‘I truly believe the bits we did together Sarah made a difference’ was how Katie reflected back on the work I did with her prior to the expedition. Given that I only met Tarka and Katie for the first time on 28 July, less than a month before they left on the expedition, it was really good to hear this.
We didn’t have time to do develop and work through a full psychological preparation strategy, so the focus was on getting to know and understand them through their personality assessment and talking with them, and then putting in place tools and techniques that would help them manage themselves and each other in the challenging situations they were likely to encounter.
Katie reported that on the expedition ‘I became a different person’, which was helped by her working hard on the psychological techniques I introduced to her:
For example learning to put her ideas diplomatically to Tarka, reducing the likelihood of conflict and increasing the likelihood of him taking her ideas on board. For example, when in a blizzard, suspecting they were wandering off their bearing she’d say ‘have you seen a crevasse? as I’ve noticed you turned slightly right’.
Katie loves talking and being the centre of attention, and this was going to be a challenge for her on the expedition. At the beginning she struggled with being ‘on her own’ –in the often zero visibility and strong winds it was difficult to see Tarka let alone talk to him, so Katie spent a lot of time in her own head. However as the expedition progressed she learned to distract herself and occupy her mind ‘I eventually got used to being in my own mind and did things like planning every detail of my (potential) wedding and singing songs’. At other times she reported that weather conditions required total concentration and then there was no down time and time went very quickly’.
Katie showed her strength of character and resilience in that she insisted on carrying her share of the kit and when the going got tough she would just get on with it. This is consistent with Katie’s drive to succeed, her fear of failure and letting herself and others down.
Whilst Katie reported worrying about herself given her relative inexperience she reported that Tarka took on the responsibility and extra psychological burden of looking after both of them. ‘ He was truly amazing’ she reports.
They worked on techniques to ensure that Katie was able to keep pace with Tarka – for example in the more challenging conditions Katie skied in Tarka’s tracks, this allowed her to keep up due to walking in front, breaking the snow, is considerably more tiring, reducing Tarka’s pace to one she could manage.
Before leaving for the expedition Katie reported worrying about what others think. On reflection she has become more resilient to the negative comments and critical feedback. Given some media reporting styles she feels she has more understanding of why people might be negative and critical. She is also now able to rationalise that they are not necessarily personal attacks but more towards this type of expedition and typically are based on subjective assumptions rather than good objective information.
Asked about the worst times, Katie reported:
The anxiety of being ill, before knowing the cause (i.e. carbon monoxide poisoning). Once they knew the cause and it was something they could control and they were able to put a solution in place.
When the tent was shredded and Katie heard the fear in Tarka’s voice. Before the expedition Katie said ‘he doesn’t show the deeper emotions such as fear......he’s very strong!’, so to experience Tarka showing fear for Katie ‘was truly terrifying’. However once a survival shelter was erected Katie felt she had a security blanket and was able to return to a more rational solution focused coping style.
Descending the Spegazzini Glacier was extremely technical and difficult – ‘it was the hardest thing both of us have ever done.’ As they were likely to experience extremely challenging situations, prior to the expedition I worked with Katie on how to stay focused on what is appropriate for the situation. In particular Katie found it useful to remind herself ‘you get what you focus on’, and she reported ‘I just focused on getting down the glacier, I had no choice, we had to survive’. For the abseiling sections, Katie reported using the breathing techniques to help her remain cool and controlled and that once she’d sorted her head out and was mentally prepared for the challenge she didn’t want to wait, so would go first.
Katie reported getting frustrated with the cold, freezing cold fingers that wouldn’t work properly, big gloves that made it impossible to do up/undo clips, etc and she would swear quietly to herself to relieve the frustration.
Overall Katie and Tarka rose to and overcame the physical, technical and psychological challenges that were presented to them. Their personality profiles suggested that they were both able to remain calm and rational in high pressure situations and these personality characteristics served them well. They also had strategies to ensure they made the best of each other’s strengths and learnt how to manage their own and each other’s darker sides. And in most situations (with a couple of exceptions!) they demonstrated appropriate coping strategies, whether that be emotion focused coping through hitting the sledges with ski-poles or crying to vent frustration, to solution focused coping when it came to survival and deciding on the best way off the ice cap. However it was their mental toughness and resilience that was really awesome.
