Just another day on holiday …

Just another day on holiday ...

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Bite-sized memories…

A group of us had been motoring along at a comfortable pace when the tall Brazilian runner ahead of me suddenly held up his hand to signal us to stop and pointed urgently at the ground. Slithering in the grass right across the trail was a distinctive coloured band bearing the red, yellow and black markings of a highly venomous Coral snake. Had we trodden on it carelessly, it would likely have subjected us to an intense bite full of neuro-toxins that could have been potentially fatal. This was just another reminder of the beauty and danger inherent in the sea of green teeming with life that we had chosen to immerse ourselves in.

Death threats to the racers, elusive jungle trails, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, stingrays, caimans, tarantulas, jaguars, highly venomous coral snakes, legions of stinging and biting insects, debilitating heat and humidity, razor-sharp plants, multiple swamp crossings daily and endless hills – all these and more were ostensibly the reason why CNN billed the 250km UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon as “The World’s Toughest Endurance Race”!

Racing in the UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon had always been high on the list of things I had wanted to do. In 2005, after completing the 250km Gobi desert ultra-marathon, I was inspired to follow that up by taking a trip to the Amazon rain-forest to experience the opposite extreme – going from very dry to very very wet. However, work and life conspired to necessitate an 8-year interval between those two races.

The insult of injury

An Achilles tendon ‘tweak’ sustained in 2009 during a simple trail run with friends became full-blown tendonitis after I forsook much-needed rest for the intense training required to climb Mount Everest. Though I summited successfully, a 4-year odyssey of frustration ensued as I was unable to string together more than a few short runs before re-injury. For one who loves sport and running, this 4-year hiatus was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I did, however, manage to sneak in other trips during that “lull period”, such as a ski-expedition to the North Pole, and training in the Arctic circle in winter. But the joy of lacing on my trainers, hefting my pack and running that same ill-fated trail almost four years to the day of that wretched injury, was incomparable. I was finally able to run on a trail again, and not a moment too soon – as the Amazon was only a month away.

Before we begin…

Set deep in the Amazon forest of NW Brazil, the race had a deceptively simple format: 6 stages, 7 days. The kicker was that besides a marked trail, water, medical resources and a nightly camp-site, all of which was provided by the petite but incredibly formidable race director, Shirley Thompson, and her team, everything else.– food, clothing (for racing and sleeping), medical kits, hammocks, jungle knives and other survival items – had to be brought along by the racers themselves.

Ensuring the optimal race gear trade-off meant endless rounds of packing and re-packing during the first two days in the jungle before setting off.  We agonized over the number of power gels and salt tablets to bring along, jettisoned unimportant and important equipment and conducted interminable exchanges of “Does anyone have spare safety pins/ anti-malaria tablets/ head-lamps/ batteries/ wet-wipes…”. In such an extreme environment, a missing piece of gear could have disastrous consequences, but carrying too much could also overburden one (literally). In the end, most of us had packs that weighed between 6 – 10kg. Not light by any means, especially when you factored in the weight of the packs when completely soaked, and the many hills we had to climb, but not overly daunting..

Besides receiving training to familiarize us with the jungle flora and fauna, those two packing days also gave us the opportunity to acclimatize.  I had once read an account about a desert race where the heat had been described as being a passive killer. (I’m not sure if I completely agree with that description as the 50+ degree Celsius heat I had to endure in the Gobi desert was certainly significant.) In contrast, here in the Amazon, everything seemed to be actively trying to put me at the bottom of the food-chain. The humidity and heat took an intense toll on my body. Thankfully, I was quite well-adapted to the environment, and found it strangely familiar and comforting, reminiscent of the climate back home in Singapore as well as the other tropical jungles of Borneo (Brunei) and West Malaysia where I had spent a significant amount of time.

By the second night, we were all rather anxious to get racing, for we knew that once we got started, there would be no more second-guessing, and our nervous energy could finally be put to good use.

