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Quests of the Turner Twins

Ross Turner

Your four man crew spent 41 days rowing from the Canary Islands to Barbados. What was the most challenging part of the row?

One of the most challenging parts was making it through each night. The night rows were hugely challenging due to the amount of physical exertion- rowing twelve hours a day- coupled with the severe lack of sleep. Falling asleep at the oars was a common theme, as were hallucinations.

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How did you conduct daily activities like bathing, eating, and sleeping on a row boat in the middle of the ocean?

Bathing was a luxury which was mainly dictated by the weather, and having had bad weather most of the way across the Atlantic, we managed to have a swim three times, the first being after nearly three weeks. Sleeping wasn’t easy; we only had a maximum of an hour and thirty minutes every shift, and on areas the size of half a single bed.

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What was your experience with the marine life? Did the sharks bother you?

Every day we saw wildlife. Migrating birds and the odd shoal of fish. But the most common sight were Dorado fish, which were stunning. Not so stunning were the sharks which would come and trail the boat as they are curious animals. Not a relaxing sight to see a large shark fin next to your rowing position.

You said you suffered from hallucinations, sea sickness, and swollen prostates. How did you care for yourselves and recover in those harsh conditions?

We were fortunate that we had very strong sea sickness pills which worked well, but other aspects like our prostates, recovered naturally (thankfully) as we were looking at self-catheterisation. Other medical issues we had were managed and sorted out when we arrived at Barbados, which resulted in three operations between us.

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You did a two week trek across the polar ice cap in Greenland in 2014. What was an average day like?

We would wake at 3:00 AM in our tents which would have thick frost on everything inside, which made it uncomfortable to wake up. It would take two hours to melt the snow for our food as the temperatures at this time of the morning weren’t much above -30° C. We’d then pack the tent up and be moving around 7:00 AM. We’d ski for one hour sessions with ten minute breaks for ten hours a day. By the end of the day, we were completely shattered.

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Ross: what was it like wearing the old style clothes? What were the advantages and disadvantages that you saw?

My initial thoughts were that the old clothing was going to be very, very hard to cope with. Its heavier, ‘old fashioned’ and a hundred years out of date! After the first day on the glacier, I knew that the clothing was very good. In fact, it was obvious that a lot of the old clothing system was as good as the modern clothing, which was a great feeling. That calmed my nerves. Wearing the old kit, you definitely felt you had a connection to the men that Shackleton took to Antarctica and what they must have gone through one hundred years ago. To put it in simple terms, the old clothing was a pleasure to wear and I would not hesitate to wear it again.

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The advantages were clear from the outset. Natural fibres are better than modern synthetic materials. This was clear from the tweed trousers. They kept me warm and stopped the wind from penetrating. The modern trouser let wind and the cold through which caused big problems for our Polar guide and Hugo. There were far more advantages than disadvantages, so I will list the items of old clothing we would take again: Wooden skis, tweed trousers, wool gloves, old food (with a mixture of modern food, too), a wooden Nansen sled, a thick wool jumper, and leather boots.

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What was it like trekking with George Bullard, the explorer who completed the longest unsupported polar expedition of all time?

He was a great addition to the team. He was motivating, supporting, educational and lead us safely across the ice cap which is all we needed. We remain great friends and see each other now and again in London; always planning on the next trip together.

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Your main research platform is studying how your bodies are affected as twins in hostile and extreme environments. Keeping in mind that I am an editor and not a scientist, can you describe some of the conclusions you’ve made?

Bone density changed over the expedition which was extremely interesting from the hospital's side. They thought that bone density changed over a long period of time (years), but both our bone density scans revealed that ours had changed enough for the Department of Twin Research to adjust their thoughts and reconsider that density might change much quicker than first thought while on endurance trips. The old kit seemed to change my bone density a little more than the modern kit. This was understandable, as the old kit put more weight through my bones with the addition of the old food which could have changed the results, too.

Cortisol (stress levels) in our bodies was also interesting. We both had the same stress levels in the build up to the trip and just before we left for Greenland, but then the stress levels went up hugely over the trip with Hugo in the modern kit while my stress levels actually came down! This is just one trip so we will need to back this up with another expedition, but a fascinating result as we thought it would be the other way around.

Weight loss was around the same, losing around seven kilograms each. It doesn’t sound that remarkable but I was eating the same rations/food as Shackleton, wearing the heavier clothing and pulling a sled that was twice as heavy. This means the food was outstanding in terms of Kcal intake and providing my body with the right amounts of nutrition. We concluded that the food was mostly the cause of my weight loss being as little as it was.

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Glucose levels (sugar) in our bodies was perhaps the biggest difference and danger. On receiving our results post-expedition, we got an official medical warning from the department of Twin research stating that Hugo’s blood sugar level should have put him into a Hypoglycaemic coma. If this had happened on the ice cap, there would have been little we could have done for him.

It brings me back to the conclusion that science is getting us ever closer to our dreams, but are we actually moving forward when it comes to expeditions? Our trip was only carried out on polar clothing and food but it puts a strong case forward to look back at what these explorers did a hundred years ago and high-light the incredible technology they used.

You are preparing to climb Mt. Elbrus, which stands at 5,642 meters (18,510ft). What is your preparation process like? How much time will you need before you are ready to climb?

We are getting new sponsors on board which is always the hardest part of any expedition. Training for altitude means bringing our muscle mass down and increasing our red blood cell count, which is hard to do as they have a direct link to each other. The limited oxygen will mean that the body has to work hard to get oxygen to the vital organs and muscles. If we have too much muscle, our climb will be harder.

We are both going on mountaineering courses to further our climbing skills. We are both ready to climb, but over-preparing is better than under-preparing for any trip.

What do you hope to accomplish from completing this quest?

Our aim for this expedition is to help develop a better understanding of the Gut Microbiome as well as cortisol levels to help improve medical treatment of various conditions. We also want to discover how much harder it was to be a mountaineer one hundred years ago and calculate the performance of the old and new clothing systems.

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Hugo and Ross are two charismatic brothers whose curiosity has set them on an unconventional life path that searches for answers by attempting new quests which combine pioneering medical research and unique studies of historic expeditions. The twins’ adventure passion was ignited when Hugo was involved in a freak diving accident- sustaining a broken neck, aged 17. Three hospitals, a neck reconstruction and many months of recovery later, Hugo was back walking again. In the mix of emotions that followed this near catastrophic accident came an overwhelming drive to challenge themselves in the world’s harshest environments. They continue to use their expeditions as a platform to raise vital funds and increase the awareness and profile of various charities (Spinal Research in particular). Read more about their quests at their website, The Turner Twins.

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