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.”
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.”
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