 Let the games begin!

On the first day of the race, I woke up at 5am to add boiling water to my meal of freeze-dried food – my hearty breakfast. The camp-site was a hive of activity with headlamps dotting the darkness as racers started packing away their hammocks, applying unguents and lotions to their nether bits which were likely to blister, putting on their racing gear and refilling water-bottles. The tension was palpable.

Day 1 – The hills are alive…with the sound of blistered footsteps

The first stage began on the beach with a mad dash for pole position and then up a steep hill out of the village we had been staying at. Having been through this kind of melee previously, I was a little more measured; after all, this was only the first 23km of a 250km race.

The first 10 minutes brought us all to our first check-point, where there was a mandatory 15 minute rest (required for all check-points in the first two days to reduce heat injury) followed by our first river-crossing. This would be the first of many river and swamp crossings for the race, often the very first thing we would do at the start of each day, and our feet would rarely be dry for the following 7 days.

In the jungle, we waded through deep muddy swamps. I’m not sure what comes to mind as you read these words – perhaps a bit of dirt, or mud up to your shins, shoes need washing – but here, we’re talking about mud akin to the Florida swamps that I once had the pleasure of traipsing through for several weeks – swamps that suck you in and never spit you out; a competitor in a previous edition of this race DNFed simply by losing his shoe to the extreme grip of the swamp!

Once away from the swamp, there was a series of steep hills to ascend – leg-burning, lung-busting hills. It was interesting to see who was relatively stronger on the downs, the ups and the flats as we would constantly swap places with other competitors. Coming from the table-flat terrain of Shanghai, where the nearest hill is more than an hour away, this was a serious stumbling block for me – literally and metaphorically. Along with the ups came the downs – steep descents often meant sliding and slipping, with the nascent emergence of hot-spots within the shoes, that were also full of grit. The conditions for blister formation – heat, moisture and friction (the unholy trinity) – were all present in copious amounts, and later on, we would see the toll that it took on the racers. With the heat, hills and pace, the first day was very punishing and took me over four hours to complete, about an hour behind the race leaders. I later overheard that someone had told Shirley that a racer from the previous year had scoffed at how easy the first day was – I guess this was our pay-back. We had our first heat-injury case that day, with one of the competitors from UK, Lee, being pulled-out and given IV at the medical tent. We were treated to a comfortable camp-site next to the river that night, but that just meant that the next day would start with a swim across the river.

Day 2 – Can you take the heat?

And so the day began, as anticipated, with a river sojourn. Unfortunately, my big dry bag became completely non-functional and de-laminated, so I ended up carrying lots of water IN my dry-bag, along with my pack. The second day was also scorching hot, with more segments of open road, and occasionally, one would see competitors crash out at check-points. The second night’s campsite was in an open area near a cemetery – appropriate, for a few people were already starting to feel like they were dying. One of the good friends I had made so far, Theimos, had 5 huge blisters on each foot drained and refilled with friar’s balsam – it was meant to act as a hardening agent to hold the dead skin in place, like super-glue, but the down-side was that it felt like someone was taking a red-hot poker to raw skin. His screams as they plunged the needle in were of decibels unheard of outside of medieval torture chambers. (His daughters were quite impressed with their dad when they viewed this on video; his ex-wife was pretty pleased too).

Day 3 – Creature (dis)comforts

The third day was another 34km, this time deep in the heart of the jungle, which we shared with many creatures. I also found out the hard way what interval training in the jungle was like; when the bees and hornets come swarming at you, you are pretty incentivised to kick things into gear and sprint like your life depended on it (which it did, in a sense). We came across these angry bees several times and had to make a mad dash for it. What made this even more perplexing was that   I had soaked my clothes in Permethrin – a strong insect repellent that is supposedly especially toxic to bees – but I guess they did not receive the memo. 