Katie’s summed up her experiences with ‘I was absolutely thrilled with how I coped and for the first time on an expedition, I didn’t feel like a hindrance to Tarka.’
‘I think it worked brilliantly’ was how Tarka reflected on how useful he found the work I did with Tarka and Katie-Jane before they set off on the expedition.
On the ‘dark side’ of his personality we identified that one of his biggest challenges would be to keep his patience and this was the case! In the extreme conditions they faced, Tarka reported not always controlling his temper as well as he might have done and that as he was responsible for navigation the weather had a big impact on his levels of frustration. And whilst he only once lost his temper directly, he typically vented his frustration on the elements (rather than Katie). This is a good example of effectively using an emotion focused coping strategy to manage and relieve stress.
Prior to Tarka giving the weather a personality he reported being able to shut it out of his mind. However once named he felt it was permanently challenging, teasing and looking to make life difficult e.g. ‘it [the weather/spoilt school bully] would be calm until we got out of our sleeping bag then it would blow and the ice would fall in the sleeping bag’, or ‘it would give you a moment of sunlight to see your way into the crevasse field then it shut down the light once you were in!’. However the ‘spoilt school bully’ became an adversary for him ‘I felt like I was battling with a person’. This is more of an appraisal focused coping strategy in that Tarka changed the way he thought about the problem (i.e. the weather) to help him better cope with it.
Tarka reported that they both worked together on the strategy of sharing responsibility for different tasks (including sharing the nice and onerous tasks) and that this worked very well.
When the tent was shredded and crushed and they realised how serious the situation was, they felt it important for both themselves and others to keep it in perspective and they did this extremely well demonstrating mental toughness and resilience in the face of an extremely challenging situation.
In the face of challenging conditions they maintained a positive attitude ‘up until it all went wrong we were very pleased with the progress we were making – and kept saying the weather can’t go on for ever like that’ (even though it did!) – again this is consistent with Tarka’s personality profile.
With regards to a couple of criticisms on the message page, Tarka reported being surprised by the individual’s comments as they appeared not to have read any of the progress updates or website; Tarka and Katie had travelled across the ice cap for 30 days making good progress towards their goal, in challenging conditions yet still well within their physical and psychological capabilities, they are the fastest to the Fella Recchart Cerro Mayo section, and that from their position and the information they had the Spegazzini Glacier was the best exit strategy (later confirmed by local mountain guides). As Tarka said ‘you can’t say yes I have enough experience to deal with the harshest situation – it’s about drawing on that experience to make the right decisions’. In their situation to make the right decision they needed to be well informed and use all information available to develop different exit strategies before weighing up the pros and cons of those exit strategies and deciding which one might be best. Whilst there might have been several different successful exit strategies and others may disagree with the one they chose (i.e. exiting via the Spegazzini Glacier) the fact that they successfully exited the ice cap, only needing to be picked up, demonstrated they kept their heads and maintained effective decision making skills in very challenging conditions. Tarka’s ability to do this under stressful and challenging conditions is one of his strengths that was identified in his personality assessment.
'All gone very wrong' - Tarka's opening words to me shortly after conditions had deteriorated to the point that helped them make the decision to get off the ice. He reported winds in the region of 120-130mph and 4.5m total snowfall which had shredded add crushed the tent, so 'we are in survival situation, if we can get down to the vegetation level we have enough fuel and food to last.' They have managed to make a survival shelter from the remains of their tent to give them enough space to huddle together in a very small space waiting for the weather to clear. Whilst they can help keep each other warm, and are on full food rations, the very confined and cold conditions mean they are suffering from cramps. Tarka reported being stuck 'between a little rock and a small hard place' as in order to get out the still have to cross the crevasse field to get down the glacier. The use of 'little' is a good indication of Tarka's perspective on this, for him this is still not a major problem. He is maintaining his ability to think rationally, analyse the options available and make the best decisions to ensure they get off the ice cap safely.
Katie reported 'I got completely in a mess yesterday (24th September), it was looking like we weren't going to make if and I got really upset about failing and what people would think.' This is consistent with Katie's expressive and passionate personality style and her need for recognition from others. On the upside this gives her great enthusiasm and energy and on the downside she can become very upset and frustrated when things don't go her way or she has concerns about what people will think about her.
