How polar explorers survived months of isolation without cracking

Their “vital mental medicine” included strict routines, sprightly tunes, and a vision of a happy ending.

By Roff Smith
Published 28 May 2020, 06:04 BST
Explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew faced months of isolation, risk, and uncertainty after their ship ...

Explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew faced months of isolation, risk, and uncertainty after their ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice in 1915. Soccer games were one of many diversions Shackleton contrived to keep his men occupied and morale high.

Photograph by Frank Hurley, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Getty

With his ship the Endurance being crushed by pack ice and sinking fast, Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton ordered his men over the side, telling them to take only the barest of personal possessions, a limit of no more than two pounds each.

The one exception he made was for a five-string Windsor zither-banjo belonging to the expedition's meteorologist, a jaunty young man named Leonard Hussey. Although his repertoire was limited, Hussey had been keeping the party entertained through the long, dark, polar night, and Shackleton, keenly aware of the effects of stress and isolation on morale, wanted him to keep the tunes coming.

What began as a journey of exploration became a 20-month battle to stay alive after the Endurance became beset in pack ice. Remarkably, Shackleton and his 27 men came through the ordeal with high spirits and without loss of life.

Photograph by Frank Hurley, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Getty

"It's vital mental medicine," Shackleton said of the music, "and we shall need it." And so Hussey brought along his banjo, all 12 pounds of it, and over the next harrowing months, he helped sustain the party's spirits with weekly concerts and singalongs.

Few people have experienced isolation like the early Antarctic explorers. Even when things went well, they could expect to be cut off entirely from family, friends, and the whole of human society for at least a year, left to their own devices in a sterile void of ice, darkness, and bitter cold. When things went badly they could go very badly indeed.

Several crewmen of the Belgica, the first ship to overwinter in the Antarctic in 1897, went insane, driven mad by the monotony and isolation. It was the sad story of the Belgica that inspired Shackleton to bring along the banjo when he and his men abandoned ship and took to the ice floes. (Here's who really discovered Antarctica.)

Life aboard Endurance during the long winter of 1915 included dominoes, checkers, pipe smoke, and the cheery notes of a banjo. "We had a merry evening," one expedition member wrote in his journal, "though it is difficult to find songs we've not heard many times before."

Photograph by Frank Hurley, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Getty

Fast forward a century, to a locked-down world confronting a global pandemic. What lessons in coping with stress and isolation can be learned from the experiences of Antarctic explorers such as Shackleton?

"It's an interesting question," says British psychologist Ron Roberts, a professor at Kingston University London who has written on the subject of isolation in Antarctica. “Although their worlds were very different from ours, their experiences are highly relevant to us today. Humans still have the same basic needs for contact, communication, and physical movement."

Shackleton himself found this sort of deprivation a challenge during his first trip to Antarctica as a subordinate on Capt. Robert Scott's Discovery Expedition in 1901. Chafing under the restrictive Victorian naval discipline Scott had imposed on the wintering party, Shackleton volunteered to assist the meteorologist in taking daily observations from a nearby hilltop. Shackleton’s ruse for getting away from the confines of the ship would draw nods of recognition from millions of housebound folks today, fidgeting under COVID-19 shelter-in-place guidelines. 

100 words, once a month

John Dudeney, a former deputy director of the British Antarctic Survey, first went to Antarctica as a 21-year-old scientist in 1966. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says. “I remember sailing out of Southampton, looking back as England slipped astern, and thinking: ‘What have I done?’"

For the next two-and-a-half years, he lived at Britain's remote Faraday Base with 12 other men, their cloistered existence interrupted only by the arrival of the summer supply ship. For the second year, he was the base commander.

Now 75 and self-isolating at his home near Cambridge, England, he keeps in touch with family and friends via FaceTime—a stark contrast to the isolation of Faraday Base in the 1960s.

"In those days, our only contact with family or friends was a single 100-word radio message we were allowed to send once a month,” Dudeney says. “We could receive a 200-word one. None of these messages could be private, either, as you had to give them to the radio operator to transmit in Morse code.”

There was almost no news of the outside world. “To this day,” Dudeney says, “the years 1967 and 1968 are kind of a blank to me as far as world events, movies, and music goes.” (See pictures from a lively Arctic research base today.)

And yet he thrived—enough to build a lifelong career with the British Antarctic Survey and be awarded the Polar Medal. "The trick to doing well in Antarctica," he says, "is to learn to be content in yourself."

"Brain-cracking loneliness"

Admiral Richard Byrd, whose solitary winter at a remote meteorological base on the Ross Ice Shelf in 1934 took self-isolation to an extreme, wrote much the same thing in his memoir Alone. When it comes to extreme isolation, he wrote, "The ones who survive with a measure of happiness are those who can live profoundly off their intellectual resources, as hibernating animals live off their fat."

The ultimate self-isolator, Admiral Richard Byrd prepares a meal at "Advance Base", his remote hut on the Ross Ice Shelf where he survived the harrowing winter of 1934. "My table manners are atrocious," he wrote in his journal. "I seem to remember reading in Epicurus that a man living alone lives the life of a wolf...."

Photograph by Ullstein Bild, Getty

Battling loneliness, extreme cold, and a stove whose carbon monoxide fumes nearly killed him, Byrd devised routines to keep himself busy and his mind occupied during the long months of winter darkness, close quarters, and temperatures that plunged to minus 80℉ (-40C).

"I had recognised that an orderly, harmonious routine was the only lasting defence against my special circumstance,” Byrd wrote. “The brain-cracking loneliness of solitary confinement is the loneliness of a futile routine. I tried to keep my days crowded."

At mealtimes he read from a stock of novels he'd brought along to fill the idle hours. "A meal eaten alone and in silence is no pleasure," he wrote. "So I fell into the habit of reading while I ate. In that way I can lose myself completely for a time. The days I don't read, I feel like a Barbarian brooding over a chunk of meat."

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the experiences of the early Antarctic explorers, says psychologist Roberts, isn't so much the routines the expeditioners devised to ward off loneliness, boredom, and despair, but the example of leadership displayed by Shackleton in looking ahead and creating a credible roadmap for the future. As his ship sank beneath the ice, he turned to his men and remarked casually: "The ship's gone, the stores are I guess we'll go home."

"That was Shackleton's genius," says Roberts. "He was able to instill hope, belief, lay out a vision for a happy ending, and deliver a believable plan for achieving it. As we think about what the future holds in a post-COVID world, that's going to be the yardstick by which our present leaders are measured."


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