Expedition to the North Pole — or through life

Tyler Fish spoke at StageNorth last night – and left me with images and ideas to ponder

Arctic Expedition

On the Arctic Ocean
On the Arctic Ocean

In 2009, Tyler Fish and John Huston were the first Americans to make an unassisted (no dogs or vehicles) and unsupplied (they carried all their supplies) trip from the tip of Canada to the North Pole — a 55 day trip that began when temperatures were -60° and required them to swim open spaces in the Arctic Ocean, work through or around a “landscape” created by ice crashing into itself – and maintain the discipline and teamwork for the entire trip.

Tyler’s story is fascinating because it weaves together so many disparate elements. Aside from the logistics and the facts – 480 miles, 55 days, temperature, gear, funding, a charity sponsorship (CaringBridge) – I was interested in the way Tyler and John prepared themselves for the trip.  It took years to make the preparations — while having a life, a job, getting married, having children.

Preparation for the Arctic Ocean

Training took a lot of time.  Tyler and John practiced trudging along, trailing heavy equipment tires on ropes behind them to simulate the weight of their gear. They trained for hours, because they would have to walk for hours.  They practiced all the gestures and movements they would need to get the gear over rough ice.  I thought this was just about building strength, but it’s more like practicing plays for a sport: when the time comes that you need to carry out a particular move, you want to be able to do it well and efficiently, without having to think about it.  They also consulted with psychologists to train mentally, and had “family day” every 7 days to talk with family, a consultant in Ely, MN to help them decide if they had to abandon the expedition midcourse, and learned to be aware of factors that affected their decision-making abilities.


I went to this talk because the link with values was intriguing:  I never thought about an expedition in terms of values.  In addition to the mental training, Tyler and John formed their expedition around three values:

  • Optimism:  The unwavering belief in the positive potentials inherent in oneself, others and society.
  • Humility: The pragmatic ability to adapt to and to learn from situations and other people; the defining characteristic of an unpretentious and modest person.
  • Responsible Action: Acting with strong consideration for the environmental, social and interpersonal impact of one’s actions.

They had rules and schedules and systems — and the details of those escape my memory, except for one.  The third of their three rules was “Say nice things to each other.”   Tyler gave some examples:  “Thank you for handing me my spoon,” and “Thank you for cooking dinner.”  Of course this is, well, nice – but how did it rise to the importance of being one of the three rules?  Because it’s a key element of building and maintaining the team.

The Team

John and Tyler, still 55 miles from the North Pole, with only 4 days to go - and the ice drifting south.
John and Tyler, still 55 miles from the North Pole, with only 4 days to go – and the ice drifting south.

Even though they were only two people, “the team” came across almost as a third person in Tyler’s speech.  It would have been the same if there were five or ten. For an expedition to work, the team’s health, the team’s ability to function is paramount.  It’s not about individual needs and desires — although they obviously affect the team.  This orientation to the team – the team comes first, we do what the team needs – did not arrive overnight but through years of wilderness training.

The core value of humility was lived out in this emphasis on team. The individual counts – his health and well-being is important – but the  sharp edge of watching out that I get my share, that I’m not slighted, that no one takes advantage of me is replaced with the soft edge of making sure that the others get their share, that they aren’t slighted, that no one takes advantage of them.

It only works, of course, if everyone is taking care of the team — that’s why practice and rules and systems are also important.  The necessity for nearly constant and complete practice is probably part of the reason some teams don’t make their goals, or can’t maintain their cohesion and creativity over the long haul.

Do you have an arctic ocean to cross?

Towards the end of his presentation, without a lot of fanfare or emphasis, Tyler suggests that most of us have arctic oceans to cross, the opportunity to challenge ourselves in new and creative ways.

In one of the blogs before his trip, Tyler tells of visiting fifth graders:

“Are you doing this to inspire people?”  This one did catch me off guard.  I stared quietly and pleased at this fifth grader, slightly surprised, and quietly replied, “yes.”  She then quickly followed that up with, “Did you have people inspire you?”  She’s good, I thought.  I had many teachers and coaches and people that I met on my travels who were doing really incredible things.  I encourage kids to experience their world, travel and talk with people, listen to their stories.  There are so many amazing individuals out in the world.  Let them fill you with curiosity and wonder, and then go do something with it!”

Thanks, Tyler, for a great evening – and lots to think about.

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