Articles and Case Studies

Polar Challenge 2013 | Defence Update

11 Dec 2012

Their goal is to inspire, educate and empower the youth of Australia and New Zealand to make a positive change in the world through the medium of adventure.

One half of this adventurous duo, Dr Gareth Andrews shares with us more details about the challenge, the grueling training schedule and his fears about racing across such inhospitable regions.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I'm currently working as a Resident Medical Officer in Sydney. I moved from Cornwall, UK, to Sydney in 2003 to study Marine Biology at the University of Sydney. Once I had finished Marine Biology I decided that medicine was the career I wanted to pursue. I travelled extensively throughout the developing world as a scientist and could never shake the feeling that I could do so much more in these places as a doctor so, when I had the chance I made the change. Since then I've worked in Papua New Guinea, Ghana and Soweto, South Africa and plan to make international health a part of my future career.

You and team mate Richard will race in what is considered one of the world's toughest endurance races. What's actually involved in this 20 day challenge?

The Polar Challenge is a team race taking place in the Canadian High Artic, to the 1996 location of the Magnetic North Pole. Richard and I will be competing as a team of 2 in an international field of six 2-3 person teams.

  • The race starts on April 12 on the Island of Truro in the Northwest Territories of the Canadian High Artic.
  • Teams navigate their own route over the sea ice and Artic islands to the North Pole.
  • The race will take approximately 3 weeks to complete.
  • Competitors complete the race by trekking and skiing, carrying with them equipment, food and fuel needed for the journey." The food and equipment pulled in a sled by each competitor weighs around 70kg.

How did this adventure come about?

Richard and I have run, raced, climbed and kayaked through some the world's most inhospitable environments. Highlights include my self-supported run across the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile and Richard forging a new route up Mongolia's highest mountain.

My motivation for these past adventures comes from a burning desire to trek to the North Pole. Everything I have done in the past has been in preparation for this expedition. It's something I've wanted to do since I was a kid. It's the most beautiful and unforgiving environment on earth and the ultimate test of what the human body is capable of both mentally and physically.

So, when the opportunity presented itself to form a team with my good friend Richard and enter a race to the North Pole, I jumped at the chance.

Unlike the South, the North Polar environment is incredibly unpredictable. We'll race across 600kms of sea ice, face the constant threat of falling through the ice into the Arctic ocean, negotiate huge pressure ridges of ice (walls of ice forced up by the collision of the constantly moving ice sheets), deal with temperatures as low as – 40degrees and contend with the very real threat of polar bears.

It has been a goal my whole life to be part of an expedition to the Polar regions – to witness one of the world's last true wilderness areas and to contribute, if only in a small way, to its conservation into the future. I grew up with the stories of Scott and Shackleton, the great Polar explorers. Truly incredible men who contributed so much to exploration and science with their expeditions to the Poles and from a young age I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

Doctors have a long and proud history in the exploration of the Polar regions. Edward Wilson, Zoologist and Medical Doctor, was part of Scott's last expedition to the South Pole and perished with Scott on their return from the Pole. As part of this expedition Edward Wilson made the single greatest contribution to Polar Zoology to this day including the first ever study of the Emperor Penguin.

Fridtof Nansen, a Norwegian doctor and explorer, attempted to be the first man to reach the North Pole in the early 20th Century. He fell agonisingly short and then in his failure had to trek on foot for 8 months across the Arctic sea ice to Norway. Still one of the longest journeys in polar history. His scientific observations from this expedition are still used today 80years later. He went on to win the Nobel Prize for his work with refugees at the UN.

You'll be racing across harsh but beautiful environment. What part of the 600kms are you most looking forward to?

I'm looking forward to standing on the sea ice and watching the Polar sun circle around us (in April the sun stays above the horizon for 24 hours). I'm looking forward to seeing the ice in its spectrum of whites and blues and the shapes carved by the harsh polar winds (Many think it's just a barren white landscape but the ice comes in hundreds of different forms and colours, it is incredibly beautiful).

Polar bears must be high on the list of things you're not looking forward to?

Agreed. Polar bears are one of the only mammals known to actively hunt humans. They will track and follow a team for days across the ice. To be honest we're not going to be that hard to spot in our bright orange jackets. They are also very active in the early Spring and the race actually crosses their migratory route so the chances of coming in to contact with them is quite high. It's always going to be a worry at night, we both have to sleep some time. With that said, they're pretty low on the list of things that I'm worried about killing us. Hypothermia would be at the top of that list.

What's involved in training for an event like this?

Training involves hours of dragging a heavy tire up and down my local beach, running and gym-based strength training. It poses an interesting problem a race such as this because we have to be both endurance fit and very strong. Most of the time we'll be trekking dragging the sled but there will be times when we have to haul the 70kg over walls of ice which will involve a huge amount of upper body strength. We also have to try and put on weight so we have some reserve. We'll be burning 6-8,000 calories a day and only eating 4-5,000 so we'll be in energy deficit from the start. To put it in context you have to be eating all day just to get to 5,000 calories. The biggest challenge will be to find enough time to eat while working full time.

As well as being a doctor, where do you find the time?

Early mornings before work (5am starts), late evenings on the beach in the dark and I try and get the long sessions (3-4hrs) in on the weekends. It's not easy but when your life literally depends on how prepared and how fit you are, it's good motivation.

You have some inspiration for this race – Charity : Water. Tell us about the motivation to support this charity?

Charity : Water is dedicated to providing clean drinking water to people in the developing world and eradicating water-borne disease. As doctors, we believe that the work of Charity : Water is of the utmost importance in global society.

We are also running a project called 'Inspiration through Adventure' which aims to inspire, educate and empower young people to make positive change in the world through the medium of adventure. We will be working with primary schools across Sydney and Dunedin with the students able to follow us as we race via our website and upload questions and have them answered by us in real time using satellite communication technology. At the same time they will be following structured lesson plans in Science, Geography, Maths and the Arts with the Arctic and the expedition as inspiration.

Want to support the doctors' polar challenge? Visit to find out more.



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