Richard Parks knows a thing or two about self-isolation and is probably the least concerned of anyone about the prospect of closing his front door to the rest of the world for the next few months.
After all, this time he can do it with his wife Jo and youngest son Fred. Earlier this year Parks spent 28 days skiing across Antarctica on his own. His latest trip was his fourth to the South Pole where he has now skied solo, unsupported and unassisted for a grand total of 2,299 miles.
So, who better to ask for advice on how to deal with potential solitude and loneliness than one of Britain’s most recognised, respected and successful adventurers?
Richard Parks took 28 days to complete his solo trek across Antarctica earlier this year
Two months ago Parks just missed out on the world record for crossing the South Pole and was left to content himself with lowering his own British mark to 28 days, 21 hours and 59 minutes for the 1,130km distance. Parks’ time was the second fastest.
His latest achievement was due to be recognised at the Wales v Scotland Six Nations match in Cardiff, but that became a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
Parks, capped four times by Wales as a flanker, was due for an emotional homecoming after completing his journey on January 15. ‘I put two years of planning into my expedition and I knew what I was getting into. I was physically and mentally adjusted and prepared, which is certainly not the case with the situation we all find ourselves in at present,’ he said.
‘I always talk about the three phases of any solo expedition when I’m trying to explain how I get through it: Storming, Norming and Performing. In Phase One your emotions are volatile. You get pretty emotional and negative thoughts creep into your mind.
‘It is a transitional period that lasts for a week to 10 days. You just have to weather it, stay focussed, and move on. Having earned the right to be in the fight, things then become slightly less challenging.
‘You enter a period of normalisation. You’ve become used to your environment, you’ve got into a routine, and you’ve made progress. Once you’ve found what works for you, everything becomes easier. After another week or two you graduate to phase three.
‘In this phase everything works like clockwork because you have a strict routine. On an expedition it feels as though you have surrendered yourself to the goal and you almost become weightless. You find yourself doing things automatically. We aren’t there yet as a nation. We are currently trying to adjust and trying to make sense of what is going on, but we will get to that stage.’
When he is on an expedition, the 41-year-old Parks uses what he describes as his ‘daily maps’. These chart his course for the day from the time he gets up, when and what he eats, and for how long he will ski. Fighting for survival, as well as striving for a world record, is critical when you spend three days in blizzards and have to suffer wind-chill temperatures of -44C. That’s when daily routine becomes a comfort rather than a chore.
‘Routine is critical in managing your mental health as well as your time on any project,’ Parks said. ‘I was working in 24-hour sunlight, but having to live by my daily schedule – up at 5am, spend an hour melting snow to feed myself, ski for 70 minutes, take a five-minute break, and then repeat it all again until 7pm. My daily maps helped to keep me sane and I’m now creating a new sort of routine for myself at home. Once we’ve all adjusted to our new circumstances, we all have to find a new rhythm and pattern to our lives. We need a daily structure for our well-being and we have to identify what we can control. There is no point stressing about what you can’t control.
‘The gyms might be closed, so why not dust off the running shoes and go for a walk or a run? If you can’t see parents or grandparents, set up a Skype account or WhatsApp group to keep in regular contact. Being on your own and being alone are two different things. The big motivator for me when I was in Antarctica was I had a big group of people who had worked so hard for me to get there.
The experience means the 41-year-old is better set than most to cope with self-isolation
‘I didn’t want to let them down. I also had a phone with which I could contact the outside world in an emergency. At times I felt on my own, but I had some visual reminders of home with me that ensured I was never alone.’
After injury cut short his professional rugby career in 2010, Parks began to find other challenges with which to fill his life. In 2011 he completed a pioneering seven-month race to climb the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents and venture to the South and North Poles.
His 737 Challenge was completed on July 12 after he had climbed Mount Vinson, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, Carstensz Pyramid, Mount Everest, Denali and Elbrus, as well as reaching both Poles. That was an achievement recognised by Guinness World Records.
In 2014, he set his first British record for skiing coast-to-pole in Antarctica, solo, unsupported and unassisted.
‘I am still processing things after my last trip,” said Parks, who lost 18kg over the 28 days.
‘I was just enjoying spending time with my family and friends and getting back to normal. I felt a sense of peace this time despite not breaking the record. Now, like everyone else, I’m back in survival mode.’