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personal tactical innovation: a key element to success


Charles Upham was one of only three men to receive the VC twice- and the only one to receive two in WW2 (for non-UK readers a VC is the highest award for valour). Upham, a New Zealand farmer by origin, was not only exceedingly brave, he was a tactical innovator. Upham realised that storming a machine gun post armed with just a rifle, or even a sub-machine gun, is a very hit or miss affair. It requires near suicidal courage because the odds are very much stacked against you. However, if you are a skilled bowler- as Upham was, a hand grenade can become a much more deadly and useful weapon. Typically, in the ordinary model of infantry tactics a man will carry 3 to 5 grenades. Upham fashioned a special carry bag on his hip holding up to 20 grenades. He would then advance carefully and throw his grenades accurately, using them to knock out machine gun nests in a dynamic fashion – something a mortar team cannot manage when under heavy fire and moving fast.

But the key thing is the way this personal tactical innovation boosted his courage. Because he now had a weapon that worked really well he had a much better motive for attacking what others saw as hopeless situations.

It is this synergy between personal tactical innovation and courage that drives success in many areas including an expedition.

One of my favourite explorers is the Japanese Polar explorer Naomi Uemura, the first man to reach the North Pole solo. Uemura mainly travelled alone. He trusted himself and he wasn’t foolhardy. His personal tactical innovation for crossing crevasse fields was to wear two long bamboo poles, like a twenty foot ‘X’, attached to the top of his pack. He must have looked like a weird human helicopter. However, if he fell down a crevasse this apparatus stopped the plunge into the abyss below.

Often a personal tactical innovation looks a bit silly. I am sure many people have died because they wanted to keep looking cool.

When I wanted to explore the Sahara I had to endure a mild level of ridicule when I unveiled ‘the trolley’ – a cumbersome 4 wheeled trolley used for carrying up to 200kg of supplies (we actually carried around 120kg). But it worked, allowing two men to travel for over ten days without needing camels or 4x4s.

A personal tactical innovation addresses a seemingly ‘hopeless’ problem with more than just plain human doggedness. Scott’s response to the polar cold was to man haul his sledges. Amundsen’s personal tactical innovations were to use the skills of indigenous arctic peoples (dog sleds and skis) and apply them to the Antarctic. Scott attempted to use ponies and tractors in his attempt. But neither were tested and neither were personal. Amundsen had lived in the arctic for four years during his Northwest Passage expedition. Here he learnt the value of Eskimo ways and enjoyed using them.

A personal tactical innovation is not just a good idea; it is a good idea that suits YOU. It emerges because it favours something you are already good at. It is a personal solution not a generic one. I was interested in the trolley because it involved towing, something I knew I was good at, having towed a canoe up a 1600 mile river in Canada.

During the subsequent crossing my team made of the Rocky Mountains I knew we would encounter a river that had defeated many recent attempts at descent- the aptly named Bad River, a tributary of the Fraser River system. The Bad River was not just very steep, it was ice cold from glacier melt and blocked in many places with logs. Because no native peoples lived in the area anymore there was no motive to keep the river clear. Reports of canoeists retiring with their legs blue from bruises and cold made me consider using a slight, but highly effective personal tactical innovation. I knew that we would have to manhandle our bulky 21 foot canoe over considerable debris, and also resist a powerful current. I knew that even wearing wetsuits we’d get cold after spending hours in glacial melt water. However neoprene chest waders with sock feet would allow us to remain warm and dry at the same time (though each man carried a knife around his neck in case he upended in the waders- trapped air can keep you forced underwater in some situations). This solution worked admirably- and though the Bad River, was indeed a bad river, which supplied a few close calls, it was not in the end, the Worst River.

When we learn a new skill we often neglect our own personal inclinations and aptitudes. We often try and learn something ‘the official way’. My view is to have a go on your own and see what seems, to you, to be the logical solution. Remember this and then see what the regular practitioners are doing. Finally combine both. Many times the ‘obvious’ solution to you has been overlooked because the original solution has outgrown its application, or been superseded by a new development, but people have carried on blindly copying what their elders and better do. I remember aikido students banging their toes on the mat because that is what a top teacher did. Later I discovered he only did this because he had incipient arthritic pain in his toes and this was a way to dispel it. Yet his students did it as if it was part of the technique.





why go on an expedition?


