Greenland Radio Interview

 Good afternoon from Patricia Glyn.   

Young polar scientist and explorer, Cornell Grobler, is my guest today.  You may remember that we spoke to him in August of 1999 about his attempt to cross Greenland and at the same time conduct various psychological and physiological studies on himself and his fellow traveller.  Well, that expedition had to abort - for reasons we won't go into now - but I'm pleased to report that Cornell has now made it.  He's the first South African to cross Greenland from East to West, and he did it with 7 others, all of them Norwegians.
Cornell's findings on things like group dynamics among total strangers in extreme conditions will be put towards the selection processes for things like our future space teams.  So my first question to him concerned his study sample.  Did he handpick his team with certain criteria in mind or did he realistically have to take those who could afford to come along?
CORNELL:
Interestingly enough, as with my previous expedition that I did to Greenland where my ski partner pulled out about two days prior to the start of the expedition and I had to re-start the whole thing, a very similar situation arose where 5 of my ski partners had to pull out within a 2-3 month period prior to the expedition starting.
Of course, one has to then ask the question, is it worthwhile to go ahead with an expedition that's going to a dangerous place, and now you're just adding, essentially, a more dangerous ingredient in being, shall we say, unprepared as far as the people you select.  But I found that was actually the element I was keen to study and in a way it was a blessing in disguise.
The best place in the world, in my opinion, still to find polar explorers of note who are willing, ready and able to go on these expeditions is Norway.  I had built up very good relations, I thought, with the Norwegian press, and in a lovely article in the Norwegian Aftenposten I had a response from 38 people, actually, all of them highly qualified and highly skilled to go on an expedition like this.   And it was then actually quite difficult to limit it to the 5 people I was going to take, including myself, so I went for 7 - which would then form 2 groups of 4 people being unprepared, and they were as diverse as... 
Well, the youngest was a sergeant in the Norwegian army who was on the frontier with the Russo/Norwegian border by Kirkeness and the eldest was a computer programmer, a lady named Mette Maria Smaadähl.  In between there was a professional soldier, there was a cycle messenger who was also a psychology student, there was a pizza branch manager, there was a student.  There was also a cameraman/photographer and video editor - all in this one person.
And this made the situation a very interesting set-up as far as diversity was concerned.  Because even for Norwegian people they were from diverse backgrounds.
PATRICIA:
The best way of assessing people in these conditions is when things go wrong, so give us a synopsis of what went wrong.
CORNELL:
Well, things that went wrong on the expedition went like this.   Two days before our actual departure from Norway we were informed that the helicopter couldn't carry all of us to the start point.  So we couldn't carry anything but 5 litres of fuel, which was not going to be enough for a group of 8 people for a period of 21 days.   We were also turned back from Iceland approximately 3 times in the plane, in mid-air, because of changing climatic conditions on the east coast of Greenland.  These things, of course, all set a lot of group dynamics going.
Once we landed in Greenland we found that the plan I'd actually arranged for wasn't quite coming into brilliant fruition as the expedition organiser managed to tear his collateral ligaments in his thumb in about the first 3 minutes of skiing.  Then, 2 hours later, we got to the boat that was about to take us to the start of our trip which was in the middle of a frozen fjord; we had to still push the boat another kilometre into the ice.  Then we were met by a dog team who made us ski for 50 km behind them for approximately the first day to get to our point.  
From there on there was a bit of a breakdown in communication with the local population who thought that a place called Pikitse and Tinitiqluaq was going to be the end of our trip, which was a lovely fishing village on the east coast of Greenland, although we still had to go then to the Hann glacier.  After some deliberation over telephones to expedition outfitters we managed to arrange to find ourselves at the bottom of the Hann glacier after two days of travelling from the airport, which was probably some of the toughest skiing I've actually done, until I got to the glacier - and then the Hann glacier faced us.
This glacier could probably compare in some ways to what people experienced going up the Axel Heiberg glacier or even the Beardmore, and essentially we had to climb 1 000 metres in approximately 8 km of skiing, which was a huge gradient.  And there things were quite difficult.  There was an avalanche slope close by which was unexplored, in which the Norwegians, who were very adept at what they had to do because they'd been in those situations many times more than I had...
PATRICIA:
I was going to ask you about that.  I mean, what is it like leading a group who knows so much more about ice and ice conditions than you do?
CORNELL:
Well, the prerogative that I set was that I would have no natural leadership within the group.  There would be no authoritative leadership from me that I could claim just because I'd organised the expedition. 
How my personality would blend in and if leadership would emerge from my side, that's of course a bonus for the way I would look at it.
PATRICIA:
Isn't that a recipe for chaos?  You've got to have a leader, surely?
CORNELL:
Well, yes and no.  The Norwegians are very interesting people as far as these things are concerned.  Autocratic leadership on these expeditions with Norwegians doesn't help, and for a very good reason, which is that they are hugely experienced.   When you're out in the field of an expedition with people who are very, very experienced in these conditions, who have skied there since the age of 3 or 4, they know what to do, they know how far they can go.  One tends to set down basic rules by which everybody abides - times of skiing, times of breaking, times of resting.  As for making decisions, that's all open to deliberation.  That was something we were interested in studying, of course, because this is the exact thing that happens: how are group dynamics formed on these kinds of expedition?  And if one sets yourself up to be a leader you will be shot down.
