Willis Resilience Expedition Final Blog by Parker Liautaud

3rd April 2014, 04:31pm

It’s been over three months since I stepped off the Antarctic ice and came home. The time since my return has gone by in a flash. So much of the last 18 months has been taken up by a singular focus that I almost didn’t know what to do with myself when I came back. And as difficult as it is to realize that we’re on the other side of the project, it’s time to wrap up the 2013 Willis Resili-ence Expedition. I thought the best way to do this would be to share a few stories from the jour-ney.

It’s honestly hard to believe that we’ve come this far. A year ago I had no idea whether the pro-ject would succeed or be driven straight into the ground. I remember spending the hours of 8pm to 1.45am, every night, without fail, in the basement of the nearest library sending cold emails to companies and people I didn’t know, hoping they’d share in my vision. At the time, I was taking an Astronomy course and had learned about how the SETI institute uses radio waves to look for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. I used to compare my chances of success to those of SETI, for we were effectively doing the same thing, even if my signals were a little more targeted.

When I first started working with Willis, everything changed. I’d always been cautious in my approach, but Josh King – their head of marketing and communications at the time – encouraged me to think more ambitiously about the project. We started to explore the potential for using new technology to bring the world live streaming video regularly from Antarctica. Gradually, the idea for the truck was developed. What started as an idea for a snowmobile gradually morphed into the incredible vehicle we ended up with, developed in Iceland by the very best mechanics, and affectionately dubbed Ice Broker by Willis Associates.

Plans for an entire digital platform developed. Later, it was decided that an entire television stu-dio should be built, with a daily 60-minute broadcast dedicated to this expedition and its work related to climate change and resilience. All these things were small pieces that made up a much bigger story of resilience that we were building together, and it was incredibly exciting.

I quickly realized how lucky I was to have the opportunity work with people as dedicated and talented as those working at Willis, and at Captive Minds, the agency that helped create the entire campaign. What became clear along the way is that much of what we were attempting hadn’t really been done before and that the complexity of the technology was far beyond anything we had originally realized. When I saw the technical overview for the live-stream, which contained essentially every flowchart known to man and which was 90% composed of terms I didn’t under-stand, I feared for our chances. But there was a serious determination to do this right; all of this eventually paid off, because it worked.

Autumn came faster than expected, and naturally there were some times when things felt a bit hopeless, especially when it came to physical training. As a young kid, I wasn’t even the one who was picked last for every sports team; I was usually just excluded from the selection altogether. At times, the physical training was almost comical. Every month I’d receive an email from Sham, my trainer, with my exercises for the next thirty days. Usually I’d throw a fit upon seeing what I was asked to do. But the training transformed me, and it was a necessary part of the process.

In September, I participated in the United Nations Foundation’s Social Good Summit, where I had the great honor of being interviewed on stage by former US Vice President Al Gore. Our discussion of climate change issues was also transformative to me because one of the earliest memories I have from when I first became interested in climate change is learning about Vice President Gore’s work on the issue.

Social Good Summit

The Social Good Summit marked the first time I could count the number of weeks to the start of the expedition on one hand, and this caused me serious nervousness because I could remember when I had that number of months left.

We all met up in Punta Arenas, Chile on November 20th to make final preparations. I won’t go into detail about the drama that unfolded around research permits, but I will say that it got suffi-ciently intense that at one point I had a rather surreal screaming match with the wall of my hotel room. But – after about a week of delay due to bad weather – we set off for Antarctica on November 29th, and began the research crossing in Ice Broker.

Punta Arenas

The truck crossing wasn’t without its fair share of drama, and we encountered everything from a rogue broken heater to a total loss of electrical power. I sometimes think back to the truck jour-ney and laugh at the ridiculousness of it. I remember spending twelve hours at a time sitting across from Nathan in the pod – which wasn’t much more than a plastic box on the back of the truck – being tossed around as we drove over sastrugi fields. It felt as though we were sitting in the human equivalent of a box of tick-tacks.

Tensions sometimes ran high. At any typical moment, Eyjo was trying to drive across nearly in-visible features despite having not slept for the past two days, Paddy and Nathan were attempting to get the slowest internet connection in the world to produce live streaming video, Doug was trying to make sure we weren’t about to fall into a giant hole in the ice, and I would play the role of most irritating person in the world. My job was to stop the truck when we reached a sampling site and make everyone leave its comfort for several hours. Usually, this was unwelcome news, especially when we were making good progress.