One of the reasons I started doing expeditions was that they offered the chance to create a group with a single ambition, tight knit, all working together- with none of the nonsense and politics and manoeuvring that occurs in ‘real life’, when there isn’t that same sense of urgency.

The additional benefits are that this joint sense of mission means the group becomes the centre of the universe- for each member of the group. The shared mythology of the trip displaces the outside world of television celebrities and world events, things that usually dwarf us. Without belonging to a group with a higher than average sense of meaning one is destined to be an extra in the mediaworld’s ever changing superficial show- screened across TVs and the internet the world over. People develop double-acts and partnerships- ‘contramundum sets’- two against the world. Dynamic duos who range their own smaller world and its achievements against the ever looming big bad world. But there is always something a bit desperate about such mini-groups who define themselves as ‘against’ rather than ‘for’ something. An expedition is naturally positive- it is going somewhere, and everyone on the team is ‘for’ that onjective.

How does this higher than average sense of meaning manifest itself?

1. People get up early without complaint- and not to ‘show’ they are early risers- simply because the main event of walking is …the main event, and people want to do it, and have to make a certain number of miles or face failure.

2. There is no deep grumbling, by this I mean the core mission is never really questioned except in a joking way- if you’re on a walk of 700km you’re on a walk- you cannot seriously suggest giving up unless it’s obvious you have to give up through illness, injury or some other unforeseeable accident.

3. People sacrifice ‘letting it hang out’, ‘being themselves’, ‘doing their own thing’ for the sake of the expedition. Cabin fever is always a potential problem and people steer clear of standing on each other’s corns, pushing obvious buttons.

4. There is no sense of ‘out there’ (ie. the world of celebrities) being more important than ‘in here’ (what you are doing)- on the expedition.

5. In a real sense you create your own world.

6.There is a sense of calm urgency about what you do, what everyone does.

7. No one drags their feet.

8. You feel that you are where you want to be in the whole wide world. Nowhere else. Doing what you want to be doing.




man is a track following creature


A human being can perish so easily in the desert. To slightly mix metaphors, it’s like being underwater, holding your breath. Sooner or later you must come to the surface. Sooner or later the desert survivor must drink, he must drink to survive. How does he find his way to water? His way out? How does he escape the certainty of a waterless death in the desert? He follows tracks. He follows any track he can find, any prints, any marks, any alem (stone markers) even the strange wavering line left by rootless dry bushes, windblown and rolling like tumbleweed in a Western. Man is a track following creature. He will follow any track, even the wrong one, to his death- or lucky escape from the burning hell, the inferno that is the desert without water.

You see it early on, driving with others. “Oh there’s a track,” you find yourself saying, pointing it out as the double line of tyre tracks unspools across faultless curving dunes. I’ve been with very very experienced drivers. They all succumb to the fond idea that the track maker must know more than they do. But chances are the track maker is just as ignorant. That doesn’t matter. The tracks are there- follow them. Westerners, Easterners, Bedouin- we’re all the same. It’s universal- see a track and follow it. Why? Because we’re followers by nature? Because we might meet the trackmaker? There is a slight practicality- if the tracks suddenly squidge out, show signs of the driver having been stuck we have a warning. But the comfort is psychological rather than real. You usually find out pretty soon that sand is too soft. And good drivers avoid areas that are risky- the tops of flat dunes, the dells and dips between boxed in dunes, also the reverse: the strange hard wave like forms of sand that look soft but are actually very hard and bumpy. Knowing this is probably as much as following a track- but still we follow. It’s psychological. Of course it’s nice to make tracks too, be the first. And its GREAT when there are NO TRACKS and you’re on a camel. Then you know you’re the first person – for a while at least- and the tracks you leave make far less impact than car tracks, though I’ve followed camel tracks weeks old across the kind of surface that fills with fine windblown sand ensuring the footprint remains. A car track is more obvious but camel tracks, with footprints alongside are also easily followed unless avoidance of people is sought. I don’t know why we do it, it’s pat of being human- following the crowd even when it’s a crowd of one.