PATRICIA:
But, well, how do natural leaders then emerge?  Surely that came up?
CORNELL:
They lead by example.  They look after the weakest; they look after the injured.   They are able to lift the spirits of the team.    They are the people who are most adept at a specific skill at a specific point in time.  Our leaders in the expedition changed quite a lot as far as navigation was concerned, and medical knowledge, skiing ability, personality...  A specific situation demands a specific kind of leadership skill and not always do all people have that skill.   Because many times to lead is to actually have a skill in a specific situation.   That was why it was so interesting to look at a wide-ranging group.
For us I would say there were some leaders who emerged, and that is something we're looking very closely at now, and how the group consensus needs to work.   Because in part of the psychological research we did we were looking at specific scenarios that we would set up, and we were looking at how people would influence group opinion.   And now people are being debriefed on how decisions were made - who were the main people making the decisions, was it the person with the best ideas?  Because when things go wrong in these kinds of places it's the person with the best idea who becomes the person who's essentially leading the situation.
PATRICIA:
Isn't it the person with the strongest personality?
CORNELL:
Hopefully not.   Because then people will walk over the edge of somebody who's leading them blindly. 
The Norwegian polar maker was actually a very interesting thing.  It's where people discuss things.  They don't tend to stamp down a specific kind of autocratic leadership, and that was very interesting to me because I had done most of my trips by myself.
PATRICIA:
But this is totally anti all other polar expeditions, all other polar history.  This is something completely new.
CORNELL:
Well, to the non-Norwegian way of doing things, probably.  I've adapted and actually accepted quite a lot of the Norwegian polar mentality.  I think Amundsen himself was quite an autocratic leader as well but if you look at someone like Nansen these guys would lead by example.
PATRICIA:
But they DID lead.  Their decisions were not questioned.   They were their decisions.  There wasn't a democratic process.
CORNELL:
Well, I tend to disagree in some cases with that.  They would lead by example - in other words, what they would do would then become...  On Amundsen's trip there were huge ructions; there were huge rows, and a lot of inter-personal crises there, which points to the fact that if you have a very autocratic leader you need to be very careful.   The moment a leader falls from grace on an expedition he is completely ostracised by the group in those kinds of conditions.   The moment you lose trust in somebody else's judgement it's a very sad moment for you and for the group.  Because you do not then function further as a decision-maker.  There's a very big psychological risk in these expeditions of becoming isolated.
Personally, as far as relationships with other people are concerned, as far as confidence in other people is concerned, and also as far as decision making is concerned, if you make a bad decision on an expedition, autocratically, and it fails, then you will not have the respect of your group.   The moment you lose the respect of the group...  Of course, there had to be points where I said, "We've got to stop.  This is going to be hypothermia."  And everybody was quite happy with that decision.  Nobody wanted to admit to that.   There was a point where one of my friends said to me, "You have to give me some of your luggage" - as he called it.  He said, "You cannot move quickly enough."  I had to accept that that was the way he felt about things.
There were points in the medical set-up where I would have to say, "We have to stop for a day.  He has to recover from gastro-enteritis.  If he is not ready by 12 o'clock tomorrow then tomorrow I, as a medical doctor, will make the decision to pull this person out via helicopter, and the rest of the group will continue." 
For the last 5 days I couldn't ski in front at all because I had severely torn ligaments across my ankle.  We only had another 230 km to go.   Now, I had to say, "Look, guys, I cannot ski in front."  I had to ski at point no. 3.  
Now, if you're skiing day in and day out, sometimes it's minus 20 degrees, sometimes it's hotter than being in the desert.   You're thirsty, you're tired, you're hurting, you've torn a ligament, you've got severe sunburn, your nose is scaling off, your nose is bleeding all the time, you can't breathe well, your mouth is full of sores, you can't see well, your eyes aren't focusing, you're sleeping maybe 4-5 hours a night in a very cramped space, there's something wrong with your shoes, there's something wrong with your skis, your thumb isn't working well, you've got an abscess on your finger, you've got snow blindness, you've got a very painful back, you've got knee ligaments that are not working...   You have to be mentally focused inside yourself, and in that way you keep the group healthy.  You have to be very careful of highly opinionated, highly individualistic people inside the group...
PATRICIA:
But they're the people who want to go on these things.
CORNELL:
They are.  And that's a very interesting point.  Because that means that you have to select from a study population like that.   And if you have a person with an extreme personality I would never take him on a trip like that.  I would not take a person with extreme sides to his character on an expedition.  You do not need that.  You do not need tough guys; you need people that can survive.  You need people who have done this before.  You need people who can remain calm under pressure.  You need people not to shout; you need people not to become angry.   You need people who are able to admit when they make mistakes.  You need people to be able to tap into previous knowledge that they have from vast experience.   And that is why I selected the Norwegians.  I would never, ever take a South African on a trip with me unless he has done probably more than I have.
