Top Ten Expedition Bull****

Follow the outdoor media for a while and you’ll likely develop a good nose for distinguishing hype from reality. You’ll soon spot those people that posture more than practice, and those with a good ability for hoodwinking the public over their latest specious adventure record.

Jerry Kobalenko, the editor of ExplorersWeb and well known arctic traveller, has penned an excellent list (biased towards polar travel) of the ten most common and outrageous ways adventurers posture and/or try to fool the public. You can read more on this topic and on adventure in the high arctic on Jerry’s site.

I happen to agree with Jerry’s list (below), but what about you? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

1. Faking an accomplishment

Explorers' claims used to be taken at face value before it became clear that gentlemen could, and did, lie. Whether it's a first ascent of Mt. McKinley or up some aesthetic Patagonian spire, a round-the-world yacht race, or a trek to a slippery place like the North Pole, where you can't leave notes or build cairns, exploration has a rich history of fakery.

The question is, how much still goes on? The late, great Resolute outfitter Bezal Jesudason used to clear his throat tellingly whenever the conversation turned to a certain Italian who claimed to have reached the North Pole in the 1970s. Now and then, rumors built -- about expeditions, supposedly unsupported, that received surreptitious air drops, for example, or the motivational speaker who didn't really summit. But most modern fakery probably occurs in less complicated projects, especially solo ones. The media never investigates whether a traveler is telling the truth or not. Why bother?

On the other hand, there's little to be gained from lying if you just go out quietly and try something. Attention-getting projects require greater scrutiny.

In general, most bs comes not from what someone does, but why they do it. Exploration remains one of the easiest roads to celebrity. A beginner fires off a press release and so it begins. By contrast, imagine how much work it takes for an athlete or a physicist to become as well known.

2. Claiming something is a first, when it's not

Usually this is just self-serving laziness. Why look too closely into what's been done before when ignorance allows you to grandly claim priority? Other times it involves splitting hairs, so if an earlier expedition did something microscopically different from you, it can, for your convenience, be ignored. Rarely, it is an outright lie from someone for whom the end justifies the means, as when Robert Peary tried to wrest the discovery of Axel Heiberg Island from Otto Sverdrup: "No, no, no, he didn't discover it -- I saw that island the year before." Yeah, right.

Nowadays, this doesn't work with iconic endeavors, in which who did what, when, how is well known. But it's still in play with more obscure challenges.

3. Pretending that an expedition is all about something socially relevant

A century ago, climbers used to boil a thermometer on summits to estimate the mountain's height and claimed to be contributing to science.  Later, others made a big deal of taking ice samples, or blood samples, or water samples en route. This hobby science was popular expedition shtick for years and still has its practitioners. In large, though, it's been replaced by the mantra of Raising Awareness, as in Raising Awareness of Multiple Sclerosis or, especially, Raising Awareness about Climate Change. If I see one more expedition muttering concerned platitudes about how the Arctic has changed since they were there ten years ago, or how there are actually areas of open water on the Arctic Ocean in summer, I'm going to scream.

Very occasionally, there are people for whom environmental concern is the real spinning cog driving their project. They're incredibly admirable, but they're also rare as hen's teeth. With most, it's just a fundraising and publicity gimmick.

4. Claiming that an expedition proves something it doesn't

Wearing wool knickers and hobnail boots while climbing the Second Step on Everest does not prove Mallory did it. Nor does cutting off eight of your toes and dogsledding to the North Pole prove Peary succeeded, either.

I've always envied mountaineers their sense of history. Many polar travelers, on the other hand, even good ones, seem to have barely skimmed the Coles Notes version of arctic history. Still, if you're trying to get your expedition noticed, there are few better ways than claiming that your endeavor resolves some age-old controversy. 

Not that there's anything wrong with following in the footsteps of past explorers. It's a legitimate form of historical research, as valid as poring through archives. But you gotta do your homework first. Otherwise it's just misinformation, or disinformation.

5. Hiding the fact that an expedition is guided

Some challenges are so formidable that they're almost beyond guiding. In the case of others, and polar travel in particular, a guide reduces something that is extremely difficult, especially psychologically, to an endurance feat that any fit and motivated client can accomplish.

Increasingly, expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole are guided. Not just last-degree expeditions, which have always been for tourists (albeit a special kind), but also full-length projects. I'm not sure how necessary a guide is on a South Pole trek, but in the case of the more difficult North Pole, it's an enormous advantage. Very few people succeed in doing the entire distance to the North Pole themselves. Even fewer succeed on the first attempt. Add a guide, and the success rate becomes essentially 100%.

Today, an expedition may be named the Tom Thumb Polar Expedition, but likely as not, Tom's just the vain and ambitious guy holding the purse strings, hoping to make a name as an explorer and often forgetting to mention publicly that one of his teammates is a little more than a fellow traveler.

