How expedition teams can aid understanding of teamwork in extreme environments

how teams work together under extreme stress

Psychologists are working with professional adventurers to find out how teams cope with a 500-mile Arctic expedition in temperatures of minus 60C. The results could give an insight into the experiences of the mental pressures faced by special forces and astronauts who also work in extreme environments.

The three-man ‘Ski to the Edge’ team sets out at the end of January on a 600-mile human-powered journey across the remote McKenzie Mountain range in Canada’s Arctic wilderness. Led by Richard Harpham, the team will face temperatures of minus 60 degrees Celsius during their six week unsupported journey travelling by snow shoe and by ski.

For CREST-funded Lancaster University PhD student Olivia Brown and her supervisor Dr Emma Barrett, the expedition offers a rare opportunity to study team dynamics and psychological coping under conditions of extreme stress.

Every day, expedition team members will complete questionnaires about the events they experienced, how they are coping, and how the team is functioning together. This data will be analysed by Olivia back at Lancaster University, and will shed new light on team performance under stress.

Olivia said “There is still much we do not know about how teams work effectively under pressure. Drawing on previous evidence, it is understood that when in extreme environments, stress can reduce the ability of teams to communicate and coordinate effectively. Specifically, previous research with expedition teams has identified that whilst technical skills are important, the importance of interpersonal relations and social intelligence can not be over stated.

Our research seeks to contribute to the understanding of how teams work effectively in stressful conditions over time, thus accounting for the fact that teamwork does not occur in a vacuum. Due to the fact that the teams will be in isolated, pressured conditions for a prolonged period, we are hopeful that the findings will apply to other contexts also.

Indeed, expedition environments are increasingly being viewed as a useful analogy for understanding the experiences of security personnel working in the special forces and those involved in long distance space travel.”

Richard Harpham and his team are retracing a route taken by legendary First Nation tracker Alex van Bibber in 1943. Van Bibber was hired by the United States Army to scout a possible route for an oil pipeline supply route through the Yukon and Canadian Northern Territories, to support the war effort. His expedition saw him head North across the remote wilderness of the McKenzie Mountain range, a journey that took 42 days by ski and snow shoes, with temperatures between -50 and -60 degrees Celsius. The Ski to the Edge team will follow the same route and continue across the Arctic Circle to finish at Fort Good Hope.

One of the risks the team face is significantly different to Alex’s team in 1943 and is likely a result of global warming with big changes in ambient temperature. Just two weeks ago the Yukon was one of the coldest places on earth with temperatures as low as minus 45 Celsius and then in the space of 7 days the temperature had reached above freezing. Significantly for the team this has meant rivers that have not frozen and traces of open water which could be dangerous given their route. Currently the team are planning to add a one man ‘packaraft’ to their equipment to allow them to cross open water.

The journey will push the team to the limit of their physical endurance. In such extreme cold the team will consume over 6,000 calories a day using specially prepared rations from Extreme Adventure Foods. Despite this calorie intake they will still lose weight. The six week journey will also be psychologically challenging, requiring extraordinary levels of endurance, focus, and resilience from each team member, as well as exceptional teamwork. They will need to cope with fear and danger, harsh conditions, and extreme solitude – the Yukon and Northern Territories are some of the most remote locations on the planet.

The Ski to the Edge team are no strangers to adventure and expeditions and have completed many tough challenges before, many gaining international media attention and coverage. They have covered thousands of miles of human powered journeys between them, and are professionally qualified in adventure skills including mountaineering, skiing, and survival.

Expedition leader Richard Harpham said “Expedition teams like ours spend years on physical training and on planning the logistics of extreme and hazardous journeys. We believe that psychological preparation and planning are also crucial to the success of our expeditions, and this research will help us and other expedition teams better understand how to achieve optimal performance from a team under extreme pressure.”

Richard is a professional adventurer who has completed over 9500 miles of human powered adventure by bike, kayak and canoe and ski. www.richadventure.com. He co-founded the award winning www.inspiredlife.org inspiring over 32,000 young people and communities and was a London 2012 Inspire Mark Project. Richard studied for an MBA at Cranfield University and was a former Top 30 Director of a FTSE 100 company. He now runs Canoe Trail, www.canoetrail.co.uk a watersports and adventure company with his wife Ashley Kenlock operating from their base in Bedford and further afield to Scotland and the Yukon. He was the manager of the Ghana Ski Team at the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010. His next adventure will see him ski over 600 miles in the Yukon starting next week and raising funds for the Duke of Edinburgh scheme.

With him on the team is Simon Reed and Matthew Harpham. Simon is a former Royal Marine with years of experience and training in tough environments from desert to the arctic. He is also a qualified Mountain leader who has competed in the Yukon River Quest as well as the Yukon Arctic Ultra – coming second over the 400-mile course.

Matthew Harpham is a professional engineer who works within the water industry and is based in Scotland to be close to the mountains. Matthew is a mountain man and has spent years climbing mountains in Scotland as well as other peaks in South America and Africa. Matt has joined Richard on a number of adventures and this will be his 4th trip to the Yukon Territories.

The team have tested themselves and their kit over the last 3-4 years determining the best clothing and equipment for the operating environment. Part of this provides the team the confidence to overcome challenges and the conditions knowing they can rely on the equipment. Sponsors and technical equipment providers for the expedition includes: Olympus Cameras, Paramo Clothing, Bamboo Clothing, Extreme Adventure Foods, MSR, Thermarest, Vermillion Films, Canadian Affair, Flint Group Air North, Osprey backpacks, USE Exposure Lights, Wright Airlines. Canoe Trail and Bedford College.

The Expedition has been endorsed by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, listed as the world’s greatest living explorer by the Guinness Book of Records. Sir Ranulph said: “I wish the Ski to the Edge team all the success and luck in support of their ski expedition. I was truly interested to hear about Alex’s great journey in 1943 which was truly trail blazing. In spite of advances in technology make no mistake this expedition represents a tough challenge operating at the limits of human endeavour in one of the last great wilderness areas.”

For more details about the Ski to the Edge Project: http://www.richadventure.com/adventure/ski-edge-project. If you, or anyone you know, is planning an expedition in the next 18 months and might want to be involved in Liv’s research, please visit: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/expeditionpsychology/


Olivia Brown is a second-year PhD student at Lancaster University, examining the factors that influence team cohesion and performance under extreme pressure. She is funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST).

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