January 19, 2014


Coping with hardship and discomfort is an essential ability for anyone who wants to survive and thrive in extreme environments.

In Chapter 3 of Extreme we examine how people cope with four particular forms of hardship that are frequently encountered in extreme environments: squalor, hunger, thirst, and pain.  Of course, these are not the only hardships of extreme environments. We devote entire chapters to other potential forms of hardship, including sleep deprivation, monotony, social conflict, and solitude.

Many hardships may be deeply unpleasant (and some are life-threatening) but for many adventurers, the endurance of hardship is an important (perhaps even primary) motivation for choosing extreme environments.  It is not, for many, something to be avoided, but instead embraced and overcome.  The mountaineering writer Jon Krakauer wrote: ‘I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.’  (Krakauer, 1997, p. 136)

The research evidence suggests that although many people worry about and try to avoid squalor, hunger and thirst, they are actually not as bad for us as we might think. There is no scientific evidence, for example,  that we need ‘eight glasses of water per day’, and a little acute hunger won’t harm us in the long run (later in Extreme we talk about the benefits of fasting in a little more detail). And our tolerance (or lack of it) for uncleanliness is largely culturally moderated.


We found some juicy examples of dealing with squalor in the following anecdotal accounts:

  • Fiennes, R. (2013). Cold: Extreme adventures at the lowest temperatures on Earth. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • Fleming, F. (2000). Ninety degrees North: The quest for the North Pole. London: Granta.
  • Greely, A. W. (1886). Three years of Arctic service: An account of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition of 1881–1884 and the attainment of farthest North, Vol 1. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Nansen, F. (2008). Farthest North. New York: Skyhorse Publishing. (Original published 1897).
  • Roach, M. (2010). Packing for Mars. The curious science of life in space. Oxford: Oneworld.
  • Roberts, D. (2013). Alone on the ice. The greatest survival story in the history of exploration. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Sontag, S. & Drew, C. (1999). Blind Man’s buff. The untold story of Cold War submarine espionage. London: Arrow.

We referenced the following academic publications on dirt and disgust:

  • Curtis, V. & Biran, A. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44, 17-31
  • Elwood, L. S. & Olutunji, B.O. (2009). A cross-cultural perspective on disgust. In B. O. Olatunji & D. McKay, (Eds). Disgust and its disorders: Theory, assessment, and treatment implications (pp.99-122). Washington: American Psychological Association.
  • Fraser, T. M. (1968). The intangibles of habitability during long duration space missions. Washington, DC: NASA
  • Mattoni, R. H. & Sullivan, G. H. (1962). Sanitation and personal hygiene during aerospace missions. WADD-MRL-TDR-62-68.
  • Oaten, M., Stevenson, R.J. & Case, T.I. (2009). Disgust as a disease-avoidance mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 303-321
  • Olatunji, B. O., et al. (2007). The Disgust Scale: Item analysis, factor structure, and suggestions for refinement. Psychological Assessment, 19, 281.
  • Scott, P. (2005). No bath time. Scientific American, 292, 26–27.
  • Stuster J. (1996). Bold endeavors: Lessons from space and polar exploration. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press
  • Suedfeld, P. & Steel, G. D. (2000). The environmental psychology of capsule habitats. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 227-53.
 Hunger and thirst

We chose two (out of hundreds of) stories where hunger featured prominently. The first was the doomed balloon expedition of Salomon Andrée. The second was the harrowing slow starvation of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition of 1881-84. We drew on the following references to tell these tales:

  • Andrée, S.A., Strindberg, N. & Fraenkel, K. (1930). Andrée’s story: The complete record of his polar flight, 1897. (Trans. E. Adams-Ray.). New York: The Viking Press
  • Broadbent N.D. (2007). From ballooning in the arctic to 10,000-foot runways in Antarctica: Lessons from historic archaeology. In I. Krupnik, M.A. Lang & S.E. Miller (Eds.) Smithsonian at the Poles (pp.49-60). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press
  • Wilkinson, A. (2012). The ice balloon. London: Fourth Estate.
  • Greely, A. W. (1886). Three years of Arctic service: An account of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition of 1881–1884 and the attainment of farthest North, Vol 1. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Guttridge, L.F. (2000). Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The harrowing true story of the Greely expedition. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons
  • Stein, G.M. (2011). An Arctic execution: Private Charles B. Henry of the United States Lady Franklin Bay Expedition 1881-84. Arctic, 64, 399-412.

One of the most vivid – and harrowing- accounts of extreme thirst is the story of a nineteenth century regiment lost in the Texas desert:

  • Nunn, W. C. (1940). Eight-six hours without water on the Texas Plains. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 43, 356-364.
  • King, J.H. (1878). Brief account of the sufferings of a detachment of United States Cavalry. American Journal of Medical Science, 75, 404-08

Other anecdotal accounts we mention in this section:

  • Darlington, J. (1957). My Antarctic honeymoon. London: Frederick Muller.
  • Fiennes, R. (2013). Cold: Extreme adventures at the lowest temperatures on Earth. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • Roberts, D. (2013). Alone on the ice. The greatest survival story in the history of exploration. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Thesiger, W. (2007). Arabian sands. London: Penguin Classics. (Original published 1959.)