6. Making an expedition sound harder than it is

One of the nice things about climbing or white-water kayaking is that challenges are graded numerically, so there's little opportunity to inflate an accomplishment. Not so in polar travel, which the public doesn't really understand and where there are no clear yardsticks. Many imagine, for example, that pulling a 150-pound sled is a superhuman act, little realizing that any grandmother who jogs on Sunday can do it. But 150 pounds sounds good, and 250 pounds sounds even better, because for those unfamiliar with sledding, it's natural to compare it to how hard it would be to backpack those weights. As a result, those who want to impress can easily do so. Because there's not really a polar community as such, just a few people doing things independently of one another, it's hard for the media to verify just how difficult something is. Besides, the media doesn't usually bother to verify human-interest stories like adventure.

The other side of this equation -- and this comes up time and again in this countdown -- is that many polar adventurers are novices. Given that this sort of project takes a healthy amount of self-esteem to begin with, it's easy for the adventurers themselves to think, "Wow, I'm pulling a 250-pound sled for 12 miles at 30 below. I must be amazing." Alas, it's easier than it sounds.

7. Telling your audience that all it takes to live this life is the courage to follow your dreams, when you're sitting on a trust fund

Many people would be surprised at the number of adventurers who don't have to make a living. Nothing wrong with being born well off, if you make the most of it: the great Bill Tillman was a gentleman amateur. So, for that matter, was Charles Darwin.

But as a poor bloke, I've always been aware that the hardest part of adventure is making a living at it. (The adventure itself is just personal hunger, and is almost effortless.) When adventurers give presentations and claim -- often in response to audience questions at the end -- that they make a living from selling photos, or from book royalties, I cringe. Since I myself survive partly from photography, I know the business and I can say that the only ones making serious coin from adventure photography are full-time photographers, not expedition types. 

Even if you're a serious shooter, it's not easy. A National Geographic photographer I know used to make much of his income flipping houses -- he'd buy a fixer-upper, renovate it, then resell at a profit. Several handyman adventurers go that route. One well-known big-wall climber builds outdoor decks. As for books, the royalties are rarely significant unless you're Jon Krakauer or David Roberts. So it's dishonest when a "professional" adventurer tries to inspire without admitting that he or she doesn't need to earn a living like the rest of us.

8. Motivational speaking

If you want to know how adventurers really make a living, it's often by motivational speaking. I'm not talking about storytelling with pretty pictures, but presentations crafted to a business audience, in which the message is Teamwork or Leadership or similar corporate psychology buzzwords. Nowadays, it seems, everyone bills themselves as a "keynote speaker". And why not? If you can lay it on thick, the money is incredible. There are people making a six-figure income based on 10 hours work a year.

Sometimes the accomplishments of these adventurers are genuine. Twenty years later, sadly, some of them are still giving the same lecture, based on one triumphant afternoon. Others are glib phonies. Neither climbers nor adventurers, they climb Mt. Everest specifically to launch a career in motivational speaking. As bad, in my mind, are the ones who haven't done anything yet but presume to have valuable lessons to impart to the rest of us.

There is something refreshing about the attitude of a first-class adventurer like Pat Morrow, who admits that he never gave motivational talks because "I just couldn't see myself telling a convention of hog farmers that they too can climb their personal Everest."

9. Doing one or two expeditions, then retiring and affecting the pose of an elder statesman

Again, the nature of polar travel. Good climbers climb every day or two, but most polar sledders are not, pardon the pun, in it for the long haul. Typically they do the North Pole or the South Pole, then retire. A few do both. If they're particularly serious, they also cross Antarctica or the Arctic Ocean. That's it. End of polar icons. Too bad, because the sledding life really is a fine one. It's as if 99% of climbers just did Everest and maybe the Seven Summits.

Especially in Britain, it seems that once retired, these one-trick ponies vigorously posture as wise greybeards in all matters polar. (Maybe one-eyed kings rather than one-trick ponies is a more apt description.) This was more understandable in the 19th century -- for years, Adolphus Greely was considered America's greatest living polar explorer, based on one disastrous expedition. But standards of experience are different now. Will Steger, for example, was doing impressive arctic stuff as a dirtbag long before he hit the big time.

10. Presenting mistakes or incompetence as force majeure

Every year, expeditioners strike off to a flourish of trumpets, only to quit sometimes for the silliest reasons. Their stove breaks down. The sat phone fails to charge. Gasoline leaks and contaminates their food. Or they run out of food/fuel, necessitating a high-profile "rescue."

On extreme projects, gear often needs repairs. But unless a polar bear smashes the sled into 100 pieces, the journey should be able to continue. That's what a repair kit and backups of key items are for. But some adventurers use these minor glitches as an excuse to bail. Others are so out of their depth that they can't deal with more adversity. Or in their preparations, they've taken the time to create a website, get sponsors and have a media plan, but have neglected to learn how a stove works. Few own up to these mistakes: It's always the fault of the equipment or the conditions.

Sometimes, it seems as if an expedition invents problems to get more media attention. The media is not very interested in most adventures except as a cute kicker at the end of the real news. The exception is, if something goes wrong. If a delayed pickup is made to seem like you're stranded and desperate and out of food, you might get world headlines rather than a shadow of a whisper of a postscript of a mention.

Ash Routen1 Comment