The qualities of an explorer – then and now

Optimism, patience, idealism and courage. These are the traits that Ernest Shackleton believed an explorer required to succeed. A century later, two polar pioneers look at how this relates to modern-day exploration.

Sir Ernest Shackleton believed that an explorer should possess four qualities: optimism, patience, idealism and courage. These characteristics certainly served him well in Antarctica over a century ago, but are they still relevant today? And did he miss anything off the list?

We sat down with two leading polar explorers to see how relevant these qualities are today and how they were applied to their respective expeditions in the Frozen Continent. The first of these explorers is Shackleton Director of Expeditions Louis Rudd MBE, the only person to have traversed Antarctica twice using human power alone. The second is Wendy Searle, one of only seven women to have walked to the South Pole solo and unassisted.

OPTIMISM

"Optimism keeps you going in the face of adversity."

Louis Rudd: It’s critical. On my solo journey across Antarctica in 2019, despite knowing somewhere in my deep conscious that there was a chance I might not complete the journey, I had to remain optimistic the whole time. If I allowed any element of doubt to creep into my mind, I knew it would be the start of an unravelling process. So when I started the journey, I decided that no matter what happened – because I knew they’d be low points and things would go wrong – that I wouldn’t allow any of that to get to me. It was a chink in my mental armour.

It’s something you have to be quite conscious of. My version of optimism was to be as laid back as possible and not allow anything to phase me. There were days when it would be easy to get very frustrated, to lose the plot and curse whatever it was that was driving me mad, but the minute I did that I thought it would be the beginning of the end. I had to remind myself that I couldn’t change the conditions, I couldn’t change the sastrugi, I couldn’t change the terrain, so I had to accept it and believe that I was going to make it. 

Wendy Searle: Optimism is about believing that everything is going to turn out fine. You know things are going to go wrong on an expedition, they just do, as they did for Shackleton, but it’s about how you deal with the issues and how you improvise – you must look on the bright side. There were tough days, but I still made progress. There were days when the surface was hard, but the sun was shining. There was always something to be happy about.

LR: If you allow yourself to get caught up in the negatives, you are suddenly faced with many reasons why you shouldn’t be there. But as Wendy says, there is always something positive to take from every day. On a really hard day, you may have only travelled a few miles, but that means you’re a few miles closer to your goal. Optimism keeps you going in the face of adversity.

PATIENCE

"A lack of patience increases the chance of something going wrong. One mistake, however small, can have a huge bearing on the success of the expedition."

LR: Crucial. I learned the true value of patience on my first trip to Antarctica with Henry Worsley in 2011. I was impatient. We got dropped off and had 800 miles to traverse, following Amundsen’s original route to the pole, and I was adamant that we needed to push really hard at the beginning and start knocking off the miles. But Henry was always reining me back in.

He’d tell me to have more patience. “We don’t want to push too hard at the start,” he’d say. “The pulks are really heavy and we’ll burn ourselves out and have nothing left at the end. We’ll go steady at the start and slowly build the mileage, build the hours.”

The first day we only skied for three hours and then camped. I was itching to do more and do a big day. But we built it up: five hours, then six hours and then seven hours for four or five days. Then crept up to eight and beyond. Henry knew that the mileage and long days would come later when the pulks were lighter and we were more acclimatised. Without that advice, I would have struggled to finish. I’ve since seen other people go too hard at the start and unravel later on in the expedition.

I then transferred this experience with Henry when I lead my first expedition in Antarctica. I was leading a group of very fit younger guys, and they were the same as me when I started – they wanted to go for it. I was constantly having to rein them in and control the pace and build it up slowly. And it worked. So yes, patience on long-range polar expeditions is critical to success.

WS: Patience for me is much more mental than physical; learning to take one day at a time. Ordinarily, I am one of the most impatient people, so it was frustrating making such small increments of progress in a vast landscape. It felt like I was creeping along. I’m not sure I cracked the art of patience, but I can certainly see the importance of it and it’s something I need to work on.

LR: It was something we assessed before Wendy left for her trip. I’d seen on our build-up training in Iceland and Greenland that Wendy liked to do lots of things simultaneously – in the evenings she’d be doing various jobs at once, but that increased the chance of something going wrong. It might be knocking the cooker over, losing a tent boot or spilling some fuel – these may seem like small issues, but one mistake can have a huge bearing on the success of the expedition. I actually wrote on the inside of her tent, in the vestibule, ‘Be Methodical’.

Before you do anything on an expedition, it’s important to think about it. Work out what you’re going to do. Because a lack of patience can too easily result in silly mistakes.

IDEALISM

"Whatever you’re doing, no matter what it is, you do it to the absolute best of your abilities."

