The Remarkables podcast

The Last Great First

By:
Dr Gareth Andrews,
Dr Richard Stephenson
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We wanted to uncover and explore remarkable stories about incredible people working to better their local (and sometimes global!) communities and inspire younger generations. Our new podcast – The Remarkables – does just that.

There are so many stories that it was hard to choose. That’s a good thing! We feel incredibly lucky to share these stories and hope you feel as inspired as we do.

In our first episode, we meet Drs Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson from The Last Great First, who in October will attempt to become the first polar explorers to complete a fully unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica. Their expedition will push boundaries of what’s humanly possible and is an opportunity to collect critical data for climate scientists and inspire younger generations. They talk about their journey to get to this point, how they will prepare, and what a day in the life of a polar explorer looks like.

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or within your browser.

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Rebecca Archer

Welcome to The Remarkables – Grant Thornton's new podcast that seeks to uncover stories about remarkable people doing incredible things for their community, bettering the world for future generations and inspiring others to do the same. I'm Rebecca Archer and today I'm joined by polar explorers and doctors Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson from The Last Great First. They will attempt to complete the first fully unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica.

Welcome Gareth and Richard.

Rebecca Archer

Now you're about to undertake an incredible expedition, the last remaining polar challenge. Tell me, what's driving you?

Gareth Andrews

There are a number of elements to this project. There's the element of this incredible journey that's never been completed before. The journey that conceived by the great explorers 100 years ago. The chance to push the boundaries of what's possible. But also a huge part of it is the fact that we can get crucial climate change data, there can't be gathered in any other way and will make a significant contribution to our knowledge of the climate now and into the future. And also, you know, a great challenge like this along with our partners in Scouts Australia has the chance to inspire a generation of young people to change what it is that they're most passionate about. So there are, there's a huge amount of good that can come out of this expedition.

Rebecca Archer

Now, of course, the expedition was originally supposed to take place three years ago. What happened? What was the delay?

Richard Stephenson

You know, there's been some pretty major global events over the last couple of years and the COVID pandemic has had a huge impact on all of us, and particularly Gareth and I and our families. We’re both doctors; Gareth’s an anesthetist and works in operating theatres and intensive care, and I'm an emergency physician working in emergency departments. And so we both professionally, have been very much on the front line of the global fight against coronavirus. And so we first started to plan and prepare for this expedition more than three years ago really now. And just as we're starting to build momentum along came the COVID pandemic and I guess at the end of the day, first and foremost we're doctors and we saw it as you know, we needed to step up and play our part professionally in the global response. And so the expedition went on hold for probably about a year and then as we're starting to move on from certainly that kind of most early acute phases of the global pandemic, we've been able to step back a little bit and re-focus our attentions onto the expedition.

Rebecca Archer

I understand this isn't your first polar expedition. Can you talk about some of the others that you've done?

Gareth Andrews

Our first together was an expedition to the magnetic North Pole in 2013, and it was the first big expedition we'd been on together. I think it really set the scene. We both enjoyed being in the polar environment, and we just clicked as a team on that first expedition and it was then that we started talking about the crossing of Antarctica and so it's really been In development for 10 years. And over that time, you know, we've been in some pretty tricky situations together that's tested our mettle and our teamwork and our capacity to spend lots of time together.

And so, and it's come to this point where we think where we're ready for this for this monumental challenge and being, most of our expeditions have been up in, up in the high arctic and you know, we've had polar bears rummaging around outside our tent in the middle of the night, and the big polar storms and things like that. So we feel like over the last 10 years we've gained enough experience to give this great expedition a good crack.

Rebecca Archer

Naturally an expedition of this magnitude can't be done without a team. What does your support network look like?

Richard Stephenson

Yes. So, I mean, we're incredibly lucky to have had hugely supportive team of people behind us. I think one of the things that were very aware of this expedition is that what we're doing, it really is kind of pushing the envelope of what is humanly possible and to do that, you've got to get everything right. So every little facet of the expedition has to be perfect. We need to have everything you kind of normally think of like your equipment and your fitness, but also things like your nutrition is incredibly complicated. Your training is incredibly complicated. And so we've been lucky enough to be able to build a team around us of different people, able to focus on those different elements. And we were both, you know, we both have families, we both have young kids. And so, first and foremost in that team, of course, is our families, our partners who allowing us to go away and do these crazy adventures, which is which is no small thing, but you know, we have people specifically helping us out with our nutrition. So we have a couple of different dieticians working with us; we're working with food companies were working with food companies like Fire Pot Foods in the UK, for example, provide us with bespoke nutrition.

