WEEKEND READ: The Diary Of An Antarctic Expedition Leader

Rachael Robertson led the 58th Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition to Davis Station. She was the second female ever to lead a team at the station, and one of the youngest ever leaders. She spent 16 years in senior operational management roles prior to the Antarctic expedition and is now working in the field of leadership development.

This is an extract from her book, Leading On The Edge. More details at the end of the post.

Antarctica abounds with mystery and mythology. We know so little about the continent and so few people have seen it for themselves that many interesting, and at times downright hilarious, urban legends have emerged.

Some myths dispelled

Recently I was presenting at an international conference for the finance sector. I had answered many insightful questions from the floor and was mingling with the delegates for an hour or so after the keynote presentation. A rather shy, well-dressed gentleman approached me and hesitantly asked, ‘You didn’t talk about the polar bears. Is it because they are nearly extinct? I heard that the Japanese had hunted them all from Antarctica.’ I stifled a laugh. He was so earnest and I didn’t want to embarrass him. I gently explained, for the umpteenth time in my life, that there are no polar bears in Antarctica.

Wrong pole. Then there’s the one about the incredibly spectacular blue ‘wave-shaped’ ice formations at Dumont D’Urville. Apparently these are ‘waves of the sea, frozen in time’. (Or the secret Nazi base to which the baddies escaped in their U-boats after World War II.)

Now I want to dispel the most prevalent myth. Antarctica is not an exciting place. Particularly in winter.

It is extreme, yes, gruelling, challenging, but in human terms nothing ever happens. There is nothing we would consider exciting — no sports, no elections, no Boxing Day sales, no anything. It is a cold, barren place without trees, plants or shrubs. In summer Antarctica presents a moonscape of dirt, mud, ice and the odd scrap of extremely hardy moss. In winter it’s, well, white.

We’ve all seen the Frozen Planet documentaries and the terrifically interesting videos of penguins being playfully tossed about by juvenile fur seals and penguins huddling in the cold. And you’ve probably seen images or even videos of the incredibly beautiful auroras. But that’s about it for entertainment. Nothing happens. Ever.

By and large, even the seasons go by unnoticed. Extreme as they are, we humans occupy only 17 small sites, most no larger than a couple of football grounds. This, on a landmass much larger than Australia or continental USA. That’s a lot of unseen continent! For a reason. There’s really nothing to see, unless you really, really, really like ice.

For the heroic adventurers, the excitement is about survival. It’s personal, and great stories are told of surviving against the odds and overcoming adversity. These explorers leverage their experiences into public-speaking tours and books, astonishing their audiences and readers with their bravery and courage.

Time on our hands

But the stations? It’s very quiet over winter. The repetitive monotony of the day-to-day work and the same old faces at breakfast, lunch and dinner create a nine-month-long ‘groundhog day’ experience. Each day ever so slowly rolls into the next. So while we are usually aware of what day of the week it is, it’s a rare bird that can immediately recall the date. So yes, in winter we had time on our hands. Lots of time.

Friday 11th February

The sense of isolation is really starting to kick in. Despite our location I never felt isolated in summer. There was always so much work to do. Now there is very little. Dinners are very quiet but the winterers are warming to spending the nine months together.

There is seating for 90 in the mess and we rattled around the room wondering how to organise ourselves. Some wag suggested we should each have a table to ourselves, but in the end we made one long table and put the others into storage.

The conversation topic at dinner tonight was all the stupid things the summerers had done and everyone was in hysterics. Particularly the story about the new expeditioners putting lipbalm up their noses to stop their sinuses freezing – at 8 °C! We laughed about finding the wallet left behind by one of the summerers — Lord knows why he brought it in the first place!’

But I’m sure I’ll have a good long list of stupid winterer things to write about when this is finished.

One of the positives about having so much time on my hands was that it would give me a chance to get to know and really understand my team as individuals, not just as employees. I could learn all about them, and learn from them, every single day.

