Life in the freezer

‘...there was a simultaneous cry of "Halt!" as the sledge meters registered their arrival at the South Pole. They had achieved their goal. Symbolic of their struggle in unity, each of the men, with their weathered and frostbitten hands, grasped the Norwegian flag and planted it firmly at the geographical South Pole...'

A century ago on 14 December 1911, Amundsen left behind a legacy of being the first person to lead an expedition to the South Pole, whereas on 17 January 1912 when Scott arrived at the same place, he was to find that he had been beaten in the ‘race' to the Pole, and his ill-fated team left behind a very different scientific legacy. Were the different outcomes purely down to the individuals within each of the teams or was it more a result of the management and leadership of these two expeditions by two very different men? Similar characters in polar history, for example Shackleton and Nansen, have also demonstrated remarkable examples of leadership and management, where their decisions have become the ultimate reason whether expedition parties have actually returned alive or dead.

A hundred years later, there is still so much to learn from leadership and management in these extremely cold and hostile environments - tolerating less luxurious conditions than our ‘normal everyday' lifestyles where the focus can become pure survival from day to day, or living in a confined space of a small mountain tent week after week. This often demonstrates the ‘true colours' of whether a team can work together or, when the harmony breaks down within a team, whether they are literally poles apart.

The geographic North and South Poles are not only as far apart as you can possibly be on earth, they also offer entirely different experiences. Skiing to the North Pole across the ever-moving polar ocean offers pack ice, polar bears and leads of open water, whereas the Antarctic South Pole experience at a height of almost 3000m offers a seemingly endless universe - massive skies and low horizons, a white wilderness inconceivably vast and grand.

Both environments show similar characteristics when it comes to ‘attention to small details' making a massive difference. They are environments that demand respect...the polar regions don't suffer fools gladly and it can all go wrong very quickly, resulting in frozen fingers face or toes within a matter of minutes. As with most outdoor activities, there can be a yawning gap between those who are striving to push the boundaries of their own personal achievements in these fragile landscapes...and those who can actually manage being responsible for others in this situation - teaching the skills to match the clients' level of understanding and previous experience, and leading them safely through the situations currently beyond their ‘comfort zones' of ability.

I am a qualified teacher, who has worked in the outdoor industry for over 20 years, managing outdoor centres and teams of people, advising and training leaders in the outdoors, and leading on expeditions around the world from destinations as far afield as the Falkland Islands and South Georgia to Svalbard in the north. I was brought up on a ‘diet' of hillwalking and being ‘in the great outdoors' almost from the point when I first learnt to walk, but only put on skis for the first time in 2001. Since then, working and exploring in the polar regions has become my passion in life. I love nothing better than living a self-sufficient lifestyle out of my pulk (sledge), leading polar ski touring and training trips. ...and then returning home to share my personal, and often humorous experiences from my wilderness explorations - inspiring, encouraging, and motivating others to believe in their dreams and ‘get out there and make it happen' whatever those dreams might be, not letting it remain as an unfulfilled wish list of ‘all talk and no action'.

My polar expeditions to the North and South Poles, crossing the Greenland icecap, working in some of the remotest coldest parts of the world - as part of a team and leading others, has really tested my limits - at a physical, emotional and mentally challenging level. Sometimes it takes courage to change our habits and ways of working, to swallow our pride and be humble enough to admit when we're wrong, to look at situations from a different perspective, or to be brave and have the guts to do something different.
Life in the freezer definitely has its highs and lows - it's a very bumpy ride at times, with some of the best and worst ‘people' experiences of my life.....but every time I return realising how much I have learnt already and how much there is still to learn about myself to enable me to become an even better leader!

Helen Turton runs the UK office of a Norwegian company called Newland ( The company specialises in training, logistics and guiding on polar expeditions, including destinations such as the North Pole, South Pole, crossing Greenland ...and also high altitude peaks around the world. She is a qualified winter mountain leader, first aid trainer, RGS with IBG accredited off-site safety management trainer, gives presentation talks on her life-in-the-freezer experiences, and regularly leads outdoor skills-based team building events in the UK and in Norway through Newland.

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