CAPE DENISION, Antarctica (Reuters Life!) - Living in freezing isolation in Antarctica is a test of endurance for even the toughest of adventurers with veterans to the South Pole convinced that a sense of humor is a key tool for survival.
Despite passing psychological assessments, for some people the hardest part of an expedition to one of the world’s most inhospitable environments comes on the day that their ship sails out of view, leaving them stranded on ice.
When early Antarctic explorers like Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Douglas Mawson led their expeditions to the South Pole about a century ago, psychological testing was not a part of the selection process.
These days, however, in addition to technical competence there is a strong emphasis on mental and physical prowess when vetting candidates to work on the ice such as during an annual program to conserve the huts of Mawson and his team.
“When you get closer to Antarctic a lot of people are very aware they’ve left a hell of a lot behind and when they land at the station and the ship sails away that’s an important moment,” Rob Easther, expedition manager for the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, told Reuters at Cape Denison.
Cape Denison is 2,473 kms (1,537 miles) south of the Australian island state of Tasmania and is officially the windiest place on earth at sea level, where the highest recorded gusts reach 300 kms an hour.
Easther has over 20 years experience with the Australian Antarctic Division living and working on various Australian Antarctic stations and was awarded the Antarctic Medal for his services.
But he tends to rely on gut instinct when selecting candidates to travel on the Mawson’s Huts Foundation Expedition, an annual six-week working program to conserve the base of Australia’s most famous polar explorer, Mawson, and his team, set up during their 1911-14 expedition to Cape Denison.
“I put a lot of store into people’s personal qualities as against their technical abilities. If I had two people of equal technical ability, I’d go for the personal quality,” Easther said.
Easther, who was once sent to an Antarctic station to sort out a mutiny, says people need a sense of humor, self-motivation, and can’t take themselves too seriously.
“It’s a simple thing, but it’s not always there,” he said.
Dr. Chris Henderson, one of the 10 members of this year’s expedition, is a veteran of working in remote Australian outposts and prisons.
He says there’s a fine line between becoming totally overwhelmed by the interpersonal conflicts that arise and to being completely blase to them, so retaining a sense of humor is vital to survival in isolation.
“Everyone goes through periods of self doubt, isolation and alienation, happiness and popularity. They’re just normal on a trip like this. It’s how you handle it — for me sometimes I go all quiet, other times I talk a lot,” Henderson told Reuters.
Subject to passing a rigorous medical examination, the final part of the selection process for the Mawson’s Huts Foundation 2009/10 expedition was a weekend workshop in Tasmania.
This covered topics like the team’s various roles and coping with Tasmania’s colder climate while the candidates’ interaction was discreetly observed.
“I tend to steer away from people who are too egotistical, I think a certain level of humility is good,” Easther said.
Henderson believes maintaining contact with the outside world helps to cope with harsh isolation.
“I think it’s important to have some sort of contact with home or the outside world. It brings a sense of reality into things,” Henderson said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith