Desmarais Join Bankers, Soldiers in North Pole Trek

Paul Desmarais III, scion of one of Canada’s richest families, is pitching a tent in the snow. Timothy Hodgson, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker, is juggling balls with soldiers in a team-building exercise, while the head of Barclays Plc in Canada struggles to snowshoe dragging a 25-pound sled.

The trio are among Canada’s corporate elite who gathered near Ottawa this month to train alongside veterans for what’s billed as the largest ski expedition to the North Magnetic Pole. Executives, investment bankers and money managers are among 24 civilians who spent C$20,000 ($18,000) each to join a dozen soldiers on the April trek to raise awareness of the physical and mental injuries suffered by Canada’s military.

“We’re going 100 kilometers on sea ice dragging sleds in minus 30 temperatures,” said Desmarais, 31, who will be joined by his dad, Paul Desmarais Jr., on the trek. “We definitely feel that in terms of expeditions this is pushing our limits.”

The Desmarais patriarch, Paul Desmarais Sr., was the fourth-richest Canadian when he died in October with a net worth of about $5.1 billion from his insurance and money-management businesses at Montreal-based Power Corp. of Canada, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The expedition, organized by the military charity True Patriot Love Foundation and sponsored by Bank of Nova Scotia, also attracted Dougal Macdonald, 56, head of Morgan Stanley’s Canadian operations, former Barrick Gold Corp. CEO Aaron Regent and Jim Leech, a retired pension fund boss who’s already plotting ways to cope in a harsh Arctic climate.

Sour Jujubes

“They’ll let us bring personal snacks,” Leech said. “I’m sort of addicted to sour jujubes, so I’m going to take 12 sour jujubes and have one a day -- that’s my treat.”

Susan McArthur, a managing partner with GreenSoil Investments in Toronto, is one of five women participating, joining Canadian Olympic women’s hockey gold medal winner Hayley Wickenheiser and two female veterans. The group aims to raise C$1.5 million for the cause.

Led by Arctic explorer Richard Weber with his Czech German Shepherd, Demon, who’ll warn of polar bears, the group will start on April 22 at King Christian Island, about 3,800 kilometers (2,400 miles) north of Ottawa. They’ll ski or snowshoe 100 kilometers over about eight days to the 1996 location of the ever-wandering magnetic pole. They will then ski 25 kilometers to reach the abandoned Isachsen weather station for pickup.

‘Tough Trek’

“It’s physically a pretty tough trek, physically demanding, but it’s not dangerous,” Weber said. “People don’t die on polar expeditions generally.”

Bruce Rothney, who oversees Barclays’ capital markets and investment banking operations in Canada, admits the trek is beyond his comfort zone.

“I’m glad to be part of it, but I’m a little bit scared,” the 50-year-old said. Rothney was one of a handful of people recruited by Hodgson, 53, one-time special adviser to former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, to join the expedition. “I certainly have some more workouts to do between now and the big trek.”

On the expedition, participants will be divided into pods bearing names such as Seal, Beluga and Arctic Fox and sleep and eat in five-person tents. They’ll eat porridge and freeze-dried scrambled eggs for breakfast and have an on-the-go lunch of deep fried double-smoked bacon and billiard ball-sized truffles made of chocolate, butter and macadamia nuts that pack 700 calories. Supper will be freeze-dried meals or dehydrated homemade dinners. The evening treat is a “Weber Cocktail” concocted of warm powdered milk, maple syrup and whiskey.

Basic Skills

At the Quebec training camp, the civilians and soldiers are divided into groups of six or seven to learn basic skills: snowshoeing, skiing, tent building, teamwork, and how to pee in a bottle to avoid freezing nighttime sorties. Experience gleaned from trading derivatives, calculating mark-to-market valuations and crafting takeovers has little value here.

In the evening, they gather inside a wooden shack to hear veterans’ stories. There’s a sergeant who lost his leg and a master corporal who chokes up recalling a blast that hit his light-armored vehicle on an Afghan road, killing his friend.

“While members of the business community may work hard, may face real challenges in what they do, members of the armed forces on the front line and their families at home face challenges that make what we do in business pale in comparison,” Morgan Stanley’s Macdonald said.

Mental Anguish

Among 25,000 to 35,000 military members who served in Afghanistan, at least 2,750 are expected to suffer from a severe form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a Library of Parliament paper. At least 5,900 will suffer from a diagnosed mental health problem.

There were nine confirmed suicides among Canadian Forces members in 2013, according to Lindsay Tessier, spokeswoman for the Department of National Defence. There are potentially four more who have yet to be officially confirmed as suicide by provincial authorities, she said.

Bruno Guevremont knows of mental anguish. The 40-year-old Quebec native was medically discharged Jan. 16 after about 15 years in the military. He served in Afghanistan in 2009 on a weapons disposal team diffusing bombs -- like actor Jeremy Renner in the film ‘The Hurt Locker’ -- and once disabled explosives strapped to a suicide bomber targeting the Afghan president’s half-brother. Those experiences took a toll when he returned to Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt near Victoria, British Columbia.

‘Army Brat’

“I got hit with post-traumatic stress disorder and I fell on dark times,” said Guevremont, who’s now a fitness coach. “I was getting depressed and angry a lot, and then I was having some blackouts.”

He split from his wife in 2012, though he credits her and his son for giving him strength to heal, and is relishing a “once in a lifetime” trip.

Leech, at 66, is the oldest of the group. The self-described “army brat” who ran the C$129.5-billion Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for six years, served seven-and-a-half years in the military.

“I’m not in bad shape, but the expectation is everything will take three times longer to do in the cold,” Leech said.

He’s making sacrifices, swearing off alcohol until the end of the trip, when he’ll reward himself with a martini. And he has one other item he’s promised his grandkids to carry to the North Pole: “I’ll take a note to Santa Claus.”

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