Ski 2,600 km in 110 days across Antarctica. Could you even contemplate the sheer mental toughness it would require?
Two doctors, an Australian, a New Zealander, will try something that no one has ever accomplished. Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson launched a $ 250,000 Kickstarter fundraiser with the support of the Australian British Chamber of Commerce July 7 to help fund the last major first shipment.
The pair will drag lightweight aluminum sleds containing 200 kilograms of survival gear unaided through Antarctica. Half the weight they pull will be food, so as they eat their loads will at least get lighter.
If you think that doesn’t sound too bad, consider that Antarctica is not an ice shelf like its northern cousin in the Arctic. Antarctica has an important geography; mountains, ravines, glaciers and snowdrifts. It’s not flat like
the Nordic ski course in your favorite ski resort.
It’s easy to get jaded about human feats of endurance when Mount Everest now feels like rush hour in Tokyo, and racing across America on bikes is the news yesterday.
Antarctica isn’t as populated as the Himalayas during climbing season, so that might be a bonus for two 39-year-old medics hoping to complete what they rightly call the Last big first expedition.
The last great explorers
Henry Worsley was a heterosexual Briton whom I met in Geneva in 2009. A calm man, Worsley did not initially exude any particular aura. Worsley was the godfather of my business partner’s son.
This sober man’s attitude only changed when he was told about his most recent trips. They weren’t trips, as I might have imagined at first; instead, he began to recount Himalayan treks and stays in equatorial jungles.
I remember my partner telling him about the next expedition he had planned, and Henry then described training in the Arctic that he had taken with former companions from the SAS and the Royal Marine Commando.
You see, Henry Worsley was planning to Nordic ski across the continent of Antarctica, unaided.
I only met Henry twice, although my business partner told me stories about this man’s exploits in Iraq and Libya. It wasn’t until my partner showed me a framed letter in his son’s bedroom that I understood a little 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 room. And on the chest of drawers there were little memories from distant places.
My first thought was not generous. The little boy whose bedroom I had seen was going to be very spoiled by his godfather and his parents, if that is how his first memories were formed. In my memories, however, I think I was jealous of this four-year-old. How many children have a larger-than-life godfather like Henry?
Henry Worsley died in 2016, 50 km from the end of the first solo and unassisted Antarctic crossing. The solo explorer was evacuated to a hospital in South Africa. They said he died of an abdominal infection, but who knows what crossing Antarctica did to this silent man?
High school physics
Go to a gym and put 200 pounds on a barbell. Now try to move them across the floor by pushing or pulling from one end. Then lift one end of the bar to the height of the kneecap and do the same exercise. Feel the weight and volume of the load.
Consider the following. A sled sits on top of a snowy hill, about 500 meters from flat ground below. The slope is 30 degrees. The sled doesn’t have much to keep it from sliding down, so like a high school physics problem, you can calculate a series of responses to describe the terminal speed of the object and the force required to stop the progress of the sled.
Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson will need to exert at least as much force as you just calculated to slow the sled down. If they fail to produce this force, they will be sent sliding down the hill with obvious dire consequences. At best, they will end up being dragged down; at worst, it will end the expedition for one or both.
Train to survive
Gareth Andrews looks like he’s embraced one of those slightly wacky exercise styles as he drags a truck tire suspended from his waist by a rope along a Sydney beach. He carries a heavy backpack and helps propel himself with two ski poles.
To cover the distance from Whale Bay, across the Ross Shelf to the other side of the mainland, the two medics will need to train like they’ve never done before.
There is a three-kilometer climb out of the 100-kilometer climb up the Trans-Antarctic Mountains to the South Pole. If they make it that far, along a new unexplored glacier, they will still have to face 4 meter high sastrugi, snow dunes, before the final race to the opposite coast.
In 1911, Briton Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen set off on a race to the South Pole. Amundsen beat Scott by 34 days.
The purpose of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was to collect scientific and geographic information. All of Scott’s party of five died on the way home from the Pole; some of their bodies, newspapers and photographs were found by a search team eight months later.
Perhaps even more famous were the exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This expedition left Great 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, ran aground on ice flows at various stages, and was forced to board open boats to cross the South Atlantic to rescue the South Georgia and Elephant Islands.
Preparation and endurance
Andrews and Stephenson will have certain advantages over the early explorers. The duo will have satellite phones and a GPS; not in dead reckoning like Shackleton’s navigator ace Frank Worsley.
As doctors, the two easily calculated the physiological demands of the trip.
Every 10 hours of daily exertion will cost around 5,000 calories per man. Those 5,000 calories are equal to what a Tour de France rider spends on a single stage, but more than double what the average person spends on a typical day. They estimate that they will lose 15 to 20 kilograms of body weight each over the 110 days.
The food will be high in energy but light. Most of the time, men will need to rehydrate their rations. Between main meals, snacks will be prepared to maximize the replenishment of valuable calories. University of Sydney Sports Dietitian Ashleigh Brunner is part of the preparation support team.
Along the way, they will also have the ability, thanks to modern biotechnology, to measure heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and recovery rates. Sleep is going to be critical and not easy to achieve at a time when the sun never sets over the southern continent.
In addition, during the trip, they will collect data on the weather and air condition. The Australian Antarctic Division will use the data to support research on the state of the planet.
To accomplish the feat, they must raise $ 1.7 million. Even with the support of their family and friends, they will still have to pay $ 1 million for Logistics and expeditions to Antarctica, major operator of Antarctic tourism (ALE).
ALE will transport the adventurers from Chile to the point of departure in Antarctica and provide emergency assistance if the worst happens and one or both must be evacuated.
Planning for a medical emergency is meticulous. There is a tiered system of emergency beacons and daily phone calls to a pre-planned base camp.
As a child, I was given a book on astronauts. It was 1971, and children’s books weren’t the high-definition interactive extravagances 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 Friendship 7 capsule, smiling, confident, determined. Glenn would become the first American to orbit the Earth.
The reason for Glenn’s gaze was that he had spent 25 hours and 25 minutes in the spacecraft performing hangar and altitude tests and 59 hours and 45 minutes in the simulator. It flew 70 simulated missions and responded to 189 simulated system failures. The preparation had been meticulous.
Glenn’s Mission Control Partner Carpenter said goodbye to the astronaut at launch and said, “Godspeed John Glenn”. The words and tone of the carpenters apply just as well today, so good luck to Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson.
And Godspeed Henry Worsley, wherever your mind is now.