- INTERVIEWER: Christian Pera
- PHOTOGRAPHY: Alvah Simon
Alvah Simon should need no introduction; he has spent a lifetime undertaking extraordinary expeditions, is a published author, journalist and courageous sailor – but, like many of the adventurers we will be featuring in our Pioneers of Adventure, you have probably never heard of him…
CP: Where did adventure begin for you?
AS: Adventure, began for me with my father, straight and simple. He was a US Marine, returned from the war with very firm notions of manly behaviour, community responsibility and preparation. He was also my boy scout leader, so I was pulled out of cub scouts before I was old enough to be a boy scout, made an official mascot; and when I was six years old, he dropped me off in the woods with only what I could pack into an empty cigarette pack and told [me] that I had two days, think about what went in there and he picked me up on the Sunday afternoon. So as a skinny little kid, very afraid of the woods, the raccoons, the darkness – I was forced to learn early: to rise to the occasion, to plan carefully, execute carefully and no doubt he was probably hidin’ behind a tree a hundred yards away – I don’t know, but he would never have let me know.
CP: Why is being an adventurer important to you?
AS: Being an adventurer is not just important to me, it’s the central theme of my life and it’s become my life. I didn’t start off thinking about myself as an adventurer, I was young and ignorant and arrogant – those tend to go together – I thought of myself as a daredevil, I was modelling myself after Evil Knievel, in other words: the less planning, the less proper the execution – the greater the story, the greater the bragging rights! I slowly evolved out of that through just recklessness, to physical adventure [and] from physical [adventure], I realised after years living out in the third world and by my wits, that it was turned into a philosophical adventure which seemed to have more meaning – something that I could share, so it was larger than myself and then last, by sticking with that it turned into a spiritual adventure which comes back to one, personally.
CP: What, in hindsight, do you consider your most ambitious adventure at the outset?
AS: I’ve done many things – expeditions through Borneo, solo jungle trips in Panama and Africa – but there’s no question that our Arctic adventure was the most ambitious. For several reasons: the environment of course is extremely challenging; the brief and the nature of the adventure was to be totally self-sufficient and live, or die, with the consequences of our planning – there was no rescue plan. In fact, quite the contrary, we avoided the Danish laws requiring an evacuation plan and we hid our plan so that we would simply suffer the consequences of our own preparation and good luck! It was the longest and hardest adventure I’ve ever been on and so that stands, head and shoulders, above the others in terms of difficulty – not just physically, but emotionally and that’s all because of the darkness, but that’s a long and different story… (see North to the Night)
I don’t just live the adventures, I read a lot of adventures and so vicariously I’ve tried to learn what I could and glean their messages and what I came away feeling is that they are sanitized – they’re like presidential biographies – you would’ve thought nothing was conceived or executed improperly. I just never felt there were deep, honest accounts of any weaknesses, any foibles, any folly and mistakes that men usually would make. I wanted to write a deeply honest account of something that’s difficult to accomplish and it’s difficult because we’re not perfect – we make mistakes, we have terrible moments of weakness in the middle of the adventure and I felt the only way I could capture that, wasn’t to come back waving a flag saying, “I spent a winter alone in the Arctic,” it was to write a true and terrifying story of what that meant to me.
You have immersed yourself in both the tropics and the frigid North – which experiences stick in your mind for each?
AS: Yes, they pose diametrically opposed physical and psychological challenges… I’ll start with the jungle for example – the jungle is absolutely overwhelming, it closes you in; one hundred yards off the beaten track you’re lost, you can see nowhere, you feel completely engulfed. Everything is clawing at you – the temperature claws at you, everything bites and stings… So physically and psychologically the jungle closes in on you.
The Arctic, like many deserts, does exactly the opposite – it challenges your head because it’s immense and open. The openness is so large that – can you fill it, can you cross it, can you somehow accommodate how big it is? Everyone thinks that [in] the Arctic, the cold is the biggest challenge, really it’s darkness and solitude that are the challenges.
In the jungle it’s a mental discipline to know that a straight line between point A and B, even though it’s impossible to follow, should work. It’s hard to get your mind out of those trees and out of that undergrowth and beyond the nettles and ravines and gulches and say, “I’m here and I just need to get there.”
So one is open and one is closed; one’s too hot, one’s too cold and they’re both beautiful!
CP: What is it about sailing in particular that has captured your imagination over the years?
AS: Two things, one’s personal and one’s physical. The personal is simply freedom – every single wake ever cut across the ocean has left no track, whereas every wagon train leaves a rut. So when you go into the ocean you feel like a pioneer because you’re not following in exactly the same footsteps or track or road or even the path up Mount Eiger as anyone else before – every voyage is unique to your experience at the time. Every boat is different, the weather is always different, the course is different – I just felt being out there, deeply out there, that it was always a special adventure; always uniquely my adventure.
The other thing is simply the solitude. There are spots in the Pacific Ocean where you can be, literally, thousands of miles from the nearest human being and on a planet with over seven billion people and counting, it’s hard to achieve that on land! That sense of deep isolation which demands self-sufficiency is the challenge I love most about sailing.
Find the second half of our interview with Alvah here.