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The Rules of My Expeditions

4422667958 9b150eb037 b The Rules of My Expeditions

When I begin planning for a new trip I filter my ideas through all these rules to eliminate the madcap and the narcissistic:

Motivation: the trip must meet these criteria:

  • Fun (or at least fun in hindsight) or challenging
  • Personally worthwhile and fulfilling
  • Whilst I do not want to copy other people’s trips, I’m not too worried about doing a world first. More importantly: is this fresh, new, challenging and exciting for me?
  • Would I still do this trip if nobody else ever knew about it? (willy-waving-elimination)
Expedition Style
  • The plan must be simple. Can I explain it in just a few sentences? Apply Occam’s Razor.
  • Whilst being aware that most expeditions are a bit daft, does it stay on the right line of being a gimmick?
  • World Records: planning to get a world record can be a) a fantastic challenge and motivation, b) a necessary evil to help raise funds c) absolutely stupid. Getting a world record is not validation of a project: nobody has yet travelled to Timbuktu by ski. Don’t be the first.
  • Pizzerias on the Moon. Don’t lie. Don’t promise more than I will deliver just to get media coverage. Promise low, deliver high.
  • Anti X-Factor. Getting media coverage must not be the default aim of the trip. Do it for the doing. Do it like in the olden days before the internet. I know I am guilty of 1100 blog posts, 5000 Tweets and one million photo views but the trips themselves, the most important assets I have, must not be done to whore myself.
  • If possible make some good come from the trip. But do not claim that it is ‘for charity’ or ‘for the environment’ unless it really, primarily is.
  • If I can afford to pay for the trip myself I will. (Thoughts on sponsorship here).
Post-Expedition
  • Be honest and transparent about what I have done. When I went to the North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole, the place Top Gear call the North Pole, the place where the Magnetic North Pole used to be back in 1996 I said “I went to the place where the Magnetic North Pole used to be back in 1996″. That’s a cool place to have gone. I don’t need to pretend it was any more than that.
  • Don’t exaggerate. There is simply no need to exaggerate or -just as bad- fudge my stories by not mentioning the facts. This piece in the Times links a teenager’s short trek to the North Pole directly to the ‘failures’ of two massive expeditions aiming to travel several hundred miles across the frozen Arctic Ocean. This is mis-leading to the public who are not aware of the difference, insulting for those making their livelihoods in the expedition world, and utterly unnecessary: if a teenager walks even just a few miles to the North Pole that is admirable and deserves praise.
  • Own up if I cheat or fail in my original aim. See page 179. Nobody will think the lesser of me, or at least nobody I care about anyway.
  • Be a stern self-moral arbiter of what I do, what I say, and how I portray my project to the public.
  • When talking about my trips imagine that the world leader in my field is sitting in the room listening to what I say. This eliminates exaggeration, lying and hubris.
  • Only mention other people’s journeys in order to praise them. Don’t mention others in order to make me look better. I did this trip for myself. Its success or otherwise is down to me. It does not matter that I did a ‘better’ trip than Jo Bloggs.
  • If I begin to think that I am amazing, chances are that other people will start to think I am a prat.
General
  • I will admire those who have done bigger trips than me. I will work hard to reach their levels. I will not resent them. I will learn from them, but without just copying them.
  • I will not look down upon those who have not yet done bigger trips than me. If possible I will encourage and help their future plans. [Though it is very hard not to get annoyed when people exaggerate and bluff: it makes things even harder for people trying to earn an honest living from it].
  • Never forget that it is the man in the arena who counts the most.
  • Perspective: expeditions are fun. They are not particularly important. I am not saving the world. Enjoy other people’s projects and enjoy my own.
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Comments

  1. Mate i cant believe you’re writing this. What have you done? nothing. Fair play if youve climbed Everest or been to the north pole id listen to your expedition advice. but you spend your time doing gay little one nigt camping trips and call yourself an explorer?

    Reply
    • Aside from the fact that Al’s done plenty of “big” stuff I’d just like to say that as you’ve (probably) never written a novel, I didn’t really see the point in reading your little comment.

      Reply
    • Hi ToonBoy,
      Regardless of whether I’ve done anything ‘Big’, would you accept this distilled criteria:

      1. cheap and easy to make happen
      2. a good story to tell (I enjoy talks, blogs, videos, photos)
      3. I want to do it.

      Al

      Reply
    • Sigh – it’s always the bitter and angry who comment anonymously. More comfortable that way, isn’t it ToonBoy. I just wasted 15 seconds of my life reading his post, and another 15 seconds writing this…..

      Reply
  2. Brilliant quote above; “gay little one night camping trips”.

    Surely polar expeditions are just cold and extended “gay little camping trips”? ; )

    Reply
  3. Neil Cowburn Posted

    The only addition I’d make to this would be about funding. If you can fund the trip yourself, then do so. Sponsorship carries responsibilities that can often detract from the true nature of the trip. Don’t become a walking/cycling/climbing billboard just for the free gear.

    Reply
    • Well remembered Neil – I’ve added a line about that now. Thanks.

      Reply
    • I do think that most of us would go without sponsors if we possibly could. Gaining sponsorship is the headache which makes this job very, very tricky fulltime. Regardless, great personal relationships can be built with sponsors and this is a happy side-product. If I had £5m in the bank, I would self-fund. Simple. It’s not really about the free gear – gear is cheap anyway compared to the rest of the expedition costs – perhaps 5-10% of my budgets.

      Reply
  4. Nice article! I live in Mexico where I am starting a two year cultural tour and am struggling with all these issues. Trying to get rid of the ego…

    Reply
  5. There’s a lot of super-distilled wisdom in this post. Nice one.

    And I think ToonBoy might be what’s technically known as a ‘troll’!

    Reply
  6. Interesting points, especially about being completely honest.

