August 01, 2012

Pole to Pole …

Dr Harbinder Sandhu, Assistant Professor (Division of Health Sciences) and Registered Psychologist was recently recognised for the psychological work and research she is doing with British adventurer and explorer Mark Wood at the Ice Awards held at the Coventry Olympic Stadium, in July 2012. Here she talks about her work with Mark and how she supported him in preparation for his latest expedition.

Mark Wood, explorerIn November 2011, Mark Wood set off on his attempt at the first expedition to ski solo to both the North and South Poles unsupported and unaided. He spent a total of 62 days in extreme environments, completely alone, in temperatures as low as -43°C. He reached the South Pole in January 2012 and finished his expedition in April 2012.

As a Psychologist when I first met Mark, I was instantly interested in the expedition that Mark was planning to do. It amazed me that one individual was planning to embark on one of the toughest journeys on the planet, on his own, isolated and unaided facing dangers of the extreme cold weather conditions, deprivation and other physical dangers such as polar bears! The journey was no doubt going to be physically challenging for Mark, but what was just as important was the mental challenge that Mark was going to face. I remember one of the first questions I asked Mark was “what was motivating him to do this?” and his reply was to simply do what he loves doing: 'exploring' and setting himself one of the toughest challenges yet whilst being able to educate people and connect them with the issues of climate change.

A recent review published in The Lancet outlined key psychological symptoms that have been reported by people on polar expeditions, these include; somatic symptoms (for example fatigue and headaches), sleep disturbance, impaired cognitive performance, negative affect (e.g. anxiety, low mood), interpersonal tension and conflict (Palinkas and Suedfeld, 2008).

I worked with Mark for several months leading up to his expedition, exploring the above and providing psychological support and training. I also met with Mark after he completed the South Pole and before he embarked on his journey to the North Pole. This gave me a real insight into what Mark had been through on his journey to the South Pole, how he had overcome his fears and managed to adapt and work through the cognitive challenges and emotional deprivation that he had come up against day after day, isolated and alone in freezing temperatures. Having now completed his full expedition, I will continue to work with Mark and more recently Dr Ronald Roberts (Senior Lecturer, Kingston University) who has also published in this field. Together we will be analysing our unique data set and aim to publish some interesting findings, adding to our understanding of surviving in extreme conditions.

Extreme Psychology or Polar Psychology is a subfield of Psychology which studies human behaviour in extreme and unusual environments. Leading experts have also overlapped this with studying human behaviour in short term situations such as 'Battlefields and Disasters'. However research into polar psychology has served a very useful analogy in understanding physical demands likely to be faced by people on long duration space voyages and therefore is used by various space centres such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and also more recently within the health field with insight into the management of stress.

I very much look forward to continuing my research in this specialised area.

For further information about Mark's journey please visit: or Facebook:

Dr Harbinder Sandhu C.Psychol, AFBPsS can be contacted on:

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