Patience and the 21st Century
One of the most common questions I'm asked following talks or at meetings is 'what do you think about whilst you ski?'. It's a very important question - especially since during polar expeditions it can be possible to ski in a featureless landscape for up to fifteen hours a day, for weeks on end. In some locations, for example when on sea ice rubble or crevassed glaciers, my concentration is firmly focused on the ice in front of me. Will that snow bridge take my weight? Is that iced-over lead thick enough? Which is the best way around that massive snow formation? These constant decisions, many of which can be life or death, are enough to stop anyone's mind from wandering.
However, sometimes the ice is flat and featureless, usually on ice shelves, icecap plateaus or large pans. This provides an opportunity to take advantage of one of the great privilege of polar travel - headspace. Preparing for a polar expedition has two main components - the concept and the execution. The concept is where some choose to be creative - to use imagination and dream up something truly exciting. This for me is one of the best parts of the 'job', something so hard to come by in process and bureaucracy-shackled workplaces. Then comes the execution of preparation - methodical and extensive, but not challenging once you know the ropes. There are x number of things to do and you just work through them until they're done. For me, the reason why I do not guide commercial groups full-time and why I limit the amount I do is because I would find the endless repetition of this process impossible to live with - I need more. The reality is that each day on the ice would have ten days of drudgery attached to it.
Then comes the expedition - the ultimate purpose and culmination of all that work. This is where I often come up against one of the biggest challenges of polar travel, aside from the physical hardship and dangerous situations - boredom. There's no getting away from it - the reason that so few people undertake major expeditions - let's say of >30 days duration - is because it's hard to handle. Simple as that. Every person who has hauled/driven dogs for extended periods, from Nansen and Scott to Weber and Ousland, will have come up with their own mental survival strategies. My own is firstly to split things up into bite-size chunks, a very normal human reaction to things of a scale which scare us. This is a very typical response for anything that is too complex or large to comprehend - just in the same way that early naturalists applied the flawed concept of a 'species' onto each animal they tried to describe and categorise into a neat box. Of course, species cannot really exist as distinct units, since genetic variation within and between 'species' is so fluid and indefinable. I'm as guilty as anyone for trying to categorise the uncategoriseable, having come from a science background.
Once I have split up my hauling day, be it into eight or fifteen hour-long sessions, each session needs to be filled. Sometimes it will be mental arithmetic - our average speeds and what we needed to do in order to make our next depot etc. Sometimes it will be simply thoughts of home and the real world. Sometimes however, and this is the purpose of this article, I really let my mind go - let it ponder the bigger things - real freedom. There will be some who say that I should stop pontificating about the infinite and just get on with hauling my glorified bath tub around. The problem is I can't. My mind is simply too curious, ambitious and impatient. This impatience leads finally and clumsily onto the topic I want to think about in this article.
I believe the single most important thing to question in life is the status quo. Is a 'mouse' the best way of controlling a computer? Maybe it is, but the key is not to assume that it is. It may be comfortable to rest, safe in the knowledge that many things are unchanging - familiar perhaps. Despite this, our very existence and that of everything we as a collective race have built, physically and metaphorically, are due to rejecting the status quo. Wanting something more - bigger, better, faster. I love this - it immerses me and I hope it excites anyone who wants to approach their life with vigour. This is why I am dismayed when I hear the criticism most regularly levelled at my millennial generation by those of previous generations -
'You kids have no patience - you won't wait for anything - it has to be now, now, now'.
I completely and utterly, and with pride, consider myself one of the targets of this condemnation. I simply don't believe in a resignation to the unrelenting passage of time. Why wait? I don't think there is an answer to this question which holds water. I started doing what I do young, but I could have done it even younger. That would then allow yet more time to experience more, and in time, achieve things of real significance. If I waste a day, or feel that a month or even a year of my life was under-par, I try to work out why and make sure it doesn't happen again. I cannot see the point in waiting - we have no idea how many days we will have and the biggest shame of all would be to end them, short of our potential.
My message to some of the baby boomers and Generation X is, don't stifle the impatience and hunger of those who were born into our world of ever-increasing pace. Instead, become part of it - afterall, it was some of you who created it. There is no 'proper age' to lead a team, invent something which changes the way the world communicates, or even buy those new speakers which allow you to enjoy your music that much better. World-changing concepts and ideas have been born in just an afternoon - it doesn't take 23 committees and 17 years of due diligence to effect genuine change.