Day 4 – Easy does it

Day 4 was the marathon stage. The first leg began with a swim down a fast-flowing stream that had numerous fallen trees in the way. The extremely exhausting and painful challenge lay in clambering over these obstacles without chafing or scraping our skin that was already in states of agonizing rawness. Speed, or any attempt at it, was practically impossible. We did a kilometre or two of this slowly, then the fresh fast-flowing water petered out into a swamp, and then it was just swamp, swamp and more swamp. The second half of Day 4, however, was a more forgiving, but still long and hot, slog on the road, before finally arriving at  a beautiful beach.

That night, as we were getting settled in and were preparing for the next morning’s 2am start, a town-hall meeting was suddenly called. One of the local competitors, who had been in first place, had been caught cheating via motorbike, and had been disqualified. Irate and humiliated, he had made threats against the race and the new first placed racer, Given that our route went past his village, there were concerns about the racers’ safety as well as much discussion about what to do next: Proceed as planned, retrace our steps or …?

The tension was high, especially for the organizing committee. For the rest of us, the main worry was about getting as much rest as possible before the 108km stage; essentially, we were only halfway through the race.

Day 5 – The race must go on

On Day 5, the decision was made: we would carry on, with a modified route entailing a boat ride around the affected area. However, this meant that what was usually a time cut-off (60km in 10 hours) to prevent people from ending up deep in the jungle at night was now a cut-off by place – the first 10 to reach the 38km mark would push off first, with a 3 hour round-trip between the launch and drop-off point. I was determined to make that cut-off, but I knew it would be really tough. By this point in the race, I had consistently been around 15th in the pack and would have to dig deep to make it. During the first leg, I got lost in the jungle, and thought I was out of contention. I found out at the first check-point, however, that I was in 10th position, but the 11th and 12th guys were right behind me with another 20km to go. We had a long spell of running along the beach, jungle and road. I summoned all the reserves I had, pounding a few power gels along the way  and I arrived at the check-point within 15-20 minutes of the front pack. In 10th place! It felt like catching the last chopper out of Saigon. The rest of the night was spent on the beach, pushing, running and walking. Part of the beach trail was not marked, but we were now a team of 4 – JP, a super fit Dutch soldier; Krystof, a polish engineer who had studied in Singapore; Jason, a former trader from the US who had just finished B-school; and me.

That night was unforgettable; we fought fatigue and exhaustion as we moved along the beach, climbing rocks and trying to find a path. Near daybreak, we were making up time on the front team, when we suddenly found ourselves in a deep swamp in the dark, with no trail to follow, and no more water. All our attempts to skirts around the swamp or follow the road were to no avail. In the end, we had to take a school-bus to the nearest town (the kids smelled so clean and fresh, we were really embarrassed), catch a cab and hitch a ride back to the end-point so we could run back to the finish line. That night was epic, and made fast friends of the four of us. In the end we must have covered an extra 30km and what would have been a super-fast time had us arriving only near the mid-pack – the challenges of not speaking Portuguese.

Day 7 – The end is in sight!

The final day saw us run the last 10km along the scorching beach and take a final swim before reaching the finish line, where we started the first of many good meals!

 

The race in review

Behind the blisters – training and preparation

Whenever describing the race to others the response is often one of shock or incredulity – “Why would any sane person want to do something like that?”

And it is true that the race is challenging, but ask any racer what was really tough, and they’ll tell you about the hours they put in training. One of the coolest guys on the trip was a huge, tough New Zealand-based Brazilian called Marcelo, whom we nicknamed “Big Daddy” because of his amazingly caring disposition. He shared that he would run to and from work 20km a day on Mondays to Wednesdays, then bike on Thursdays and Fridays with even more training on the weekends. This was pretty typical of the group.

As for me, living in flat and smoggy Shanghai meant that my only option was to pound the pavement along the Bund wearing a face-mask at 2am after work with a 10kg pack of rice. Clocking training time was really tough, so I had to make do with some stair-climbing before work at 7am, or hit the gym for half an hour at 3am after I finished my Powerpoint presentation.

