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Ian Davies: Cotswold Doctor

PUBLISHED: 18:14 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Dr Ian Davis

Dr Ian Davis

Katie Jarvis meets a rural GP who's hooked on the hostile environment of the North Pole

WHEN a local businessman hobbled into Cirencester Hospital's casualty department, the doctor on duty assumed he'd be treating another run-of the-mill sprained ankle.


But when the patient pleaded with him, "Please, doctor, you've got to make me better quickly," Dr Ian Davis began to take a more personal interest.


"This patient told me that in a few weeks he would be going on the first race in history to the magnetic North Pole


WHEN a local businessman hobbled into Cirencester Hospital's casualty department, the doctor on duty assumed he'd be treating another run-of the-mill sprained ankle.


But when the patient pleaded with him, "Please, doctor, you've got to make me better quickly," Dr Ian Davis began to take a more personal interest.


"This patient told me that in a few weeks he would be going on the first race in history to the magnetic North Pole. I was intrigued and got chatting to him. In short, I ended up becoming the official doctor on that expedition!"


As Ian tells the story, sitting in a caf near the Rendcomb practice where he works part-time as a GP, it all sounds so easy. In fact, he'd signed up to go to one of the most inhospitable places on earth.


The magnetic North Pole is not at a fixed geographical location - it moves by around 15 kilometres a year. But it is found within the vast ice-covered Arctic Ocean where the real challenge to existence is the harshness of the weather. In winter, temperatures range from around -45 degrees C to -25 degrees C - and with wind chill, you can factor that down to minus 80. It's substantially warmer in summer - around freezing point. High winds frequently whip up the snow into blizzards that obliterate the landscape; during daylight hours, (which last for six months of the year) the horizon disappears in a seamless transition from white ground to white sky.


"I had so little chance to prepare that I didn't have time to get frightened," Ian admits. "The moment it hit me was the morning I left to catch the plane. My daughters - Molly, who was then four, and Poppy, just a baby - were asleep when I kissed them goodbye; it suddenly occurred to me that I might not come back. I can remember crying all the way to the airport thinking 'Why am I doing this?'"


That was five years ago. And despite the very real risks, despite the discomfort and the extreme cold, Ian Davis has no problem confessing he's hooked.


Since then, he's been back every year but one, and helped form a company - Polar Challenge - that runs a competitive 350-mile race in the Arctic each April. Upwards of 50 people at a time race in teams of three, 360 miles on foot from Resolute Bay to the magnetic North Pole. Not only are competitors facing extreme cold; they're also pulling around 90 kilos of fuel, food, tents and kit between them. The record of just under 10 days is held by a local team, which included Rory Sweet, managing director of Zycko in Cirencester.


"That team managed an average of two hours' sleep a night. It's hugely complicated surviving in the Arctic: you can't just turn on a tap for water, so you spend around four hours a day simply melting snow because you've got to drink three or four litres to survive."


So what is it about the Arctic that has such a mesmeric effect? Even Ian smiles ruefully. "The question I dread is when someone asks me what it's like. If you're an astronaut on the moon, how do you describe it to someone who will never go there? People think it's just white - and it is a white desert - but it's pristinely beautiful: every piece of ice looks different; every one is like a sculpture that's been made by nature, with different shadows of light coming through. In summer, the sun never sets, so you get these incredible fiery balls that sit on the horizon in the evening and, in the morning, cast pink shadows over the ice and snow.


"You can see lemmings, arctic hares, arctic owls, and wolves if you're lucky enough. There's lots of contact with polar bears, the largest land carnivores on the planet that actively hunt humans. It's the first time in your life you realise you're on the food chain - something that just doesn't happen to you in Cirencester!"


While descriptions and photographs might give the armchair traveller a visual idea of the beauty of this arid landscape, the impact on the body of such low temperatures is more difficult to imagine. It's not unheard of for people who've spent a whole year in training for the experience to spend one night in a tent, then pack up and go home.


