interview with Alastair Vere Nicoll

I published a review of Riding the Ice Wind: By Kite and Sledge across Antarctica in my post on September 28. The book tells a compelling story of extreme adventure travel. I was privileged to have the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Alastair. Here is the text of our correspondence. (You can order the book here).

(1) One of the conflicts in your narrative concerned your worry about frostbite on your face and toe — but then you never resolved that conflict at the end of the book. How did everything work out?

The frostbite on my ears, cheeks and nose was in the end relatively superficial, and although I didn't look my best — a combination of a very dodgy beard and the healing frostbite — it left nothing more permanent than a little bit of lighter skin on my nose which seems a bit more susceptible to sunburn! All in all not very dramatic. My toe, too, very suprisingly, healed as I was convinced it would be lost. The blood flow and feeling are impaired, but it is absolutely no inconvenience. I wish I could tell you that I had to hack it off with a handsaw, but I can't!

(2) Becoming a father was obviously a very moving experience for you — congratulations! I'm wondering how that new responsibility is shaping plans for your future adventure travel? (There are much less extreme forms of adventure travel!)

Fatherhood has been wonderful, and I also now have a little boy! But I can't deny that I get restless; I'm not made for pushing swings (although do try to do my fair share!). I have a very loose agreement with my wife that I can disappear for a week or so a year to try something a little off the beaten track. So far that has been climbing/trekking in Georgia in the Caucasas (just before the Russian invasion), trekking/climbing in Uganda - Mount Stanley, followed by Gorilla tracking on the Rwanda/Congo border (my wife flew out to join me for the Gorilla part which was magical, meeting me at the bottom of the mountain), and going trekking in the Alps. So I agree, it is possible to do some fun things for a week or two, although I still think that you don't properly get away (mentally more than anything else) unless the trip is longer than a couple of weeks.

(3) What are your present and future travel plans. I know you're now in Asia — presumably doing something more adventurous than sitting by the pool at the Peninsula Bangkok or getting massages!

Hilarious question as I'm now sitting in the Peninsula in Hong Kong — perhaps I will go to the spa! Nice idea. Actually my life is not that adventurous in the 'extreme' sense, but I consider what I'm currently up to as more adventurous in a more layered way than anything I've done before. I started my own business (with three others) in 2007 with the aim of building renewable energy generating capacity in developing countries. In many ways it is a parallel journey to the Antarctic expedition — fund raising, financial risk, asking people to believe in you, having a vision, trying to make it happen, taking on uncertainty, and asking your family to accept that...

The business has started with an Asian focus. The massive growth here means the power demand is huge, and we want to supply it — green and clean (small hydro, wind, solar, waste to energy). We raised around $100m during the financial crisis — which I'm really proud of — and are starting to put it to work in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines initially. This means travel to the financial centres (Delhi, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Manila) but also regularly to the sites of our projects which are way off the beaten track in the mountains, up rivers, in deserts and plains. I love it! Last month I was up in the Himalayas checking out a little river valley in the middle of nowhere. In these countries, even trips to the cities can also be adventurous, and only last night I was in Delhi sipping tea with a man who claimed to be 110 (ok, I know, he saw me coming...) outside the Nizamuddin in Delhi listening to Muslim prayer time. It was surreal and beautiful and another world — yet only half an hour previously I had been discussing debt finance with a bank! Funny, wonderful world that this is!

So — current plans are devoted almost entirely to my business. I need and want this to be a success and am trying to blend a more adventurous mix into my real life rather than periodic escapes, which was one of my learnings from my book. The risk and stress in entrepreneurial ventures is truly analagous to adventure...

Future big picture plans: Ultimate aim is a Haj across the North Africa from Mauritania to Arabia over a year, on foot, camel and river. I want to learn Arabic, and that is the ten year plan. Ambitious, may never pull it off or put in motion, but you have to dream and I do aim to try... Perhaps that will be another book — the mid-life crisis to follow the quarter-life one!

(4) Knowing what you know now about traversing Antarctica, what would you do differently?

This is an amazing question. And so, so hard. I would spend more time working out kit solutions that worked for me in advance. Success is in the details. I hated my boots and had not worn them before setting foot in Antarctica, and I would opt for an entirely different system. On my face, I started with suggestions from others, but they just didn't work for me and luckily had brought other options but none perfect. Everyone is unique, and small differences in kit can make big differences in comfort. It may surprise people, but there is no kit that is designed for Antarctica that is readily available. It is all mountaineering and skiing gear engineered for distinct environments, so previous experience of your needs can make a big difference to what you select — although ultimately all of it is a compromise.

It's easy to say, now that I've seen it, but I wouldn't, in the future, go via the South Pole. It's a monstrosity, and being obsessed with going through or via it can lead you to miss out on more virgin ground. Paul, from my expedition, went a year or two afterwards to the Pole of Inaccessibility - the point most distant from any coastline - wow. And you know what he found there, a huge golden bust of Lenin put there by the Russians years ago. The station had been covered by snow leaving only a golden figurine sitting serenely, like a Buddha, on the ice, about to be engulfed itself by snow like the edifice it rested on (a wonderful metaphor for the steady disappearance of Communism as an ideology).

(5) Do you have any advice for "extreme adventurer travelers."

Extreme travellers embrace risk and love discovery (even if it's been done before, it hasn't by them) and so generally hate to receive advice. Besides, many travellers have been to places and done things, under the radar, that make my achievements look puny, and I should be taking advice from them!

(6) If you had it to do all over again, would you? Was the journey worth the financial cost, the pain, and the risk to life and limb?

I wouldn't do it again (i.e. a second time). There's just too much out there, and not knowing what was in store made it all more bearable. But would I do it again (a first time) knowing what I know now — yes. Although parts were awful, parts were incredible, and I really believe that the up is always worth the down — otherwise life is just flatlining. And hindsight makes almost every experience worthwhile; after all our bodies have no lasting memory for pain — memory that you experienced it, but no way of feeling it again in the same way that you can relive emotion.

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copyright (c) 2010 by David Ourisman LLC. All rights reserved. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.

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