Like most of us, in my professional life I’d seen my staff only during working hours and the odd social event. So the staff member who presented for work each morning, with his or her own unique set of behaviours, attitudes and actions, may or may not resemble the private person at home. As a manager you try to get the best out of your people, but without fully understanding the ‘whole’ person, as opposed to the ‘employee’, this is sometimes difficult.

Daytime jollies

Rachael Robertson A midwinter swim.

The weeks immediately after the departure of the summerers were a perfect time to get out and about in Antarctica. The weather was holding and the sun was out so we organised a range of outdoor activities to keep us occupied.

The inflatable boats still weren’t inflated. We had made no use of them over summer as there was still too much sea ice around. One misstep and rrriiiiiiip … a piece of ice would carve a chunk out of the boat and leave us swimming in frigid water. But now all the ice was gone and our bay sparkled invitingly in the dazzling light. So we pumped up the boats, prepped the outboards and spent many magical days pottering around the bay and beyond.

Saturday 12th February

What an amazing day! I feel like I’m on holidays and can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.

We took the boats out deep into the bay and visited many icebergs. The colours and shapes were incredible. Craig, our IT guy, had been reading up on the different shapes, colours and forms they take and he educated us all as we got up close and personal to the most amazing structures I’ve ever seen.

One iceberg looked like it had been daubed with blue paint. It was striped. A layer of white, a layer of blue all along the edge, it was absolutely stunning. Craig informed us it was a ‘striped berg’. Hmm, thanks Craig! I wondered who the genius was who came up with that name!

When we got home I looked in the book and found it’s a strata berg! At least he got the ‘berg’ bit right! We stirred him about it over dinner.

Oh, I found out today that penguin colonies smell. Really bad. Some of the boys thought the smell was familiar but couldn’t place it until dinner, when one exclaimed, ‘They smell like a sports locker room’. Aha!!! Everyone agreed — it missed only that hint of disinfectant.

Monday 14th February

The emperor penguins have been amazing since all the people left.

They have been wandering between the station buildings and generally just hanging around. Until you get up close you don’t really consider how big they are. They are massive compared to the Adélies and other birds we’ve seen.

One of the rules of the Antarctic Treaty is that people are not allowed to go to within 5 metres of penguins. This is to protect them so they don’t get accustomed to people and become a nuisance, scrounging for scraps of food as the skuas do at Zhongshan.

Obviously the penguins haven’t read the manual. I took my morning coffee outside today and went to walk down the stairs to stand in the sun. But I couldn’t. At the bottom of the stairs was the most beautiful penguin I had yet seen. His feathers were silken and shiny and his colours shone in the low sun.

I sat down on the step, gobsmacked at his beauty. He just stood there, looking at me. We sat for probably 10 minutes until my backside was numb. I did want to go for a walk on the ice, but I didn’t want to lose this precious moment. I looked at him and said, ‘Dude, you’re in my way’. I’m sure I heard him say ‘Dude, you’re in my home. I was here first’.

Tuesday 15th February

The tradies have been working solidly since the summerers left and tomorrow they start five days off. Hopefully most of them will get off station, go hiking and stay at some of the huts out on the plateau.

My winterers are slowly getting up their experience in boating and overnight trips but we still have a long way to go, given our lack of experience. I think all in all I prefer to have a new, mostly inexperienced crew. They are positive, enthusiastic, curious and willing to try anything new.

Wednesday 16th February

Yay! I finally got out to see Beaver Lake — they should call it Majestic Lake. It’s incredible. It’s a big, mainly frozen lake with jade-blue water peeking through the ice in places, surrounded by huge mountains. They looked like a wedding cake, all dark brown with thick marzipan icing on top.

We walked through an incredible ice canyon. It was fully covered over on top but the walls shone with the refracted sunlight. At one point we walked around a corner and stepped into an orange room — one wall was glowing in the low light and it was an incredibly beautiful sight. It was almost like Antarctica was putting on a special show just for me.

