Rethinking Resilience: Lessons From the Poles

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” - Confucius

During my time on the EMC progamme, I wrote a case paper about resilience. While talking to some executives recently, they confessed how hard it has been to maintain their own and their team's spirit elevated during this quarantine, so I thought it may be an interesting subject to reflect about in this time of uncertainty. 

We all deal with problems, failures, disappointments and uncertainties.

The desire to react and grow stronger from adversities is inherent to humans, i.e., people are naturally in pursuit for resilience. The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness”. History carries many cases of extraordinary success and failures, and very often the fine line that separates one from another is marked by the resilience of those involved.

How do people react to extreme situations? Why does this capacity to react seem easier to some than to others? What is the impact of these actions on the team? Is resilience an innate characteristic or a skill that can be developed?

This blog post will focus on shedding light to these matters. As I am an admirer of great human adventures, I shall discuss two examples of “the golden age of polar explorations”: Scott’s saga in pursuit of becoming the first man to step on the South Pole, and Shackleton’s journey and his expedition in the Endurance. I will also depict my own expedition to Mount Denali in Alaska.

The last place in the world: Scott and the race to the South Pole 

“All of a sudden we saw a dark spot! It did not seem like anything natural. We moved on and realised it was a black flag tied to a sledge. Nearby was an abandoned camp with footprints of humans and dogs everywhere. It was clear; the Norwegians had arrived before us. Amundsen arrived at the Pole first! After all we had been through, frostbite, hunger, we are facing the shock of having arrived too late. Now we must return!” (Captain Scott’s diary)

On January 17, 1912, the legendary British expedition Terra Nova, led by Captain Robert F. Scott, finally reaches the South Pole only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had already been there for exactly thirty three days. The feat resulted in the death of Captain Scott himself and four of his men.

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Terra Nova

Edward Adrian Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Lawrence Oates, Henry Robertson Bowers and Edgar Evans at the South Pole

Terra Nova sailed from the port of Cardiff on June 15, 1910. Scott was unaware of Amundsen’s purpose until they reached Melbourne in October the same year. In that moment, what would have been a scientific adventure became a race to conquer what was then called “the last place on Earth”.

On November 2, 1911, Scott, along with 11 men, 33 dogs, 17 Siberian ponies, cutting-edge technology, and two motorised sleds, began the expedition into the continent, a 1900-kilometer journey down to 90° latitude south.

The motorised vehicles did not last the first 100 kilometers. The horses would not resist much further; they had all been sacrificed half the way through. Men and dogs were slowly dismissed.

In the final stage, only five men held the honour to continue.

When Scott finally put up the British flag in the Earth’s far south, nothing was as expected. The often-anticipated ritual now seemed meaningless. Physically worn out and mentally disturbed, the drive that had made them overcome so many obstacles to get there was gone. “The way back will be exhausting. Great God! This is a terrible place to be”, he wrote.

The return marked their defeat and incapacity to endure it. Cold, hunger and discouragement; tragedy awaited them. On March 21, the remaining three men set up what would be their last camp. At that point, they were merely 18 kilometers – a one-day walk – away from a big deposit of fuel and food, where a rescue group waited for them.

But the explorers were exhausted, with no oil to keep them warm and with hardly any food. A cold blizzard confined them to their tents. So on March 29, four months after their departure, Scott wrote his final notes: “I assume we can expect nothing else now. We shall resist until the end, though we are getting weaker and the end seems to be near. It is a shame, but I can no longer write anymore. For the love of God, look after our families.”

Shackleton and the incredible journey to save his men

“It is almost over… the ship will not resist, captain. We had better brace ourselves, it is just a matter of time. It could take months, weeks or even days. But what the ice gets, it keeps.” (E. Shackleton to F. Worsley, captain of the ship Endurance)

It was 1915. The Endurance was stuck in the Weddell Sea, at 74° latitude south, in Antarctica. Shackleton and his men pursued the ambitious goal of crossing the continent from one end to the other on foot, known as "The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition".

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endurance

The Endurance

Shackleton had already been to Antarctica twice. In 1909, on his previous expedition on board the Nimrod, he arrived within 200 kilometers from the South Pole, a record back then. Therefore the "Endurance Expedition" carried strong significance not only for Shackleton and his crew, but also for the people from England still afflicted by Scott’s tragic death and the failed attempts to become the first to conquer the North and South Poles. Perhaps it was a way to retrieve their pride.

Shackleton and his crew of 25 men sailed from England in August 1914. After a stop in South Georgia, they sailed off to Antarctica. Six weeks later they were overtaken by the ice, which eventually trapped the ship. They spent nearly 11 months surrounded by ice when the ship was finally crushed and sank. At first they set up camp near the shipwreck, but due to the movement of the ice plates, they had to seek safety on dry land.

