Australian polar explorers complete final gear check before attempting first unsupported coast-to-coast crossing of Antarctica
Imagine skiing the distance from Cairns to Adelaide, lugging a 200-kilogram sled behind you, in temperatures as low as -60 degrees Celsius.
You’re traversing snow and ice, travelling through glaciers which have never been explored, and you’re doing it all with nothing but the support of the person next to you.
That is the challenge UK-born surgeons Richard Stephenson and his brother-in-law Gareth Andrews are tackling as they take on what has been dubbed The Last Great First — attempting to become the first people to complete an unsupported coast-to-coast crossing of Antarctica.
A boyhood dream
The pair completed their final gear checks this week in the NSW Snowy Mountains with the help of local Scouts, ahead of the start of their trek in mid-October.
“We’re very excited, we’re a bit nervous, it’s been so long in the planning we just want to get out there now. We’re ready,” Dr Andrews said.
Both were part of Scouts as children and were recently made honorary Australian Scouts.
They have worked in hospitals in Sydney, Canberra and Dunedin in New Zealand.
“Scouts fosters teamwork, mateship, commitment. It has set the scene for all the exciting adventures we’ve been on,” Dr Stephenson said.
The explorers will have to draw on their commitment to complete their 110-day journey.
It includes a 3,000-metre ascent, including through terrain which has not been explored before.
“It’s one of the last great journeys left on Earth, and we’ve been talking about doing it for 10 years,” Dr Andrews said.
“It epitomises everything that is wild and extreme about the natural world. It’s a pristine environment, nature in its most raw form. It’s a privilege just to be there.”
Alone in the wilderness
At the most remote part of their journey, a rescue plane will be a full day’s flight away – and that’s only if conditions hold up.
“If accidents happen they normally happen in bad weather. So it could take them a couple of days to get to us,” Dr Andrews said.
They’ll have a satellite phone to check in with their team each day, and carry all their supplies in sleds towed behind them.
The pair have undertaken a gruelling three-year training regime to prepare themselves for the tough conditions.
“The majority of our training has been dragging big 4×4 tyres up and down the beach for hours on end, it simulates dragging a heavy sled through heavy snow very well,” Dr Andrews said.
“It’s about being big and strong as well as endurance fit.”
Three pairs of socks and a lot of imagination
It was -2C in Guthega where the pair met the Scouts troop, significantly warmer than what they can expect on their journey.
Jindabyne Scouts leader Tony Cowcher said one of the children asked how many pairs of socks they would bring.
The answer was just three.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Mr Cowcher said.
“That’s one pair a month.”
He said the Scouts that got to meet the pair, some as young as 11, came away dreaming big.
“While I’m not sure that many of them are about to jet off to Antarctica, here are two ex-Scouts who have done amazing things with their lives,” he said.
“It’s proving that you can look wider, and aspire to almost anything.”