Whilst Katie has been trying to rationalise with herself about being the first woman and the first British team to attempt the crossing, this is little consolation as she was still feeling they failed as their goal had been to complete the crossing. This is consistent with her need to achieve personality characteristic. However when I spoke with Katie (25th September) she reported 'this morning I was terrified and today we are fighting for our lives and the end doesn't matter anymore, the weather is beating us up every time you go outside, I just don't want to move at the moment.' Although she feels safe cocooned in the survival shelter, she knows that to survive they will have to move on as soon as weather permits.
Psychologically they appear to be surprisingly strong at the moment, and are focussing their energy on doing what needs to be done to get themselves out.
Katie reported 'yesterday I felt the world was over and given the situation today we're feeling pretty positive. We are 100% going to come back and do it next year, fitter, fatter and faster.'
Katie and Tarka have shown amazing resilience and mental toughness.
Mental toughness is defined as having high self awareness and the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours in a way that delivers sustained performance and success across a wide range of situations. They have demonstrated the four pillars of 'Mental Toughness' identified by Jones
& Moorhouse (2008)
1. They've kept their head in very stressful and challenging conditions - enabling them to make well thought through decisions.
2. They've stayed strong in their self-belief to achieve - whilst they have not achieved their goal this time, the very fact that they are already talking about another attempt next year, shows very strong belief in their ability to achieve this goal.
3. They've made motivation work for them - they've used their goal focussed determination to overcome the setbacks (e.g. weather, food
rationing, blisters, etc) in very challenging conditions and still have the motivation for another attempt.
4. They've focused on the things that matter - they've kept focussed on how they achieve their bigger goal through focussing on the day to things (e.g. how best to look after themselves and each other, making the right decisions, being well informed) that will help them make progress towards achieving the big goal.
Resilience refers to the ability to absorb stress, pressure, unwelcome feedback, or personal challenge from others without being affected, or deflected from one's own purpose. It means "bouncing back" and even "bouncing forward" from challenging experiences. It is thought that resilience is a mixture of behaviours, thoughts, and actions that anyone can develop (i.e. it is not something that people either have or do not have).
Tarka and Katie have demonstrated the 3 C's OF RESLIENCE: CONTROL - COMMITMENT - CHALLENGE
Control: they have been very clear with their expectations as to who or what is responsible for what happens. For example whilst they have no control over the weather, terrain, etc, they have had control over their planning and preparation, the decisions they make and the actions they have taken as the expedition has progressed.
Commitment: they have had a clear sense of self and purpose - staying on course, even when the going gets tough! Commitment requires having clear and stretching goals, planning for the 'what if' scenarios, using effective coping strategies and knowing when to ask for help.
Challenge: They enjoy rising to and overcoming challenges and are comfortable and confident you are in changing, uncertain situations.
"Courage is resilience to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear" Mark Twain
After his recovery from falling into a crevasse and being tent bound waiting 0for an improvement in weather and visibility, Tarka reported being extremely frustrated that they have put in so much work and got so far, to be held up at this point. However despite the hunger, cold and fatigue he is very conscious that this is the section that will make or break the project and that it demands a great deal respect. With all they have come through, they know that if they can get across this next very technically demanding 8km within the next few days, with enough food to spare, that they have the ability to complete the journey. Talking through what would they ideally need for this section, Tarka said 'a good morning of good visibility to cross the crevasse field, once across if the vis is poor in the afternoon that's OK as we have a half day walking and then we need good vis the following morning for the abseil'. Consistent with his personality profile, Tarka's strengths are enabling him to remain calm and rational allowing him to make well thought through decisions in extremely testing conditions.
I received a phone call from Tarka with the first words 'it's awful, the worst day of our lives.........we're in a gateway between heaven and hell'. Tarka is frustrated by the worse than expected weather and described it as a 'spoilt school bully that won't let up for 5 minutes'. He reported trying to deal with it through reasoning and being better than it, but that there are times when he just screams at it! This is consistent with his personality profile which suggested dominant and competitiveness as strengths and impatience when tired and stressed. However screaming at the weather conditions appears to be a great outlet for his frustration!
I then spoke with Katie and this was a really interesting 6-7 minutes, as in that short time her attitude changed dramatically from a tearful 'if it wasn't for Tarka I'd quit' to a confident 'just talking I feel so much better.......I won't quit.' Katie reported really struggling in the current conditions, and that Tarka's mental strength is carrying both of them. Currently one of her biggest challenges is with the cold, 'when I'm walking is the only time I'm slightly warm'. She also reported that conditions are worse than expected. Again this is consistent with Katie's personality profile which suggested her confident and enthusiastic approach may lead to her being overly optimistic about the challenges on this expedition and that talking would be a good way of coping with the
challenges particularly when the going gets tough.