After one week rowing in lifeboats, they reached Elephant Island. This small island offered no protection other than being on solid ground. Moreover, it was off course. It was clearly a temporary solution.

Having no alternative, Shackleton made the only decision that seemed possible in that moment: along with a few men, he would row an improvised lifeboat for about 1,300 kilometers to South Georgia.

After 17 days and a hurricane, they reached the island to discover they were on the wrong side. Therefore they had to cross 36 kilometers of ice and mountains that separated them from the lifeboat station, which they reached in 36 strenuous hours.

Due to the constant blizzards and bureaucracy, Shackleton took three months to rescue the men stranded on Elephant Island. After more than two years trapped on the Antarctic ice, not one single life was lost; they all returned home safely.

Resilience: From practice to theory

What did Scott and Shackleton have in common?

They were both highly experienced and had been to Antarctica before. Both had a very clear purpose, the ‘glory of the British Empire’, besides their own. But above their similarities, it was their differences that sealed their fate.

We will look into the behaviour of these leaders and the impact it had on their adventure partners, i.e., their team. I shall make use of the theoretical concept presented by Diane Coutu in an article for the Harvard Business Review, How Resilience Works (2002). In this article she lists three features that make for a resilient person.

1. Face Down Reality

After a traumatising event, there are two paths to take: confrontation or denial, the latter often expressed by complaints.

The final result is determined by the scale. On one side of the scale there is fate/risk/circumstance. On the other side preparation/tactic/heart. The adventurer does not know exactly how much will be loaded on the lucky side of the scale when he sets out, but he can overload the other side as much as possible hoping to turn the chances in his favour.

Both Scott and Shackleton were stricken by a factor, a circumstance they had no control. Shackleton, however, seemed better prepared in his heart to deal with the unexpected. In Scott’s diary, the mental depression that had affected him was expressed in the countless complaints: “this is a terrible place”, “this is the worst thing that could happen to us”.

His team was obviously not immune to their leader’s state of mind; instead, they became discouraged like him who no longer offered support. It is worth noting that, if Scott had experienced a great defeat, this was Shackleton’s third expedition to Antarctica as well as his third failure.

Yet, he always tried to keep a positive and encouraging attitude, always focused on the future. He consequently kept the hopes up on himself and his crew. This does not mean that Scott had not prepared himself to reach the South Pole - in fact he did and he arrived. He would have probably made it back despite the hardship. Perhaps he was not prepared to be the second man to reach it, which cost the lives of his team and his own.

2. Search for meaning

The ability to seek for a meaning and find a new purpose when unexpected adversities happen is what keeps one strong and sound.

“You will build bridges from your present-day ordeal to a fuller, better future. Those bridges will make the present manageable, by removing the sense that the present is overwhelming” (Coutu, 2002).

Shackleton quickly came up with a new purpose to replace his original goal: to bring the entire crew back safely. This became his priority. He knew that one single death would be enough to trigger a moral breakdown process in the whole group.

Therefore he instructed the men with his leadership. He understood that a team is only as effective as its weakest member. He exchanged “survival of the fittest” for “protection of the weakest”. This inspired confidence and all of them felt protected. They helped the ones in need, certain that they themselves would eventually be assisted if necessary.

Scott, on the other hand, did not manage to switch his deep deception for a purpose that would keep a high morale in his partners. Returning home was not enough. Having no food and no fuel to keep them warm, being at the limit of exhaustion and, most importantly, without hope, left Scott with nothing else but the burden to comfort his men while they perished.

3. Continually improvise

“When a disaster strikes, be inventive. Make the most of what you have by putting resources into unusual use and by imagining possibilities others do not see.” (Coutu, 2002).

The Endurance lifeboats not only served as transport to navigate over 1,000 miles until South Georgia, but also as shelter against the strong winds and blizzards.

In addition, there was another vital improvisation to maintain the crew’s mental health: Shackleton came up with predictability. He ensured that every men had a task and that they all had a labour and a leisure routine, and rest as well. Such routine involved games, lectures, and even ice soccer. This ‘sense of structure’ works as an effective recovery moment against anxiety.

Scott and his crew failed to improvise or did not stand a chance to do so. Although his men struggled fearlessly to survive and honoured their duties, they likely reached a point of no return, when nothing else was left to do except wander the endless miles that kept them away from the ship. Could Scott have done anything different to restore the mental strength they needed?

Failure x Withdrawal: My expedition to Mount Denali

To answer this question humbly respecting all the differences, I shall use a personal example, also at polar latitudes: my expedition to Mount Denali in Alaska, standing at 6,190 meters. This is a very cold and hostile mountain.

