In Depth

An adventurer’s guide to social isolation

The Week’s resident expedition leader, Henry Haselock, on what we can learn from the heroics of the past

As I sit in my flat in self-isolation, adapting to my new way of life, it has been helpful to reflect on what I’ve learnt from my own experience of past expeditions.

Being on your own gives you time to learn about yourself - a time to think, reflect and gather. Even in the most uncomfortable situations you need to strive for the positive, adapt to new surroundings, keep calm and keep an eye on the horizon. They say most expeditions are 30% physical and 70% mental.

Even more inspiring, however, are the tales of people who conquered truly extreme conditions. For me, the prime example is Ernest Shackleton and his epic story of survival on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17.

Trapped in the ice

In August 1914, Shackleton left London aboard his ship Endurance, his goal the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent. This would be the last time his 28-man team would touch land for an agonising 497 days.

The following January, Endurance became trapped in the ice, and despite the crew’s efforts it could not be freed. The men were more than 1,000 miles from any other human, and no-one else knew the desperate reality of their situation. It would be 19 months before they would see any of their families again.

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Shackleton was concerned that extreme weather, diminishing rations, confinement and boredom would take their toll on his men, and he knew he had to keep their spirits high to stave off demoralisation and depression.

He introduced a range of tasks to keep a sense of structure, actively encouraged singing and games and asked groups to put on plays in the evenings. He scheduled parties to celebrate significant dates, such as midwinter’s day, which was observed with a feast. He also made it clear that anyone could talk to him at any point, encouraging strong communication. Exercise played a vital role in keeping morale high, with football games and races around the ship keeping the crew fit and stimulated.

This discipline of structure and routine worked well, and during their ten-month imprisonment the men were remarkably content. In their diaries, they report great joy during moments of celebration.

All 28 survived their ordeal and returned safely home.

 
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Able seamen Joe Irving, Oswald Barr, Tim McCarthy and Walter How aboard Endurance as they prepare to leave Millwall Docks in July 1914 (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Lessons for our own isolation

Shackleton’s approach can help us find a way through our own period of isolation.

He always believed in his mission, taking responsibility for where it had led him. Although we did not choose to be a part of the pandemic, we can take responsibility for the measures we need to bring it under control: the sooner we can accept our predicament, the more easily we can take back control and remain positive. As Shackleton did, it’s important to remain enthusiastic and keep busy, setting yourself tasks that, once completed, will naturally result in a sense of achievement.

It’s important to keep up a sense of humour too, especially within a group, be it family or friends. Put on skits, play games, set yourself mini-competitions - anything to distract from the negatives and help with morale.

Just as Shackleton arranged football matches and drills around the boat, it’s important to keep up fitness. This will boost mental and physical health, helping you to fight off anxiety and maintain a good immune system. Use the daily outdoor exercise allowance or set up circuits in your living room or garden.

If you are living with family or friends, helping one another will improve the common good.Everyone will have their down moments, so it’s vital to communicate and respond with generosity. Even if you’re on your own, you can call or write to loved ones and friends. You can’t always cope alone: the key is to work together. Try not to fixate on the negatives and instead embrace the positives.

Stay strong, everyone.

 
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Shackleton’s crew haul Endurance’s lifeboat ashore in 1916 (Hulton Archive/Getty)

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