Schedules were chaotic, but worked. I would sleep in the truck while Eyjo and Doug were on high alert, and Nathan and I would get up early to go do the sampling. Paddy somehow was awake at every moment that warranted filming or the use of electronics. Antarctica received 24 hours of sunlight per day at this time of year, so we were not limited by the conventional length of a day, and usually, we would be active for up to 32 hours then camp for eight.

While coring or digging snow pits, it became an completely ordinary occurrence to yell at a piece of snow, which I now realize is absurd. To wear anything but the warmest possible gloves in -30ºCis never smart, yet it is usually necessary to go down to thin liner gloves to do the sampling correctly. Putting snow into a bottle is in itself not exactly a monumentally difficult task, fairly quickly achieved, but temperatures of -30ºC or below froze all of our fingers to the bone, which caused frustration among those that were present at the site.

We did have great weather for most of the journey though, and it made for a spectacular re-introduction to Antarctica, which is the most beautiful place I will likely ever have the privilege of visiting. It is changing profoundly, in ways that will impact people living everywhere, and I knew going into this, that it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to set foot on the conti-nent.

After Doug and I said goodbye to the truck, the unsupported trek consisted of a mixture of highs and lows, as would be expected. Most of the problems were relatively harmless in the long run. I remember experiencing the worst chafing I’d ever had in my life. In particular I remember Doug laughing at me from the other side of the tent as I cried from applying the wrong powder.

For the first few days, we had the privilege of staring ahead upon an absolutely stunning scene: a view of the Transantarctic Mountains. For the most part, they were the only feature that gave any sense of scale, but often played tricks with our minds. I recall getting incredibly frustrated when, after two full days of walking, the mountains seemed to be exactly the same size and exactly the same distance away as in the beginning. In voicing my concern to Doug, I compared our situation to walking into a postcard. He responded:
“Yes, but is this not one hell of a postcard?”
I cracked up. What was I whining about? The idea that we weren’t making progress was a total falsehood anyway. When it came to progress, all that mattered was what the GPS said, and in the first two days, we had walked over 40 miles. Doug’s unending source of optimism and his ability to tune out the irrelevant noise has always been a source of inspiration to me.

Around a week into the trek – after reaching the top of the plateau – I started to break down, and the gap between our physical capacities grew larger. Eventually Doug asked me the question of whether I was considering quitting. My heart stopped momentarily. I remember not knowing how to respond, not because I wanted to quit in any way, but because it was the question I dreaded the most. I always knew struggles were part of the game, and so did Doug. I just never thought it would get to the point where these challenges would drive us to the point of failure.

That night – when Doug went to sleep – I emptied a plastic envelope I had hoped I wouldn’t have to open until the end of the trip. It contained little pieces of my life back home and what I intended to be sources of hope in times of trouble. These were notes from my mother, letters from my girlfriend, a signed Willis flag, even a piece of a brief email from my roommate, who had witnessed every moment of craziness – every success and every disaster – from the moment I decided to do this expedition, to the day I left for Antarctica.

Regaining focus depended on breaking down each day into tiny fractions. I tried not to think more than ten steps ahead at any one time, because sometimes it was overwhelming to think of the hundreds of kilometers we had left. More importantly, as long as I had two operational legs, there would never be an excuse for failure.

Overall, the team dynamic was overwhelmingly positive, and both Doug and I knew that if we did our daily distance, no matter what problems we had during the day, there was nothing stop-ping us from achieving the goals we had set for ourselves. This was the one reason why, even when we sometimes questioned our chances, we never outright stopped believing in them. After all, this expedition was about Resilience.

1546344_791584407535629_371386949_n

On the topic of teamwork, I’d like to take this opportunity to mention the incredible work that Nathan, Paddy, and Eyjo were doing throughout this whole time. Doug and I were completely separated from them throughout the trek, but they had a truly difficult job and none of this would have been possible without them. Nathan not only had to squeeze live streaming video out of practically no internet connection, but also had to coordinate an entire campaign from the most remote place on earth while learning how to survive in Antarctica at the same time. This entire project would never have succeeded without everything Nathan did before and during the expe-dition, in everything from the communications to the science work. I don’t think I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting someone who works harder than Nathan did during the Willis Resilience Expedition.