We're working with different clothing companies to make sure that we've got exactly the right clothes. We're working with Arc’Teryx, and with Salomon too who provide us with our clothing. We've got different people working on some fundraising and management, working with people that deal with our relationship with sponsors like Grant Thornton for example. So, you know, there's loads of different people working every different little facet of this expedition. There's no way that we could be pulling something like this off and if it wasn't for these people helping us in the background.

Gareth Andrews

Yeah. And I would just like to add to that. It's almost like Rich and I at the front of the expedition – the people that will be on the ice, but it's not possible without the people behind us. And really the core team would be our Team Manager, which happens to be my wife Andrea and the chairman of our expedition, Mark Richardson and also Grant Thornton getting behind us. And we really consider Grant Thornton to be part of our team because like I said, there are so many different components to making this expedition a success. And Grant Thornton are playing a key role in that. And we're really we're thrilled that there they’re are part of the team and part of this project.

Richard Stephenson

We talked a little bit earlier on about when you asked us why we're doing this expedition and the enduring legacy of the expedition is really important and that has two key facets to it, one of which is the climate science data, that is truly adding to the global knowledge bank of Antarctic climate science and wider climate science, but also the community aspect; and we have a very close relationship with Scouts Australia to working with young adventurers, young people.

But also Grant Thornton ties very keenly into that community aspect of it. You know, we want people to be following us, we want people to join the community and be part of the expedition with us. And so relationships with companies like Grant Thornton, with all the employees getting behind us is incredibly important for us during the expedition. But also when it comes to that, the legacy we build afterwards.

Rebecca Archer

I wonder if you could walk me through a day in the life of an explorer in Antarctica. What happens exactly?

Gareth Andrews

So basically we're up at 6am. You start off by chipping away the ice on the zip on your sleeping bag. So during the night, as you're breathing, your breath condenses and forms this icy cocoon basically, around your head. So you have to chip your way out of your sleeping bag and pull on your thermals, open up the tent to get to your little kitchen area, which is just in the sort of porch part of your tent, get your stove running and remember, it's minus 30. So you're touching bits of metal with your gloves on to get your stove running. But once the stove is on and burning your back in your happy place. But getting first, getting out of your sleeping bag is probably one of the hardest things you can do. And then it's breakfast. So a hot breakfast and a cup of tea. And then, and then we break down the camp, we pack everything up, pack our tent up, and leave nothing behind. So there will be no trace that we've ever been there. And then we're off on our skis at 8am. So we move at military efficiency essentially. So those two hours in the morning, every step of that is put in place as part of our systems. And then we're on our skis at 8am.

And then over the course of the day we'll ski for an hour and a half, and then we'll have a 10 minute break, 10-15 minute break. And then we'll do that five times throughout the day. So five, 1.5 hour skiing sessions, and then we'll finish the day on our skis at 6pm. And then from 6 to 10pm, as soon as we finish, as soon as we get off our skis, our tent is up straight away, and we're in the tent and we're eating and resting and recuperating for the following day. Because it's such a long expedition. Everything that we do is geared towards efficiency and forward movement. So we're not actually on our skis, everything we're doing is making us ready for the next day and it's all about performing at our best when we're feeling our worst. So you know, really recuperating when we can. And then as soon as we get to 10pm, we're in our sleeping bags and we're asleep. So the other thing is because it's such a long expedition we're going to be very strict on our sleep time. So we'll get eight hours of sleep every night, because if we start chipping into that thinking maybe we'll ski just a little bit further today, or we've got kit to fix. So we'll stay up an extra hour. You start getting into a sleep debt. And because we're going to be exercising so intensely, that sleep debt will accumulate very fast. So we've got a strict eight hour policy on our sleep and that's generally how our day will go.

Rebecca Archer

Okay. So that's 1.5 hours, five times a day that you're on your skis physically on the ice. How much distance would you cover on an average day?

Richard Stephenson

We have a pretty narrow, pretty tight seasonal window in Antarctica for covering our sort of distance. We have to cover 2,600km. Obviously, conditions in Antarctica pretty extreme at the best of times, essentially need the Antarctic summer to be able to exist out there with people in tents.

