Hardiness in the face of fear, the explorer against all odds | Polarjournal
New Zealander Hollie Woodhouse on the Greenland ice sheet in May 2018. Image: New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust Inspiring Explorers Expedition / Keith Parsons

Extreme environments, such as the poles, would shape a personality type that faces hardships rather than avoiding them. A behavior that is expressed in power among polar adventurers.

How can we not admire the explorers who challenge the Antarctic alone? They maintain themselves in a hostile environment against all odds. “If you take on this kind of adventure, you have to believe you are willing and resilient,” says Norwegian psychologist Bjørn Helge Johnsen. In addition to physiological abilities and physical training, the psychologist establishes in a new publication a link between a character called “hardness” and the fear to surpass themself, based on the experience of the explorer Rune Gjeldnes.

In 2006, this other Norwegian crossed the Antarctic breaking a speed record. He set out to climb the ice sheet, the great ice cap, from Novo (a Russian base) and reached an altitude of 3,300 meters after 21 days. After two months of crossing, he began a rapid descent to Zucchelli (Italian base). A journey of 4 804 kilometers in 93 days.

Between days 73 and 85 on Priestley Glacier, “I have never felt the fear of dying as intensely as I do now. I am in the middle of the glacier. Alone. I can’t afford to make a single mistake (…) I’ve felt the fear of death strongly for several days now,” he states in his book Beyond the Poles.

A look back at Rune Gjeldnes’ expeditions to Greenland, the North Pole and Antarctica. Credit: YouTube / Bergan of Norway

Physiological markers of the climber, related to stress, nutritional status, nutrition, and inflammatory status were monitored. They reached a very high level during the Priestley Glacier episode. “They exceeded the thresholds observed during the ascent of the ice cap, an extreme physical feat,” notes Bjørn Helge Johnsen. But on the Priestley Glacier, the markers were more a reflection of his emotional conditions. His endorphin, the happiness hormone, had also dropped below a critical threshold.

How to face your fears in harsh conditions?

The explorers, the winterers of the scientific stations, as well as the residents of the poles, have no choice but to face the trials imposed on them by their environment. “Hardiness” is a personality type described by psychologists that suits them well. This type of behavior is based on three aspects: a. by a taste for challenge; b. commitment to a team and a goal; c. the belief that we can influence the results of our work without being a victim of circumstances.

“We have studied the concept of “hardiness” in military or polar conditions and we have noticed that it is related to psychological adaptation to stress. If you have a strong potential for “hardiness” then you are more the type to adapt by focusing on a task at hand. “explains the psychologist.

Rune Gjeldnes crossed the Priestley Glacier and was afraid of dying and adapted to the stresses, the fear, by focusing on his goal and his team. Bjørn Helge Johnsen reminds us that “the adventurers are never really alone, they have a group that supports them, and for Rune Gjeldnes his companion counts for a lot.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to study: Johnsen, B.H., Gjeldnes, R., 2023. Back to the basics of polar expeditions: personality hardiness, fear, and nutrition in polar environments. Saf. Extreme Environ. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42797-023-00068-6.

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