Antarctica '09: Attitude, Mental Toughness and Other Observations

Extreme wilderness

On our trip we got a bit of an appreciation of the attitude required to survive in the extreme wilderness of Antarctica, despite our trip being a relatively “easy” one. Having been through this, our admiration for someone like Hannah grew even larger: she did ten times our distance, in eight times the number of days, with less than half the daily ration, and all on her own. She must have gone for weeks in a row without a single land mark. Clearly, this not only requires extreme physical fitness, it also requires an incredible mental toughness.

This must have been even more so for the early explorers. In contrast to modern expeditions, they didn't know what was expecting them, didn't have GPS, weather forecasts, satellite phones, and compared to what we have, horrible equipment: everything heavy and of poorer quality. In hindsight it seems hard to believe that people could make it to the pole a hundred years ago.


It is clearly vital to have a strong, positive attitude. If you get into difficulty you have to be able to help yourself, you will need to rely on your own ingenuity and ideas to solve and overcome problems. An open mind and positive attitude are basic survival skills. Similarly, endurance is not only a physical but also a mental requirement.

While we have not experienced a critical problem, smaller issues during our expedition could have easily been blown into a bigger problem, had we brought along the wrong attitude. As an example, Trudy had become more and more exhausted as the trip went on. During the last couple of days, this exhaustion started to take its toll and her body could not stay warm enough, especially the hands were constantly cold to the degree of numbness.

In this moment, some things helped more than others. The usual, physical fix of swinging the arms was better than nothing, but did not really get the blood flowing enough into the hands. Practical, caring support: during snack breaks, when Trudy's fingers were too stiff, Gernot fingered out some instant calories (chocolate squares!) and pushed them through the small opening in the mask into her mouth. Positive thoughts: Trudy knew she had to endure the freezing hands only until the night, since however cold it was during the day in the open, she knew that once in the tent and in the sleeping bag, she would soon be completely warm again. Motivation and outlook: As long as it hadn't progressed into a serious health problem, the outlook of only a couple more days was a great motivator to overcome pain, tiredness and push through to exhaustion. (But clearly that wouldn't have worked on a longer trip!)

Mental stamina

Mental strength is just as important as physical fitness. The days flat of skiing are long, physically demanding and with very little variety or external stimulus to distract from pain or tiredness or to provide motivation and guidance in pushing ahead. It takes a lot of discipline and determination to keep moving on when you have no direct feedback on progress from your surroundings. Gernot was certainly glad he had his GPS, which showed him each hour that we had progressed another 3km or so.

Actually taking pictures, reading the GPS or even a watch wasn't easy while moving. For one, you kept these devices close to your body, to keep them warm, as otherwise the batteries would go flat in no time. So you had to get them out from under your top layers to start with (not easy with thick gloves or mittens). Furthermore, when not having a break we would be constantly moving, which means that your hands were needed to push the poles. Stopping meant falling behind (or breaking the team's rhythm, which wasn't popular) so you had to keep moving without poles, which is of course even more exhausting. Trudy at times resorted to estimating time without a watch, just as a way to take her mind off the exhausting activity.

Also, you didn't really talk much during the day. We generally skied in single file, in order to maximise the (slide) benefit of the fresh tracks made by Rob. Furthermore, skiing over the hard-baked snow is more noisy than one would expect. As people generally were at least 5m apart (a rope and sled plus gap length), and our ears were covered by a hat, any “conversation” required yelling (which also costs strength). And it doesn't take much wind to drown that out completely.

Still, there is a certain luxury to having the freedom of letting thoughts come and go quickly or slowly, rarely or frequently. For instance, Trudy enjoyed controlling her thoughts as she visited in her mind all her family members and friends and then let them go again—an attitude of “enjoying a moment and then let go again” that serves us well in our every day life.

Incidentally, Gernot really liked the following verses, printed on the back of a T-t-shirt worn by Fran:

For scientific discovery give me Scott,
For speed and efficiency give me Amundsen,
But when disaster strikes and all hope is gone,
Fall to your knees and pray for Shackleton!

What is time?

In Antarctica we became aware of different aspects of “time” which are not normally experienced as separate:

The daily cycle which keeps our internal persona, our body and mind, intact and thriving.
This is also know as the Circadian cycle, of approximately 24 hours, the body operates on. Mostly, this is synchronised by the 24-hour daylight cycle, a feature obviously lacking in the polar region. This absence is obviously particularly notable in the 89–90° region of our trip, where the sun moves around the horizon at virtually constant altitude. In order to support our body, we maintain an artificial 24-hour rhythm.
So we get up in the morning at approximately the same time, are on the go for about 10 hours and aim for 7 to 8 hours sleep (the latter not always successfully achieved). How important it is to adhering to the cycle we already found out many years ago when cycling though Scandinavia, where we experienced how easily one is tempted to just keep going at the end of the day, tricked into extended physical activities by a never-setting sun. With the altitude of the sun unchanged throughout the day, brightness (and temperature) is also not determined by time but only by the presence or absence of clouds. Gernot found it important to use blindfolds to sleep (Trudy can sleep in bright sunlight when she's tired).
The physical time, shown on a clock, which synchronises us with the external social context.
We were, of course, familiar with time zones, which are essentially a means to marry the conventional European concept of day hours with solar time. This breaks down in the polar region, where any particular moment in the day would be equally suitable for being considered noon, as long as only the immediate physical surroundings were taken into account.
It is the regular interaction with other places that defines a daytime convention, the most important non-polar contact becomes the natural reference. Typically this means that each camp adopts the time zone of the (air-) port that is the main supply point. For Patriot Hills this is Punta Arenas, and hence Chilean time (GMT-3 during the Southern Summer). There was a strong taboo of noisy activity during the “night hours”. We maintained that time notion for the complete trip, which made sense, as we had a regular call to the base at 20:30, so Patriot Hills remained our main reference point.
This meant that we had to be aware of two different time zones when we arrived at the pole. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is supplied from Christchurch, New Zealand (via McMurdo Station at the coast) and therefore runs on New Zealand time (GMT+13 during the Southern Summer). Like Patriot Hills they have a notion of quiet night time, so we had to be aware of the 16 (or 8) hour time difference when timing our arrival and departure.


snow Despite the harshness and the physical exhaustion, the trip was amazing. The cold, dry air helps to sharpen our senses and lets us appreciate the wonderful country that Antarctica is: The snow surrounding us completely can sparkle like the universe of stars.

halo And the sun can put on a spectacle of its own: a 22° solar halo with two parhelia on the side, an upper tangent arc and, a rare feature, namely the bottom of the halo touching the horizon, with the lower tangent arc barely visible—an out of earth experience!

Trudy & Gernot

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