Similarly, sourcing for gear and equipment was a nightmare. The irony was that despite the fact that the gear I needed were all made in China, they weren’t sold here, at least not in sizes larger than US11! In the end, I had to order my shoes from the US, ship them to UK, pick them up while transiting through London, and clock a mere 10km on them in Regent’s Park before the race started. Thankfully, they worked really well for me.

 Sights and sounds on the trail

 The sounds! The cacophony of sounds – from “Big Daddy’s” incessant snoring, and the crackling Brazilian military radio, to misinformed roosters that thought day-break was at 3am, and the distant howling of the monkeys at dawn – all audible from the comfort of my hammock made me forget all about the urban madness that was Shanghai, and my staid corporate life back there.

 

Blood, sweat and tears…literally

There were a multitude of injuries, from a huge gash that split open the calf of one racer (mind you, he still finished, the swamp and swims notwithstanding), to heat-related debilitations and massive monster blisters engulfing the whole foot. I recall one night the Japanese runner came dragging in past midnight completely trashed, and the other runners were helping to treat him by headlamp as he lay on the table – it was a scene from out of a war movie. Massive full-body heat rash, abrasions from the backpack were pretty much par for the course. As for me, I escaped pretty unscathed, by which I mean that my whole body was speckled with blood spots from the heat rash, and was completely sunburnt and cut-up by the plants and the insect bites. But my feet remained completely blister-free throughout the race. In fact, the most severe damage was to my laptop, which suffered a completely shattered screen during its journey in the cargo hold of the ship

 

The people

What makes events like this really special for me are the amazing people I get to share it with. The group that I hung out with the most were the people who, like myself, arrived on the last possible flight in. There was Dr. Sebastian Haag from Germany, a compact super-cool racer who was a top-notch ski-mountaineer and worked for UVU, the race sponsor. There was the aforementioned Marcelo who exemplified the depth and breadth of care and concern for others one can have,  even in such a challenging environment. Super tough and determined Mariana was the French ‘ghost’, nicknamed as such because she slept in a ultra-light one-piece white outfit. Vegetarian for health reasons, she never ever quit, despite getting lost a few times on the trail. Greek Theimos had planned to do just the 42km race till we convinced him to do the 122km segment. Together, we laughed, and swam and raced and ran and ate together for the full 10 days, and it was simply magical. There were some really crazy guys, like the Japanese runner in the full Cow outfit (Don’t ask me what it was for, nobody really understood whether it was an environmental message or he really liked to eat beef).  There were so many others that I struck up great conversations and friendships with – the volunteers and medics, many from the US or UK, as well as the photographers and many other racers from Brazil and abroad. All of us shared the same passion for adventure and a respectful appreciation of the jungle we were facing and that created a common language between us.

Back to life, back to reality

Within 12 hours of finishing the race, I was on board a plane to begin the 40 hour journey back to Shanghai. One regret I had was that I had flown so far without getting a chance to eve see Rio or Sao Paulo. My lower legs were so severely swollen with fluid by the time I landed that it took four days for the bones in my feet to become visible again. I arrived in Shanghai at 830am on a Tuesday and headed straight to a conference that I was organizing; back to the corporate life that couldn’t have been further from my surreal life barely 2 days before. That evening, as I stood in black tie attire at an office event, I found myself missing my hammock in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Sometimes you find ‘home’ in the least likely of places.

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How to contribute?

Please visit http://www.justgiving.com/LBS-Northpoletrek and donate generously! Target is to hit GBP5000 for MENCAP. Read more below.

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The Journey … and the destination

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Imagine skiing over thin ice, pulling a 100+ lbs sled, dealing with freezing cold, ice breaking under your feet and tents, polar bear sightings. All these and more were challenges on this expedition.