As we walked back we talked about what you could eat if you were stranded here. There was nothing. No beetles, insects, worms, fish, seals or penguins. It’s just too far inland.

Friday 18th February

We had another flying visit from the Chinese today. God they make me laugh!

Yesterday they came and ‘borrowed’ three drums of fuel. Today was their ‘official’ visit. That is, if you don’t count the seven other times they have lobbed over the hills to borrow something.

They are almost part of the furniture now. So much so that when I short-changed them on the tour they noticed! We had toured the LIDAR and SAS buildings and spent almost an hour at the post office, seen the Reverse Osmosis unit, the Main Power House and the trades workshop.

We were running behind time for our 1.15 pm lunch so I skipped the green store. But then over lunch the interpreter says he wants to see the store! They are fascinated by it. When the daily food budget is $4 per person (as opposed to the $15 per person it is with us), I guess I understand it. I guess they eat a lot of rice.

It was amusing having lunch with them and watching them try to eat a piece of salami with a spoon. And the looks on their faces when they tried vegemite was priceless. The fact that one of them smeared vegemite on his banana cake made it even more entertaining. I thought I’d cry from trying to hold in my laughter. After he composed himself he said to his interpreter, ‘Very good’. I know I did similar things when I visited them on station. I had no idea what I was eating sometimes but I’m tipping it was the Chinese equivalent of vegemite on banana cake.

As we walked them back to their helicopter two of them decided they needed to see a doctor. Doc took a look and the x-ray revealed a broken toe on one and a fractured wrist on the other. They didn’t want to miss lunch so didn’t say anything until the end.

I got another wall-hanging for good luck. At this rate I’ll be the luckiest person in Antarctica.

Doc’s stressed about the amount of x-ray film we’ve got left. Between the Russians, the Chinese and the summerers we’ve given the x-ray machine a good hammering.

PS The Chinese are completely head-over-heels for Kirsten. She’s tall, friendly, blonde and just gorgeous. They want her and me to come and live in Beijing at the end of this. Nice offer!

Saturday 19th February

Counting the cost of the Homer Simpsons of Antarctica living so close by. Doc told me he caught one of them leaving the green store with a whole box of sunscreen. Just ask, fellas!

Kirsten told me they took some yeast. YEAST! Unbelievable. And they made off with some more fuel. All borrowed of course, and ever so likely to be returned. Not.

Super Tuesday

One of the most important things we had to come to grips with quickly was the voluntary roles. These roles would help to keep us all busy, cover important skills gaps and add to the character of the place. There were two types of voluntary roles — those we had been trained for (our carpenter, for example, had received two weeks’ training as a theatre nurse), and those we hadn’t (like brewing beer). At dinner one day, we drafted up the various voluntary roles we would need to fill over winter.

We had a home-brew unit and needed skilled brewers. Of the 18 expeditioners, nine volunteered for home brewing. We had two Chief Brewers, in case one of them was ever off station, three Deputy Chief Brewers and four Master Brewers!

Hydroponics was similarly well subscribed. There was something less than appealing about not seeing a fresh lettuce leaf or a juicy tomato for three months. I put the doctor in charge of this project. I didn’t want any ‘unauthorised’ plants!

And then we needed a social club secretary, station photographer, yearbook editor, newsletter editor and activities coordinator, among others. Later in the year we would add roles as required, such as compulsory fun coordinator, darts coach, music teacher and projectionist. It was all in good fun and it gave people things to do. Some of the efforts they went to were extraordinary.

The toughest times in winter were the nights. Each evening, all around the world, people are drawn together around the television. It’s social, often educational, and mostly entertaining. We had no television, so it was important to have a variety of fun things to do in the evenings. I didn’t want people disappearing on their own every night after dinner, as I didn’t think that would be good for their mental health. I wanted to build a sense of community by getting people involved and having fun. But I wanted to give people choices: you could be alone if you wanted to, or you could hang out with the team if you felt like company. Also, I wanted to manage the use of alcohol so a night of ‘nothing to do’ wouldn’t turn into a quiet bender in the bar, with all its consequent issues.