Scholarly references:

  • Ashcroft, F. M. (2001). Life at the extremes: The science of survival. London: Flamingo.
  • Glouberman, S. (2009). Knowledge transfer and the complex story of scurvy. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 15, 553-557.
  • Institute of Medicine (2004). Dietary reference intakes: water, potassium, sodium, chloride, and sulfate. Washington: National Academies Press
  • Neave, N. et al. (2001). Water ingestion improves subjective alertness, but has no effect on cognitive performance in dehydrated healthy young volunteers. Appetite, 37, 255-256.
  • Pemberton, J. (2006). Medical experiments carried out in Sheffield on conscientious objectors to military service during the 1939–45 war. International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 556–558
  • Perchonok, M. & Douglas, G. (2009). Risk Factor of Inadequate Food System. In McPhee, J. C & Charles, J.B (Eds.) NASA SP-2009-3405: Human health and performance risks of space exploration missions. Evidence reviewed by the NASA Human Research Program (pp. 295-316). Houston: NASA
  • Popkin, B. M., D’Anci, K. E. & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews, 68, 439-458.
  • Rogers, P. J. et al. (2001). A drink of water can improve or impair mental performance depending on small differences in thirst. Appetite, 36, 57-58.
  • Rolls, B. J. et al. (1980). Thirst following water deprivation in humans. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 239,  R476-R482.
  • Sandal, G. M., Hege H. B. & van de Vijver, F.J.R. (2011). Personal values and crew compatibility: Results from a 105 days simulated space mission. Acta Astronautica, 69, 141-149.
  • Thornton, S. N. (2010). Thirst and hydration: Physiology and consequences of dysfunction. Physiology & Behavior, 100, 15-21.

Later in Extreme (Chapter 11) we consider what scientific research can offer in helping people cope with pain. In this chapter we cover the causes and nature of pain. Accounts of pain in stories from extreme environments are ubiquitous. We discuss the pain experienced by polar explorers Ranulph Fiennes (Fiennes, 2013), Douglas Mawson (Roberts, 2013), and Apsley Cherry-Garrard. We also feature the experience of Victorian explorer John Hanning Speke, who unwisely poked a penknife in his ear in an attempt to remove a beetle, leading to what he described as the worst pain he had ever endured (Jeal, 2011) and Speke (1864).

  • Cherry-Garrard, A. (2010). The worst journey in the world. London: Vintage. (Original published 1922.)
  • Fiennes, R. (2013). Cold: Extreme adventures at the lowest temperatures on Earth. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • Jeal, T. (2011). Explorers of the Nile: The triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Speke, J.H. (1864) What led to the source of the Nile. London: William Blackwood and Sons.
  • Roberts, D. (2013). Alone on the iceThe greatest survival story in the history of exploration. New York: W. W. Norton.

For the science of pain, we drew on the following scholarly publications:

  • Apkarian, A. V. et al. (2005). Human brain mechanisms of pain perception and regulation in health and disease. European Journal of Pain, 9, 463-484.
  • Beecher, H. K. (1946). Pain in men wounded in battle. Annals of Surgery, 123, 96-105.
  • Bond, M. R. & Simpson, K. H. (2006). Pain: Its nature and treatment. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Bushnell, M. C., Ceko, M. & Low, L. A. (2013). Cognitive and emotional control of pain and its disruption in chronic pain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14, 502-511.
  • Cervero, F. (2012). Understanding pain. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • Kahneman, D. et al. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4, 401-405.
  • Karkshan, E. M., Joharji, H. S. & Al-Harbi, N. N. (2002). Congenital insensitivity to pain in four related Saudi families. Pediatric Dermatology, 19, 333-335.
  • Martin, P. (2008). Sex, drugs & chocolate: The science of pleasure. London: Fourth Estate.
  • Minde, J. K. (2006). Norrbottnian congenital insensitivity to pain. Acta Orthopaedica Suppl., 77, 2-32.
  • Robinson, M. E., Staud, R. & Price, D. D. (2013). Pain measurement and brain activity: Will neuroimages replace pain ratings? The Journal of Pain, 14, 323-327.
  • Vachon-Pressau, E. et al. (2013). Acute stress contributes to individual differences in pain and pain-related brain activity in healthy and chronic pain patients. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 6826-6833.
  • Wall, P. (2000). Pain: The science of suffering. London: Phoenix.
  • Yoshida, W. et al. (2013). Uncertainty increases pain: evidence for a novel mechanism of pain modulation involving the periaqueductal gray. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 5638-5646.


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