LR: Idealism has long been one of my handrails. As a soldier for 34 years, of which 25 were in the SAS, one of the tenets of the SAS laid down by the founder David Stirling was the 'unrelenting pursuit of excellence'. It’s the culture – whatever you’re doing, no matter what it is, right down to the most menial task of digging a trench, right the way up to planning a hostage rescue operation, you do it to the absolute best of your abilities. Constantly trying to raise the bar. That definitely transfers to polar journeys: the planning, the preparation, putting the effort in. The old saying of failing to prepare is preparing to fail is so true on polar journeys – a lot of the success on polar journeys happens way before your feet touch the ice.

Idealism also drives the next challenge. Once you’ve finished a journey, you look at it again and see that there are areas where you may have been able to do more. Maybe I could have done the Antarctica crossing with the ice-shelfs and gone even further? As an individual, I need that goal. I need a new target; something to give me focus. This also helps me avoid expedition blues. It’s this idealism that helps me expand my comfort zone, which makes me more capable and more confident, and therefore able to work towards something a bit harder.

WS: I’m definitely an idealist. I’m also a perfectionist. I have a vision of how I want things to be and how I expect them to be – I’m definitely my own worst critic as well. For example, when I was on my solo trip, I wouldn’t allow myself to do fewer than 11 hours or fewer than 70 minutes on any single leg – that was the standard I set myself. It’s similar to the pursuit of excellence – you have to be doing all you can to make things happen every single day, from the planning and the fundraising and then throughout the expedition itself. It can be easy to give yourself a little break, but that’s the thin end of the wedge. You’re only out there for 40 days – it’s a tiny part of your life – so if you don’t give it your all when you’re out there you’ll regret it forever.

And, looping back into optimism, any time you do slip, don’t get hung up on mistakes – learn from then and try to ensure you never make them again. Mistakes are a learning experience rather than something you should beat yourself up about.”

COURAGE

"There’s always an element of risk, and things go wrong, but I try not to ever be too courageous – if I‘ve done enough preparation, I shouldn’t need to be."

WS: I don’t see myself as courageous. I actually see myself as being quite a scared person about quite a lot of things – maybe courage is just knowing that you’re scared but carrying on anyway. It’s then amazing what you can overcome, rather than waiting until you don’t feel scared about something, because that might never come.

LR: Same, I don’t think of myself as courageous at all. It is mostly other people telling you that you are, which forces you to think about it, but I counteract it by saying it comes down to being really well prepared. Expeditions can be risky, of course, but I will always have done everything in my power before I start to mitigate the risk. There’s always the element of the unknown, and things go wrong, but I try not to ever be too courageous – if I‘ve done enough preparation, I shouldn’t need to be.

When you do get into a bad situation, the response is usually automatic. For example, I was leading a crossing of Greenland a few years ago and a huge storm hit during the night. One of the tents failed and I had to go out into the storm and head down to where a guy was missing – I didn’t see it as courageous, it was my responsibility and it had to be done. You don’t think twice about your personal safety if these instances – you’re leading an expedition and you have a duty. It’s the right thing to do. Others view it as courageous, for me it was matter of fact. 

What other qualities would you add to Shackleton’s list?

CONSISTENCY

"I’ve never been the fastest or strongest, but I’ve always been the most consistent."

WS: Consistency is a vital part of my whole approach. It’s all very well having a big idea or a dream, but you have to put the consistent effort in over such a long amount of time to make it happen.

On the expedition itself, it’s better to have consistent days rather than ups and downs of one big day and then one smaller day. That’s always been my method. I’ve never been the fastest or strongest, but I’ve always been the most consistent. That carries you a long way.

HUMILITY

"People who matter know what you’ve done – you don’t need to exaggerate; the reality of it is extreme enough."

LR: Another tenet of the SAS that has stuck with me is humility. It’s a big thing. In the polar world, many people have done some incredible feats – they let what they’ve done speak for itself rather than broadcast it and give it the big ‘I am…’ or ‘I’ve done this…’. People who matter know what you’ve done – you don’t need to exaggerate; the reality of it is extreme enough.

WS: Humility keeps you authentic, and authenticity is an important trait. Henry Worsley said: “Never spin, you’ll be found out”. You shouldn’t over-egg what you’ve done, but also don’t underplay it either because we’re quite good – certainly as women – at downplaying our successes. Celebrating success is ok, as long as you’re authentic about what you’ve done.

So much goes into a polar expedition that you can be driven by the fear of failure, but you need to stay true to yourself and your health. That can be hard, as you don’t want to let sponsors down or your family. Success in expeditions can give you a confidence; a feeling of being indestructible – but you have to be cautious of it and realistic with your ambitions.

LR: Before you set off on any expedition, you have to think: “What if I can’t finish? How am I going to cope with that?” I’ve seen the negative impact on people who have had to pull out – the emotional turmoil can be all-consuming, feeling you’ve let people down.

WS: Expeditions have the ability to change who you really are. You can start small, with a more local expedition, and build up your confidence and experience over time, developing the right qualities rather than already possessing them. The right mindset is important – you have to have real drive and determination – and Shackleton’s four qualities certainly help, but they can also be developed over time.