PATRICIA:
But that is the kind of personality you've just pointed to not wanting to take.  This whole thing interests me because the whole nature of exploration is exactly the personality type that you've identified now as not somebody you would take.  It's very interesting and I look forward to the rest of your research on this.   But can we just move on now to the research that you were doing into metabolic matters - food and food rationing.  What progress did you make on that front?
CORNELL:
Well, we know that food is very important psychologically.  An army walks on food, Napoleon said.  And we all know that 3 meals a day is what most of us eat, and that food is very important to us.  But what do you give a person who expends more energy than he would in two marathons a day, who is faced with the prospect of having to melt snow to make food and having to eat food sometimes under very quick or severe conditions?  Food needs to be as light and energy-dense as possible.
On our expedition we were crossing about 600 km of ice, which is vastly different to when you're crossing things like over 1 000 km or over 2 000 km, where you can't build in enough carbohydrates because of weight, where you have to start relying on fats as your main energy source.
So what we were putting in, of course, was a lot of carbohydrates.  We had a daily energy intake of approximately 24 000 to 26 000 kilojoules per day, of which 40% of that was actually carbohydrates.  The biggest decrease in body weight was that of approx. 4 kg and in some cases the body weight actually remained stationery.
Essentially what we would have to do...  The most important thing nutritionally for anyone is water.  Without an adequate water intake one is not going to function at your metabolic best.  In these conditions, because of obvious things like exercise, and because of things like a lot of sweating - perspiration, which one might not think - and just the basic evaporation of body moisture through breathing, one requires at least 6 litres of water per day.   And it is, of course, a pain to have to melt that amount of water and to make it presentable for consumption.
PATRICIA:
You were doing that last time on your chest, using your body weight to melt your own water, in a bag.   Did you continue that?
CORNELL:
That's right.  Yes, we did do some of that.  It was found, because of the logistical problems that arose prior to the expedition, with all the regional members pulling out, to be quite difficult for me to put the final package back together again.  The conditions this time around were not quite as warm as the time I went previously to Greenland, which was in June.  I still have no doubt that using body heat to melt snow is probably a very efficient, very weight efficient and very challenging way of applying scientific and biological knowledge to solving the problem of finding water in the icy terrain.  But for this time I couldn't...
PATRICIA:
But in principle it works?
CORNELL:
Yes.
PATRICIA:
Sorry, I interrupted you.  You were talking about the foodstuffs.  You haven't come up across one product yet, Cornell, that does it all?
CORNELL:
No.  And you won't.  You won't come across one product, because diversity is very important on these things.  Of course, if you are going there to survive and you have nothing else then you need butter.  I mean, people have been eating leaves; people on polar expeditions have eaten skins, they've eaten dogs, they've eaten multiple things on expeditions.
The challenge on an expedition is to find a foodstuff, or a combination of foods, which is physiologically nourishing as well as psychologically stimulating.   So one is going to end up with things like powders, and we had lots of powders that were put into the food. 
And we had energy drinks.  A product called PSP22, which is currently under lots of scientific evaluation.   Also products used for patients - especially cancer patients - in hospital who are severely emaciated.  We were taking in these soups with a very high energy content.  And we were also taking in a lot of chocolate.   And we were taking in fruit bars as well.  
At night we would have couscous - which is still, to my knowledge, the best carbohydrate foodstuff; it can be hydrated within two minutes, with boiling water.   And some morpulse, which is a Norwegian sausage - which I only found out later contained all kinds of things.  [LAUGHING]
PATRICIA:
Oh, really!  Last time you raved about the qualities of droë wors.
CORNELL:
Yes, but with the foot & mouth crisis in the UK, and transporting meat across the European borders, it was very difficult to get it.
PATRICIA:
The other thing you were looking at quite closely - and I wonder if you've continued it - is something called the over-training syndrome.  Can you describe that again for the listeners, and what your study entailed?
CORNELL:
Okay, well, just when you thought it is healthy to train a lot, it can also sometimes be unhealthy to train too much - but don't let that stop you from training!  [CHUCKLE FROM PATRICIA]  With the University of Birmingham, Professor Mike Leeson, and the University of Iceland, Professor Torarrinsvenson, we are looking at over-training syndrome.  This is a syndrome actually first described classically in office workers - people who were subjected to a lot of psychological stress as well as long working hours - and it was later found to arise with athletes who had also trained too much.
In short, basically it means that the body... it's good for the body to train up to a specific point but at a specific almost threshold the body needs rest or it needs a change in specific exercise practice.  And, of course, skiing for 9 hrs a day, with a heart rate round about 140-150, is going to be very healthy for you because you're moving around essentially your fat-burning zone.  But if you do that too much, where does that threshold occur and at what point do you actually start breaking yourself down?  
There's always a point in an expedition - especially of this nature - where after about 10 days you would start to feel bad; your joints aren't feeling as good as they used to.  And then basically one starts realising that you're going into over-training.
PATRICIA:
But are you equipped with the equipment to test that?
 
