Alastair Humphreys: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Adventurer
Words: Trisha Telep, Picture: A.H.
Growing up, adventurer Alastair Humphreys wasn’t exactly what you’d call adventurous. He wasn’t terribly athletic or particularly hardy or brave. Even now, after being named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year, he’s definitely not one of those adrenaline-junky, hanging-off-a-cliff-edge-by-his-fingernails-on-the-verge-of-certain-death kind of adventurers.
“Mostly it’s just me trudging along on my own in the rain, thinking ‘What the heck am I doing?’ Alastair is on the phone from a train headed to Wales, where he’s spending a couple of days on the Pembrokeshire Coast, researching his next book, due in November.
It was in the long summers during university that Alastair started traveling the world on his bicycle and running up mountains. After graduation, he cycled the globe – over five continents, 60 countries and over 45,000 miles. Then he wrote a book about the trip. That’s when he had an idea he’d never considered before. “Perhaps I could turn what I loved doing into my living.”
More journeys followed, including a 110-day expedition across 1800 miles of Antarctica, a 6-week journey on foot shadowing the holy river of Kaveri across India, packrafting through Iceland and racing in the famous Marathon Des Sables in 2008. Before Christmas last year, he walked 1000 miles across the Empty Quarter Desert in the Arabian Peninsula and made a documentary about the journey.
He soon fell into a rhythm of self-financing his adventures. “I write a book, give some talks, save up money, go do another trip, then repeat the process.” He’s written five books so far but it’s the speaking that helps him most financially. “Later this week I’m at a school in London for a sport’s dinner where I’m giving out some prizes – I get paid to do that. Then, hopefully, I sell some books at the talk and get more people to learn about what I’m up to. It grows like that.”
For the expeditions that are beyond his budget – like rowing across the Atlantic in 2012 – he seeks out corporate sponsorship and a company that is as excited about his project as he is.
Although working in a team on many trips, he finds his solo adventures the most difficult and rewarding. On the solo journeys, his biggest problems are almost exclusively mental. “When you’re on your own, there’s no one to tell you you’re being silly so you tend to just argue over and over in your head until you convince yourself that giving up and going home is the best option. Then you have to overcome that.”
He’s learned that giving up is only a short-term pleasure. Swearing off instant gratification is one way he silences the arguments in his head. Sometimes the finish line doesn’t come into sight for years. “I’ve done it all for long enough now to be able to appreciate that the short-term pleasure of giving up isn’t really worth it compared to the long-term satisfaction of watching it to the end. It’s an investment, and a willingness to have excess retrospective pleasures. At some point in the future, I’ll be glad that I persevered.”
A skewed sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd are almost as important. “When the options are crying or laughing, I tend to make myself laugh about the preposterousness of it all. Having been in other difficult situations before, it makes next time just that bit easier.”
The closest he came to giving in was when he arrived in Syria on his around-the-world cycle. “It was the first really huge adventure that I’d done and I didn’t have the library of experiences to fall back on. The big problem was the scale of the thing I’d got myself into. I had set off on a project which was going to take me over four years to complete. That meant no reward for four years, which is quite a hard thing to be slogging away on. I was constantly close to giving up but I kept persuading myself on – one more day, one more week, one more country.
“To cycle from England to Syria is a long way. Took me about four months. But when I stopped and looked at the map, it’s a tiny distance in terms of the whole world. I felt overwhelmed and demoralized.
“The thing that ultimately kept me going was that I didn’t have anything left in my life that meant as much to me as this. If I gave it up, whatever I did in its place would be a pale imitation.”
It was his concept of the microadventure – a term he coined to describe a small journey, close to home, which is affordable, easy to organise and designed to get people out into the world around them – that really got him noticed. National Geographic named him their Adventurer of the Year in 2012.
“The microadventures caught their imagination, which is quite interesting because I spent years trying to do big expeditions and here they were most interested in these deliberately small things that I started doing.”
But a background as a serious, no-holds-barred adventurer of epic proportions comes in handy when you’re delivering a microadventure message in a motivational speech. “If I hadn’t done anything big, and then I was trying to advocate going away for the weekend, I don’t think people would be that interested.”
The concept is nothing new – heading out at the end of the work week and camping in the nearby hills is probably the first example of a microadventure that springs to mind. What Alastair has added is the idea that small expeditions are better than no expeditions. No one should stop exploring because they can’t pick up at a moment’s notice, throw caution to the wind and commit to rowing the Atlantic Ocean or walking solo across India.
“Just go and do something small, make the most of your local wild areas, make the most of your time and make the most of whatever limited equipment you have,” he says.
Adventures, even small ones, says Alastair, expose you to a degree of risk and to the idea of managing that risk, a useful skill in everyday life. “It’s about people trying something new and often being surprised that they are capable of more than they realise.”
His new book will document a full year of these mini-excursions, which is the reason he’s on the train to Wales right now in the first place. This is his Year of the Microadventure.
“I’m just a really normal person,” he says. “And, because of that, these journeys made a real impact on me. I think that’s why I’m so evangelical about everybody having his or her own little adventures. I’m always trying to encourage other people to give it a go. It’ll change your life.”