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Warwick metabolism unit helps Ice Maidens Antarctic team

Earlier this month, six British women visited the University of Warwick’s metabolism unit for a complete metabolic check-up before embarking on a gruelling trek across Antarctica.

The Ice Maiden team, who all serve in the British Army or Army Reserve, are aiming to become the first all-female team to ski coast-to-coast across Antarctica. As well as aiming to breaking records and barriers, there is a scientific purpose to the trip – to show that women have the mental strength and physical endurance to complete the challenge of skiing 1,700km in -25C.

ice maidens

The scientific study is where the University of Warwick and its partner University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire (UHCW) NHS Trust comes in. In October, all six members of the team spent 36 hours in one of two air-locked metabolic chambers, with all their energy intake and expenditure being measured.

The Human Metabolism Research Unit (HRMU) run jointly with UHCW NHS Trust, is one of only two centres in the country that offers the level of metabolic analysis the team needed. UHCW NHS Trust is also a major centre for research into expedition medicine, which runs the UK telemedicine service for frostbite.

Once in the HMRU chambers, the Ice Maiden team members had to complete light exercise, as well as having regular blood pressure and temperature checks and blood tests. After returning to the UK, hopefully having successfully completed their challenge, they will have to repeat the same tests again in February to see if anything has changed. Army Major Dr Nics Wetherill, joint captain of the Ice Maidens, is a trainee GP in Portsmouth as well as being part of the Army Medical Corps. She came up with the idea of the expedition 10 years ago. It started coming to fruition when Nics met co-captain Nat Taylor while they were skiing with the army.

Nics said: “It’s been fascinating to have these tests at University Hospital, and I can’t wait to see the results. “The aim of Exercise Ice Maiden is to encourage other women to get active and find their own Antarctica – the challenge they can achieve. However, the medical research is equally important to us.

“Both Nat and I are doctors, and it’s fascinating that while research studies have shown that women can outperform men at endurance challenges, there is nothing specific about women in this kind of environment.

“We’re going into this with no pre-conceived ideas, and we’re happy to be guinea pigs to learn more about what women can achieve in this field.”

Lt Jenni Stephenson first heard about the Ice Maiden expedition in September 2015. She had to go through a rigorous selection process, including exercises in Norway, before being named in the final team last year.

ice maidens

Jenni said: “The Ice Maidens expedition is definitely one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. I’m just an ordinary person, with no real skiing experience before I joined the army, and I wanted to see what I could do and achieve.

“The team in the HMRU have looked after us really well. There has been a full schedule of lots of tests and activities, as well as being able to watch TV and use the internet, so I haven’t got bored. However, one of the hardest things about this particular study has been going without caffeine as both Nics and I do like our coffee!

“The experiments I’ve been taking part in at University Hospital and other centres have been really eye-opening. It’s brilliant to be part of this ground-breaking medical research, as well as inspiring other women through the trek.

“We’ve become so close as a team, despite not knowing each other before we started. I can’t wait to get to Antarctica and see what we can achieve together.”

Professor Chris Imray, Clinical Director for Research & Development at UHCW NHS Trust, said: “As a national centre for metabolism and expedition medicine, we’re really proud to help the Ice Maidens team. Their expedition is truly inspirational, and the team will also improve our understanding of human endurance in extreme conditions. “I wish the six members of the team all the best for their trip, and look forward to seeing them in a few months.”

The team leaves for Chile on 24 October, and plan to start their trek on the ice on 7 November, weather permitting. They hope to complete their journey in 75 days, meaning that the team will be spending Christmas and New Year’s Day on the ice.

23 October 2017

For further details contact Nicola Jones, Media Relations Manager University of Warwick 07920531221 or 02476574255