Robert, at the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy 2018 in Chamonix you did a seminar focusing on expedition planning (“Insights on modern expedition planning by fair means”). For this blog, can you tell us how you go about planning your expeditions? What are the most important things?
My definition of a “modern expedition by fair means” is when you leave civilisation behind you without any external assistance and carry as few technical aids as possible. I would say that the most uncompromising way of doing this is when you go it alone. That's what I call an expedition in its purest form. Today, high spec equipment that is also both reliable and lightweight means that it has become far easier to undertake an expedition with very little equipment. High performance Gore-Tex outerwear, super strong carbon tools, ultra-lightweight climbing gear and tiny yet incredibly powerful navigation and communication devices all help enormously – whether you're part of a team or going it alone. For me, it's hugely important only to take what is absolutely necessary. The primary objective of the expedition is not where you're trying to get to in terms of geography, but HOW you get there. Theoretically, you could fly to the summit in a helicopter. That would make getting there really easy, but you wouldn't have had much of an adventure. That's not what we mountaineers are looking for! We want the action and adventure of a journey into the unknown. Only then do you discover new things, about the wonders of nature, other cultures and about yourself.
What do you have to look out for when you go it alone?
You generally just have to be that bit more aware of everything going on around you than when you're part of a team and can share responsibilities. There's nobody there to keep an eye on things and warn you when something goes wrong. There's nobody to do a partner check with. You quite simply have to do everything yourself. In other words: you need to be able to be objective in your assessment of your own abilities, have a lot of experience, choose your goals carefully, prepare conscientiously, train intensely and weigh up the risks! Plan to go somewhere where you know you'll be well below your absolute limit, because when you get there it is often quite different to what you expected. That's why I attach so much importance to risk assessment and management: there are all sorts of different situations in which you can suddenly find yourself at the limit of your capabilities. If you don't know what to do next, that's not good. It can help to play out various scenarios in your mind beforehand – in theory and in practice. For instance, if you're thinking of setting off in a kayak, it's a good idea to know what it feels like to capsize in cold water with all your equipment. Or, would you be capable of abseiling off a rock face with a broken leg? If your tent has been torn to pieces in a storm, it's important to know how to repair it or get by without one. In my view, planning for knife-edge excitement and thinking, “Oh, it'll all work out fine” is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette.
What's the most important thing during the expedition itself?
On the one hand, you will hopefully have come up with a good plan, drawn on your vast experience to complete all the arrangements, prepared well and trained intensely. On the other hand, as you set out on your expedition, you are leaving those well-trodden paths behind you, going beyond where you've ever been before and venturing into new terrain. The way I see it, it's not an expedition if you're not doing any real exploring. When you step out of your comfort zone, it's important that you're open and sensitive to new situations so that you can react to things you didn't expect, and are better able to predict what might happen next. This means that you need to be alert all the time, keeping a sharp eye on everything around you, as much on nature's beauty as on its dangers. The more experience you have, the better you will be able to respond flexibly and then modify your plans accordingly.
What do you recommend to people who want to be alone in the wilderness? To people who just like the idea of spending time alone outdoors, perhaps hiking, and to people who want to make a solo ascent of some mountain?
I tell them to take small steps at a time, gradually set themselves more ambitious goals and give themselves enough time to learn! In other words, to start off by going on tours or expeditions under the guidance of a professional (e.g. a mountain guide). Once you feel that you've got enough experience, do whatever you do with great care and deliberation. Think about what the dangers and risks might be before you even set out. You need to be able to balance confidence with humility and respect. You have to know what it's like to turn back. You have to have developed a feel for when it's (still) possible to turn back.
Risk management can mean minimising risk. It goes without saying that it's always best not to get into difficulty in the first place. Nevertheless, if you're setting out into the wilderness, you'll need to be prepared for things to go wrong. It's important to have a backup plan. This will obviously involve carrying a satellite telephone or emergency messenger, but also informing a reliable contact person at home, the police or the local rescue services of your route and, as far as possible, telling them when you expect to be where.
You must be fully aware of the fact that being alone is far more complex and will involve a greater element of risk than when you set out with an experienced partner who you get on well with. On the other hand, the experience will be quite different. When you're alone, the whole experience is much more intense: the sheer scale of nature, the peace and quiet, being with your own thoughts. However, you must think very, very seriously about whether you'll be able to cope. There's nothing romantic about going it alone. Think about whether a solo expedition is really necessary and whether it's worth it for you personally. That's what's most important.
What made your solo expedition to Greenland different? How did you prepare for it?
I went on lots of expeditions as part of a team, and over the last few years in very small teams, with just three of us. At the same time, I made a lot of solo ascents, for example, I climbed the three largest north faces in the Alps and completed various first ascents on rock and ice. There are a number of reasons why I so much like this radical form of climbing. One of them is that it represents a personal challenge and gives me the opportunity to up my game and live my dreams. However, being alone for weeks in the wilderness of Greenland was a completely new experience for me. Psychologically, it was really hard being by myself for such a long period of time.
Did you phone your wife every day or send her WhatsApp messages? What was the coverage like?
No, not every day. We sent each other text messages about twice a week. Even with a satellite phone the coverage isn't always good. It's very important to me to remain in regular contact with my wife and the rest of the family. I know only too well how tough it is to be sitting at home not knowing how your partner is getting on at the other end of the world. I feel extremely responsible, even, perhaps even particularly so, when I'm nowhere near my family. Apart from being as careful as I possibly can be and always painstakingly weighing up the risks, the least I can do is to show a sign of life every so often and send them a message. It did me good as well. You're alone, but then you know that you're not really alone!
You have said that you probably won't be doing any more expeditions like this one. What will you be doing instead?
Did I say that? :) It is more likely that I just didn't say what I'm going to do next... My solo expedition to Greenland was an incredible experience for me. It was something very special and turned out to be a great success. I still get real enjoyment from just thinking about it. I also prefer talking about the adventures I've had than about any projects I might have for the future. When you get back from a successful mountaineering trip or an expedition, I think that it's really important that you give yourself the time to celebrate your achievement, to take pleasure in it, and not immediately start focusing on your next adventure. The same applies to anything else you achieve in life. That's not to say that I don't have new goals, but the rhythms of life are important to me: giving yourself time off to relax after a period of mental and physical exertion, getting back to your family and being a bit indulgent after a long expedition. What I experience on expeditions and when I'm climbing is the colour in my life, and this colour rubs off on my private and family life.
What are you going to be doing when you're 60?
That’s a good question. People asked me the same question before my 50th birthday. To tell you the truth, the older I get, the more dreams I have, the more ideas I have about places where I want to climb. That's probably because I've been to so many places. I know only too well how many other places would be worth going to, how many unclimbed mountains there are and how many first ascents are still out there for me to complete. I don't want my life to stand still. I want to continue living my dreams. Of course, you never know what life has in store for you, in terms of your health, your private life, also when you're out on an expedition. The most important thing is to make the most of each day and enjoy every moment.
Also have a look at part one of the Interview when Robert talks about the challenges of SOLO Lead climbing.