by Thorsten Schillo
How do you become an expedition leader? I've been asking myself this question pretty much ever since I got into adventuring. I've been dreaming of a life on the road, travelling the globe, visiting remote and exotic places. Unfortunately, the short answer to that question is: you just have to go and do it. The industry is full of people who started out just chasing their dreams, or even ended up as expedition leaders entirely by accident. All it takes is a particular type of person, a particular set of skills, and a certain mindset. Now, if you're like me, that answer might be very disappointing. That's why I was so excited to find out about Explorers Connect's Expedition Leadership Course. If there's no magical path that leads you to be an expedition leader, there's at least a course that shows you what skills you need and what the role of an expedition leader actually encompasses.
At the time that I took the course, I was preparing for an unsupported ski crossing of the Hardanger plateau in Norway. In fact, my teammate Lauren and I departed for a training expedition the very day after the course. Lauren and I met by accident in Italy and just happened to both be preparing for Arctic expeditions. We decided to join forces and are known today as Team Fram. So the expedition planning I am doing is not for commercial groups, but just for myself and people I know. One great thing about the course is that it covers all these different positions as a leader, from scientific expeditions over commercial groups, to personal projects.
In planning our Norway expedition, we have applied pretty much all of the materials covered in the Expedition Leadership Course in one way or another. For this post, I want to highlight one specific skill that proved valuable for us. That being creating a risk assessment for your expedition. A risk assessment is basically a big "what could go wrong?" sheet. We went through every piece of equipment and asked ourselves how we would deal with malfunction. Probably the most vital piece of kit on a Polar expedition is your stove. It's your only means of melting snow or ice to obtain water, and since you're likely to be carrying dehydrated food, it is also your only means of preparing food. We were carrying two stoves on our trip, and we felt pretty safe about this choice. However, going through the risk assessment, we discovered that we still had to answer the question "do we risk going on with only one stove if the other one fails?". Sure enough, on day three in the snow, on the shores of a frozen lake, one of our stoves started sputtering and going out on its own. To decide what to do, we just had to recall our prep work telling us not to go on with only one stove. In this instance, we managed to repair the stove and still continue. But the case showed me that having a risk assessment can not only highlight risks you may not have thought of but also improve the decision-making process in the field. Having a document where everyone already agreed to a specific course of action before you set out is a lot easier than starting the discussion when you're out in the cold.
We continued our trip and soon encountered another risk covered by our assessment: avalanches. Avalanches were pretty much our nightmare scenario on this expedition. Getting hit by one would mean almost certain death, so we wanted to be extremely careful about avalanche safety. On day four, we encountered horrible snow conditions on a climb up a mountain pass. We put our heads together and talked things through, but since we had made our assessment, we were both already clear which risks we were willing to take. Unfortunately, that wasn't one of them, so we decided to abandon our expedition and turn around. You can read how all this played out for us in our expedition report.
The experience in Norway isn't the last the Arctic has seen of us. We are currently organising a Greenland expedition, where we will be able to apply many more of the skills we learned about on the Expedition Leadership Course. This time, we are building a bigger team, so we will have to look out for group dynamics and cohesion when selecting people. We are also looking for sponsors and corporate partners, which is another aspect covered by Explorers Connect.
If you are currently planning an expedition or thinking about it, the Explorers Connect Expedition Leadership Course is a great place to look for advice. You can take your actual plans and discuss them with experienced leaders and make sure you have all the angles covered. If you want to get into the industry, but have no idea where to start, this course gives you an idea of how you can make it and which skills you need to learn. It's well worth the money and time investment, and you are sure to meet exciting people and have a great time.