    It’s a shame there’s been an influx of adventurers having to justify themselves and their expeditions, many of which shouldn’t have to be justified, especially not to people like ToonBoy.

    Reply
  7. Very good post, although I do believe in it being ok to be openly ambitious and competitive without needing further inner justification. Ask any sportsperson why they do their sport- ‘to win’. There does seem to be a definite dividing line appearing amongst modern expeditioners – those who seek to be the best, win and succeed as their main aim… and those who are less aggressive, more inclusive and see it as a more spiritual experience. Both are valid but sometimes immiscible.

    There’s also another dividing line appearing – between those who stick to the facts and believe integrity is key to their success…. and those who’ll bullshit their way blindly into any claim in return for a moment of glory.

    After all, most things most of us do in life are fairly purposeless when you really think about it, which is why we spend time making them feel valuable within the man-made frameworks we build as our lives. Anything creative (sport, music, film, writing) fits into this category – entirely pointless yet critical to society.

    Reply
    • Yvon Chouinard Posted

      Conquerors of the Useless, That’s What We Were.

      Reply
      • Right, but if you consider expeditions useless, you have to call all art, sport and cinema useless too.

        The only things that naturally have purpose to a human being are in fact having a family and keeping them healthy. Everything else is man-made.

        Reply
  8. Very nice blog Al and a good swerve away from long some of the long-winded ranting that has been popping up of late.
    PS I assumed ToonBoy was being ironic and laughed out loud

    Reply
  9. George Kontos Posted

    Hi Alastair,
    I have read about your round the world cycling expeditions, and I am definitely one of your fans. I was just curious about a point you were making on this page. You are asking yourself: “Would I still do this trip if nobody else ever knew about it? (willy-waving-elimination)”. But you are going to tell people about it in this website if you do it. So what exactly is the point of publishing your disinterest in making anything public?
    George Kontos

    Reply
    • Hi George,
      Asking yourself “Would I still do this trip if nobody else ever knew about it?” is not the same as “I will never tell anybody about this trip.”
      It is just a check to ensure that YOU actually want / need to do the trip and that you are not doing it PURELY to show off to other people.
      Does that make sense?

      I’m not saying don’t tell your story at all: I think that is one of the most fun, rewarding, useful parts of any expedition. But pick the trip for the right reasons.

      Reply
      • George Kontos Posted

        Thank you Alistair, I think I know what you mean ;-)
        George Kontos

        Reply
      • Very well said Al.

        If it were not for at least 3 books that I read recently, namely Ed Viesturs’ ‘K2′, Tom Avery’s ‘To the end of the earth’, and your very own ‘Thunder and Sunshine’, I would never have been encouraged to return to my childhood passion of hiking and trekking. I think every adventure seeker should come out with a book sooner rather than later.

        Reply
  10. Kent Madin Posted

    A breath of fresh air. Amongst all the claims to setting new records, world’s smelliest socks, toughest walks, rides, contributions to science, education, school child inspiration, fighting globalisation, saving polar bears to pikas… you, Al, actually sound like a pretty normal person with the emotional stability to explore just for exploration’s sake.

    I particularly applaud your comment about not over promising or over hyping things. If you do something worthwhile to the rest of the world and you simply document and tell your story honestly, after the fact, the world will take note.
    I would add: Distinguish between personal exploration and professional guiding. They are mutually exclusive activities. The great explorations historically were commercial ventures with commercial goals and the expedition members were employees, not paying clients.

    And slapping a charity cause onto a silly idea doesn’t make it any less silly an idea. If one is going to raise money for charity, then let the expedition idea grow out of something related to the charity instead of just tacking something feel good onto one’s ego stroking “how I spent my summer vacation”.

    Thanks. Like I said, a breath of fresh air.

    Reply
  11. I’d add one thing. Part of the keeping things in proportion thing is having a sense of humour…being prepared to laugh at yourself, your inadequacies and the absurd situations. The bonus of this approach is some funny stories to tell at the end.

    Reply
  12. One of the best blogs you have posted Al. I really like it. This is something I will keep by my side as a constant reminder when I am out and about hiking and trekking with my dogs.

    Btw, I am 100% sure that I will be an absolute first, without even trying to be first – First American of Pakistani origin who will be backpacking with a Kuvasz, a Cheasapeake Bay Retriever and a Canadian Eskimo dog in bear country ;-)

    Reply
  13. Chris Walbank Posted

    Hi Al, I have heard you speak and have read through the website, both fantastic and looking forward to hearing you speak again, the Edinburgh Night of Adventure was great . You spent 4 years and 46,000 miles and have done loads of other exciting adventures, I have taken your lead and begun some micro adventures having just spent 3 days and 70 miles or so cycling around Arran in Scotland, I can say that many of your comments above and on the rest of the website ring true for me giving me a lot to think about and do. Whilst the scale is incomparable the experience of adventure has many similarities, so thanks for this. It has started me thinking about setting up a web site to share some of my adventures with others and spark others into action and for ideas, especially when I get the Facebook comments and phone calls asking questions about some of the small stuff I have done.
    As for ToonBoy, it’s easy to get frustrated and angry at such comments, my advice would be ‘ just be curious’ about why they have a different perspective, a question that does not even require an answer. If we were all the same we would be driving the same car, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, watching the same TV programs, we can all learn from each other, even from ToonBoy, after all look at the interesting discussion that resulted, so thanks ToonBoy
    Chris

    Reply
  14. Great post Al! It makes me think back about an expedition, that I completed recently.

    You’d expect that these rules are so obvious that they’d be adhered to anyway. I guess it takes an experience to realise that it might not be the case.

    Thanks for getting them in one place.

    Reply
  15. Nice post Al, the blog is always a great read, Mark Cooper

    Reply

 
 

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