The Expedition Challenge Part 1: Lessons for survival

Matt McfadyenInterview with Matt McFadyen, polar adventurer

In this article we interview Matt to find out more about what he has learnt about project management, leadership responsibilities and team development from his experiences in the wild.

Matt is a special guest keynote speaker and facilitator for Tirian’s On THIN ICE program, where his experienced contributions create an incredible authentic learning experience

In this article series:

TT: As a young adventurer with no prior experience, how was it possible to prepare for the tough challenges you were to face?

MM:  I had to spend time learning survival skills in an industrial refrigerated warehouse to train for my expeditions, and this sort of simulated experience was invaluable. Of course the reality was even more harsh, and I had to adjust to this as I faced each new challenge, but the appropriate preparation really helped me to be more aware of the challenges I might be facing and the ways I might be able to respond to cope with the challenges effectively. There is no way you can survive in challenging environments if you are not properly prepared.

TT: What is the leader’s role in an expedition? And does this differ to the role we usually think a leader might take?

MM:  The main expedition leader is responsible for navigating and overall supervision of the expedition, but the day-to-day leadership role is often shared. When we’re on an expedition marching across the ice, for example, the team proceeds in a straight line with the leader at the front. The person in the leading position chooses has to break trail (physically demanding) AND choose the route (mentally challenging), so this position is the most difficult. Because of that the leading position is rotated every 90 mins, so over an 8-12 hour a day everyone has to share the responsibility of leading. Communication has to be clearly relayed to the back and then to the front person to ensure everyone had received the information correctly

TT: How important are the decisions you make in these harsh environments?

MM: The decisions you make can be critical to your survival, so you need to be able to make quick decisions based on clear judgements.  One example of this is the importance of setting the right place to sleep and/or to set up a base camp. Some of the things you need to consider are:

  • The stability of the ICE – you don’t want to fall through a crack in the middle of the night!
  • The weather conditions and exposure to weather – in one expedition we set tent in the wrong direction as the weather changed overnight the wind (100KPH) broke the tent poles – expedition OVER!
  • Working in a white out (if you put your hand in front of your face and you can’t see it you’ll know you’re in a whiteout!) – it can be really difficult to see what you’re doing and it’s easy to make costly mistakes. It feels like you’re locked in a cocoon, you can’t see out and can’t hear….

The main thing you learn is not to panic and to ensure there is clear communication and clarification

TT: How do you start to streamline roles and responsibilities in an expedition team?

MM: At the beginning of a trip the going is easier and communication and procedures don’t need to be as tight, but as the trip progresses (as you become more tired, cold and hungry) you are forced to become more effective with language and more efficient with roles. My diary shows that on the first expedition it took us 4 hours a day to break camp, but with clearer communication and better processes in place we were able to reduce that time to only 1 to 2 hours by day 22. Each person knew their expectations and their roles, and the communication was much clearer. The result was that we could travel further distances much more efficiently.

TT: How important is it for an expedition team to maintain consistent communication with HQ/base camp?

MM: On an expedition you have a set time locked in that you must report back to HQ. At the North Pole it’s the Russians who run the base camp, and if you don’t report in within the 1 hour time slot allocated they launch a rescue at the cost of $14,000 to get the chopper in the air + $10,000 an hour for the search party at the expedition team’s cost. Not keeping up the regular communication can be very costly! But it’s also very important. Complacency is dangerous in treacherous conditions. Like seat belts, help may be rarely needed, but when needed it saves lives, so these precautions are critical. When you report back you need to share about how the team is coping, how they are progressing, the challenges they are facing etc. It is important for any team to have the same regular and consistent reporting process to ensure there are no building issues.

 So what can we take away from Matt's expeirences?

1. Prepare for challenges ahead of time: Simulate experiences, practise responses. Don't wait until it's too late to develop the resilience you will need to survive tough economic challenges

2. Share leadership: Take responsibility for sharing the weight of leadership, no matter whether you are the supervising leader in charge or not. And if you are the leader in charge – recognise you can't do it all on your own. It needs to be a shared team experience.

3. Learn to be a responsible decision maker: Recognise that the decisions we make can have a major impact on others or on our circumstances – partcularly in challenging times – and practise doing this efficiently and effectively so that it is possible to be calm and clear about decisions in times of sress.

4. Clarify roles and responsibilities: The better defined roles are upfront, the easier it is for a team to work efficiently, and the less stress it places on team relationships. It is also important to continue to reassess and clarify roles over time.

5. Maintain clear communication channels: Clear and regular communication is important at all levels – but particularly between leaders and their teams. If you are a leader, don't assume that your team knows what you are thinking or doing, and if you are a team member, keep your leader updated with responses and progress.

Hopefully these simple steps will help you to cope better with the daily adventures life challenges us with!


Matt McFadyen: At the age of 22, Matt McFadyen joined the crew of a 43-foot yacht to cross the most dangerous ocean on earth in order to reach Antarctica. Having to navigate fields of icebergs while beset by storms of mammoth intensity, Matt was forced to draw on every ounce of courage and perseverance he could muster as nature tested his personal resolve and his team's resourcefulness. The eventful trip involved dealing with waves of up to fifty feet high that often swept across the yacht and knocked it down, and on many occasions the crew was forced to fight for their lives. This harrowing experience brought on a startling appreciation of the raw power of nature and its ability to challenge us, and it inspired Matt and motivated him to continue the journey with further adventures. He has since become the youngest Australian to ski to the North Pole unassisted, and only the second Australian to accomplish this amazing feat three times. In his second expedition, which he completed in April 2006, Matt had to negotiate one of the harshest Arctic seasons in years to reach the top of the world. Matt is a special guest keynote speaker and facilitator for Tirian’s On THIN ICE program, where his experienced contributions create an incredible authentic learning experience


3 Responses to “The Expedition Challenge Part 1: Lessons for survival”

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    Leanne Chan
    Rockwell Automation Int’l Holdings LLC

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