Dr Gareth Andrews and Dr Richard Stephenson aim to cover 2,600km of snow and ice, conquering Antarctica’s two permanent ice sheets.
By Jessica Carpani
15 October 2020 • 3:00pm
Dr Gareth Andrews (L) and Dr Richard Stephenson
Attempting the world’s first unsupported ski across Antarctica takes endurance, planning and intense training.
But for the two Britons planning such a feat, they had no idea that when they started their adventure, it would be shelved for one far greater – working on the front lines as doctors in the fight against Covid-19.
“The parallels are quite stark. Here in the hospital, you know it’s going to be hard and you don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. It’s like a vast ice sheet, you don’t know where the end is,” says Dr Gareth Andrews, practising anaesthetist at The University Hospital of Wales and one half of the team set to take on The Last Great First.
Dr Andrews, 38, along with with his brother-in-law Dr Richard Stephenson, 39, first dreamed of crossing the entire continental landmass of Antarctica eight years ago, during an expedition to the magnetic north pole.
“I didn’t really know Richard very well,” recalls Dr Andrews. “He had just started a relationship with my sister and I knew he was a very competent mountaineer and travelled all over the world climbing. We were chatting one day and I told him about this idea and he said ‘yeah, I’m in’, so we went from there.”
They began planning in June 2019, both working full time as doctors and spending their evenings and weekends meeting with sponsors, training and planning a robust search and rescue plan should they need it, though they hope they won’t.
Dr Gareth Andrews training on the beach at Ogmore-by-Sea, Wales. He and his brother-in-law Dr Richard Stephenson are going to ski across Antarctica in November 2021
The men aim to cover 2,600km of snow and ice over 110 days, conquering Antarctica’s two permanent ice sheets, all while pulling a 200kg sled each.
If completed, they will follow in the footsteps of other great explorers, such as Borge Ousland who journeyed across the region in 1997, albeit with the aid of a sail.
A shorter crossing was achieved by Colin O’Brady and Louis Rudd in 2018, who took on a 1,480km expedition over the duration of 54 and 56 days respectively, journeying across the Antarctic landmass but not tackling the vast permanent ice sheets that make up the wider continent.
But as the world was crippled by the new novel coronavirus, the adventure, which was set for 2021, came to a standstill.
Dr Stephenson, originally from York, currently lives in New Zealand, while Dr Andrews, originally from Cornwall, had been living in Australia for the last 15 years, moving to Cardiff on 5 March.
His first day leading an intubation team was on 16 March – a week later Prime Minister Boris Johnson – and his counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – plunged the UK into an unprecedented lockdown.
Just days after beginning a new job, all semi elective procedures were cancelled at Dr Andrews’ hospital, which went straight into its Covid-19 pandemic response.
This meant Dr Andrews worked on emergency intubation teams, responding to calls from across the hospital to treat their sickest patients and put them on ventilators or implement other life saving strategies before taking them to intensive care.
“It was then that I realised the magnitude of what we were facing and the reality really hit home. There was just no capacity to do anything else or to continue with the expedition.
“We had to do what was most important and what was most important at that time was to give everything we have, all our focus and time and energy into looking after our patients and our communities,” explained Dr Andrews.
What followed was a test of emotional endurance, with the pandemic throwing a training exercise that the pair could never have predicted – building up mental strength.
“As doctors, we’ve all looked after very sick and dying patients but never so many and never so often and the emotional side of things was quite hard to deal with.
“Plus, on top of that, you would see your colleagues and everyone else in the hospital – the intensive care nurses all the way through to the porters and security – you could really see the strain on everybody. But we all kept turning up and kept doing our job day after day, because that’s what was needed,” recalls Dr Andrews.
“Working throughout the pandemic has given me a lot of mental strength, to keep going and to have the confidence in myself and my abilities and in the people around me.
“The experience will definitely make a big impact around my performance in Antarctica,” he added.
It was seeing how their battle-weary colleagues responded to the fight, working 12 hour shifts in full PPE, that made the pair decide to team up with the charity HEROES, founded by NHS workers for NHS workers, in a bid to raise £1 million to support those on the frontline.
The money will provide 51,000 visors, 43,750 gowns, 53,450 scrubs, 4,000 respirator masks and 100 childcare grants.
Dr Gareth Andrews training on the beach at Ogmore-by-Sea, Wales CREDIT: JAY WILLIAMS
As lockdown eased, the pair have been able to accelerate their preparations for The Last Great First, including more robust outdoor training, running through the streets of Cardiff and lugging tires across the parks of Dunedin and beaches of Ogmore-by-Sea.
They are due to leave next November, with Dr Andrew’s set to spend his 40th birthday on the ice sheet.
“We won’t be able to spare the weight to bring a birthday cake though,” he laughs.
Instead, they will melt snow and use the water to re-hydrate their packet food, eating only when they stop for 10 minutes breaks every hour and a half, during 12 hours of daily skiing.
But for Dr Andrews and Dr Stephenson, it will all be worth it.
“Antarctica is the stuff of adventurers’ dreams really, because it’s the last great polar first, no one has ever crossed Antarctica unsupported.
“If we can do it we’re really pushing the boundaries of what’s humanly possible and in doing so we have the chance to do a really great thing in supporting HEROES.”
To find out more about The Last Great First and HEROES you can visit www.thelastgreatfirst.net