"They call it Arctic Shock," Ian says. "You step off the plane and you're hit by -45 degrees C; it's as if someone is pushing needles through your jeans: it physically hurts. Within about 60 seconds, your fingers become sore and you start to get something called frost nip - the first stage before frostbite. It's bizarre when you haven't experienced it before. You close your eyes to blink and they try to stick together. All your nostril hairs start to freeze; you get little lumps of ice on the inside of your nose."


As a doctor out there, one of the most important aspects of his work is to teach people to respect the environment. A simple act such as taking off a glove while using a camera could be a portent of doom: if the wind whips that glove away, you could end up with disabling frostbite. The military considers anyone with frostbite to have been negligent - it's a court martial offence.


"During the Polar Challenge race, I and two other people are on the ice with Ski-Doos all the time, providing medical back-up for the contestants. Even so, if a problem strikes, I could be 200 miles away. If anyone becomes ill or is injured, the only way I can evacuate them is by air. I have to use a satellite phone to call in the plane, guiding it with GPS coordinates, and build a runway. The pilots' lives depend on you choosing a good spot for them to land, which needs to be marked out by black bin bags filled with snow. Then there's the weather. We've had situations where the pilot hasn't liked the runway or the weather and he'll turn back."


The tightest spot Ian has ever been in was coping with a woman who'd had a life-threatening asthma attack. A storm made it impossible for a plane to land, so Ian had to set up camp and rig up an intravenous drip in a tent with a howling gale outside at -45 degrees C. All the drugs needed for resuscitation had frozen: he had to defrost them inside his thermal underwear.


"There was an aspect of luck in all of this because there are only so many drugs you can carry and, fortunately, I had predicted this type of emergency. We had to wait around 18 hours for the weather to clear before I could radio the plane, and even then the pilots put their lives on the line. They managed to fly her back to Resolute where there's a small hospital - she actually got better quite quickly once there.


"In a situation like that, you know you have to stay calm, and that's where all my years of trauma medicine come in. I can be at a roadside in Gloucestershire at three o'clock in the morning, upside down in a car in the frost. I won't be thinking about the cold; I'll be focusing on what I'm doing. It's the same principle when I'm in the resuscitation room in Cirencester with someone who's dreadfully unwell; the last thing that will help is to panic."


Ian learned much of his polar medicine from Dr Mike Stroud who accompanied Ranulph Fiennes on the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic in the early 1990s. Ian and Mike spent a month on the ice for the BBC Challenge programme three years ago. "Shortly after that, Mike put my name forward to Top Gear who asked me to assist at a Winter Olympics special. I helped freeze Richard Hammond in a wind tunnel to see who was going to break first - man or car!


"A few months later, I had this idea about the Top Gear team driving a car to the North Pole. I spoke to Land Rover about it, who didn't take me that seriously, whereas Toyota quite rightly saw it as a massive opportunity. I worked with them for a year, getting the vehicle set up; then, right in the middle of it all, Richard had his accident, which put the whole project in jeopardy. In the end, the North Pole trip was his comeback.


"I had to write terribly frightening letters to the BBC guaranteeing Richard's safety. But once I'd stopped thinking about the sheer responsibility, it was great fun. During the filming of the programme I supported Richard by following him across the frozen Arctic ocean with a team consisting of local Inuits and specialist soldiers. making sure he came back safe and well from such a gruelling challenge


"I think the biggest effect was on Jeremy (Clarkson). He began the expedition in his usual cheery manner but, by the end of the trip, I think he'd had a truly humbling experience; he really came to understand the environment he was in."


Indeed, it's an environment where the smallest mistakes cost lives: you can't afford to fall out with your companions, no matter that four of you are constantly squashed into a tent the size of a snooker table. Even sweating can be fatal. "This is where people like Scott may have fallen down," Ian says. "If your clothing stays dry, it will keep you warm for ever. The minute it has any moisture in it from sweating, it will freeze. If any of our kit gets wet from sweating, we have to stop the expedition, put tents up, turn the stoves on and spend two days drying out."


Polar bears are another hazard. Ian has been as close as 25 metres to a female pulling seals out of a hole in the ice. Every team is equipped with fire crackers and guns to warn these protected animals away when necessary, but perhaps most effective of all is the knowledge of the indigenous Inuits who support the race: they can tell at a glance whether a bear is dangerous or not.


