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Jerry's Top Ten Expedition BS Countdown complete: Kobalenko off to the wilderness

Posted: Jun 17, 2008 02:39 am EDT

(ThePoles.com) "Tell the truth and run!" is the title of a documentary about one of ExWeb's favorite journalists. Funny we came to think of it now that Jerry Kobalenko has finished his top-ten expedition BS countdown and left for Labrador.

"Off to paddle 1000km from Goose Bay, Labrador to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. I don't know of anyone who's done this entire route," Jerry reports on his website.

"At least a couple of parties have paddled the entire coast of Labrador in a season, but they understandably skipped the 150km of Hamilton Inlet. And several local parties have kayaked pieces of the route, such as Goose Bay-Rigolet and Goose Bay to Cartwright and almost to Charlottetown."

The last who tried died of a heart attack

"The last person to attempt to kayak the entire south coast of Labrador as far as the Strait of Belle Isle, however, died of a heart attack shortly after beginning, in summer 2000," Jerry writes. "Roy Willie Johansen's body was found, still in the kayak, on the shores of Long Island in Lake Melville. It was a weird end for the 6'7" Norwegian giant, who earlier that year had successfully paddled 300 km across fearsome Davis Strait from Greenland to Baffin Island."

"My journey, which should take five weeks, is as much a cultural as a wilderness one. Yeah, there are long days on a rough coast without seeing a soul, but there are also periodic summer cabins, and abandoned villages from the era when cod was king."

"I also plan to get a whiff of the spirits of old explorers like George Cartwright, by visiting some of the spots they describe in their books. 'Haunted by entities' is how one friend in Goose Bay described that coast."

"At the end of the journey, Alexandra will meet me in Blanc Sablon and we'll drive back home along the Trans-Labrador Highway, a dramatic wilderness road that is the eastern version of the Alaska Highway."

Jerry's Top Ten Expedition BS Countdown:

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 bruit -- 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.

In compiling this list, I first vetted it with other adventurers, since this Top Ten is admittedly polar-bs-biased. Climber/paraglider Will Gadd, one of the world's best outdoor athletes, suggested another entry: "Decrying all future attempts on your objective as unworthy." I'd never heard of this, so I asked another well-known mountaineer about it: "Is this a climbing thing?"

"It's a Reinhold Messner thing," he replied.

I considered other entries, such as Excuses for Failure. The three commonest excuses on North Pole expeditions, for example, are:

1) My back hurts
2) My sled broke
3) My sat phone is on the fritz and I feel too great a sense of responsibility to my family proceed under such dangerous conditions.

But these violin concertos are really just a human, all-too-human response rather than specifically expedition bs. Greg Deyermenjian of the Explorers Club, who really does explore rather than just eat bugs once a year under a phalanx of stuffed rhino heads, promises to send some bs of which tropical expeditions are guilty.

In the meantime, I'm off to paddle 1,000km along the coast of southern Labrador, from Goose Bay to Blanc Sablon in Quebec. I'll say a little about it in the next day or two. Since I don't do field reports, the next update after that will be in mid-August.

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 of Global Warming. 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 still so formidable that they're beyond guiding -- climbing K2, for example. 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.

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. 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."

8. 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.

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 diastrous 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. Erecting plaques in the wilderness in honor of your own expedition

This may be a purely arctic thing, a more permanent version of spray-painting your name on a rock. Several times at historic sites I've seen elaborate plaques laid by recent expeditions, ostensibly to commemorate the original explorer but not coincidentally, also commemorating whoever laid the plaque. The Franklin site on Beechey Island has some of this graffiti, which in the Arctic will last hundreds of years. But one of the most blatant examples is a series of plaques at various Sverdrup sites on Ellesmere Island. Norwegians are usually magnificent and understated travelers -- like Sverdrup himself -- but about 15 years ago one less-than-modest Norwegian took a couple of guided snowmobile trips, erecting bronze plaques in which Sverdrup's name and his own are in identical point size. I've checked around with archaeologists, and while of course it is against the law to take stuff from an historic site, unfortunately it does not seem to be illegal to bolt a vanity plaque to a rock. On the bright side, it is entirely possible to remove such plaques and throw them into the sea.

#Polar #Mountaineering #Oceans

Jerry's route: "The last person to attempt to kayak the entire south coast of Labrador as far as the Strait of Belle Isle died of a heart attack. Roy Willie Johansen's body was found, still in the kayak, on the shores of Long Island in Lake Melville." Image courtesy of Kobalenko (click to enlarge).