CORNELL:
To monitor that, yes.   Well, of course, on expeditions it's very difficult to do objective tests on people, so you have to really look at samples.  And we're looking at saliva samples.  Saliva, interestingly enough, is almost a super filtrate of your circulating blood.  So you can even look at immune markers like immunoglobulin A, elastase, and all these things.   Actually cortisol as well, which is the stress hormone, can give you a very good indication of how stressed the body is.
We found, on the previous expedition where Olaf Schjoll and myself went onto Greenland, that his level of stress was bio-chemically quite high but his reported levels of stress were psychologically quite low.   So you're almost sitting with a discrepancy where some people push themselves without actually realising it, and feeling quite well, reporting that they feel quite well, without actually realising that slowly but surely they're going into this kind of thing called over-training.
Now, on this expedition we also found that people were more prone to injury.  Traumatically I tore the ligaments in my thumb, and in my Achilles tendon - that was all within the first two days.  I partially tore the Achilles tendon after two days of going up this Hann glacier, which was just terrible.  And then, with about 200 km left, I tore what's known as the extensor retinakulum in my left leg.  So I was in all kinds of a state.   And I had to, for instance, ski in no. 3 position because of my leg.  You'd ski 1, 2 and 3 and then 3, 4 basically in a row, in order to ski in the person's tracks in front of you.
But after the expedition, when we did the VO2 max testing, I was finding that my VO2 max increased slightly more than some of the other people who were skiing in front - who had to, in fact, then do more exercise than I did because of the fact that, due to the injuries, I had to go on these tracks.  I was probably having less of a strain on myself, which is interesting, because physiologically speaking, at the end of the expedition, although I had the most injuries I came out measured as being in almost the best physical state or most improved state.
PATRICIA:
Is it possible that, given that stress hormones are induced as much by psychology as by physiology, you can be over-trained when you start an expedition and do all this work and come out actually under-trained?   Is that possible?
CORNELL:
Well, it's very interesting that you should mention that, because that's something that was proved on a previous trip, actually, by ourselves - or for 2 people where the severe psychological stress of arranging the expedition, catching the flights, being with a group of new people, can be a very big stress factor - even more so than the physical strain.  And as group dynamics tend to settle in people tend to start feeling more at ease with themselves, with their environment and with the goal they are trying to achieve.  They start then to start gelling more. 
Of course, these things are very difficult to measure, so that's why we have to start looking at these hormones.  And that is why this experiment is fascinating, where you have two groups of people and you can compare them and see how far they travelled every day. 
Because, essentially, after 3 days of travel from the glacier we split apart and didn't see each other again until we got to the other side.  
Both sides of the expedition had hugely differing stories.  For instance, in the group I was in, I had obtained and sustained quite a lot of injuries.  Two people in the expedition had gastro-enteritis and we had to wait for both for another day.  And those days were some of our best skiing days.  In the other group, Group Alpha just went ahead, skied every day and got essentially to the point where they thought it was the end point without really any of this.   So that, of course, was very interesting.
Then how these groups differed, and looking at why it happens...   Because essentially it was the same kind of make-up, the same kind of equipment, the same kind of food...    And how the leadership evolves - what happens in a crisis, who takes over then...   You know, all those types of thing are things that need to be analysed and broken down.  All potential stress factors.