As for Paddy, I’ve always had immense respect for photographers and filmmakers working in remote places. I’ve found just surviving to be hard enough, but on top of all that, Paddy had to work with sensitive electronics with bare fingers in thirty below, day in and day out. I never once heard him mention a personal discomfort or desire to be anywhere else but right there with us.

Eyjo, of course, was literally the glue that held everything together, because he was part of the team from Arctic Trucks that built the vehicle. He was the only member of our team who knew how the truck worked when we were out on the ice. He’d pull 36-hour driving days, fix mechani-cal problems with not much more than his own two hands, and was never even remotely daunted by the challenges presented by the harshest environment on the planet. He saved the expedition on multiple occasions.

Back to the story, when Doug and I we arrived at the South Pole, I very predictably broke down into tears. The arrival at the pole was, more than anything else, a relief. On the other hand, I must have underestimated the toll Antarctica would take on my body, because I later passed out in the middle of a video interview. Luckily, Ice Broker’s left front wheel cushioned my fall. At the time, it was funny to me because it didn’t matter anymore. I could break my leg and it wouldn’t affect our chances of success.

This project has been a source of great joy for me, not just because it has been very fulfilling, but also because it has been an immense privilege to work with every individual that has been a part of making this a reality. To that end, I feel I must thank a few people.

To those that followed the expedition, thank you for your support and for sharing in our vision. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing my generation and the world, and I am confident that we can build a resilient world together.

To the immediate expedition team: Doug, Nathan, Paddy, Eyjo. Thank you for your dedication, your tenacity, your friendship, your courage, and most importantly, for giving me the opportuni-ty to work with you. Many of the moments I will value the most are those when we laughed to-gether. Those were the moments that put things in perspective and that I’d think back to when things got tough. Whether it was “Malibu Doug” recounting epic stories from his decades of he-roic achievements, or Nathan and Paddy arguing over whether or not bed bugs have three-dimensional “spatial awareness” and could hunt you through coordinated assaults from the ceiling, I had a lot of fun throughout the journey. Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to work together again soon.

To whole Captive Minds team. I never got the chance to thank you properly, because we’ve just kept going. I want to thank you for mounting this whole campaign, for inspiring me to believe in the value of what we stand for, and for tolerating me throughout this process. I know that there are times I could have been easier to work with, but I hope you found this project as worthwhile as I have, and I look forward to our next steps together. To Marcus Chidgey specifically, thank you for sticking with me through the tough times before the expedition, as well as for making all of this possible, and for leading the charge to tackle every logistical and technical challenge im-aginable to make the Willis Resilience Expedition a success.

967148_752763854751018_2109422352_o

To Dan Lobb and the broadcast production crew, I am truly grateful for your involvement, as you took this expedition and brought it to the world. I have watched and re-watched every epi-sode of the show many times since I’ve returned. It remains one of the aspects of the project I am most proud of, because we brought climate change issues in a meaningful and powerful way to people all over the world. Dan, speaking with you was the highlight of my days, even if some-times Doug had to drag me out of the tent for the show. You reminded me every morning that we weren’t alone, and that there were people back home who truly cared and who wanted us to suc-ceed.

To Arctic Trucks, I attribute this successful expedition to your ingenuity. Ice Broker enabled us to vastly expand from our original expectations. Every professional we encountered in Antarctica was in awe at what you had created. It was a privilege to work with your team.

To the expedition sponsors and partners: Willis, EMC, Amcor, Agility Logistics, Analog Devic-es, One Young World, Algebris Investments, and Initiative. There is no way I can sum up my debt of gratitude to you all for making this whole journey a reality, but it’s been an honor to work together.

I would like to make a point of highlighting three particular individuals at Willis, because they have been the inspiration for the Willis Resilience Expedition in the form it is known today. These are Josh King, Steve Hearn, and Dominic Casserley. Willis didn’t just become the leading sponsor of the Willis Resilience Expedition. They gave me a new sense of ambition, and redefined what I believed could be possible. Along with the other sponsors of the expedition, Willis reminded me how business can be a force for good in the world.

This isn’t the end of the line, of course. There is so much more to be done, especially in applying and harnessing all the information, media, and scientific data coming out of this expedition.

Above all else, I am grateful for this opportunity. It has been a privilege and I look forward to building on the 2013 Willis Resilience Expedition and working to create a legacy that we can be proud of.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72wYJyxxPZo