So Friday night was James Bond night. The 22 movies would take us through to about July, when we’d switch to another series. But I wanted to break up the week, so ‘Super Tuesday’ was born.

Tuesday nights from 7.30 to 8.30 pm were set aside as the time when anyone who felt like it could stand up in front of the rest of the community and present a topic that was of interest to them. There were no rules, besides the unwritten ones around decency and taste, and anything was possible. I wasn’t sure how this would go, knowing that for most people speaking in front of a group of people is about as enjoyable as root canal surgery, but I optimistically placed a sign-up sheet on the noticeboard and invited people to pick a date to present.

Within five days the roster was full.

It was filled with an incredible array of topics and talents. We had people teaching how to speak Italian, how to play the drums; an astronomy buff taught us about the solar system; one of the more tech-savvy among us gave a talk on using a digital camera; one person shared their memories of living in Europe for a year; we even had our resident Goth explain all about paganism, to our absolute delight!

Super Tuesday became a raging success, with almost a full house every week. The benefits were enormous. Not only did we all get the opportunity to learn a whole host of new things at no cost and with minimal effort, but we actually got to learn about each other. We learned what people liked and didn’t like; what life experience they had, which might not have been apparent at work; and most importantly, what interested them and what made them tick.

The upshot of all this was often a new-found respect for someone and their knowledge. It’s unrealistic to imagine that 18 strangers, from all walks of life, thrown together around the clock will all love each other. It’s perfectly normal that individuals will warm to some people more than to others. But after the first few nights of Super Tuesday I noticed something important happening. People who had previously shown a disinclination to befriend someone (is that diplomatic enough for you?) were learning a new respect for each other.

We learned about each person — their passions, their skills, their life experiences — in a relaxed, informal way. The benefit of this was that we began to appreciate each other as individuals, not just as colleagues. So even people who believed they had nothing in common and therefore weren’t particularly friendly could at least respect each other’s comprehensive knowledge in a certain area.

Tuesday 8th March

I was woken up through the night by the shriek of Antarctic winds ripping past our buildings. I knew they were big but wasn’t sure just how big until I got downstairs and saw that someone had posted up signs saying it was gusting 100 knots (185 kilometres per hour!). This would be classified a cyclone or hurricane back home, I’m sure.

There was no outside work today. It hovered around 80 knots all day. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like at Mawson Station, where this type of weather is the norm. A couple of guys wanted
to walk outside in their freezer suits just to see what it was like!

A great Super Tuesday tonight and I’m starting to see real value come from these sessions. Gary did a great talk on digital photography. Afterwards, one of the others came over to me and said, ‘I’m not a huge fan of Gary’s as we’re just different people, but geez he knows his stuff about technology. I take my hat off to him for that’.

We’re developing respect for each other. And it is respect born of appreciating the full range of abilities and capabilities that every single person has, over and above their work competence.

The events were also illuminating for me as I got to know the whole person, not just the employee. Knowing how a person thinks, what they enjoy doing, what life experience they have and so on, provides essential information for a leader. It is much easier to provide the tools to motivate someone when you understand what makes them tick. Similarly, a well-considered reward, recognition of a job well done, works better when the leader takes the trouble to carefully match the gift to the person. It shows your sincerity and will be much appreciated.

The key point is everyone is different. Every person brings to work an array of experiences, attitudes and skills — some that are quite obvious, others that are not. The challenge for every leader is to learn, understand and value the qualities each employee has over and above their work capabilities, and to use this knowledge to build a stronger team.

What I Learned: Understand the whole person. People bring a multitude of skills, experiences and knowledge to work each day. Often we don’t see these things. Knowing what your people are passionate about and what they enjoy doing gives you a greater sense of who they are and makes it easier to match people and tasks.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. from Leading On The Edge, Copyright © 2013 by Rachael Robertson. Available from all good booksellers from now RRP $29.95


Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook and Twitter

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.