When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic

When Your Life Depends on It:
Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic.

By Brad Borkan and David Hirzel


To those of us that engross ourselves in the captivating histories of the expeditions of Antarctic exploration, it is all very matter of fact. We know the ships, the men, the tragedies, the triumphs, the many tales of heroism and the prerequisite hardships. Shackleton came agonisingly close in 1907, but Amundsen won the ‘race’, beating Scott to the South Pole, in December 1911. Scott had never subscribed to the race nonsense, but nonetheless arrived in second place, on January 17th 1912. “Great God this is an awful place”, he opined. It truly was. And the awfulness of the most hostile continent on the planet, had yet to truly bare it’s teeth.

Amundsen had quite effectively used dog teams to bridge the distance, whereas Scott had opted for the more cumbersome components of ponies and man hauling. Amundsen and his team, returned to their base camp, 10 days ahead of schedule, whilst Scott’s party never made it back, dying in wretched circumstances, on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Before the remnants of Scott’s expedition had even left the continent aboard the Terra Nova, in January 1913, Douglas Mawson’s, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was writing the next grisly chapter in Antarctic exploration. Mawson had turned down the opportunity to join Scott, instead deciding to explore King George V Land and Adelie Land. What ensued for Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz, was a tale of tragedy, madness, death and survival.

Then came Shackleton again, in 1914. The Endurance Expedition, was exactly what it said on the boat. Ignored advice, trapped in the ice, life on the ice, escape from the ice, cold, hunger, sickness, isolation, deprivation, amputation, determination, formulation, one last voyage, one lifeboat, six men, eight hundred miles of Weddell Sea, South Georgia reached, a mountainous range for three to traverse, salvation at last on reaching Stromness, and eventual rescue, after months of attempts.

Brad Borkan and David Hirzel, in their book, When Your Life Depends On It, challenge you to look at these remarkable events, from a different perspective. They place us, the readers, into these life and death situations, encouraging us to assess how we might have responded. They explore the teamwork, leadership, camaraderie, sheer grit and determination, and explain the methods and lessons that can be garnered from them, and put to use in our modern world. 

Below is an extract from the beginning of the book:

It’s your call

Antarctica early 1900’s.  The only communication is as far as you can shout.

You and your two companions are nearing the end of a fifteen-hundred-mile trek to a nameless spot on the South Polar Plateau.

To say conditions are harsh would be an understatement. Temperatures can get so low that you risk frostbite even when bundled in your reindeer-hide sleeping bags. The jagged, frozen landscape provides constant challenges, including the danger of crevasses cracking open unexpectedly beneath your feet, plunging you into their depths. At times you have been on the verge of starvation.

Your presence here today is the result of countless decisions great and small made along the way, but right now you are faced with one greater than any that came before. One of your companions has fallen so ill with scurvy he can no longer walk.

Seventy miles of dangerous terrain lie ahead before you reach the safety of your base camp, and you will have to drag him on the sledge, adding an almost unbearable weight to that of your ice-encrusted tent and the last remnants of food keeping you alive.

The reality of the situation is grim. You must maintain a steady pace each day, regardless of the weather, to reach the next depot of supplies before those on hand run out. Your daily distances have fallen off, and continue to fall. The sick man, already perilously near death, is unlikely to survive the remainder of the journey.

With his extra weight further reducing your daily mileage, neither will you and your other companion. You all know the fate that lies ahead. The sick man tells the two of you to leave him here on the Barrier and march on ahead with the sledge and supplies, to save yourselves while you can. The three of you have developed a close camaraderie during your long walk; leaving him to perish on the ice is inconceivable. The obvious, ethical, human decision: to shoulder your burden and do your best.

The situation is not so straightforward. You are seamen and the sick man is your commanding officer. At this specific point, he has commanded you to leave him behind. The one thing that has been repeatedly drilled into you throughout your entire working life is this: there is no occasion on which you can refuse to comply with the order of an officer.

To obey means the two of you have at least a chance at survival; to refuse is mutiny, and certain death for all three of you.

The choice is now yours – it’s your call.

How will you decide?

* * *

This was a real event faced by real people. They did have to make this call. Their decision and the outcome may surprise you. You will find the rest of the story later in this book.

Start of the next chapter

People make decisions every day, but not like those made by polar explorers in the early 1900s. Yet, there is much that we can learn from their extraordinary stories that can help us make better decisions in our own modern lives.

The early Antarctic explorers were not perfect decision makers. However they were exceptionally good at facing the reality of every situation, taking choices as they arose, and even if they did not make an ideal decision, making the very best of whatever situation they found themselves in.

They set and achieved monumental goals in an extreme environment.  They did this while encountering jaw-dropping amounts of adversity and risk which they overcame through teamwork, leadership, and sheer grit and determination.  It is the example of these explorers’ methods — pragmatic, simple, and, quite literally, down to earth — that can instruct and guide us in our life and business choices.

Our decisions may not be as world-shaking and dramatic, but using these stories as inspiration, there is much that can be learned from considering their situations and the decisions they made—lessons that can positively influence how we lead our lives today.


The Authors

Brad Borkan  — His interest in polar history started when he picked up an Antarctic exploration book at the local Public Library at the age of 8 years old. He has a graduate degree in Decision Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania and has a fascination in how people and businesses can make better decisions. He is based in London.

 David Hirzel, a Californian native, has written a three-part polar biography of the Irish explorer Tom Crean, a key player in Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions.  The final book of this series, Antarctic Voyager, was launched at the South-Polesium conference in Scotland (May 2015).  Sailor on Ice: Tom Crean with Scott in the Antarctic has been optioned for a documentary due for release in 2017.

Brad Borkan & David Hirzel

Brad Borkan & David Hirzel


“True stories that will sear you to the depth of your soul; decision making lessons that will stay with you for the rest of your life.” That’s how David Wilson, author of The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott, described this book.

“When Your Life Depends on It focuses on the harrowing, real, life and death decisions made by early Antarctic explorers …

 …offering lessons from their situations to help us make better personal and business decisions in our lives today.”


To learn more about the book and to see testimonials please visit their website www.extreme-decisions.com.

When Your Life Depends On It

When Your Life Depends On It

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