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Random Notes for the Antarctic traveller

12 October 2015

Random Notes for the Antarctic traveller image

I joked the other day, on seeing a tweet from an all-woman team planning on crossing Antarctica (1700km, 75 days, 6 British Army women, that they’d need to make some changes in order to improve their chances of success.  Now before people jump down my throat and say I’m being sexist I need to point out that being a woman isn’t the problem, no, the problem is they’re all in the British Army.  This may sound like an unfair or illogical argument, after all, the British army is one of the great fighting forces in the world, and such women, having passed many fitness tests and trials, should be superwomen, so what’s my problem?  Well, I’ve had a long history of working with the army, airforce, marines etc, talked, taught, and climbed with them, quizzed them how they operate, and seen how they handle adventure sport, and I think they maybe need to make some adjustments in order to have a better chance.  I’ve also done some polar trips and done quite a few long expeditions, so have a pretty good grasp on group dynamics and the reality of being on an expedition, so I thought I’d pass some random and unsorted advice to the team.

Random notes

  • Antarctica can destroy you in an instant, blow you away, freeze your flesh solid.  You are nothing more than a drop of hot blood dripped into a swimming pool of liquid nitrogen.  Don’t forget this.  Having the classic military ‘can-do attitude is not what will ultimately see you across, better go instead for a ‘what it can do to you’ attitude.
  • Be under no illusion that no matter how tough you think you are, how hard, how well trained, able to gnaw off a finger or walk with blood running down your legs for weeks on end, it will make no difference.  If you try and beat Antarctica with brute force it will beat you.  Being a soldier may not be an advantage in such a place, but being a woman may well be (men tend to be far more bull-headed than woman, well in my experience).
  • Antarctica is the wildest animal, related to the deep ocean and high mountain.  It may become calmed by high pressure, the sun warming your skin, may seem tame by all your gadgets; carbon fibre and gore-tex, its vastness graspable via GPS and google images, but it will never be tame.  Like the sea and the high mountain, in an instant, the moment you forget what it is, or turn your back on it; thinking you have its measure, it can turn on you.  In a moment fingers can be lost, tents and pulks blew away, great holes swallow you up.  Make no mistakes,  Antarctica is no easy foe, and at all times it should be feared and respected.
  • Don’t believe the myths others have sewn about Antarctica, foolish macho heroism, or believe yourself tougher than the rest, that you are Shackleton, Scott or Douglas Mawson, as these men all paid the price of believing that they were a match for the South, two only just making it home, one remaining there forever.  Study why Shackleton and Mawson made it back, and why Scott did not.
  • First of all you must change how you view your physical capabilities, your strength and stamina, seeing them not as a weapon in this war, or of infinite capacity, but as finite, a coal store to be husbanded and guarded with great care, rationed out day by day and never squandered in some bonfire of rash ego.
  • Take small steps in everything, but always keep going forward, be it 40km in a day, or just 4km.  Don’t let unrealistic expectations, built up in the pre-trip phase, undermine the reality you find yourself in.
  • Go easy on yourself and those around you.
  • Instead of ‘failure is not an option or ‘who dares wins’, instead you need to have a lazy mindset, such as ’never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lay down’.  Instead of using brute force, save this force, converting it into each slip of a ski over binding snow.  Instead, think yourself around problems, design out the hassle that will waste time.
  • every day may feel like your bodies been in a battle you lost, but if you can get up and go again the next you’ll win.
  • Don’t believe the bullshit of the polar hard-men (or woman), as the best are wimps.  They avoid the cold, they sleep in warm bags, they don’t have cotton boxer shorts that rub their thighs raw. These people eat well and sleep well.  They have a laugh and have fun.  Their trips are not death marches but holidays (tough ones I’ll admit).  So don’t try and live up to some macho bullshit reality if ‘digging in’ etc, just be smart and professional.
  • The difference between a pro (well let’s just call them ‘a Norwegian’) and the classic British hard-man, with his arse hanging out, frostbitten fingers and black nose, is they just have their shit together.  They have tested every bit of the kit and nothing is new to them.  They know their bodies and so have a vast store of coal on which to burn.  They have planned out and visualised all aspects of their day, from the smallest detail (such as a flint and steel rather than matches that may get damp, or lighter than my stop working at high Antarctic altitudes), to boiling up all the water each night for breakfast the following day, so they can be away in less than an hour in the morning (the coldest hour). You cannot tough it out in Antarctica, but you can think it out.
