Polar expeditions are boring. You trudge for hours upon end across a featureless icescape only stopping to pitch the shelter, eat and sleep. The routine is repeated with little variation until your destination has been reached. The monotony compounds mounting frustrations from equipment failure, human error or having the distance walked negated by the reverse movement of the ice flow. Then there are unrelenting winds, the cold, constant dehydration, exhaustion and bland expedition rations.
Keeping morale high under such duress is a test of one’s character and begs the question, how to you prepare your mind for something this challenging? There are few books out there on mental preparedness for Arctic Expeditions (or any kind of expedition for that matter).
Our trainer, Jim McNeill, has taught over 300 people how to survive in polar environments giving him unique insight to the faculties needed to cope. His methods involve setting you a task, pitching a tent for example, giving you minimal information on how to achieve the objective then watching as chaos ensues.
Pitching tent is simple when you know how to do it but a chore when done in temperatures touching -20°C. Communication becomes strained when instructions are misinterpreted as patronising slurs, or not heard over the roar of the wind. Your mood rises to a peak when the 8-person tent is finally standing then plunges into disappointment and annoyance when Jim instructs you to take it down and do it again. And again.
After 4 extensive training camps with the Ice Warrior team I’ve learned developed mechanisms to help me when we leave for the Last Pole. These are honesty, mindfulness and effective communication.
Mindfulness refers to being aware of your emotions, your colleagues behaviour and your surroundings. It an environment as unforgiving as the Arctic, it pays to be alert of all three. Getting caught in mental chatter may blind you to the early signs of hypothermia in a colleague, or a change in the ice formations and type. I also like it because it makes training for the Arctic sound a lot like training to become a Jedi.
To improve my mindfulness I’ve been meditating each morning for 10 minutes for a year. It has helped me beyond the confines of this expedition and touched other areas of my life. It’s relaxing to detach from the raging stream of consciousness that is my mind which bounces around from one idea to the next like a monkey in a cage, on crack.
I follow a type of simple meditation called Vipassana. It sounds a bit ‘new age’ but I assure you that chanting, candles and incense are not required! For more information about secular meditation practice and benefits checkout the blog of Sam Harris and his excellent book Waking Up*. Harris is a neuroscientist and far more qualified to discuss the benefits of a daily meditation practice than I am!
Here’s a snippet from Waking Up on how to meditate
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly—either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
- As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations, or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
- The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves—as they arise, change, and pass away.
Those who are new to this practice generally find it useful to hear instructions spoken aloud during the course of a meditation session. He has posted guided meditations on his website.
My practice helps me to respond and engage with the team in a calm manner. If I get mad or upset I can usually notice those feelings, accept them and move on.
Belgian polar explorer, Dixie Dansercoer, in the guidebook Polar Expedition* uses different ways to strengthen his mind including Yoga, reading, writing and moments of quiet introspection. He also recommends deliberately making life difficult for yourself and trying to think your way our of your troubles, rather than purchasing a solution. Dragging tyres on the commute into work qualifies as one way of toughening you up and improving fitness, for example.
My favourite methods of making life difficult are working in IT support and volunteering to go on an expedition requiring £20’000 in corporate sponsorship, or the death of a rich relative.
To develop honesty and communications Jim uses plenty of training scenarios. Working with others towards a single goal builds trust and respect. At the end of each scenario we give and receive feedback on our team performance. During this debrief we are encouraged to raise niggles or concerns and they are dealt with there and then.
Once our appraisal is complete we head back out into the snow to complete another scenario. As confidence grows we are more able to handle assessment, especially our own self-criticism. The Arctic is no place for self-delusion. The margins for error are so narrow that any lies about your abilities or wellbeing are punished. Mistakes in judgement filter back to impact the rest of the team. Our scenarios ( spending nights in a snow hole or taking part in a search and rescue mission) soon highlight shortcomings but the camaraderie and trust we’ve built allows us to dissect our strengths and weaknesses without feeling threatened.
By mimicking the conditions we are likely to face as accurately as possible, confronting our weaknesses and preparing for the worst we’re adding ingredients to a secret sauce that’ll get us to the heart of the Arctic Ocean without a nervous breakdown. If you’ve any suggestions on how to build mental resilience please drop me an email.
PS. Communication on the ice is a skill worthy of a separate post, so stay tuned or sign-up to my newsletter to have it delivered straight to your mailbox.