An interview with Antarctic adventurer Lou Rudd

Peak Dynamics works with Organisations, Teams and Individuals who are part of corporates, elite sports or extreme adventures. We focus on helping critical decision-making, team behaviour, resilience, ‘what it takes to win’, ‘what it takes to transition’ and culture.

I thought it would be interesting for you reading the interviews with some of the extraordinary people that we work with.

This interview was conducted with Lou Rudd, the expedition leader of the 6-man Spear17 British Army Reserve expedition (@spear17org) attempting to traverse Antarctica. A feat that has only ever been done by six other people - fewer people than have walked on the moon. I spoke with Lou, who had just reached the South Pole after skiing unsupported for 39 days with his team, covering 800 miles, each pulling 90kg of food and equipment and climbing over 9,500 feet in some horrendous weather conditions.

When did you do your first Polar expedition?

I joined the British Army at 16 and have served a full career in many challenging and dangerous situations around the world. My first Polar expedition was during the winter of 2011/2012, when - along with Henry Worsley - I completed an 800-mile unsupported journey following the original route of Roald Amundsen from the Bay of Whales to the Geographic South Pole as part of the Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race.

Why did you do it?

I have always been interested, since a small boy, in the Polar stories and expeditions. I saw an advertisement placed by Henry Worsley looking for team members for his expedition. I applied, went through a rigorous selection process over two years and made the cut.

How many times have you been to the polar region?

This is only my second expedition to the Antarctic. The first was with Henry Worsley. I seem to be part of a unique group of people. I have been told that very few people have walked/skied more than once from Hercules Inlet to the Pole.

What has been the most challenging part of the Spear17 expedition so far from a leadership point of view?

Keeping the team mentally focused and not allowing them to get overly daunted by the scale of the expedition and distance. When we got dropped off at the start point, the fact that we had over 800 miles in front of us was potentially overwhelming. When they realised the sort of daily mileage we were doing at the start; their concern was that they felt as if they were never going to get to the Pole.

The scale of the expedition and distances are so vast and my job was to keep the team focused and say to them “that by attacking it a little piece at a time, every day, you will eventually get there”.

You need perseverance, discipline, good routine and you must make sure you keep the daily mileage good. That way you will get there.

When individuals are having bad days, or are in a little bit of difficulty, we moved the weight around within the team to keep everybody moving at the same pace. Some people were hauling much more weight than others on days when some were having some problems. What it meant was that we were all travelling at the same pace.

It is important to remember when there does not seem to be any option available - and perhaps a resupply might seem necessary or that we might have to call off the expedition for some reason - that there are always solutions regardless of the elements or how much the team are suffering.

That is one of the leadership challenges – that it is doable and we will get there eventually.

There was only one day on this leg when we had a serious medical issue. One of the team members was ill with diarrhoea and vomiting. We had no option but to stop for the day and let him rest up and recover.

What leadership skills do you need in such an extreme environment?

I think you must be confident in yourself and the decisions you make and the team must see that. You must have spare capacity and not be flat out at 100%.

It is massively helpful to me to have that personal experience already in this environment. I knew what to expect. I have luckily been well within my comfort zone in all the conditions that we have experienced so far out here. I have had the capacity to not only look after myself and be seen to be coping well, but on top of that I have had the spare capacity to deal with team issues as well. Whereas if I was on the back foot personally and I was struggling, I would be in a weak position to exercise any personal leadership skills. I am always making sure that I am not getting hyperthermia or other serious issues and am available to be able to help other team members who are less experienced.

Has it been lonely as a leader?

No, it hasn’t. I have gone for a very relaxed leadership approach with this expedition and told the guys that we are all in this together as a team. Every decision I have made has been as a team decision. I have taken all the team’s points of view into account and made the final decision as expedition leader. I have an excellent second-in-command. We share a tent, so he is fully aware of my thinking and what is coming up. He has fully supported me and backed me in everything we have done.

What have you learnt from this expedition?

I have learnt lots of things from the expedition. The most critical things I have learnt are:

Picking the right team from the start. I have been really satisfied with my selection process and criteria. The five guys I have picked for this expedition have been absolute ‘gold’. They have been through some extreme hardship in selection to get through to this point.

• My 30 years of military experience have given me a good nose for picking the right characters and individuals who can pull something like this off.

Planning. I am a big believer in planning. Our planning has been fantastic – training, preparation and equipment. We have hit it right on the nose with the equipment that has meant we have not needed any resupply for the first 800 miles.

