Confronting Fear – Leo Houlding – Spectre Expedition

“To express oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that my friend is very hard to do…”
Bruce Lee

Some days ago, on the eve of departure for my longest most challenging expedition thus far I hosted an assembly at Freya, my four-year-old daughter’s school.

I told my audience of primary age children about some of the wonderful places on Earth my life as a climber has taken me and the amazing adventures I have been privileged to enjoy, that lie in store for those with the desire to find them. After asking if they are familiar with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies I like to tell the little ones

“There are places on this planet far wilder than anywhere in Middle Earth and adventures waiting for you more magical than any that Harry Potter might experience”

I introduced our forthcoming Spectre Expedition and to my surprise in the Q&A’s amongst the familiar inquiries

“What will you eat, what is your favourite mountain, how will you go to the toilet?”

I was caught off guard by a particularly astute five-year-old boy with a puzzled expression…

“Why would you do that?”

There is no simpler answer than the historic quote from George Mallory

“Because it’s there”

I wasn’t sure such poetic truth would resonate with this particular audience but it is no easier to give rational explanation to a group of primary children than it is any other unknowing inquisitor.

A few days later amongst the eleventh-hour preparations that always keeps me busy until the early hours before departure on a big trip, inevitably followed by the inability to sleep due to a racing mind, an articulate answer sprang to mind.

Because I feel a drive deep in my soul that against sensible reason or rational logic compels me to see how far I can go. To test all the skills and knowledge that I have learned along my journey through life and to see what I am capable of. To express myself with passion, without fear to my full potential.

Without fear is not the same as fearless. Embarking on a mission such as this is in truth quite terrifying. Over the next 80 days Jean, Mark and I are destined to face myriad problems, hazards and hardships. There are no delusions that this will be an easy ride and I am full of fear.

Which is in part why we want to go. Not because we wish to punish ourselves in some masochistic torture or to expel demons nurtured since our own childhoods. But because it is through challenge and strife and facing fear that we discover what we a really capable of, who we really are and what we can really do.

Fulfilment cannot be purchased in a shop or online. Satisfaction does not lie by the road side. Those of us lucky enough to identify our true passion and with the good fortune to be able to follow that path are almost duty bound to find out where it leads, to see how far we can go.

Confronting fear is an integral part of that journey. There are many mortal dangers inherent in an undertaking such as this. The extreme cold presents a host of unpleasant risks, the uber-remoteness withdraws the usual assistance from others on which we all complacently rely. The dangers of climbing a 750m tall vertical monolith need little explanation; loose rock, sharp edges abrading thin ropes …falling to oblivion.

Controlling a force as fundamental as the wind with the power of modern kite wing technology is not as easy as it may appear. Sastrugi, the wind-sculpted ridges shaped from rock hard snow that form the surface of most of Antartica’s interior must be negotiated with the gentle touch of the kites control bar at a manageable pace with total concentration.

Crevasses are perhaps our most lethal foe, the gaping holes in the polar ice sheet capable of swallowing a man hole must be identified and avoided as a priority. Then there are the anxieties inherent in spending 80 days away from home, most of which in a tent, eating dehydrated food, devoid of familiar creature comforts like showers, cars, central heating.

By far my greatest anxiety is such an extended period apart from my idyllic young family; Freya whom will miss her Daddy terribly over Christmas, my one year old son Jackson who will not understand where that man he loves so much has gone, my beautiful wife Jessica, without who’s support this endeavour would not be possible, who must manage the joyful burden of the two of them single handedly for almost three months whilst I am gone.

Then there is the fear of failure. The serious dangers I have just outlined are certainly present but are all well mitigated by a comprehensive and prudent expedition strategy developed with assistance from the leading experts in the field. Risks have been assessed and legally insured, both medical and non-medial evacuation plans are in place and paid for supported by a daily communications schedule and satellite tracking that all but extinguish my fear of not returning home to my family.

