Written by: Monika Mudranincová
At the Eco-Nelson polar station, survival in a harsh environment is a test of the staff’s character. Station chief Jaroslav Pavlíček relates how to manage a team where the laws of civilization don’t apply.
Photo by: Tomáš Kubeš
You’ve been the head of the polar station on Nelson Island in the South Shetlands archipelago. What projects do the polar explorers on your team have slated for Antarctica?
There are three programs: survival in extreme conditions – on the island the air temperature in January is about 3° C, and about -11° C in July, and the water is usually -1.6° C. Besides our staff, the island is unpopulated, and we get the feeling that we’re stranded. The second program – Greenhome – calls for us to live ecologically, in harmony with nature. Detergents, soap, tooth paste, and shampoo are banned. We use algae extracts and rain and sea water for bathing, we lick our dishes clean or wipe them with bread crusts, and we leave no left-overs. With the minor exception of a little diesel fuel for heating, we draw our energy from natural sources such as wind and wood. The third program is Impact – a global project monitoring what the ocean leaves on the shore, which we carefully sort and record. All kinds of things wash up – from Coca-Cola bottles to wooden pallets and ropes, which are especially dangerous, because fur-seals and fish get tangled in them and die without our help.
How can a person qualify to become a polar explorer on your team?
We need a broad cross-section of people for our programs, people who can handle extreme situations – i.e., men, women, and children, and physically challenged and older people. They all go through a three to four day course, “Ocean, river, iceberg,” during which we test their physical and psychological stamina and find out what they’re made of. The truth is that in order to get to Antarctica, people can pretend anything short-term, but I choose the most difficult locations for the courses, which show how people would really behave under extreme conditions. In Italy, for example, we sail along a harsh coast filled with moorlands and mosquitoes. That exposes everyone’s true nature. Our experience shows people who have been hiking since they were very young have the fewest problems, while surprisingly we have worse results with people who are effective, physically tough athletes but have no knowledge about living with the environment and are also only slightly willing to admit they don’t know something.
Do successful polar explorers have any common traits or characteristics? Are they adventurers?
It’s the other way around. When I’m selecting people I try to eliminate adventurers. The first and foremost characteristic is a sense for safety. I’m leery of adventurers – I can accept one, but I have to take along two people with a sense for safety to keep an eye on him. Another key trait is working for the team, not for oneself – we’ve also had a show-off apply who just wanted to go on a nice outing but wasn’t interested in helping the whole team. Of no less importance is the ability to keep one’s word – at home, breaking a rule doesn’t matter, but at the station any bad behavior can have disastrous consequences. Members of my staff should know English and have general knowledge. Perseverance, dexterity, a sense for cleanliness, modesty, and self-criticism are also important. They also shouldn’t have any mean streaks, and they should also have good judgment.
How many staff members are at the station?
There were eight last time.
Why would anyone want to go to Antarctica, where it’s cold, windy, and frozen, and, on top of that, pay for it himself? What are people’s main reasons?
People go there to “charge their batteries”. Brabec [Lubomír Brabec, guitar virtuoso] said he first understood Bach, whose works he’d been playing for twenty years, on Nelson. He was there twice, and he has now asked again if he could help out with anything.
The best survival test is being alone. Graphic artist Anna Jíšová, who spent 23 days all alone on the island, said she had to solve stressful, critical situations every day in order to survive. How can a person face that without going crazy?
There are many stress factors at work on the people. They live in primitive conditions, and when they want something they have to make it for themselves from scratch. Every activity takes much longer, and this requires tough people. Some of our experiments have lasted longer than those 23 days. One man was completely alone there for 11 months, and he carried out our programs completely. We don’t give any advice. After a certain time people find their own survival systems, they learn how to do all that is required, and they set their own rhythms. When they manage to do this and they think there are no more surprises, the staff returns and their arduously built systems collapse, as they have to readjust to a new situation, to new people. Their return home is a special situation – a person who has succeeded on the island and built up his own position suddenly cannot apply his skills in society and is suddenly just an ordinary person. This is the King Rat syndrome [ed: after the James Clavell novel of the same name], and few are those who can avoid it. Interpersonal relationships can disintegrate after they return home. Guys split with their girlfriends – one person even left his parents. However, after some time the psyche usually returns to normal.
