He’s survived rigorous military resilience training and a collapsed lung; endured temperatures of minus 70 degrees in a winter trek across the Arctic and had mates killed in combat, but it was in the icy folds of the mighty Himalayas where tragedy struck that really tested adventurer Adrian McCallum.

by Judy Fredriksen

Sometimes Fate has a peculiar way of shaking us down to focus on our real purpose in life, as this Sunshine Coast University lecturer has discovered. 

A PhD from the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge and additional degrees in oceanography, meteorology and civil engineering, along with a noble career in the Australian Defence Force where he achieved the rank of Army Major, are just some of Adrian’s impressive achievements. 

Yet surprisingly, he confesses that his burning ambition was always to become a pilot, serve his country operationally and climb Mount Everest – none of which he has accomplished. Given his extensive track record of leadership, academia, military service, exploration and adventure, I think we can overlook this minor imperfection. 

After all, he is a Menzies Scholar and former Director of the Menzies Foundation, an institution which focuses on academic triumphs, leadership skills, vision, and most importantly – the ability to handle adversity.

After joining the military at age 17, Adrian had the opportunity to “study oceanography because I thought it was like geography, but it turns out it wasn’t. It was very mathematical!” 

Never-the-less, the studies served him well in his quest for adventure. For 20 years, Adrian spent much of his military career as a helicopter navigator with the Navy, carrying out non-combat exercises around Southeast Asia and Australia.

Then in 2001, it was an exciting moment when Adrian was one of only 12 defence personnel included in the military’s challenge to climb Mount Everest, an expedition he had initiated 10 years earlier. A training exercise, the climb would also celebrate the Australian Army’s centenary. 

Among those attached to the climbing team were: Airforce Squadron Leader – Peter Szypula; his partner Michelle Hackett – an RAAF sergeant; and her eight year old daughter affectionately known as KC. Because the trek would be a momentous occasion for the ADF, Peter and a specialised cameraman were documenting the trip. 

At the time, it was quite common for Western children to be included in treks around Nepal and the lower reaches of the Himalayas and KC was a welcome addition to the team. 

A bubbly, outgoing and energetic child, KC was credited with helping the climbers to bond because of her youthful inquisitiveness and quickly captivated everyone – including Adrian. In their preparation to become acclimatised, Adrian would often piggy-back KC when she became tired, providing special moments of togetherness.

Sadly, when Peter, Michelle and KC decided to separate from the rest of the group, allowing the others to move at a faster pace, tragedy struck, and the three were killed in an ice avalanche. Everyone was devastated at the loss of the happy trio, with the accident serving as a catalyst for Adrian to delve further into the mysteries of ice and snow flows. 

“That was a formative moment in my life, and that made me want to dedicate my life to studying the strength of snow and ice,” explains Adrian. 

Driven by a fierce desire, Adrian applied and was accepted to do a PhD at the Scott Polar Research Institute, his curiosity taking him to the frozen frontiers of Alaska, Greenland and the Antarctic to extract data on icy formations for his research. 

But the completion of his PhD didn’t mean Adrian stopped searching for solutions to prevent heartache for others who may have lost someone dear in an avalanche. He is still “looking for ways to assess avalanche risk on that particular mountain. 

“My plan is to find out how we can detect dangerous movement of that ice mass, and how we might apply that to other dangerous ice slopes.”

Eventually, Adrian intends to revisit the icefield where the avalanche occurred to put in sensors and measure the ice thickness and velocity. 

Though he is still a Major in the Army Reserves, this explorer lives in Maleny, inspiring his engineering and science students at Sunshine Coast University where he has taught for the past decade. 

It’s not just academic results that Adrian expects from his charges. Emulating his ADF nickname ‘Coach’, Adrian loves to empower people. 

“Adventurous training, which I did for 20 years in the military and culminating in the Everest expedition, made me realise it doesn’t matter what mountain you are going to climb, it’s how people tick either individually or as a team, in climbing that mountain.

“My intention is to get students out of the classroom into an expedition environment where they have to dig deep and work as a team. 

“I want to offer them journeys of exploration, education and empowerment. I also want to give them some spiritual time to think about life, the universe, their role in life and how they want to achieve it – encourage them to reflect. 

“It’s only through reflection that you can remove yourself from the intensity of living. If you don’t take that time to reflect, you’re too down in the weeds and not getting the perspective required.

“Going down dry gullies is a part of life, and we gain from those experiences.” 

And with a lifetime of dangerous adventures under his belt, Adrian should know. 

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