In an exclusive first-person account, the 35-year-old writer narrates her experiences as one of the youngest leaders of an Antarctic expedition.
I don’t know exactly what woke me that time. It could have been the crash of my laptop as it slid off the table onto the floor; it might have been the crunch of my neck as I slid up the bunk and smacked my head on the bulkhead. Perhaps it was the series of ship’s noises as the icebreaker crested the 11-metre swells, the mighty rush of water and the 120 km/h winds ripping through the superstructure, the feeling of weightlessness as the ship first hung in the air then plunged downward to hit the surface again with an almighty boom, jarring every rivet, every tooth and every frayed nerve.
Yes, maybe a combination of these things woke me.
It wasn’t the first time I had been woken that night. By this stage, I hadn’t slept through the night in over a week. What sleep I did get was 30 minutes snatched here and there when my body simply shut down. It was cold, uncomfortable, wet and terrifying. As I lay there, willing myself into a coma, I thought back to our training — three months in Hobart accruing all types of skills, cramming checklists into our already overburdened brains and ‘weather-testing’ our bodies.
So as I lay there thinking, “This did not end well for the Titanic… but you know what? I don’t care.” I worried how my team would perceive my “weakness”.
We were professionals. We were trained. We had been chosen. We were going to live in Antarctica. For a year. And I was their leader. And I was very, very sick.
At 35, I was one of the youngest Antarctic expedition leaders and only the second female leader at Australia’s Davis Station. And the last time I had even seen snow was as a 12-year-old on a school excursion. And seriously, I hate the cold.
I spent the next three hours reconstructing how on earth I was selected to lead this expedition to Antarctica. Then I panicked!
Most of us can remember the pivotal moments in our lives — the moments that shaped our future and led us in new directions. The moment that had a profound impact on my life was a newspaper advertisement that read ‘Men & Women of Australia, have you ever wanted to work in Antarctica?’ Well, no. I hadn’t. But the ad stirred my interest. The Australian Antarctic Division was recruiting expedition leaders and they were seeking people with strong management backgrounds and experience in leading people.
With 16 years of experience managing teams in a variety of challenging and complex locations I knew I had the skill and ability to do this job. So I decided, “I’d rather regret what I did, than regret what I didn’t do,” and applied. The selection process was extensive and even included a week-long boot camp.
The single biggest thing I realised after finishing boot camp was that I desperately wanted the job. I knew I would be heartbroken to miss the chance to live and work in Antarctica. It wasn’t about the penguins or icebergs; it was about the opportunity, and my readiness to take on the challenge. Little did I know at the time how thoroughly I would be tested. I would need to manage a true emergency as well as negotiate a peaceful settlement to a war about how the bacon should be cooked.
There is nothing tougher than living with a community of strangers, in freezing temperatures, around the clock and with no escape. Well, actually there is, doing all this in a small tent with no running water and no toilet.
Four expeditioners were on their way to the Amery Ice Shelf. Our pre-flight checks of the plane and landing area were clear, so I confidently sent the plane off. I noted the time in my log and when to expect to hear they had landed safely.
I didn’t get that check-in. What I got was: ‘VLZ Davis, VLZ Davis, VLZ Davis. This is Victor Hotel Bravo, Do you read? Over.’
‘Victor Hotel Bravo, this is Davis. We are reading you loud and clear. Over.’
‘Davis, we have an incident here. Over.’
‘Repeat please, Victor Hotel Bravo.’
‘Davis, we hit something and our landing gear is damaged. Over.’
‘Please advise condition of passengers and crew. Over.’
‘No injuries. Over.’
What a relief, but I knew that the safety of the expeditioners was still at risk. This was it. My worst nightmare had come true. I had often lain awake wondering how I would react in an emergency that threatened the lives of my expeditioners. And here it was. VHB was down. 400km away, and a blizzard was closing in.
We got them home safely, but in the process I learnt an incredible amount about leading through crises. Most of our business training goes into ‘managing’ these events. We have contingency plans, risk plans etc. etc. But the role of the ‘leader’ is just as important. Morale must be maintained and business as usual must continue. Information, visibility and careful choice of words are paramount.
Leaders aren’t there to sort out every little spat between team members. But we do have a responsibility to use our judgement and understand the small, interpersonal differences that we all must tolerate, and what behaviours are symptoms of a deeper issue.
In some offices people leaving dirty coffee cups in the sink can drive others to despair; in some investment banks I have worked with the issue is often night traders leaving their dinner dishes or pizza boxes lying around.
I call these things ‘bacon wars’. I had my head in a book when one of my expeditioners burst into my room. “Boss, we need a stop-work meeting to decide how to cook the bacon.”
You’re kidding, right? I thought. But the obvious anxiety and concern on his face made me check my tongue. On the surface, bacon wars appear to be simple, insignificant things. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find they could be signs of a bigger issue. As it turned out, our Bacon War was a long-standing, but undiscussed disagreement about vehicle maintenance!
The year defined me and will continue to do so for a long time, and seizing that opportunity was the best decision I ever made. It proved to me, yet again, that if I ‘regret the things I did, rather than regret the things I didn’t do’ my life would continue to be exciting, rewarding and fulfilling.
I’m often asked if I’d ever go back to Antarctica. That place has a tight hold on my heart, but my life is here now. So would I go back? No. I would not. If I knew then what I know now, would I still have gone? Probably. But, do I regret going? Not for a heartbeat. “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Rachael Robertson is the best-selling author of Leading On The Edge – Extraordinary Stories and Leadership Insights from The World’s Most Extreme Workplace.
Antarctica: The coldest, windiest, driest continent on earth.
Permanent residents: 0
% Explored: One per cent
Lowest recorded temp: -89.2 degrees C
Expeditioners: Summer 120, Winter 18
Common Ailments: Summer — sprains from falling over, Winter — depression
Longest night: Eight weeks
Longest day: 10 weeks
Greatest threat to life: Fire