1. It’s Great to be back! First off, it’s really great to be back in civilisation (Defined as any place with a flushing toilet). Sorry it’s been so long writing this post – getting back into the real world has been a big challenge, with classes, second year projects (thanks  Nik and Ben for being so patient while I was training and away on this trip!) and other school commitments. I arrived back at my apartment past midnight on a Sunday evening, and was sitting in the class-room seven hours later. Ouch.

2. Thanks for all the support – Yes, I made it, with all 21 digits intact! The biggest thanks to all the friends, classmates and family that supported me through this endeavour, gave me words of encouragement and pats on the back during my training and also supported my adopted charity.

(MENCAP donations hit the GBP$5000 mark, thanks!)

Big thanks especially to my brother BL, whose big donation helped us achieve the target of GBP$5000 for MENCAP. So for those of you that think that there is no future in hedge funds, think again.

Rachel from MENCAP also sends her thanks to everyone for the programs they’ll be able to fund with this!

The following are some of the main questions people were interested in:

3.      How did you get there?

The trip started from London to Oslo to Svalbard (780 North, where they have the seed vault that is a plant version of Noah’s Ark and more polar bears and snow-mobiles than people) to Barneo, which is a science station built by the Russians on Arctic ice that exists for only one month a year. Setting up the station is a whole military operation in itself! There are some amazing videos of how the specialists free-fall  in with the equipment and level the airfield. Next time you complain about a bumpy ride, think of these guys. See http://www.barneo.ru/2011.htm for details.

Image(Svalbard water-front property)

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(Big John in front of polar bear crossing sign – Svalbard more polar bears than people)

It is hard to imagine but the whole air-strip, and ice-station is built on top of moving ice that floats over the Arctic ocean. Underneath the few metres of ice is 4000m of icy-cold sea water down to the sea floor.

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(Keynesian construction stimulus package – Arctic style)

4. Flying in to Barneo 

Once we got into Barneo, there was immediately a high-stakes discussions on the route and plan of attack, as well as what time the helicopter to drop us off would fly. The three main factors in military operations are often Time, Terrain and Enemy Action.

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(Rick Sweitzer – Our intrepid leader and boss of Polar Explorers company)

a. Time – Given that the Barneo station had a hard dead-line of Apr 23 after which the whole science station would have to be dismantled and flown out because the warming weather posed a risk of the ice under the station melting. This gave us added pressure to arrive at the North Pole on time. One good thing was that with 24hours of daylight, if push came to shove, we could just log longer hours on our skis.

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 (Barneo ice-camp – An amazing example of great Russian hospitality and ingenuity. All this has to go by the 23rd of April)

b. Terrain – One of the key challenges in Arctic travel was that we were traveling over moving ice. This meant that when the ice-plates pulled apart, it could create huge stretches of open water that had to be swum around or skied around. When the ice pushed together, it created pressure-ridges of small hills that were incredibly tough to get around. The shifting ice could move as fast as we skied, so on bad days, we could be on a tread-mill, moving the whole day without getting any nearer to the North Pole.

Image(Michael crossing a small lead of open water)

(Me chopping a path through the rough ice – Note the flipped over sled)

There was one time as we were crossing thin ice that the whole ice piece I was on cracked and began to sink, with my right leg following it into the water. Talk about getting cold feet! Thankfully I managed to get out, and powder snow helped to soak up most of the water. But falling into a thin lead is one of the key areas of danger on a Polar expedition.

Another time, after we had just reached the pole and had our tents set up and were settling in to sleep, we were serenaded by the grinding of the ice plates moving. On checking, we found a crack had opened up right next to our tent, forcing us to get up from our sleeping bags, put on our clothes, pack up and move tents otherwise the tent could have gone into the water and sunk to the bottom of the ocean – literally falling property value or sinking prices.

c. Enemy Action – Ursa Maritimus (Polar Bear)

When people think of polar bears, this is the mental image that they have, courtesy of Coke’s media campaign over the years.