And what context for me to receive this 'it's the worst day of our lives' phone call....... I couldn't tell Tarka and Katie as it would have been close to mental and physical torture for them....... it was my husband's birthday and we were just about to get in a hot tub with a bottle of champagne before going out for a fantastic Thai meal.
Katie reported how physically tough the first 7 days were, but she now realises that mentally they were a breeze 'stuff and animals to see, good food' and the real challenge came when she first saw the glacier with crevasses as far as the eye could see. Now they are on the plateau Katie said 'it's physically OK but mentally horrible - too cold, damp, windy, can't talk and all you can see are tips of skis - all day long.' As an extrovert Katie enjoys talking and bouncing ideas of others and in the current very challenging weather conditions this is virtually impossible. Whilst she is only a few feet from Tarka, the inability to talk in the howling gale means she finds herself lost in her own thoughts and without support and encouragement is finding it very hard to distract her mind from how 'miserable' it is, Katie said 'it's s**t, if only we had visibility and could talk it would be so much better'. Due to the poor connection and the gales making it very hard for us to hear each other I was unable to talk through techniques to help her and have sent these via Sadie's daily message, so watch this space for an update on which tools and techniques Katie finds useful.
Having overcome the challenges of the first week Tarka and Katie reported being very happy and in good spirits being that they are now clear of the crevasses and on schedule and with a window of sunshine, 'so our chances of success have gone up.' Tarka has found the biggest frustrations to be; negative visibility (i.e. worse than zero visibility) 'we couldn't even see the tips of our skis'; navigating in the crevasses was slow progress 'we can't move without daylight' and the 'little niggles that wear you down' such as cuts and silly mistakes. Tarka reported his dark side came out briefly when he lost patience and had a tantrum with equipment earlier in the day, though this served to release all his pent up frustration.
I’ve been working with Tarka and Katie-Jane on managing their stress levels during their final preparations. As with planning for a key presentation to an important client or a key sporting performance, the build up to the event/performance is often more stressful than the event/performance itself – and once you are on the start line there’s almost a feeling of relief as Tarka said ‘once you get going the stressors go’.
For Tarka and Katie-Jane it’s the same. They are having to manage their day to day lives in the UK whilst preparing for an extremely challenging expedition with a less than 50% chance of success. They need to make sure they are 120% sure that they have thought through and planned for every eventuality. And they still have their normal everyday lives to cope with. However different aspects appear to stress them.
With less than a week before they leave Tarka ‘s head has left normal life behind and is now in expedition mode. He is finding the loss of sponsorship and resultant shortfall on funding really stressful ‘we are always having to compromise’ and the compromise is ‘we must have the right kit at the expense of comfortable flights and sleeping in a good hotel before we start’. Ensuring they have the right kit has been Tarka’s main source of stress (e.g. camera’s failing at the last minute, tents not being as tough as needed for the conditions). They have also been preparing their own food and have 60 bags of high calorie cheese powder which could be mistaken for other substances and if confiscated could leave them short of calories and at greater risk of hunger – ‘I wake at night worrying about this’. Then there is managing family and friends, ‘some of them worry and we need to keep it all positive.’ A particular concern is that if the communication channels breakdown (mainly satphone) how will family and friends react – will they think something has happened to us? So they are having to proactively work through potential scenarios with them.
Tarka has a very optimistic solution focused coping style in that he likes to take time out (exercise, lays his face flat on the desk or turns away from the computer) to think through ‘What we can do to change it? What are the options? What might work?’ However when things really get on top of him he reported having short emotional outburst of irritation at inanimate objects ‘if the mobile falls out of my pocket I blame the phone!!’.
Katie-Jane is finding juggling last minute expedition preparations with their normal day to day challenges, such as finances (VAT and tax returns), family concerns and commitment to friends very stressful. An additional niggle in her head is ‘friends have come to visit who wouldn’t normally and I worry about that, do they think I wont come back?’. With the loss of sponsorship Katie-Jane worries about managing the budget and shuffling funds between accounts and cards. She also worries about what others think – especially people with a negative attitude to their ability to achieve. Katie-Jane reports having a more pessimistic outlook than Tarka and worrying that they have plenty of back up plansin place incasethey dont make it. The last minute changes to their plans (e.g deciding not to use the kayaks) has also been a stressful time for Katie-Jane.
