made up to maximise replenishment of precious calories. Sydney University sports dietician Ashleigh Brunner is part of the team helping the preparations.
Along the way, they’ll also have the ability, thanks to modern biotech, to measure heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and recovery rates. Sleep is going to be critical and not easily accomplished at a time when the sun never sets on the southern continent.
Additionally, on the journey, they will gather data on weather and air condition. The Australian Antarctic Division will use the data to support research into the state of the planet.
To accomplish the feat, they need to raise $1.7 million. Even with the support of family and friends, they’ll still have to pay $1 million to Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, a major operator of Antarctic tourism (ALE).
ALE will fly the adventurers from Chile to the jumping-off point in Antarctica and provide emergency support if the worse happens and one or both need evacuation.
The planning for a medical emergency is meticulous. There’s a multi-level system of emergency beacons and daily phone calls to a base camp pre-planned.
Good Luck And Godspeed
As a boy, I was given a book about astronauts. It was 1971, and children’s books weren’t the high definition interactive extravaganzas you see today. Each double-page spread highlighted a different mission and a different astronaut.
On one page, there was an illustration of John Glenn looking out of the capsule of Friendship 7, smiling, confident, determined. Glenn was to become the first American to orbit the earth.
The reason for Glenn’s look was he’d spent 25 hours and 25 minutes in the spacecraft performing hangar and altitude tests and 59 hours and 45 minutes in the simulator. He flew 70 simulated missions and reacted to 189 simulated system failures. The preparation had been meticulous.
Glenn’s mission control partner Scott Carpenter farewelled the Astronaut at launch and said, “Godspeed John Glenn”. Carpenters words and tone apply equally well today, so Godspeed to Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson.
And Godspeed Henry Worsley, wherever your spirit is now.