Cool heads in Antarctica – with Nics Wetherill and Sophie Montagne

Ahead of International Women’s Day, we discuss decision-making under pressure with Ice Maiden expedition members Nics Wetherill and Sophie Montagne – two of the first all-female team to ski across Antarctica

05/03/2020
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Authors

Nick Kirrage
Co-head Global Value Team
Juan Torres Rodriguez
Fund Manager, Equity Value

We think about risk a lot, here on The Value Perspective – though never, thankfully, in the context of a two-month trek on foot through sub-zero temperatures and 60mph-plus winds. Those, however, were the conditions our latest podcast guests, Major Nics Wetherill and Lance Sergeant Sophie Montagne, overcame on the way to becoming the first all-female team to ski coast-to-coast across Antarctica by muscle power alone.

The Ice Maiden expedition, which saw six serving members of the British Army and Army Reserve cover 1,000 miles in 62 days in late 2017 and early 2018, was Wetherill’s brainchild. The seed of the idea was planted a decade earlier when, while at medical school, she heard somebody talk about their own Antarctic expedition and gained the distinct impression the speaker felt such a feat would be beyond her and her peers.

Now serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps, she continues: “The reason it became an all-female team was because I noticed how, in the military, women did not always seize the available opportunities to push themselves physically and mentally. This was a chance to encourage them to get out there. And it was never about proving to men what women could do – it was about proving to women what women could do.”

Our podcast chat covers themes such as team-building, leadership and a ‘train hard, fight easy’ approach with distinct parallels to how value investors seek to build a ‘margin of safety’ into their portfolios – that is, by buying stocks at a cheap enough price to allow for a range of unexpected adverse outcomes. Here, though, we will concentrate on how Wetherill set about preparing for the sort of decisions she might face in Antarctica.

“Military training helps,” she acknowledges. “You are always considering risk – not just risk to life but risk to mission, say, or to people who have invested in you. Probably my biggest learning point, however, was to read about all the failed expeditions. It is all very well reading about successful expeditions, but the ones you learn the most from are actually those where something has gone wrong.”

Interestingly, this mirrors a line attributed to Warren Buffett in Peter Bevelin’s All I Want To Know Is Where I'm Going To Die So I'll Never Go There. “We have been students of others’ folly and it has served us well,” says Buffett of his longstanding partnership with Charlie Munger. “We want to see what has caused businesses to go bad. I’ve often felt there might be more to be gained by studying business failures than business successes. In my business, we try to study where people go astray and why things don’t work.”

Back to Wetherill, who continues: “So I looked up why people had failed – why people have fallen down a crevasse, say, or why people had to be collected early. I wanted to learn from those failures and not make the same mistakes.” From there, she found the easiest way to break down potential risks and thus potential decisions she might have to make was through the Donald Rumsfeld school of ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’.

Seeking external perspectives also helped – with one conversation with her husband proving especially enlightening. “It was probably only a month before we left and I was telling him about some of my anxieties,” says Wetherill. “It was predictable stuff like being in the middle of nowhere in bad weather, thousands of miles from the nearest help with only five other people – and he just started throwing in potential scenarios.

“He asked me what I would do if somebody in the team suddenly said, OK, this girl is struggling, we need to get her rescued or she is not buying into the team goals – and I hadn’t even thought about that. I just saw us as all on the same team but of course there would be times when we would be yelling. So it was somebody from an outside perspective who threw in these situations and just made me consider these possibilities.

“And, in fact, there were times when it became quite relevant on the ice. A few situations did arise where, because I had talked through these theoretical or hypothetical situations, when they suddenly became real, I didn’t have to make snap decisions – or get caught in a panic about what to do because I hadn’t even considered them as a potential situation.

Another method Wetherill used to help prepare herself for dealing with the uncertainty of the unknown is what she calls ‘catastrophising’. “The easiest way to describe it is to think, well, if this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens, what is the worst possible outcome?,” she explains. “As long as you have that in your head, you give yourself the chance to think of a get-out or a safety plan or whatever it is you need.”

One aspect of preparing for the expedition that Montagne – the only army reservist among the six – found particularly striking was how the team defined their own set of rules before their departure. “You might have thought we would see our mission as to be the first all-female team to ski across the continent,” she says. “But when we drilled down, it wasn’t just about the team finishing – the whole team had to finish.

“So that became our mission – every single member of the team making it to the finish line – and that really drove our decision-making from that point on. That was when we introduced a set of team rules, which we all brainstormed about a month before we left. Within that there were all sorts of things like, if a tent blows away or gets damaged, don’t blame an individual – that is just part of what happens on these expeditions.”

“That was so important,” agrees Wetherill. “What was great, though, is that these team rules did not just come out of a discussion, they were born from genuine fear. So, for example, the one Sophie just mentioned about the tent blowing away or being burned down – it actually came from me asking one of the girls what her biggest fear was.

“She admitted it was accidentally burning down a tent and then everybody blaming her for it. Of course we could see that but the rule demonstrated we understood where she was coming from. This was not just a generic team rule – it actually came from within. So the process meant all those team rules had just that little bit more substance behind them – rather than just ‘What happens in Antarctica stays in Antarctica’.”

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Authors

Nick Kirrage
Co-head Global Value Team
Juan Torres Rodriguez
Fund Manager, Equity Value

Topics

Behavioural finance
Value
Podcasts
The Value Perspective
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