So we're going to start right at the beginning of the Antarctic summer, and we're going to finish right at the end of that Antarctic summer. Already pretty pushing those envelopes with about 100 maybe 110 days out on the ice. That means we've got to cover about 26km a day, every day over the course. So actually, in terms of speed, you're skiing at maybe 3-4km an hour, but it's got to be incredibly sustained. As we're skiing, all of our equipment is in the sleds behind us and those sleds are going to probably weigh about 200kg each at the start of the expedition. So basically just maintaining this really slow, slow, steady pace for an extremely long period of time.

Rebecca Archer

You mentioned the polar bears foraging around outside your tent. Beyond that. What sort of other challenges do you expect to face? And how exactly do you prepare for those?

Gareth Andrews

I think there are the immediate challenges that you face in the Antarctic environment, just, you know, primarily minus 40 with a headwind. You know, it's a challenge yourself just to just to stay alive in those sorts of temperatures. And then you put on top of that huge storms, wind that will literally blow you off your feet and all the way through to, you know, they’re the physical challenges that we're going to face. But by far the biggest challenges will be mental. I talked a little bit about, you know, getting out of your sleeping bag every morning being one of the hardest things. But you know, getting out of the tent in the morning knowing that you've got a grueling day ahead of you on your skis, dragging this incredibly heavy sled. You know, when you're on day 80, even day 60, where you're still, you're only just past halfway. You've got a huge distance to go, you're starting to feel tired, you know, those are the days where the biggest challenges come and you know, how do you prepare for?

How do you prepare for that? Well, we go, we go on expeditions together, you know, we've been preparing for 10 years for those mental challenges. We have days where one of us is up and one of us is down and it's the person, the one that's up, you know, is the one that drags the other one along, and that's where teamwork comes in and just little things, just working little psychological things into every day. A smile and a handshake at the start up every day before we get on our skis. I mean it seems silly, but it sets the tone, brings you back together as a team. It makes a massive difference. So all those things over the years, we've just been working into our, you know, our daily routines and it really helps.

Rebecca Archer

You're of course both doctors. So if one of you gets sick or hurt, you're in a pretty good position to be able to deal with that. Obviously that's very handy. But if you do become sick, it's not as though you can just pop down the road to the pharmacy. You're in Antarctica. So how do you deal with that kind of situation?

Richard Stephenson

First and foremost, it's about prevention. And one of the things that we're aware of, this is such a long expedition, and we got to avoid wear and tear as much as we possibly can. There's a certain amount of, of course is inevitable. But you can minimise that and you, you know, 26km every day pulling 200kg behind you, 110 days, you basically got to be able to just keep doing that forever. You can't be getting blisters, you can't be getting aches and pains in your joints. You can't be getting a bit low on your micronutrients. You can't be skimping on your calories. Even just a few calorie deficit every day is going to have a huge cumulative effect over the course of the expedition.

Part of that whole strategy for the expedition is making this kind of almost a way of life rather than a kind of sprint for the finish because it's such a long expedition. But it's, you know, there is always going to be the risk that we either have health problems that we have injuries. We’ll carry a certain amount of medical equipment with us; as with all of our equipment, you know, make the same argument for, say, for example, spare tent poles. You know, if we break a couple of tent poles and we can't get our tent up properly, that's the end of the expedition. But how many spare tent poles you take when every single spare tent poles adds however many grams, the sled that you're pulling and that's a tension that exists with everything that we're doing and all of our planning. The same goes for medical supply.

And between the two of us, we can apply some pretty advanced medical techniques if required, but how much of the equipment required to do that do we take with us. So at the end of the day, we're basically going to have a fairly robust if you like, for injuries and sprains, minor trauma, we're going to be carrying drugs to treat some infections and pain and a few other things. But fundamentally we can't do that much more than people with basic medical training will be able to do. What we can provide though is that mutual support and spotting. So we'll be keeping an eye on each other constantly. And it's another facet of the teamwork. Is that what we probably do have as doctors is that sort of spider sense about looking at the people, telling if they're sick, telling what's wrong. You know, making sure that things don't spiral, get too far and make sure that neither one of us isn't kind of getting crook without knowing that we're getting crook and intervening early. And if we have to get evacuated, we do have the means required to summon help. And though there's a potential for us to have to cope for several days potentially on the weather before rescue can get to us. We will always be able to summon help and evacuation will always be an option on expedition.