Making it enjoyable – it is important that the guys enjoy this expedition. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it is unlikely that they will ever come back to the Antarctica. They need to enjoy this whole experience. It is hard and demanding but the sense of satisfaction arriving at the South Pole has been worth all the hard work.

What keeps you awake at night in your tent?

• Initially equipment. In the first ten days of the expedition we snapped two ski poles. We were only carrying four spare ones.

• We have had some issues with the cookers playing up. We have managed to fix them They are ‘mission critical’.

Fuel Spillage – if the pulks overturn, which they have done, then the fuel can seep into the food and contaminate it, if the containers are not completely tight. Fuel spillage is a regular feature of Antarctic expeditions.

Frostbite injuries. We have had some quite strong head winds. One of the guys got hypothermic twice. So I have worried about possible life-changing injuries especially as the guys are still so young.

What are your observations about team behaviour?

The team have been absolutely fantastic. There has not been a single argument, fall-out or disagreement between any of the team members, which harks back to my original point of selecting the right team.

Selection of the team has been critical. The two years I spent selecting and training the team has paid dividends now that we are here. The interaction between everybody and the support they give each other has been unbelievable. Beyond expectations in fact. They have been totally solid and I have been so impressed by their performance to date. It has been difficult. We have had some horrendous days. Not once has any of them shown any mental weakness. They have never tried to undermine me and have been fully supportive of my decisions.

Has the team adhered to the hierarchical rank structure that they are used to when serving with their regiment in the Army?

I have been very laid back and relaxed, yet at the same time you can see that there is that mutual respect and acknowledgement of my position as expedition leader. I have not needed to stand there and let them know that I am expedition leader or act in a military rank orientated sort of way. It is quietly there though in the background. My second-in-command is one of the more junior ranks, but I have picked him for his maturity.

What has the team really struggled with?

Initially the discipline of the routine. Part of the success of this first leg has been the strict discipline of the routine, in that bang on 9 am in the morning everything is packed, everybody is clipped into their skis, their harnesses on and are starting to move off. If we are a few minutes late, then I am unhappy about it. We do not stop skiing during the day until 7 pm. Regardless of bad weather or somebody feeling fatigued – we keep going for those full 10 hours to get the full range of distance we need to achieve. Initially, the team found that difficult. We only stop every 70 minutes for a quick mouthful of water and a handful of food. Again, on the breaks after 4 minutes, I give them a two-minute warning that we will be moving again. There is a lot of rushing around trying to get mitts on and pack away down jackets. If people are not ready, I start moving anyway and then they might have to play ‘catch-up’ over the next twenty minutes to get back into the group.

They found it difficult to start with, but they then got it and realised how important it was. They soon realised how every minute counts once you are out of the tents and that it is all about making progress. You do not want to be standing around in the cold.

We never stop in those 70 minute sessions. If somebody needs the toilet, then they would do what they have to do and then catch-up.

What has the team excelled at or pleasantly surprised you with?

Picking up the routine. It took about a week before they got it. They have adapted really well. They have excelled in challenging weather conditions. We have had some white-outs where there is zero visibility. If you are leading the group at the front doing the navigation, you literally cannot see anything and some people really struggled walking in a straight line and navigating in a white-out. They have adapted to that incredibly well.

Dealing with issues such has horrendous blisters. One of the team member’s entire sole of their foot was one large blister. We have had a full range of problems from tendinitis problems to diarrhoea, cuts, bruises and vomiting. Again, they have all coped with the medical issues and it has barely affected progress. Overall, they are a very robust team and have recovered quickly from the various medical issues.

What are the greatest risks you are facing?

Cold weather injuries are a constant risk. In particularly now that we are on the high Polar Plateau (of 9,300 feet) it is regularly -35c without the wind-chill. With a wind blowing, it goes down to -40c to -50c. Within minutes of flesh being exposed to the elements, severe injuries can occur.

You decided to interview and assess the whole team when you got to the South Pole. Why did you do that?

In many respects, the team has been entirely focused on getting to the South Pole, but it is about to get a whole lot tougher as we head to the Ross Ice Shelf. I did a debrief on the first leg with each member of the team looking at their strengths and weaknesses looking back at the last 40 days.

I have also completed a ‘Dynamic Risk Assessment’ (that the military typically uses) to see whether it is suitable for the team to carry on to the next leg (to the Ross Ice Shelf) which although shorter (400 miles), is technically much more difficult.