As if all that's not enough, Ian's next trip is somewhere even colder. Next year, he'll be involved in the Race to the South Pole in Antarctica. It will be the first such race since Robert Scott and the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, competed to 'win' the pole for their respective countries - with such tragic results. Scott and his polar team perished in the attempt.


This time, competing teams - who include Atlantic rowers Ben Fogle and double Olympic gold medallist, James Cracknell - will race from the edge of the continent more than 370 nautical miles to the geographic South Pole, pulling a 70 kg sled, as well as climbing up to 9,300 feet to reach it. Heavily in training at the moment, they'll be leaving next December, almost 100 years after Scott and Amundsen's fateful journey.


"It will be my first time to the South Pole," Ian says. "It's hugely more expensive to do because of the logistics. In the north, there is a settlement for fuel, and other supplies. In the south, you land on an ice runway and take everything with you: you're absolutely on your own.


"The South Pole in many respects is more difficult to walk across from a psychological point of view. It's more barren and a lot of explorers get driven mad by the sameness of it, day after day. If you're not careful, you can spend your entire day thinking about one small thing, or focusing on missing home. It's incredible to think of those early explorers, such as Scott, who were away for years. But in a way, it gives you an understanding of someone like Oates (who committed suicide after becoming ill on Scott's expedition, to try to save his companions). When you find yourself in those situations with a close-knit group of people - whether it's the Arctic, Antarctic, desert or Everest - they become your little world, as important to you as your wife and your children. You will do some extremely heroic things when you depend on your team for your life."


Certainly, Ian Davis's own life is one of extremes - but even when he's at work as a GP in rural Gloucestershire, the Arctic is never far from his mind.


"The hardest thing when you've gone and done all this is that you see life from a completely different perspective. I utterly cannot understand why in our world there are so many people not getting on with each other, falling out over tiny insignificant things. When you've gone to a beautiful pristine place like the North Pole and your life evaporates down to a tent, a stove and a cigarette lighter, you realise what's important and that we're all the same at the end of the day.


"I sat for an hour last year and watched a polar bear with her three cubs, probably 150 metres away from me, playing in the wild. That's the place I go to when I'm struggling with medicine. I transport myself for 10 minutes to a block of ice in the middle of nowhere, sitting in complete silence, watching polar bears."



For more information about the Polar Challenge, the race to the North Pole, log onto www.polar-challenge.com; to find out about the South Pole Race, visit www.thesouthpolerace.com



. I was intrigued and got chatting to him. In short, I ended up becoming the official doctor on that expedition!"


As Ian tells the story, sitting in a caf near the Rendcomb practice where he works part-time as a GP, it all sounds so easy. In fact, he'd signed up to go to one of the most inhospitable places on earth.


The magnetic North Pole is not at a fixed geographical location - it moves by around 15 kilometres a year. But it is found within the vast ice-covered Arctic Ocean where the real challenge to existence is the harshness of the weather. In winter, temperatures range from around -45 degrees C to -25 degrees C - and with wind chill, you can factor that down to minus 80. It's substantially warmer in summer - around freezing point. High winds frequently whip up the snow into blizzards that obliterate the landscape; during daylight hours, (which last for six months of the year) the horizon disappears in a seamless transition from white ground to white sky.


"I had so little chance to prepare that I didn't have time to get frightened," Ian admits. "The moment it hit me was the morning I left to catch the plane. My daughters - Molly, who was then four, and Poppy, just a baby - were asleep when I kissed them goodbye; it suddenly occurred to me that I might not come back. I can remember crying all the way to the airport thinking 'Why am I doing this?'"


That was five years ago. And despite the very real risks, despite the discomfort and the extreme cold, Ian Davis has no problem confessing he's hooked.


Since then, he's been back every year but one, and helped form a company - Polar Challenge - that runs a competitive 350-mile race in the Arctic each April. Upwards of 50 people at a time race in teams of three, 360 miles on foot from Resolute Bay to the magnetic North Pole. Not only are competitors facing extreme cold; they're also pulling around 90 kilos of fuel, food, tents and kit between them. The record of just under 10 days is held by a local team, which included Rory Sweet, managing director of Zycko in Cirencester.


