Former island rugby player in Antarctica expedition

HE USED TO play rugby for the Guernsey first team, but now Gareth Andrews has his sights set on being part of a duo who plan to be the first to ski across Antarctica without a support crew.

His family moved to the island when he was 16 years old and he enjoyed two years here before moving to Australia to study marine biology and then medicine at Sydney University.

Together with his brother-in-law Dr Richard Stephenson, Dr Andrews has been exploring the polar regions for over 10 years. When they are free from their medical commitments, the two specialise in long-distance endurance polar expeditions, having completed treks to the North Pole, Greenland and a world-first traverse of Iceland.

Gareth Andrews pictured in the Guernsey Press on Saturday 21 October 2000. The caption read: Great Scot: Gareth Andrews has proved a welcome and classy addition to the Guernsey 1st XV squad this season. (28801669)

In March this year, just before the UK went into lockdown, Dr Andrews saw an opportunity to move closer to his parents, who have been settled in Guernsey for more than 20 years now.

Mr Andrews was the coach and club doctor for Guernsey Rugby Club for a long time and Mrs Andrews was an obstetrician at the hospital for 20 years and has just retired.

The red line indicates the route Dr Gareth Andrews and Dr Richard Stephenson will travel as they attempt to achieve the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica. (28801606)

Dr Gareth Andrews now works as a consultant anaesthetist at the University Hospital of Wales, working with the NHS front line team during the pandemic.

‘Mum and dad are still in Guernsey, and I’ve still got lots of friends there, so I thought moving to the UK would give me more opportunities to come back and visit, but I’ve not had the chance because of Covid-19,’ he said.

After he stopped playing rugby, Dr Andrews found his passion for long and challenging polar expeditions, attempting world firsts.

Gareth Andrews, right, and expedition partner and brother-in-law Richard Stephenson. (28801626)

‘My parents have always encouraged me to be out in nature, I used to go fishing a lot with dad or be up exploring in the mountains somewhere,’ he said.

‘Mum and dad instilled a sense of adventure in me from a young age.’

Having been a member of three polar expeditions before now, and having travelled over 1,500 kilometres on foot through polar regions so far, Dr Andrews – together with Dr Stephenson – came up with the mission to be the first people to ski unsupported across the whole of Antarctica.

If successful, they will break the world record for the longest unsupported polar expedition.

Drs Gareth Andrews and Richard Stephenson on a previous polar expedition. Their previous polar ventures have been leading up to the Last Great First - the first unsupported ski crossing of Antarctica. (28801628)

‘All of our previous expeditions since we began adventuring have been building up to the big goal of the Antarctic crossing,’ he said.

‘People have crossed the land mass before, but it is a far greater distance and challenge to cross the ice shelves.’

The goal is to complete it in 100 days, with a 10-day buffer allowance.

Taking too much longer than that will mean the doctors will miss the Antarctic summer window and be exposed to ever more treacherous conditions, higher winds and more brutal storms.

‘Everything we will need for our four months will be packed in a 200kg sledge.

Dr Gareth Andrews. Greenland ice sheet. (28801622)

‘That’s food, tents, fuel to melt the ice to drink, medical supplies – everything.’

The pair began working on the Antarctica course in September 2019 and had all of the logistics in place to go in November 2021.

‘Since March our preparation came essentially to a halt, given the pandemic,’ Dr Andrews said.

‘Rich and I are both working on the front line so we put everything on hold in terms of the expedition and put all of our energy into our work as doctors.’

Their days have been spent caring for some of the most unwell patients, those whose fragile grip on life is weakening.

Dr Gareth Andrews in full PPE in Wales where he works as a consultant anaesthetist for the NHS, left, and in full expedition gear. (28801630)

There are many parallels to be drawn between polar exploration and front line medicine. The need to perform at your best in high-stress, high-stakes environments day after day is undoubtedly the most important.

Over years of working as critical care doctors and exploring the remote corners of the world it has become clear that taking care of yourself is the highest priority.

‘Rich and I have been on some very difficult expeditions together already, and one of the reasons why we think we can do this is because together we are very mentally strong.

‘Of course you have to be physically strong enough to pull a 200kg sledge every day for 10 hours a day for 100 days, but 80% of the challenge is a mental one.

Gareth Andrews training for his Antarctic crossing expedition at home in Wales. He will have to pull a 200km sledge 2,600km. (28801604)

‘Getting yourself out of your sleeping bag and tent every morning in minus 30 degree temperatures, and pulling that sledge 26km is tough, but we respect each other and look after each other – and that’s what makes it work,’ he said.

Since the two restarted their preparations, they have had to adapt their training to do it close to home.

They have made heavy home-made sledges which they are pulling around the lanes and parks to keep up their strength and endurance.

Fundraiser for Heroes

Dr Gareth Andrews and Dr Richard Stephenson are raising money through their Last Great First challenge for the charity Heroes.

It is a charity set up by NHS workers, for NHS workers in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

They aim to raise £1m. for Heroes through a series of individual and corporate events, activities and sponsorships.

This sum will provide 51,000 visors, 43,750 gowns, 53,450 scrubs, 4,000 respirator masks and 100 childcare grants at the value of £1,500/grant for NHS workers.

Both working on the fron tline, the two doctors have experienced first-hand the incredible support that the charity gives to staff working for the NHS.

‘Things like having the right Personal Protective Equipment that makes you feel safe at work and comfortable to go home to your families is hugely important,’ Dr Andrews said.

‘And as well as equipment, the charity can provide counselling services to staff, or childcare so they can still come into work.

‘Covid won’t last at this level forever, but the ramifications of the pandemic on staff will still be around for a long, long time. And NHS staff will continue to work incredibly hard throughout.’

They are still looking for sponsors to make the expedition possible.

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