I suppose I have been intending to (or threatening to!) put some real time into by far the most-emailed or DM-ed question I get, perhaps a dozen a week in fact: ‘how do you get into expeditions’.
On the contact page of my website I quip that I will reply to all correspondence providing you’re not selling double-glazing. I suppose in reality I should add to that: ‘I am reluctant to answer questions which take five seconds to pose and would take a book for me to answer properly.’ Essentially, vague and open-ended questions. However, instead of writing the same thing more or less each time or asking for more specific queries, I thought I would try and put together a catch-all article – I’m afraid some of it might not be comfortable reading for the more starry-eyed amongst you.
Just beforehand though, a couple of words about time, value and advice. Everyone needs help, support and advice, especially those on the ‘up’, from those already established. I myself owe so much to the generosity of a wide range of people as I was making my way into the polar world, and even now I still do. Critical though is to realistically grasp what it is you’re asking for. What may seem like friendly small talk or ‘just an hour’ of someone’s time to an ‘asker’, the targets of advice requests, especially vague and extensive ones (see above), can see as lazy attempts to gain unpaid consultancy with little respect for the years of hard work, time and money taken to get them to that point. A cup of coffee or a credit line does not pay mortgages and professionals are not charities.
With this in mind, as a starting point I would stick to a few golden rules: NEVER be late, take up a minimum of their time and suggest a venue close to them (or even just use email), have highly specific and targeted questions, do not ask strangers for introductions to hard-won professional contacts (I once had a complete stranger half-demand the name and contact details of my sponsorship agents in order to directly compete with my project) and finally, do your research first in order to gain a little credibility. Oh, and never, EVER, be late. Information and experience has a value – just because it is not a precious item you can hold in your hand does not mean it is ok to overstep boundaries of respect and shamelessly/unknowingly extract it from every ‘expert’ in sight. ‘I didn’t realise’ or ‘it’s just a question’ isn’t really an excuse, and neither is false-naivety. If you have something of real value you can offer back in return (granted, this is tough when you’re starting out), then all the better. The fact you show you’re aware of the need for an exchange or that you appreciate the value of what you’re being given will always go down well.
So, how do you ‘get into expeditions/see the icecaps/become an ‘explorer’’? First, you need to ask yourself if you actually want to, or whether you are enticed by the transient idea of it. The reality of a full-time lifestyle based around remote travel involves ALL of the following: extreme financial uncertainty, no pension, 16 hour days (and that’s just when at home), vast tracts of time doing paperwork or in front of a screen, repeated and harrowing disappointments and frustrations, dealings with people for whom consistency and timely communication is an alien concept and not to mention days, weeks and months of severe discomfort in genuinely frightening places.
If these realities are not an immediate put off and the potential for a monumentally rewarding and eventually purposeful existence still draws you in, there are options.
This is not the X Factor and it is not a graduate recruitment scheme with job security and a career ladder. It is not something to fall back onto when your normal job gets a bit dull. ’It’s always been my dream’ is not enough. Dreams of going from zero to hero and into a world of fame and riches is totally and utterly misguided. Doing an adventure tour for a week will not lead to a lifetime of Victoria’s Secret models and lucrative after-dinner speaking engagements around the globe.
Niche areas of remote travel like polar exploration are by their very definition highly competitive and the market is very easily saturated. In fact, the time to ‘get into it’ was probably twenty years ago – a time when a specialness and novelty was balanced by a heightened hunger for new polar endeavours.
I think we can divide people still aboard at this point by a couple of motivations – some who want the experience and some who want the vocation.
For the former group there are plenty of opportunities now to, depending on your means, visit special places in the cold regions in relative comfort or even having a glimpse into the expedition world by handing over the responsibilities to experienced professional guides, of which a few dozen exist.
For these tourist ambitions and if your means do not easily add up to the costs involved (perhaps £5000 up to £100k), I’m afraid that is one of the reality checks. It is no-one’s responsibility but your own to service such personal desires. Virgin is not going to sponsor you – the trip may be special to you, but it won’t be for them. It will take time to raise funds privately but by most accounts, the results are worth it. Good old-fashioned saving up.
For those with a deeper hunger, we’re stepping into the realms of serious endeavour and the one word to keep in mind is professionalism. If you wish to attract the marketing brains at major funding sources and earn the confidence of logistics safety providers, underwriters and the public, you need skills. To undertake real independent journeys, you can no longer rely on adventure tour companies or guides to make up for your shortcomings or impatience. There are no shortcuts and your apprenticeship needs to be served. How did I do this aged 19? I swallowed my pride and surrounded myself with highly skilled people ten years or more my senior, and I listened intently. I am still listening.
To undertake polar expeditions at a full-time, independent and ‘professional’ level, you must become expert, not just vaguely familiar, with all of the following:
- Accounts, budgeting and tax laws both at home and across borders of multiple countries
- Immaculate, detailed and reliable communication
- Detailed inventory recording and tracking
- Equipment as far ranging from one-offs made the other side of the world to from your local shop
- Modern fabrics and materials, including their mechanisms, uses and limitations
- Technology, most of which is not mainstream and much of which has precious little manufacturer support
- Meteorology, weather forecasting, geology, satellite imagery, ice charts and trends for all these stretching back years
- Logistics routes and the practicalities of using aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, in a wide range of locations
- Cargo negotiation and UN shipping certification for hazardous materials
- The international insurance and underwriting market
- Global Search and Rescue protocols
- Cross-country skiing and other forms of locomotion
- Extreme environment camping
- Sewing and repair of almost every material and object imaginable
- Moisture management
- People management and avoiding intra-team friction
- Physical training for long duration and high exertion
- Ropework and rescue techniques from crevasses and sea water
- Local idiosyncrasies and customs of native people
- Marketing, the sports sponsorship market/CSR and the balance of risk/reward for a financial backer
- Highly confident and fluent public presentation in front of large and/or hard to impress audiences
Both paths, or even neither, come with their own sets of risks and rewards and there is no ‘one size fits all’. There is no simple, instant-fix answer and for that I can’t apologise. Only easy things devoid of value can be built overnight. I can say with total honesty though that the end result can provide moments of the most overwhelming affirmation, companionship and satisfaction. You can find your own equivalent down countless avenues even if it isn’t with polar travel.