"That team managed an average of two hours' sleep a night. It's hugely complicated surviving in the Arctic: you can't just turn on a tap for water, so you spend around four hours a day simply melting snow because you've got to drink three or four litres to survive."


So what is it about the Arctic that has such a mesmeric effect? Even Ian smiles ruefully. "The question I dread is when someone asks me what it's like. If you're an astronaut on the moon, how do you describe it to someone who will never go there? People think it's just white - and it is a white desert - but it's pristinely beautiful: every piece of ice looks different; every one is like a sculpture that's been made by nature, with different shadows of light coming through. In summer, the sun never sets, so you get these incredible fiery balls that sit on the horizon in the evening and, in the morning, cast pink shadows over the ice and snow.


"You can see lemmings, arctic hares, arctic owls, and wolves if you're lucky enough. There's lots of contact with polar bears, the largest land carnivores on the planet that actively hunt humans. It's the first time in your life you realise you're on the food chain - something that just doesn't happen to you in Cirencester!"


While descriptions and photographs might give the armchair traveller a visual idea of the beauty of this arid landscape, the impact on the body of such low temperatures is more difficult to imagine. It's not unheard of for people who've spent a whole year in training for the experience to spend one night in a tent, then pack up and go home.


"They call it Arctic Shock," Ian says. "You step off the plane and you're hit by -45 degrees C; it's as if someone is pushing needles through your jeans: it physically hurts. Within about 60 seconds, your fingers become sore and you start to get something called frost nip - the first stage before frostbite. It's bizarre when you haven't experienced it before. You close your eyes to blink and they try to stick together. All your nostril hairs start to freeze; you get little lumps of ice on the inside of your nose."


As a doctor out there, one of the most important aspects of his work is to teach people to respect the environment. A simple act such as taking off a glove while using a camera could be a portent of doom: if the wind whips that glove away, you could end up with disabling frostbite. The military considers anyone with frostbite to have been negligent - it's a court martial offence.


"During the Polar Challenge race, I and two other people are on the ice with Ski-Doos all the time, providing medical back-up for the contestants. Even so, if a problem strikes, I could be 200 miles away. If anyone becomes ill or is injured, the only way I can evacuate them is by air. I have to use a satellite phone to call in the plane, guiding it with GPS coordinates, and build a runway. The pilots' lives depend on you choosing a good spot for them to land, which needs to be marked out by black bin bags filled with snow. Then there's the weather. We've had situations where the pilot hasn't liked the runway or the weather and he'll turn back."


The tightest spot Ian has ever been in was coping with a woman who'd had a life-threatening asthma attack. A storm made it impossible for a plane to land, so Ian had to set up camp and rig up an intravenous drip in a tent with a howling gale outside at -45 degrees C. All the drugs needed for resuscitation had frozen: he had to defrost them inside his thermal underwear.


"There was an aspect of luck in all of this because there are only so many drugs you can carry and, fortunately, I had predicted this type of emergency. We had to wait around 18 hours for the weather to clear before I could radio the plane, and even then the pilots put their lives on the line. They managed to fly her back to Resolute where there's a small hospital - she actually got better quite quickly once there.


"In a situation like that, you know you have to stay calm, and that's where all my years of trauma medicine come in. I can be at a roadside in Gloucestershire at three o'clock in the morning, upside down in a car in the frost. I won't be thinking about the cold; I'll be focusing on what I'm doing. It's the same principle when I'm in the resuscitation room in Cirencester with someone who's dreadfully unwell; the last thing that will help is to panic."


Ian learned much of his polar medicine from Dr Mike Stroud who accompanied Ranulph Fiennes on the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic in the early 1990s. Ian and Mike spent a month on the ice for the BBC Challenge programme three years ago. "Shortly after that, Mike put my name forward to Top Gear who asked me to assist at a Winter Olympics special. I helped freeze Richard Hammond in a wind tunnel to see who was going to break first - man or car!


