In December 2015, I first stood on the Antarctic Peninsula and was in awe as I reveled in being in one of the most isolated and harshest places in the world. How I ended up in this place wasn’t so important. What was important was the realisation I had come to while being here. As an Air Force Reservist, I had recently deployed in the Middle East, East Timor, Border Protection activities, and most recently the Philippines for typhoon relief. Multiple operations in quick succession had worn me out. And now as I stood in this lonely place I realised it was time to take action and to improve my health – to re-build. I decided I would return to Antarctica.

The plan was to ski to the South Pole. I mentioned this to a colleague, Felicity Aston, with the goal of putting together an all-Australian female team to ski across Antarctica. With her encouragement, the wheels were in motion. Unfortunately the all-female team proved to be a challenge and I soon shifted gears with an all “Australian Defence Force” team.

In 2016, I formed The Spirit Lives Antarctic Expedition and reached out to colleagues within the Australian and New Zealand Defence force to build a team. My only problem….I’d only had one day of skiing experience behind me. However, I soon had a team of nine current Defence members and Heath Jamieson (ex-Australian Army) joined us as mentor. Heath had reached the South Pole on two previous occasions, including part of the Wounded South Pole Allied Challenge and again with Jade Hemeister via the Kansas Glacier.  Our plan is to ski 1500km over 65 days, starting at the Messner Start Point reaching the South Pole and descending the Leverett Glacier.

We’ve now been training since early-2017, with winters spent in the Victorian high country and summers spent pulling tyres.  In March 2019, we all went to Norway to experience more extreme cold weather conditions and further hone our skills.  For three weeks, we worked with Hannah McKeand, Denise Martin and Devon McDiarmid in preparing to operate in an extreme environment. Problem-solving, camp craft, navigation, as well as skiing fitness and sled-hauling techniques were all honed during this period.

Now we face the daunting task of raising funds for the actual expedition. Although all being Defence members, we are considered a private activity and cannot access Defence funds. So far, we’ve used our own money and personal leave to do most our training and equip ourselves. As soldiers, sailors and an airwoman, marketing doesn’t come easy and it’s proving difficult to demonstrate the ‘Return on Investment’ for potential sponsors.

Mateship, courage, endurance and larrikinism has brought us all together. These are often the virtues underpinning the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces. However, there is also a deeper reason for us all coming together. An estimated 46% of  Defence veterans suffer a mental disorder, and ex-serving males under the age of 30 have a suicide rate 2.2 times that of other men of the same age. These aren’t just numbers – these are our mates – a sailor who recently took his life after 20 years of service was a mate of two team members. We hope that in some small way our expedition and the challenges that we have faced in getting to Antarctica will inspire others within the Defence to realise that big challenges can be overcome with persistence and endurance. We also hope to raise money for Wounded Heroes Australia and The Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation.

After more than three years of working on this project, I’d love to see a team from the ADF achieve something that current and future generations of military members can be proud of. That we’ve set rank aside, brought together expertise, and embody the values at the heart of our service – courage and endurance. That same courage can be used to have tough conversations about adversity, resilience and wellbeing. And that endurance can show how you can start with nothing and achieve anything.

It’s unlikely we’ll meet the funding deadline for this season. But we keep going in the hope our message resonates with someone to invest in us. Or we win Lotto.

Photo Credits: Kelly Kavanagh and Jack Forbes. All photos taken during Norway 2019 expedition.

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