(What most people think when they think of polar bears)

However, the reality is that the undisputed top of the food chain around polar regions is Ursa Maritimus – reflecting its ability to swim and survive in these regions. Growing up to 650kg, with the largest recorded specimen topping 1 Ton, polar bears can sprint up to 40km/h and swim 4km/h, a good sight faster than humans.

The only advice when meeting a polar bear is to make sure you can run faster than your team-mates =0

Here is my good friend Big John posing – this bear weighed only 350kg when it died – imagine an animal three times the size!

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On our first day of the expedition, another team was being inserted by helicopter, and they spotted a polar bear mom and her cubs.

Image(Photo of mama bear and her two cubs, courtesy of Anastasia from the Norwegian team)

Not long after that, we came across a set of polar bear paw-prints. To see other signs of life in the Arctic wilderness was highly disconcerting – you can imagine that the shot-gun and pistols were at the ready after that!

5. The Team

Overall, there were 7 of us in the team, as well as 3 guides. Rick, Keith and Vern were our amazing guides from Polar Explores, while, Lu Xiaohua and Li Jianxiong were from China, Mike Stringfellow from Australia, Alex and Simon Hearn a father/son team from UK and Big John Dahlem, my buddy from Everest.

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There were so many funny stories to tell about the team, and way too much naked flesh for such a cold climate (what with frostbite risk and all) and tattoos being exposed but I guess what happens at the North Pole, stays at the North Pole so I’m not posting any of these incriminating photos.

The cultural diversity was also manifested in the kind of alcohol brought on the trip –

One of the exciting photos that didn’t pass censorship is of Simon and Alex, who stripped themselves completely naked when we finally reached the pole, covering up their man-bits with the Union Jack as well as their regiment flag (Royal Scots Dragoons).

6. Reaching the Pole

After a long journey, we finally reached the pole on April 18th at 430pm. The final going was incredibly tough, taking us more than an hour to cover the final few hundred metres. Once near there, we also had to wander around trying to track the exact spot on GPS.

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(GPS reading 90 degrees North. Longitude is where it gets confusing)

After such a long journey it was great to finally reach our destination! Within a few moments however, we had drifted on, and we were already starting to move away from the North Pole.

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7. The North Pole – What does it mean to you?

It is inevitable to make comparisons with Everest when I was on the polar expedition, and I guess there are two possible views that people can take of the world:

Life is like a mountain

Many people use mountain-climbing as a metaphor, that we have a target, a zenith, and once conquered, we descend. That’s why people like to talk about Everest to signify a big challenge in life. Make no mistake – the Everest summit day was one of the toughest days of my life, especially coming back down to Camp 2, which made it a 24hour day. (An estimated 20,000 or more calories expended on summit day – about 10 days worth of a normal person’s energy input). However, the days leading up to the summit are rather manageable.

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(One of the sights I will never forget – sunrise on summit day, illuminating the Himalayan vista all around)

Like is like polar travel

In polar travel on the other hand, EVERY DAY is tough and every day looks the same. It’s just that SOME DAYS are tougher. And when you get to the North Pole itself, you won’t even recognize it – we had to spend almost half an hour getting the GPS to track, and once there, we only spent a moment before it too started to drift.

That may be a more accurate description of life – that we chase an objective defined only in our minds, and we may not even recognize it even when we are there, and once we catch it it instantly slips away. Yet despite knowing all that, we still chase our dream, because to us, there is value in the adventure, journey and destination. Some days you drift forward, some days you drift backwards, despite your best efforts. You just have to keep going and never quit because you think the goal is worth it.

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(Solo in Baffin during my training trip)

8. So what’s next?

Buy me a coffee and we can discuss some ideas.

Thanks again to all my friends for following this, and if anyone wants to chat, get me to talk to their kids, school, work-place (tell their employees to be grateful for heating in the office), club etc, I’d be more than willing to oblige.

Many thanks again to all my friends.