When things get really bad Katie-Jane tends to firstly have an emotional outburst to release the frustration and tension e.g. ‘when sponsorship fell through I burst into tears and said I didn’t want to play anymore.’ But this is usually a short blip before going into a solution focused coping style – ‘I just get on with it, this is the situation, these are the options, choose one and just do it!
What Katie-Jane says about Tarka – ‘he’s quick tempered on the surface, but doesn’t show the deeper emotions such as fear......he’s very strong!’
What Tarka says about Katie-Jane – ‘Katie-Jane’s family will just deal with the situation, but Katie-Jane can let it get on top of her for breif moments’.
Sarah Fenwick, (the expedition psychologist) gives a summary of Tarka and Katie-Jane’s personality assessments.
Tarka and Katie are very aware that the Rivers of Ice Expedition is high risk both physically and mentally. So we thought it a good idea to assess their personality styles so they have a really good awareness of their own and each other’s preferred style of operating. And with this info we are working on tools and techniques for Tarka and Katie to best manage themselves and each other in what will be an extremely challenging environment. The aim is for each to make the most of their strengths and to reduce the impact of their weaknesses.
To achieve this we used two personality questionnaires (generously sponsored by Get Feedback).
The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) is designed to assess the ‘bright’ side, that is aspects of their personality that promote success. This assessment can reveal areas of strengths and also some interpersonal tendencies that might cause problems.
The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) identifies the ‘darker’ side of our personality, revealing what we see when people are stressed. These ‘darker’ sides of our personality can affect an individual's leadership style and behaviour. Under normal circumstances these characteristics can be strengths. However, when stressed, tired, hungry or otherwise distracted these risk factors may become dysfunctional, impeding effectiveness and eroding the quality of relationships.
On the ‘bright’ side Tarka’s profile revealed he thrives in high risk situations is highly ambitious, confident and comfortable in a leadership role. However he may sometimes come across as ruthless, dominant and competitive. He enjoys the bigger picture aspects of the expedition and may struggle to pay attention to the detailed, more routine tasks that may be key to their survival (though this is a strength of Katie’s). In a crisis Tarka is likely to remain reasonably calm and make a realistic assessment of the situation before deciding what to do.
On the ‘dark’ side Tarka’s strengths are that he enjoys being somewhat unorthodox in his approach and is very self-sufficient. He has a high need for excitement and adventure coupled with ability to realistically assess the situation and focus on what needs to be achieved. However in high risk and high stress situations or when tired and hungry Tarka may not listen to Katie, may be dismissive of her ideas and may struggle to persuade Katie why his solutions/ideas are the best. Psychologically his biggest challenges will be to keep his patience, keep talking and involve Katie in the decision making.
Katie’s ‘bright’ side revealed she is also highly competitive and comfortable in a leadership role. However on this expedition Katie is happy for Tarka to be leader as he has a wealth of experience behind him. Whilst Katie is gregarious and enjoys being the centre of attention, she has a highly task focused approach which may lead her to be intolerant and critical if things don’t go her way. Katie prefers learning on an ‘as and when’ needs basis, however when it comes to a crisis situation she’ll need to ensure that she knows what to do in advance. Katie should be good at the more detailed tasks (great given Tarka doesn’t enjoy them!), so is likely to have more of a lead role in managing the routine daily tasks (e.g. packing). Like Tarka she is able to remain reasonably calm under pressure.
On Katie’s ‘dark’ side she is very enthusiastic and confident in her ability and is likely to read situations well and be creative in coming up with solutions to problem situations. However in high risk, high stress situations or when tired and hungry Katie might be overly confident in her ability and ideas, find it difficult to own up to her mistakes and questioning of Tarka’s decisions. If things don’t go well Katie may lose interest and become frustrated and difficult to please. However, should these situations occur her saving grace is likely to be her drive to succeed coupled with her organised and conscientious approach to this challenging expedition.
Psychologically Katie’s biggest challenges will be to ensure that her high levels of confidence coupled with relative inexperience don’t blind her to the potentially life threatening situations they are likely to experience. And, knowing when to keep quiet and give Tarka his own space, given that Katie enjoys talking and being the centre of attention.