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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Tracks on the pavement

So there is a Chinese proverb that says “若要功夫深,铁杵磨成针“ which roughly translates to – if you persevere, you can grind an iron bar into a fine needle. That hasn’t quite happened yet, but I can already see the marks on the pavement of Regent’s park where my tyre dragging has left scratch marks.

Beautiful day out training today. Will post pix later.

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Life potential

As my MBA comes to a close, I find that my friends and I spend quite a lot of time trying to make sense of the past two years here. The classmates I have at the London Business School (until recently ranked #1 globally by the Financial Times 3 years running), are some of the most diverse, talented and amazing people around.

When you talk about the global elite, these guys are it. From Olympic athletes, to financial wizards to singers and entrepreneurs, this is a driven group that strives to squeeze every drop of meaning out their lives, and maximise their life potential. I guess that is the main reason they came to LBS (that and to party it up in London).

That is not a very different goal from MENCAP.

There are 1.5 million people with learning disabilities in the UK. MENCAP works to change laws, provide services and training so that people with learning disabilities can choose how they live and to maximise their life potential.

The way I see it, the goals that we have are the same – to become better people, to challenge ourselves, to be independent, to be happy, these are constant in direction; though the actual heights achieved may differ.

That is why I am raising funds for Mencap, and I hope you can help me achieve my goal.

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New addition to the family!

As part of the learning from my Canada trip, I realised that my tyre wasn’t heavy enough, hence I decided to add another one to the mix. It was strange walking up to the garage and asking for another tyre.

Great guys at the LBS maintenance team helping me drill a hole in my new truck tyre!

Taking the big one and the little one out for a walk.

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Arctic Circle Training

I just got back from 12 days on Baffin Island, (super far north Canada), which is in the Arctic circle. Training with polar adventurers extraordinaire – Matty McNair and her two kids, Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry (who hold records for being the youngest to reach the South Pole, 596km kite-skied in a day etc.)

This was a good introduction to the Arctic weather. While I had been in similar cold before, on a mountain, it usually started off cool and got colder the higher one got – which gave one time to acclimatise, or at least turn back. At Iqaluit, the instant I stepped off the plane, we were down to -30°C temperatures instantly, thank goodness I had some warm clothes with me.

In a crowd like this, there was a bunch of amazing people staying at the Northwinds lodge – Irish explorers and a Japanese man about to do a solo expedition to the North pole. A few of the guests and visitors had also summited Everest.  It was a real privilege to see the systems that they used, and debate the merits and trade-offs of the different types of gear to bring along.

Every night, I was out in the tent at the back, getting used to the weather, and trying out different sleep systems.The first few days were theory, where I reconciled my prior knowledge and experience from climbing, adventure-racing, work to the requirements of a polar environment.

I think respect for the environment is key – hence the need to come for training and learn from those that have successfully done it.

Great fun, had a chance to go on a dog-sled ride, kite-ski, but mainly learn to cross-country ski with a pulk and live comfortably in that environment.The photos don’t do justice to the excitement, speed and sheer fun of running with the big dogs!

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. The main learning was in the field, with a 7 day mini-expedition with Sarah. We navigated, cooked and even went for a swim.All through-out, the weather was incredibly cold, and numb fingers and toes were pretty much par for the course. Holding anything – food, gear, cameras, all soaked away precious heat from the fingers, while sweat cooled and turned to ice, lowering the body core temperature. The sleds were loaded down with all our gear, and had an extra 80lbs of dog-food, just in case they weren’t heavy enough. Many people think that ice is smooth, but with the tidal action (we are skiing on frozen sea-ice) and wind, they form incredible rough patches hundreds of meters to several km wide that are an incredible pain to cross.

Many people say that jumping from a plane is a unique manifestation of a suicidal wish (having done it quite a few times, I would agree). The same goes for taking a dip in water when the air temperature is -50°C with wind-chill and frost-bite hits naked skin in 30seconds. This was to practise crossing patches of open water that could not be avoided

Me in my bathing suit! Worst thing was springing a small leak, and getting wet feet! A little bit worse than in London.

The final evolution was to make my own way back, once Sarah was convinced I wouldn’t blow things up when left alone. Armed with a shot-gun, tent, food, satellite phone and fuel, I took my bearings with the compass and sat off back to civilisation. The way was pretty far, and the howling wind on the second day made it almost impossible to set-up tent, or to sleep. The violent winds had me thinking all night about the tent collapsing, especially while the stoves were running. Not happy thoughts.

On the final day – I had to make it back to Matty’s by a fixed time, because I had a flight to catch. I had enough time to shower, change and then hop on the plane. A short nap later,  I was back in civilisation, having a good meal.

Surreal indeed.

PS – many people ask about going to the toilet in such conditions. I can only say this – if you are one of those blessed with huge capacity, then you’re the lucky one.

PPS – so why do this – answers below

 

 

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