The two people who never followed tracks in my presence were a Bedouin and an Egyptian army officer. Both knew the desert very well, both were excellent drivers. Both were cocky, probably thinking they were the best drivers around. Both were used to being the person breaking ground, making the route (though plenty of leaders follow tracks). The army officer told me that first he followed tracks, then he used a sun compass, now he uses GPS. But GPS allows some leeway and what happens is that you pick up a track that is going your way and you follow it. Then when it wavers off course you correct and drive on your own, of course looking out for new tracks. When you find one you follow it, repeating the procedure. The Army officer didn’t do this. He went his own way. And so did the Bedouin- once the general direction was decided.

I think it’s worth thinking about. We probably act like this in all walks of life. Even when we know the way, the right way for us, we look for someone else to follow, someone who may not know the way any better than we do.



donkeys of Oman

Just been 2500 metres up a mountain in Oman with some feral donkeys and executives from a big and famous company (not the same thing I must hasten to add). I was there initially to speak about leadership, adventure and the natural polymathy of a homemade expedition. After that we sat round the camp fire and heard the wild donkeys bray. One Omani told me a national proverb, "If your motive is good, a farting donkey won't hurt you." I took that to mean 'a man with a clear conscience will be untroubled by petty alarms'. Though having walked up a mountain before in the wake of a farting mule I can say it is hardly an optimum mode of travel. But windy business aside, this trip to Oman is proving a great way to get a first glimpse of a place with possibilities for all kinds of adventurous travel.


walking outside increases creativity

It's official! What we have always known - that nothing beats a good long outdoor walk for boosting and bettering ideas has now been asserted in a scientific rather than anecdotal way. Dr Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz report in the article 'The positive effect of walking on creative thinking' (Journal of Experimental Psychology, April 21 2014) that walking improves GAU measures of creativity by 81%. GAU (Guilford's Alternate Uses test) measures the subject's ability to think up as many different uses for an object- something that correlates meaningfully with being creative. The tests were performed using treadmills indoors and also going on outdoor walks- in contrast with being seated. They found that outdoor walking produced 'the most novel and highest quality' results of all.


breathe and the world breathes with you

Many mystical traditions talk a lot about breath and breathing. Yoshinkan Aikido is known for its founder's adherence to the idea of kokkyu rokkyu- breath power. Buddhism in its many variants has meditation exercises based around observing your own breathing. And then there are the stories of 'chosen' children being breathed on by enlightened folk, a passing on of knowledge or wisdom it is presumed.

But few really vaulable things can be presented except through a shape shift, a metaphor or analogy or story. So what is the analogy for breath? Expanded sensations of conciousness, where connectedness and wellbeing rather than excstasy are self-observed, bring forth the insight that 'the world breathes', 'conciousness breathes in time with all living things'; you can breathe more 'deeply' by being more 'open' to the experience. Your own breathing has nothing much to do with this cosmic breathing except to provide a way of understanding it.

People become obsessed by breathing exercises partly because oxygen starvation/overload can cause pleasurable or strange mental states. But this is a dead end. Breathe to stay alive and breathe to connect with the idea of a universe of connected consciousness.


all wars are wars of attrition

Von Clausewitz the famous strategist characterised wars into those of attrition and those that strike a decisive blow. Now this probably depends on the level of technology available. Dropping an A bomb certainly ended WW2 pretty quickly- but then only one side had them. Modern wars, messy and confused with policing and government and terrorist issues all seem to be attritional. I think, in fact, that the attritional mindset is needed even for a war that might be over very quickly. And if you think of the war metaphor (the war on drugs, on poverty) then the attritional mindset is the only one that makes sense.

We can also use the war metaphor when dealing with our own objectives. I think putting on an attritional 'head' is required because otherwise you might be tempted to give up at the first reverse. Thinking of something as a 'war of attrition' puts you in a more comfortable long term frame of mind. You emanate calm rather than bluster and haste. You plan your move ahead. If you think of all 'wars' as wars of attrition you will probably win more of them.

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