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mount denali

Mount Denali

The climb through the ordinary path, despite not requiring advanced vertical techniques, is very difficult and demands knowledge of handling a range of equipment, of using ropes, of rescue techniques and ice climbing, besides being in good physical condition and having previous understanding of your own body’s reaction to the process of acclimatisation.

I traveled to Denali in the sixth phase of the Seven Summits Project, which consists of climbing the highest mountain in each continent. Our group was formed by nine members (three groups in three ropes). An expedition up to Denali usually takes about 21 days, meaning five camps until the summit. The climbing process is slow and exhausting; and since we carry all the supplies, we must make the journey to each campsite twice.

The atmospheric conditions at Denali are a mystery, and in that year it would not be different.

Due to the bad weather, we remained eight days stranded on campsite 4 at 4,800 meters. We required a two-day weather window on that spot: one day to reach campsite 5 at 5,300m, where we had already stored a necessary amount of food, and a second day to reach the peak and then return to camp 4.

The weather did not improve and our food began to finish. We eagerly waited for the forecast every single day. When we finally decided to descend, some team members had become quite gloomy, which was dangerous as we had a whole mountain to climb down. I was really disappointed with myself because it was the summit I was better prepared for physically; I had spent two years training.

It is not easy to make such a decision to go down, mainly as I felt I had the physical condition to move on. The feeling of failure took over; but would it actually have been a failure?

In his article to HBR “To recover from failure, try some Self-Compassion”, Christopher Gerner suggests a different approach to the matter. According to him, “when things go wrong in our lives, we tend to be our worst enemy. To recover emotionally and get back on your feet, there is a different approach you can take: self-compassion” (2017). In turn, this would be achieved through three components:

1. Mindfulness: Name the emotion you are feeling to ground yourself to the here and now, and remember the main goal. In the Denali case, the emotion had a clear name: failure and disappointment. And the target was clear as well: go and return safely. There was also a personal goal: accomplish my task and be ready to assist a partner who could possibly require it. I know what it feels like to be the weak part in an expedition. However, since the past expeditions I had agreed with myself to be a strong chain link.

2. Common Humanity: Most of us tend to hide in shame when things go really wrong. The success rate at Denali during climbing season is 50%. In that year it was 32%. So that means I was not the only one.

3. Self-kindness: treat yourself with the same kindness and support as you would treat a dear friend. The only way I would be able to provide support to my team is, in the first place, if I treated myself that way. 

From that point of view, it is clear: the decision to return was not a failure, but a withdrawal. They are two different things. Withdrawal is a choice, maybe the last choice before failure. It is crucial to have this clear in mind, for the consequences of each one are different.

The consequences of failure tend to be more serious and definite compared to a strategic withdrawal. In that case, the consequence of a failed attempt not only was not making it to the summit, but also the safety of myself and my partners. And this was non-negotiable.

I do not wish to fall into the trap of speculating about or judging Scott’s actions, but what I could learn from my high mountain expeditions is that some decisions, the ones that are non-negotiable, must be taken in advance; we must not rely on our capacity to perceive in the heat of the moment, mainly when we are compromised by the effects of the altitude.

It may sound as cliché, but it is a fact that the pressure, anxiety, exhaustion, and sometimes disappointment reveal a person’s true nature, their best and their worst. In that meantime, we have a choice: to decide who we want to be, what we wish to reveal, i.e., what attitude we intend to have towards adversities. I had decided that I wanted to have a structural role in the team, to be the one who assists and transmits tranquility and balance. I had decided that before I set foot on the mountain.

As with safety, this attitude was also non-negotiable for me.

Resilience: A decision taken in advance

So, the first step to develop resilience must be to answer what kind of person you intend to be when adversity confronts you. Scott, Shackleton and even I, at Denali, prepared ourselves to succeed, but we were well aware of the risks.

As in life, we do not know what fate holds for us, but we do know the rules of the game. And if we have no control over some events, our attitude is the only controllable variable in this process. Therefore, an attitude of resilience is, above all, a choice and decision. But it shall be a decision taken in advance.

References

Alexander, Carolina (1998) The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Companhia das Letras.

Huntford, Roland (1983) The Last place on Earth, Companhia das Letras.

Coutu, Diane (2002) How Resilience Works, Harvard Business Review (product #R0205B).

Germer Cristopher (2017) To Recover from Failure, Try some Self-Compassion, hbr.org (product # H03E32).

Achor, Shawn & Gielan, Michelle (2016), Resilience is About How you Recharge, Not How You Endure, hbr.org (product # H02Z3O).