Safe travels,

Lien

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Final Prep – Last post for a while…

First off, a big thank you to all the friends who have given me words of encouragement and support. Many thanks also for your contributions and donations to MENCAP!

As final prep, I spent Monday afternoon at the Robert Scott South Pole exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Kensington. Highly recommended!

For those not familiar with the story, 100 years ago, Robert Scott (British navy) and Roald Amundsen (Norwegian polar explorer), were in a race to be the first men to reach the South Pole. As Scott described simply in his expedition prospectus: The purpose of the expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement. Simply stated and simpler times, but lofty aims. Things that we can all resonate with still nowadays.

As history would have it, Amundsen was the winner then, reaching the South Pole in Dec 1911: the following photograph shows them happy after their success.

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For Scott however, his team arrived at the pole a month later in Jan 1912 bitterly disappointed at being beaten to the prize. Even worse was that on the home ward journey, their team of 5 all froze to death, as they had run out of food, being stopped by extreme bad weather only 20km from their food cache. The only thing to commemorate them was the following snow cairn, erected by the search party from base-camp that could only retrieve their diaries and belongings 6 months later, when summer broke in the Antarctic.

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The British party left no man behind, dragging along their sick and wounded even when they were running short on food. In similar spirit, one of their wounded members, Titus Oates, who suffered from bad frost-bite sacrificed himself when he walked out barefoot into a blizzard, so that he would not be a hindrance to the team. His parting words were “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

This spirit of the Scott exhibition reminds me of a quote I once read by a British sergeant – Our officers are there to show us how to die. This was not meant unkindly, but descriptive of the nobility and perseverance even in the face of extreme privation, which Scott’s expedition fully captures. I wondered whether Titus’ action was merely a gesture – too little too late, and if he had done it earlier, it would have changed their overall chances of success. But given the solidarity in the team, I believe that if there was still a glimmer of hope, the rest would certainly not have allowed him to sacrifice himself. Talk about team-work.

Today I had the chance to see the Norwegian point of view at the Fram museum. It houses the ship (Fram) that Amundsen used to explore the North and South pole regions. Their story was one of thorough preparation (living years with the Eskimos), discriminating team selection (champion skier), good strategy (sled dogs for locomotion) and above all, a single-minded pursuit of one goal.

It is hard not to compare the two expeditions, seeing that they had the same goals but such different outcomes. Having seen both the British and Norwegian exhibits, I think that the wikipedia entry is pretty accurate.However, from experience with MBA case-studies, I’m careful of drawing simple conclusions in hind-sight. It would be easy to say that one team was ill-prepared, but it could also be argued that Scott, with his flair for writing, and tragic end had a greater impact than Amundsen (MBA moral – marketing is more important than actual product quality). After all, for every Honda Case A story, there is always a revisionist Honda Case B. And anyway, these points are moot – these men have passed on, it was just a question of when.

What is not in doubt however, is that they made a wager and were willing to stake their lives on the outcome. They spent years preparing for the expedition, and to their minds, made what seemed like the best choices at that point in time. They both gambled – one survived, one failed.

The sheer human effort that the Scott team made in dragging their sledge is unbelievable. Unfortunately, despite the material science wizardry that people like Mr. Dow and Mr. Gore (Tex) have come up with over the years, modern polar travel is still a very similar enterprise nowadays.

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One thing is for certain – with Scott as an examples of fortitude, if one faces conditions that are less challenging, there can be no excuse to quit. Similarly, with an  example of dedication like Amundsen, unless one puts in the same amount of effort, there can be no excuses in the event of failure.

Things to think about.

Last post for a while, chat with everyone when back.

Blue skies.

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Packing for holidays – kitchen sink to be included?

So one of the fun parts of an expedition is the final packing, when you try to figure out if you have everything on the list, and whether it will all fit into the bags. It can be considered an optimisation problem where you have to trade-off weight/cost/flexibility. 