Gareth Andrews

Just to add a little bit to that in terms of our teamwork and things, it's why we choose to go on these expeditions together. And it's why you have to select your teammates so carefully when you're entering you know, adversity and dangerous environments and things. So a huge amount of what we do is care for each other basically, and help each other through. And like I said, recognise when one of us is getting, getting sick and when one of us is down, if you don't have a teammate that's going to look after you at your lowest point, then you may as well not go in the first place. So that's a huge element of our team and the expedition.

Rebecca Archer

Mental fortitude obviously plays a huge role in taking on an expedition like this. What sorts of things do you fall back on when the going gets tough?

Richard Stephenson

One of the things that Gareth and I have noticed over the years of doing these things together is we're quite good at almost working kind of synergistically with this naturally, which I think is an important point of how we work together. We tend to have opposing good and bad days, you know, we tend to have a day where whichever one of us is in a grump for some reason, the other one is feeling reasonably perky and we're quite good at having that team dynamic.

And I think, you know, I still remember a time actually, I don’t think I’ve told this story before, that we were on a crossing of Iceland. And on our last day or second to last day, we're both knackered, we're carrying these 50kg rucksacks, which is just a crazy weight to be carrying on your back. We're a bit miserable. But we're nearly getting to the end of it, and we were trying to bash our way through a bunch of kind of arctic scrubby tundra next to a river. There was no track. We needed to cover 30km that day or something. And it was at the start of the day, and I was in the right mood. And I was grumbling along to myself about how terrible it was going to be all day. Gareth just called me out on it was like “Rich, just stop it, right, you can't keep, just stop moaning. We need to stay positive”. And he was totally right. And I was like, yeah, maybe I should actually just shut up and get on with it. And that was exactly what I needed to be told at that time. And I think that you know, calling out, talking about stuff openly, not bottling is the way that it was a tenet as to why we function well in that domain.

Rebecca Archer

It sounds like an extremely close bond relationship, almost like family really. How exactly did you both meet and how did all of this get started?

Richard Stephenson

We are family, which is kind of helpful. We’re brother in laws. So Gareth, Gareth's sister is my, is my partner.

Gareth Andrews

The magnetic North Pole expedition that that I mentioned before, I was looking for a teammate basically. And it's quite difficult to find people with the right skill set, and the inclination to do something like that. And I was talking to my sister about it, and Rich overheard, you know, Richard's got a long mountaineering adventuring background even before we met, and he basically said, I'll come and that was, we didn't really know each other very well.

Richard Stephenson

Yeah, we'd not been together very long because you know, originally, you can probably tell by the accent, but Gareth’s lived in Sydney for what, 20 years now and I've lived in New Zealand for more than 10 years. And so when I first met his sister, we, I took me a few years before, before I met Gareth and I still remember they were on Facetime chatting about stuff and I was bumbling around in the background somewhere and then suddenly my ears pricked up. “He just mentioned expedition!” and I suddenly stopped doing the washing up, or whatever I was doing the background was like, “ahh, that sounds pretty good. I’ll just insert myself into this conversation. I’ll come!”. So that happened 10 years ago.

Gareth Andrews

It could have either have gone very well or very badly.

Rebecca Archer

In terms of actually being out on the ice. What do you do? Do you listen to music? Do you have podcasts going to inspire yourselves? What's your routine while you're out there in terms of keeping entertained and keeping going.

Gareth Andrews

It's a very, it's a very individual thing. During the day we don't chat very much, it's actually quite difficult because if you can imagine, you're wearing huge polar jacket, with your hood up. It's always windy, freezing cold. You've got this big fur rough. Underneath, you've got a neck warmer, a face mask, goggles and a hat, and sometimes even a balaclava over all that. So holding a conversation when you're skiiing is almost impossible. And then when you stop for a break, it's not like, you know, it's not really a social occasion, you just sit and you eat as much as you can, then carry on. So really, we only, we only generally catch up in the, in the tent at the end of the day.

Me personally, I spend the morning just in my own head, with no music, no podcasts and then at about two o'clock just when that sort of afternoon slump comes, I'll put some music on or I'll listen to a podcast or something like that just to get me through the last couple of hours. Because part of what I really enjoy about these expeditions is just the silence or just the swish of your skis. Just the wind in your ears. It's amazing. So I enjoy that for the first part. And then when you get a bit fed up of all that stuff I just listen to some music.

Rebecca Archer

You're working with a lot of different sponsors for this expedition. What stands out to you about them?

