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An ice job for the dedicated

Two managers are hoping tough lessons in the Arctic will benefit their leadership skills at work in the UK

Hard day at the office? Try a hard day in the Arctic instead. Two Taylor Woodrow employees will soon be enduring the toughest challenge of their lives - a far cry from the redevelopment of Kings Cross on which they both work.

Project manager Mike Woolliscroft, 30, and senior engineer Richard Wall-Morris, 29, are taking part in the 2008 Polar Challenge, a 350-mile race across the Arctic next April.

They decided to enter a year ago, hoping to raise £40,000 for the WaterAid charity, and have done 10 marathons between them this year, plus the London duathlon and triathlon.


As part of a three-person team they will be on skis or trekking for up to 14 hours a day, sleeping for six, with four spent preparing for bed or getting up. All this in temperatures as low as minus 65 deg C, with winds up to 70 mph.

The teams will cross two ice-capped islands, one the size of Wales, over uneven terrain. Blocking their way across ice fields will be 20 foot boulders which could slow progress to five miles a day. Each will drag a pulk - a sledge packed with equipment - weighing 120 lb.

Why would anyone want to do this? “For me it’s the personal challenge and the opportunity to work as a team. We’ve done a few of these events now and this is the biggest challenge by a bit of a leap,” says Mr Wall-Morris.

Building up stamina

Mr Woolliscroft adds: “For me it’s personal development both physical and mental. You start reading books about people who do this and they are extremely interesting people, very humble and pleasant, so if I can emulate that then I will have developed myself.”

They are upping their training. “We’re probably very good at four- to six-hour stints but as soon as it starts getting into day after day it’s the sort of thing you don’t do. Even if you are enthusiastic you only go for a few hours,” says Mr Wall-Morris.

Being desk-bound doesn’t help. “We’re on our feet very little at the moment. Previously we were 30 per cent on site but now it’s almost 100 per cent behind a computer,” says Mr Woolliscroft.

As well as the endurance training, they must also gain three stone each as they will be burning over 7,000 calories a day. They must be extremely organised in order to preserve energy. “It’s all about saving weight and saving time. If you take two hours from the minute you stop walking to head on pillow that is the ideal. It is about streamlining that operation and maximising sleep,” says Mr Wall-Morris.

The pair believe many of the challenges they face will stand them in good stead when they return to their day jobs.

“Good planning, how efficient we are being - I need to learn how to think about efficiencies, which should come naturally to a construction manager. No doubt, I will be a better project manager when I get back,” says Mr Woolliscroft.

Health and safety will be paramount. “Safety is an easy link. If you’re on site you’re always thinking about it and it will be similar in the Arctic. You can’t afford to mess up when it comes to looking after yourself and your team mates,” says Mr Wall-Morris.

They explain that the cold can affect your mind and make you careless. “There are instances where people have been pulled out of expeditions because they’ve got frostbite to their penises because they’ve forgotten to do up their flies,” Mr Woolliscroft says.

Your life in their hands

“Team skills are essential,” he adds. “If the worst happens, such as falling through the ice into minus 7 deg C water, you’re helpless without your teammates.”

At work, Mr Woolliscroft admits, getting people to pull together can be a challenge. “People have chips on their shoulders or they don’t click. You need to fall out sometimes so you can spot the differences in people.”

Are there any other similarities between a hard day at the office and a hard day in the Arctic? Your attitude to getting through it has to be the same, according to Mr Wall-Morris.

“You just have to knuckle down. You can’t really say ‘oh well, that’s it for today’, because you’re letting yourself down and the team down and not getting to where you want to be. You have to get your head down, push on and things generally improve.”

Stanton Bonna’s Murray Howitt is doing a sponsored walk to the South Pole. Read his diary here

To sponsor Richard and Mike’s Lost Penguins team log on to www.justgiving.com/lostpenguins

• The Polar Challenge was set up in 2004 by Tony Martin, a former royal engineer who spent twelve years in the service.

• In 2008, 11 teams of three people will race from Resolute in northern Canada to the Magnetic North Pole in the High Arctic. Teams are from the UK, Denmark, Taiwan and China. Mr Woolliscroft thinks the Taiwanese and Danish have a good chance of winning, but says: “I think we consider ourselves contenders for the top three.”

• The race starts on 21 April 2008 and will last two to four weeks depending on the weather.

• The 2008 Polar Challenge website is www.polar-challenge.com

• Richard Wall-Morris and Mike Woolliscroft’s team is Lost Penguins. Their third team mate is Connie Potter who they met on a skiing holiday.

• The team will have their clothing tailor-made so there aren’t any gaps at the end of trousers or sleeves, this includes socks and under garments as well as a pair of ski boots and trekking boots. The equipment weighs about one fortieth of that of Scott.

• Cross country skis are used which slide one way and grip the other.

• The team will carry a pump action shot gun in case they need to scare away polar bears which are extremely protected.

• GPS navigation equipment is used rather than a traditional compass because there is too much magnetic distortion towards the 1996 magnetic north pole.

• It will be very difficult to talk whilst on the move because of the kit protecting extremities from frostbite. Stopping for a rest is recommended every 1 ¼ hours but it gets very cold standing still.

• Once the trekking stops it takes two hours to prepare for sleep and two hours to prepare to trek in the morning. At night, snow must be shovelled around the edge of the tent to protect it from storms, repairs made to kit, the GPS navigation programmed and enough snow melted for rehydration and cooking.

• The coldest time is first thing in the morning when the edge of the sleeping bag is covered in ice from where breath has frozen. The first person up has to scrape the ice from the inside of the tent which has formed from frozen breath. If this isn’t done it starts to ‘rain’ once things heat up.