Usually, option value wins, so you bring everything that you have, with tons of spares, which you can leave behind if you want. This is a picture of my current pack-out. Space in London being at a premium, I’m doing it in my room, which is not ideal. 

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Every packing is different, because the whole philosophy behind the trip is different – in polar expeditions, volume is cheap, and weight is relatively cheap, meaning that it is easy to carry bulky things. That is certainly not true for climbing for example, where both weight and volume have to be minimised for efficiency.

Compare that to this one for one of my adventure races – when you have to do multiple evolutions in a couple of days, you bring bike plus all the spares (8 spare tubes in this instance), kayak gear (paddles and life vests), running gear, climbing gear etc, plus food and night equipment – you have to be pretty methodical about it, and make sure the checklist is complete. 

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As my Himalaya climbing trip went, any single missing or broken item could cause a cascade of problems so it was critical to be spot-on with everything. E.g. missing lip balm mean that lips would crack, so you eat more slowly/eat less, which would lead to you getting weaker = not summitting. With the end-point of every equation being a reduced chances of success, it pretty much meant that you would be very much disciplined to do everything it took to succeed.

On this expedition, just the gloves I’m bringing include

  • 2 pairs of liners,
  • 2 pairs of fleece,
  • 1 pair thick ski working gloves,
  • 1 pair down summit mitts,
  • 1 pair super overmitts. 

So next time your partner complains about over-packing, remind them that the success of the holiday is at stake, and increased option value is the only way to do successful risk mitigation!

 

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What I think about when training?

To the consultants out there – here’s a estimation case for you – How many consultants does it take to train for the North Pole? Five. One to actually do the tyre-dragging, and a case-team of four to advise him to upgrade to sled-dogs!

Haruki Murakami has a book titled “What I talk about, when I talk about running”. There, he writes very lyrically about his relationship with running, and the Zen he experiences when racing or training.

In a much more prosaic vein, friends have asked me what I do or think about when I’m dragging tyres around Regent’s Park. The short answer – not very much, other than the fact that I’m tired, I’m hungry and wondering when the next rest break would be.

I recall when I first started training for an endurance event or mountain-climbing, I would just do what I needed to do – whether it was midnight gym sessions or running with a 25kg pack through the trail at night. No entertainment/music required. Even when I was clocking 7 hours on the bike while training for a triathlon, I could just watch my instruments and stay focussed on the three numbers of cadence, heart-rate and speed without listening to any music. And mind you, Singapore being the size it is, 7 hours means you are doing many laps around the same area.

As I got older, I must have gotten weaker/more easily bored or distracted. When training to go to the Himalayas in 2010, I clocked significant mileage climbing stairs at an apartment block near my house. After a while, I could recognise which apartments had kids learning to play the piano (badly), which ones had good cooks (tantalising smells), and which ones enjoyed watching Korean soap operas. It was also during this period that I started playing music to help get by the monotony. (80s pop rules. Sadly, many of these classic songs by groups such as Wham, Bananarama, Roxette etc. are alien to the younger generation.)

Laps around Regent’s Park are pretty much the same. You learn to watch out for dog poop, you figure out the areas where there is more drag, and travelling at such a slow speed, you occasionally have time to take things in – like the transient blooming of the cherry blossoms. But mainly, I focus on form – what my body is telling me – in cycling that would be the equivalent of monitoring the measures of cadence, speed and heart-rate. While you’d like the body to be on auto-pilot, and it can do so for stretches at a time, it is important to realise that even in mundane repetitive tasks, significant focus and attention is required to prevent injury and to aid in optimisation, which pays off in the long run.

Podcasts are amazing as well – not something I would usually have the time to do, but hey – it’s marginally more interesting than watching pavement. LSE Ideas is good, Roy Baumeister has a good talk on Willpower – how it is like a muscle in that it can be

1. Fatigued when resisting temptation

2. Tries to conserve its reserves when depleted, and

3. Can improve with more use.

Sometimes, it is just nice to be able to look at the trees.

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