Gareth Andrews

You know, so many of our different sponsors come from different places. So like for example, working with Grant Thornton is incredible for us. It opens up a whole community of people and just to be backed by a forward-thinking organisation that are really behind us gives us a huge amount of support and motivation. And that's why we're so thrilled to have Grant Thornton behind us. And then there are sponsors that are supplying critical things for us. So Arc’teryx are supplying all our clothing for the expedition and basically the world's best brand, or the world's best gear for extreme environments. And when you only get to take one jacket, one pair of trousers for 3.5 months of possibly the hardest endurance imaginable, you want it to be the absolute best. And when you step outside your tent, you know, we think of our tent as a survival cell basically. Once we're inside and the stove is on, it's quite remarkable. It can be -40 outside, hurricane force winds, but inside the tent you wouldn't even know about it. So when, when you step out of the tent, you're really in the elements and that's where you're outer clothing plays a huge role.

And so Arc’teryx, you know, they're such an essential sponsor. And we're really proud to be to be wearing their gear basically. And then, and then there's Suunto, who are essentially our physiology monitoring sponsor. So we'll be using their smart technology to be monitoring everything about our physiological performance, with heart rate monitors and their latest GPS watches, we’ll be able to track every part of our physiological performance, from our calorie burn to the meters that we're gaining every day, altitude, all the way through to even tracking our sleep cycles, which is so important. And working out how long we're spending in deep REM sleep, you know, that rejuvenating sleep, and it will allow us to track how we're performing over 3.5 months. And so, you know, and then there are food sponsors in Firepot. We've got a huge range of sponsors. I’m not going to go through all of them, but it just gives you an idea that every single one of them fills a real niche that we need to fill.

Richard Stephenson

Yeah. And I think, I think the thing that ties them all together really, is this kind of willingness to be, to believe, to get excited, to want to be involved in something that's kind of pushing the envelope, doing something that's never been done before. Doing something that's right at the edge of what is kind of humanly possible, while using the opportunity to inspire new young people or other people. And shine a light on the greatest existential challenge that is facing humanity and that is climate change. That's an amazing opportunity. That's what makes us passionate and excited about it. I think fundamentally that's the same thing that makes our sponsors passionate excited about it.

Rebecca Archer

Absolutely. Well said. Just finally, before we wrap up, I'm interested to know what your little luxuries might be that you really miss when you're out on the expeditions. I think obviously friends and family goes without saying you must, so look forward to seeing them on your return. But what are the little things that when you're out there you really pine for and think I can't wait to get home to experience that?

Richard Stephenson

I’m a Yorkshire man originally, and I’m afraid that I’m a little bit of a tea addict. I’m drinking right now while I’m talking. I'm going to miss a really nice Yorkshire tea. I’m not going to get that for a long time.

Gareth Andrews

Rich drinks more tea than anyone I've ever met. So I can, I can back up his, his assertions towards tea drinking. For me, I think it's the freedom of being in the ocean and because you go on these expeditions, you don't see the sea for months on end. And then you're wearing 1000 layers of clothing. Yeah, I’m going to miss it.

Rebecca Archer

Gareth, Richard, thank you so much for your time. The next time we speak to you, you will actually be on the ice. I'm wondering how we can continue to follow your journey.

Gareth Andrews

There will be a map on our website, that will be updated at hourly intervals with our position in Antarctica. There'll be a blog on the website as we're going. https://thelastgreatfirst.com.au/ Follow us on Instagram. There will be daily updates on Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter and there's also the ability to donate to the expedition through our website. So if you'd like to buy us an an evening meal or a chocolate bar or something like that, then you can go to the website and donate.

Richard Stephenson

There's a lot happening at the moment as we prepare, we’re training in New Zealand as we speak, there’s going to be a lot going on over the next few months before we hit the ice. And so the sooner the better, get on Instagram and become part of The Last Great First community.

Rebecca Archer

Thank you both so much for your time today. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you and hearing all about your accomplishments up till now and the anticipation for this next expedition. I wish you all the very best of luck.

If you liked this podcast and would like to hear more from The Last Great First and other remarkable stories. You can find and subscribe to The Remarkable podcast by Grant Thornton Australia on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

 

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The Remarkables

We wanted to uncover and explore remarkable stories about incredible people working to better their local (and sometimes global!) communities and inspire younger generations.

Our new podcast – The Remarkables – does just that.