We are starting the next leg extremely fatigued and pretty run down. I have a duty of care issue for me as expedition leader to fully assess each team member, looking at all the medical data (they have three doctors as part of the team and a doctor from the Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions) and make an informed decision on whether it is safe for them to carry on with the expedition with the second leg. That process is complete.

I have decided to leave one of the team behind for the second leg of our journey from the South Pole to Ross Ice Shelf. This team member has had an extremely challenging journey to the Pole. The medical examination that everybody has been put through since arriving at the Pole has identified that he had lost a significant amount of muscle mass and this has made him quite weak. He and I made a joint decision about it and he totally agrees with the conclusion that it is the right thing.

What are the risks on the next leg? 

We have about 400 statute miles still to go. Three quarters of that is on the high Polar Plateau of 9,300 feet at the centre of Antarctica.

We are trying to get across to the Shackleton Glacier which is in the Transantarctic Mountains. Sitting between the Shackleton Glacier and us is a huge bulge called the Titan Dome. It is notorious with Antarctica for being high altitude (11,000 feet), so there is less oxygen and also for being massively exposed, windswept and really desolate and much lower temperatures because of the altitude and winds up there. So we are going to be experiencing average daily temperatures of -40c to -50c. We are going to be up there for 16-20 days. We will be climbing as well. Our pulks will be heavy again (90kg) with 30 days of food. We are fatigued and much weaker than when we started 40 days ago. We are going to be climbing with less oxygen and the weather is going to be much harsher as well. It is going to be a difficult slog over the Dome. Very few people have gone over it. There are a couple of guides, who have experienced it, said that “It is going to be pretty hellish up there. You are going to have a difficult time.”

We are prepared for it. We have the equipment. Mentally we are ready for it.

Once we are over the Dome, it will get better and better as we drop down to the Shackleton Glacier. We will be shielded from much of the wind once we are inside the glacier, but further difficult challenges will arise. We will face crevasses.

What is concerning you as the leader for the rest of the expedition?

The Titan Dome and the various challenges of:

• Shackleton Glacier – where there is very little data about it. Only one expedition has come up the Shackleton Glacier, but that was seven years ago and will be out of date as glaciers move and crevasses change.

• The route-finding and navigation down 90 miles of blue glacier ice (on Shackleton Glacier) which is going to be crisscrossed with crevasses. We will come off our skis and put on crampons, so we will start to use different leg muscles. Safely navigating down the glacier with the scant bit of information I have is going to be challenging. People are saying to me that there might not be a navigable route down it, as it will have changed so much since the last people were there nearly a decade ago. It might not be passable. That is a concern.

If somebody is reading this sitting in a comfortable warm office or home, what three leadership skills could they learn from you?

Planning – for me meticulous planning is key to an expedition success. I have invested two years in this to get this right.

Selection of the right team.

Leadership style – having a relaxed informal leadership style, keeping it enjoyable, keeping spirits high, making the whole process enjoyable

50% of people who set off to walk from Hercules Inlet to the Pole do not make it. 100% of our team got to the South Pole.

What advice would you give a 16-year-old Lou Rudd?

I wish I had done this earlier. I am 47 now. My first polar expedition was when I was 42. My life span for such extreme expeditions such as this trip is running out of time now. I wish I had got into this earlier. Do not wait around.

Do not sit around and wait for the opportunity to come around. Make the opportunity!

Go out there and make it happen. Get off you’re a**e and make it happen.

Did you find the work that Peak Dynamics did useful?

Absolutely. The session you gave us was brilliant. It gave everybody an awareness about themselves and about the personal character traits that they had. It made them think a bit more. It made them a bit more considerate. It stopped them diving in with their opinions and forcing it upon people. It made them aware of the traits in their character and they have adjusted their temperaments accordingly. I have noticed that there are some changes in people because of this. Some of the quiet members of the team who were not contributing enough, have turned that around and are participating much more. Raising individual awareness is really good and your work helped the team gel.

Can you help raise £100,000 for the team's chosen charity?

If you feel inspired by this interview and want to help the team, they would appreciate a donation to their chosen charity ABF The Soldiers’ Charity – helping those British Armed Forces personnel that require it most. They are hoping to raise £100,000 and at the moment need as much help as possible.

Please click here if you can donate something.

Peak Dynamics has given its time and expertise for free to help the Spear17 team succeed.

Lou Rudd at the South Pole - Picture courtesy of Spear17