How important is teamwork at your station?
Enormously. Two people working together don’t do twice the work of one, they do three times as much. This is a tried and true rule, and it applies without exception. When I was alone on Nelson, there were some things I just couldn’t do. For example, I couldn’t move our boat, Matylda. Furthermore, working together bonds people, and dividing tasks makes many things easier. But there are situations when an authoritative leader must take the reins to determine the solution to a problem – when we walk on icebergs we often have to decide where to go, and in serious situations the decision is up to the leader, who can occasionally authorize a specialist with the best knowledge of the matter at hand. Someone knows a lot about ice falls, someone else is good at river crossings, or someone has the best sense of direction. If the team were to make all the decisions, the trek would become so slow that going through a difficult environment would come to resemble a “group discussion”. Sometimes it’s just best to follow the recognized leader’s decision rather than to talk aimlessly.
On the other hand, the team is made up of individuals with various orientations and temperaments. What do you do when someone tries to disrupt the team?
Reminiscent talk about family and home is an example that isn’t unusual, and that breaks the team’s morale. A person who starts this is usually oversensitive and is inclined to carefully record critical judgments about others in his daily journal instead of developing beneficial activities and facing crises actively. In this way he can prevail on the others to become inactive, thus breaking up the team. Proof of this can be seen in the daily journals from some expeditions that didn’t make it. Work is the best cure for this, and we have lots of it. The team can also be disrupted by someone who brings things that don’t belong in an ecological home and thinks he’s put one over on me. But I don’t have to step in; nature will make him pay.
Photo by: Allphoto
In 1993 two Czech explorers died in Antarctica. How do you deal with dangerous situations and fear?
Failure can be due to overestimating one’s strength or underestimating danger. That was probably the case of those two. Animals can pose a great danger, too, in Antarctica, and if you don’t obey the rule to stay back and not feed them, you might regret it. For example, fur-seals move very quickly, and they bite, or skuas protecting their chicks can hit you in the head with their wings, like in the Hitchcock film, The Birds. The climatic conditions can be dangerous for a person walking alone on an iceberg. We have rules for what to do. When a strong wind comes up we dig ourselves in, set up a tent, and wait for it to end. Our station is anchored to the ground, so it shouldn’t get blown into the sea, but try telling us that when there are powerful winds at night and our beds are jumping around. In general, psychological stamina is the opposite of physical stamina. It’s hard to gain, it takes years, but then it usually lasts forever.
How do you motivate people when they don’t want to carry out your orders, thinking that they’re boring, or unimportant?
If that happens I go and do it myself. When I needed to reef the sails and the crew refused, I just went and did it. There simply isn’t any way to motivate them. You have no tools for doing so. They even once wrote in their daily journal, “He doesn’t have any power over us here, so we’ll do what we want.”
How would you describe an ideal leader?
He or she should meet the definition, “Free in doubt, unified in need.”
What kind of a boss are you, and how do you earn respect?
I can’t describe myself, but one of my friends said that I’m tough. I think I’m tolerant, possibly also thanks to my Christian beliefs, and respect is something you either have or don’t. When you go there you have to be ready for anything, even for two or three people to team up against you. People react differently to extreme conditions, and as a member of a criminology association, I know how people’s characters can change when things come to a head. Children pose the least of the problems. They don’t have any inhibitions, they don’t get into discussions, and they are much better able to survive. Women hold up best under pain, and are perfect in crises – they join together and try to be helpful – but look out once the crisis has passed. The men are not as predictable; some react well and some don’t.