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Testing the limits

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 15 October 2012

Adventure and medicine are a powerful combination for Dr Gareth Andrews

Like many doctors, Dr Gareth Andrews is interested in seeing what the human body can do — and he’s prepared to push his own body to its limits to find out.

In April next year, Dr Andrews will take part in the 2013 Polar Challenge, which will see him trek and ski across more than 500 km of ice and snow from Truro in the Canadian Rockies to the North Pole.

Dr Andrews, a resident at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, and his teammate, Dr Richard Stephenson, from Dunedin, New Zealand, will each pull a 70 kg sled carrying all the equipment, food and fuel required to sustain them, plus a backpack weighing about 10 kg.

The 3-week race is also a test of navigation as the pair has to map their own route across the harsh terrain, which includes shifting sea ice and arctic islands. They will compete against six other 2–3-person teams from around the world — and Dr Andrews says they are racing to win.

It won’t be the first extreme endurance event for Dr Andrews. Last November he competed in a 5-day, self-supported 250 km run through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas in Nepal. In 2010 he ran a 250 km race in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

One of the reasons he competes in endurance races is his interest in seeing how hard the human body can be tested.

“I like to know what the human body is capable of. It’s very interesting from a medical point of view,” he says.

Dr Andrews also likes the fact that the races take him to places he wouldn’t see otherwise.

“In Nepal I was well off the beaten track, deep in the mountains. [In Chile] the desert was amazingly beautiful and very variable — the way it looked at different times of day. You get to see the world from a different perspective, and it’s just you and your backpack. It’s an amazing way to see the world.”

Dr Andrews finds that his medical training is a bonus, because he knows how to manage everything from nutrition and hydration to musculoskeletal injuries and blisters.

“It’s incredibly important”, he says. “I’ve seen fit, strong athletes just crumble over the period of 5 days and not finish or have to be hospitalised because they’re not managing their body properly.”

One of the biggest challenges for the North Pole expedition will be consuming enough food, as the pair is likely to burn off between 6000 and 8000 calories each day.

Dr Andrews is trying to put on weight before the race, both as a buffer and to deal with the freezing conditions. But weight gain is challenging given the hours he’s training and the need to fit into his wedding suit next month.

He says his fiancée supports his extreme adventures, and she volunteered on the logistical side in Nepal and Chile.

“The North Pole is a bit of a different thing, because she can’t come, and it’s by far the most dangerous thing I will have done”, he says. “But she knows it’s part of me and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.”

Dr Andrews and Dr Stephenson are hoping to inspire the next generation of adventurers and conservationists with the Inspiration Through Adventure project, an education program based on their expedition. Primary school students in Australia and New Zealand will be able to track the team’s progress across the Arctic and learn from lesson plans on geography, science and physical education using the expedition as a basis.

Next year Dr Andrews hopes to do a critical care term (intensive care, emergency and anaesthetics) and later specialise in anaesthetics. Not surprisingly, he ultimately hopes to
get involved in expedition medicine.

“Adventure and medicine are so compatible. That’s one of the things that attracted me to medicine in the first place”, he says. “You’ve got this amazing set of skills that you can take anywhere and work. If you have medical knowledge and can be the medical officer on an expedition, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

To find out more about the expedition, sponsor the team or enrol in the Inspiration Through Adventure program, see: http://www.northpolarteam.com/project.html.

  • Sophie McNamara


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