But that does not account for the very real possibility that we simply will not be able to do what we have set out to do. Be it because of incompetence or misfortune there is no way to guarantee success in any true adventure. Few if any have ever attempted such a long, multifaceted, complex and ambitious expedition of this nature.

I have spent much of the last four years trying to convince potential financial partners that not only can we do this but that it will be worth their while to invest the kind of sums commonly associated with buying a house not paying for climbing trip. A hard sell on such a progressive and frankly unsecured outcome. Credit to those that have had the vision and conviction to support us.

I am really scared that we cannot deliver. I have been careful to not promise that we can and would never attempt something I genuinely thought unachievable but there are niggling questions; are we fit enough, are we strong enough, do we have enough experience, will the winds be kind, can this be done?

These concerns resonate not only towards finical partners but towards my comrades, my family and myself. What if we fail? Perhaps we should not expose ourselves so openly? Perhaps we should simply not try with so much at stake and such great uncertainty? Perhaps we should stay at home, where it is warm and comfortable and safe?

How to cope with all this fear? What can be done to process such concerns beyond simply acceptance to the point of enjoyment?

The first key is preparation; physical, practical and psychological. To have sufficient skills, strength, knowledge and experience necessary to push one step beyond ones known boundary. Research, consultation and practice are the means to this end.

The second secret is to disarm the magnitude of this monster trip into palatable portions. Do not give-in to the overwhelming scale but consider each step uniquely.

First to reach the Spectre. A 350km, down wind kite journey of about a week. In itself a considerable but well achievable target.

Next the ascent itself. Such a climb would be a formidable undertaking in much more amenable circumstances, but one well within attempt of my known capabilities, cold, remoteness and fatigue aside.

Then the stage about which I am most concerned; 350 km of man-hauling; walking on skis pulling a sledge weighing around 100kgs over glaciated terrain less seldom travelled than almost anywhere on the surface of the Earth. Although the most simple and least mortally hazardous section of the journey; psychologically the slow, exhausting monotony of 20 days hard labour is battle of attrition and something that I know is not my forte but that in and of itself is not something beyond reach.

Finally a further 1200km kite journey, 400 km of which is across terrain that we nor anybody else know almost anything about. But with amenable wind, without the prior three stages is not something about which I would be too concerned.

When combined together these chapters form an intimidating tome. Viewed independently but consecutively they appear an inviting story.

The third revelation to overcoming fear is to be prepared to fail. The only time one will ever truly reach ones limit is during failure. The greatest successes are those that came closest to failure but do not.

Failures, survived without serious physical or psychological consequences are the only times we will ever truly reach our absolute limit and walk away. It is failure from which we learn the most and failure that inspires us to try again. Failure is probably also my greatest fear on this trip.

I am not fearless of this Spectre Expedition but I am without fear that we are insufficiently prepared, equipped, supported and capable of overcoming each and every challenge we will face.

We have done our home work, we have spent countless hours meticulously selecting each item of equipment, we have the support of the most capable independent logistics provider on the continent, A.L.E and we have spent our whole lives developing the assets we need to make this happen.

Fear is a terrible inhibitor but also a vital ally on any journey. Listening to it’s advice but not relenting to it’s foreboding is an empowering and exhilarating exercise.

In my companions, whom I know much less well than on previous trips, I am none the less confident that not only can we deal with all of these hazards and hardships, but that we can do so with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts. No we are not doing this to punish ourselves and expel demons but to enjoy ourselves and have a blast playing our favourite games in the wildest places.

Those hazards and hardships are the challenges we wish to embrace to find the deep satisfaction that comes from knowing them.

To be out there, with Jean and Mark, doing all that I have described is the stuff that my dreams are made of and realising dreams is something we should all strive to achieve.

As the great Bruce Lee said to express oneself with passion, without fear to ones full potential is a very difficult thing to do and hence why it is so deeply rewarding.