"A few months later, I had this idea about the Top Gear team driving a car to the North Pole. I spoke to Land Rover about it, who didn't take me that seriously, whereas Toyota quite rightly saw it as a massive opportunity. I worked with them for a year, getting the vehicle set up; then, right in the middle of it all, Richard had his accident, which put the whole project in jeopardy. In the end, the North Pole trip was his comeback.


"I had to write terribly frightening letters to the BBC guaranteeing Richard's safety. But once I'd stopped thinking about the sheer responsibility, it was great fun. During the filming of the programme I supported Richard by following him across the frozen Arctic ocean with a team consisting of local Inuits and specialist soldiers. making sure he came back safe and well from such a gruelling challenge


"I think the biggest effect was on Jeremy (Clarkson). He began the expedition in his usual cheery manner but, by the end of the trip, I think he'd had a truly humbling experience; he really came to understand the environment he was in."


Indeed, it's an environment where the smallest mistakes cost lives: you can't afford to fall out with your companions, no matter that four of you are constantly squashed into a tent the size of a snooker table. Even sweating can be fatal. "This is where people like Scott may have fallen down," Ian says. "If your clothing stays dry, it will keep you warm for ever. The minute it has any moisture in it from sweating, it will freeze. If any of our kit gets wet from sweating, we have to stop the expedition, put tents up, turn the stoves on and spend two days drying out."


Polar bears are another hazard. Ian has been as close as 25 metres to a female pulling seals out of a hole in the ice. Every team is equipped with fire crackers and guns to warn these protected animals away when necessary, but perhaps most effective of all is the knowledge of the indigenous Inuits who support the race: they can tell at a glance whether a bear is dangerous or not.


As if all that's not enough, Ian's next trip is somewhere even colder. Next year, he'll be involved in the Race to the South Pole in Antarctica. It will be the first such race since Robert Scott and the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, competed to 'win' the pole for their respective countries - with such tragic results. Scott and his polar team perished in the attempt.


This time, competing teams - who include Atlantic rowers Ben Fogle and double Olympic gold medallist, James Cracknell - will race from the edge of the continent more than 370 nautical miles to the geographic South Pole, pulling a 70 kg sled, as well as climbing up to 9,300 feet to reach it. Heavily in training at the moment, they'll be leaving next December, almost 100 years after Scott and Amundsen's fateful journey.


"It will be my first time to the South Pole," Ian says. "It's hugely more expensive to do because of the logistics. In the north, there is a settlement for fuel, and other supplies. In the south, you land on an ice runway and take everything with you: you're absolutely on your own.


"The South Pole in many respects is more difficult to walk across from a psychological point of view. It's more barren and a lot of explorers get driven mad by the sameness of it, day after day. If you're not careful, you can spend your entire day thinking about one small thing, or focusing on missing home. It's incredible to think of those early explorers, such as Scott, who were away for years. But in a way, it gives you an understanding of someone like Oates (who committed suicide after becoming ill on Scott's expedition, to try to save his companions). When you find yourself in those situations with a close-knit group of people - whether it's the Arctic, Antarctic, desert or Everest - they become your little world, as important to you as your wife and your children. You will do some extremely heroic things when you depend on your team for your life."


Certainly, Ian Davis's own life is one of extremes - but even when he's at work as a GP in rural Gloucestershire, the Arctic is never far from his mind.


"The hardest thing when you've gone and done all this is that you see life from a completely different perspective. I utterly cannot understand why in our world there are so many people not getting on with each other, falling out over tiny insignificant things. When you've gone to a beautiful pristine place like the North Pole and your life evaporates down to a tent, a stove and a cigarette lighter, you realise what's important and that we're all the same at the end of the day.


"I sat for an hour last year and watched a polar bear with her three cubs, probably 150 metres away from me, playing in the wild. That's the place I go to when I'm struggling with medicine. I transport myself for 10 minutes to a block of ice in the middle of nowhere, sitting in complete silence, watching polar bears."



For more information about the Polar Challenge, the race to the North Pole, log onto www.polar-challenge.com; to find out about the South Pole Race, visit www.thesouthpolerace.com


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