PATRICIA:
And you're going to write them up in the next few months?
CORNELL:
Yes.  They are actually being written up as we speak, and we hope to publish them very soon.
PATRICIA:
Is it astounding how different people's physiologies are under conditions like that?
CORNELL:
Oh, absolutely.  I mean, the lady Mette Smaadähl was incredible.  Going up the Hann glacier I would just ski behind her and just admire the way she was skiing up this glacier.  Because physically the men were much stronger than her, of course.  And on the fitness test we did, specific people came out as very fit.  But interestingly enough it was sometimes people in the physiology test, who didn't come out as very fit, who were some of the best skiers on the trip.
PATRICIA:
What do you put that down to?
CORNELL:
The fact that you can't measure things.  It's as much to do with technique, with experience, skill, motivation...
PATRICIA:
Attitude?
CORNELL:
Attitude, yes, as it is with physical ability.
PATRICIA:
So what was her attitude?
CORNELL:
Her attitude to life is that a day without exercise is a day without sunshine.  She's a lady who's skied through Norway from south to north and it took her 100 days.  So she is vastly experienced.   Again you have to remember that I had tapped into a nation of people who at this point in time will all be skiing - or a lot of them will be skiing...  They're only four and a half million people strong.  But from them came the person who went furthest north, first found the North-West Passage, the South Pole, and they are basically...   Well, as we learn to walk, they learn to ski.
PATRICIA:
Yes.   But psychologically, when times are rough, how do they dig in, as it were; how do they dig deep?
CORNELL:
They've all been there before.  To them it's just another winter trip.  Some of them said to me afterwards that being on Greenland sometimes is not even as tough as being in the north of Norway in the middle of winter.    It's the mystery, the awe, the lore, the legends around these polar icecaps, these Antarctic icecaps, which captives us, which holds us in awe, which causes us to dream about crossing them.  And once you get there you find that this is really hard work and this is like another kind of ski trip.  But once you've settled in to those dynamics and you find how amazingly well you can adapt - even me, from South Africa, I mean, I adapted very well - and I feel quite suited now to go to the Antarctic, to know what to do and how to do it.  I learnt much more from these Norwegians than I ever thought possible.
PATRICIA:
What are your immediate plans now, Cornell?
CORNELL:
In March this year I'm undertaking a classical ski trip, the Birkebeiner, which is possibly THE classical ski race in the world - 52 km cross-country - and I hope to start measuring myself against some of the local talents.
PATRICIA:
That's in Norway, is it?
CORNELL:
That's right.  And, who knows, 4 years from now you might see an African participating in the Olympic cross-country ski events.
 

PATRICIA:
Well, it sounds like the ice bug has well and truly bitten, doesn't it?  And he has the Antarctic in his sights.  Cornell Grobler was talking about his crossing of Greenland in pursuit of fun and findings - findings of a scientific nature which will go towards future expedition recruitments, in space among other places. 
Cornell is doing his community service year in medicine in Kimberley at the moment, then going on to study surgery.  But he gives talks with slides about his extreme pursuits, and they help to finance his expeditions, so if you'd like him to talk to your group do get in touch with him, won't you?   The e-mail address islcgrobler@hotmail.com - or you can telephone him on 083 389 3236.  It's a very amusing talk that he gives, and interesting too, so give him a call.
Goodbye for today from Patricia Glyn.

Dates

Date: 

Friday, April 20, 2001 (All day)

activity: 

Cross Country Skiing

Participants: 

Lukas Grobler

Destination: 

Greenland

Country: 

Denmark