Did they have it worse?

Submitted by Thorsten on 10th April 2020

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Since self-isolation became a thing, I’ve stumbled across quite a few articles comparing the isolation experienced on an extreme expedition to what we all have at home right now. These articles range from supposedly helpful isolation tips – like listening to music or reading a book – to the implication that we shouldn’t take this so hard, because they had it way worse, like a particular piece by Outside Magazine that triggered this blog post.

Leaving aside that this article is more a lesson in privilege than perspective, I am not a fan of comparing the two situations. I don’t think they’re comparable and given the choice, I would much rather sit in my tent alone in a blizzard in Antarctica than at home right now. And I’ll tell you why.

What sets an expedition apart from normal life?

Any prolonged stay in extreme environments will be different from your regular daily life in modern society. There is a whole field of research around how groups and individuals cope when being put in extreme situations, and it is a fascinating topic. If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend checking out Dr Nathan Smith’s online courses on psychology in extremes.

One of the main differences is that on an expedition, life becomes actually very simple. We usually have a clearly defined goal, and very few decisions to make. These decisions may well be matters of life-or-death, but we prepared for making them months or years in advance and usually have experience in dealing with them. Daily life, on the other hand, requires us to make an overwhelming amount of small decisions constantly. This key difference is why expedition members have reported struggling to adjust when coming back from thirty or more days in the wild, to the point where some are overwhelmed by picking which brand of pasta to buy in the local supermarket.

Let’s talk about Systems – complicated vs complex

Complicated systems or problems have a well-defined outcome for every change you make; Complex systems have emergent properties and behaviour that makes them non-deterministic / non-solvable. Think of it as the difference between a mechanical calculator and the weather forecast. Complicated systems are predictable and thus solvable by training or giving a good set of instructions. Complex systems require different solution strategies, they are not predictable. We can try to guess what will happen, and one of the best tools we have for that are models based on historical data, but it will still only be a guess. As humans, we are very adaptable, which makes us comparatively great at navigating complex systems, but doing so requires a lot of mental energy and creates a lot of fatigue.

During an expedition, we are part of a small complicated system. It has well-defined boundaries and the environment is usually well-understood. It usually has very few actors – mainly the expedition members and support staff – and the interactions between the actors are well understood and well defined. The system serves the purpose of reaching the expedition’s goal. Usually, that in itself is a complicated problem, requiring a great many steps, but the steps and their effects are well-known by the team members.

During daily life, we are part of a gigantic and massively complex system. There are millions of actors and their interactions were inherently badly known, to begin with. Add a global pandemic on top of that and even the boundaries we thought we knew are now rapidly changing. Many patterns of interaction we have learned are now completely breaking down, the system is evolving in a way nobody of us have experienced before. There has been no preparation, no training. Everything is made up as we go.

Adding to the systemically inherent buildup of stress is the uncertainty surrounding the current situation. Nobody has any idea how long we will be dealing with this crisis. We don’t know how the resulting society will look, so we’re worried about our jobs, our homes, the future of our children, and even if our friends, loved ones, or we ourselves will live to see the end of all this. Plus we seemingly have no control over how the system evolves. We are all little artificial flakes in a snow globe, and the virus shook it violently, so we’re all up in the air trying to find our places again.

Feeling stressed is human

Feeling massively stressed out about the current state of affairs is absolutely normal. It doesn’t have to do with a skewed perspective, because other people once sat in a snow cave for six days, so they must have had it way worse than you. Even if you’re privileged enough to not worry about being locked in with a domestic abuser, any effects of the recession, the threat to life or the political changes this will bring, it is human to feel stressed and it is okay.

I would trade sitting in a blizzard in my tent in a heart-beat right now. Picking my pre-packed expedition meal for the evening. Going outside to dig the tent out every once in a while. Knowing that once this blows over, I can pack my things up and start putting one foot in front of the other again, approaching my goal once more. In a world I’m familiar with.

Did they have it worse?


Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.