  • Yes ‘polar explorers’ may say how it’s minus 50 down south or show shots of them curled around in a ball freezing their asses off, but remember that they are storytellers.  Such people get nothing back from saying ‘actually is bloody roasting in a tent in Antarctica, and you end up sleeping on top of your sleeping bag”.  It’s the same with North pole trips, what use is there in showing hundreds of miles of flat ice when you can show people swimming leads or climbing house-sized jumbles of ice?  If you believe this crap you’ll go down south thinking you’re going into a war when really your job is to make peace with Antarctica.  If you go to war you will lose.
  • An Antarctic trip is easy.  Just plan out every day, every detail, making everything simple, effective before you go. Everything from gaffer taping poles together so they don’t need to be taken out of the tent, fuck-off zip pulls on everything, a bag to roll the tent, mats and bags into all in one. Have a bomb-proof cooking system (XGK or Wisperlight) with the pans in a solid housing (Trangia or homemade), with everything set up so the second the tent is us you’re pouring in the day’s leftover hot water and getting the snow melting started (the quicker you eat and drink the faster you can go to bed). Take a funnel so you don’t spill hot water when pouring - simple stuff like that, a game of marginal gains.  Give everyone jobs and don’t run on a western democratic model of ‘it’s your turn’ etc. Each woman should have a place when the tent goes up, then a place when it comes to bringing it to life (one digs kitchen trench in porch, one shovels snow on valances, one sweep out snow with a brush as one hand them in bags and kit through the back of tent). Basically, a bomb-proof system before you go, then refine it a day on day, as you need to be either moving or sleeping, and anything else needs to be reduced to a minimum.
  • Don’t worry too much about getting cold, but do worry about getting too hot.  Don’t ski like Cracknel and Fogle in huge down jackets, but stripped down to base layers and a shell.  Again this is where being is vital.  You strip down to ski, then stick in down jackets and pants, pack everything away, then take off your ‘static layer’ and off you go.  Being women you may get colder, so sew up some leg and arm warmers (like they have on road bikes) that you can slip up and down in the day (the knees can get cold).  Try and have a very flexible system.  The main reason for not getting hot is that when you sweat you end up with salt on your skin, which increases abrasion, leading to sores - a real killer on any multi-week ski trip (I would avoid a waterproof shell on my legs altogether).
  • The main areas to look after our face, hands and feet, so go with a tried and tested system.  Avoid going over the top, a thick pair of Dactstien mitts can be just as warm as down mitts, plus they’ll be tougher and blow away less easily! (have all mitts attached with idiot cords).
  • Protect your face and look after your nose and never ever have any skin exposed to the weather, be it stormy or still.
  • Avoid tight-fitting ‘sport’ shells, as for polar work you need a baggier fit, as close contact with your base layer can lead to frostbite on your thighs.
  • Start off slow, even if you only do a few kilometres a day for the first few days in the long run it will work out better.  Your body will find it almost impossible to recover from wounds or injuries and these are most usually picked up early.  Take time to get your systems right, working as a team, before you get into the hard stuff.
  • Don’t underestimate the massive psychological burden of a polar trip, the loneliness and isolation (even in a big team), as well as the slog.  Get yourself a ton of music, podcasts and audiobooks (take 2 iPods), plus real books to read each night, even for just half an hour.  You will need some way of escaping yourself and Antarctica, even for just a little while.
  • Like war you need to be able to depressurise at the end of each leg, each day, each week.  Have a load of films or TV programs on your iPods and watch one on a Saturday night, or after a tough day, the whole team together.
  • Team dynamics can be tough, and this is one area that can make or break a trip, and one that is a bigger problem when based on a military mindset.  Try and always approach problem emphatically - try and see what’s really bothering people.  Remember that a simple thing like a blister or a chaffed chin can wear even the strongest down.
  • Be flexible.  Let the team find its own level (“A high tide raises all ships)”.  If one member is stronger then give them more weight to haul.  If someone’s struggling let them ski without a pulk.  Don’t let ego or shame fuck it up for everyone. 
  • You are the team, the tip and the spear, and sometimes the biggest self-sacrifice of all is not the pulling of two pulks, but allowing someone to take your pulk from you.
  • The biggest danger on these trip is rubbing, as you ski for hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometres, so reduce that danger by using glide cream on your legs and bum cheeks, and clean your body every night with snow or wet wipes.
  • Lastly win or lose, this trip could be the best or worst one of your life, category 1, 2 or 3. Which one? Well that depends on you, not Antarctica.

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