What is an Expedition?

Thoughts on what defines an expedition

What is an Expedition?

John’s Inspiration

When I was in my teens living in the Netherlands it was the only time in my life that as a family we had cable TV. For me, this meant films, and more importantly Discovery Channel. I loved it, waiting for programmes that I hadn’t seen of individuals and teams going to far-flung locations, to push the limit of their physical, psychological and emotional endurance. Most times out of ten it would be to achieve a goal of fastest crossing, first ascent, unsupported exploration, map a new cave or explore areas undiscovered to find new species. It was fascinating.

When I took part in the journey to Peru in 2001, I was 17, it was dubbed as a ‘school expedition’, I didn’t know what to expect. I used the word expedition freely then and I still do now. It was only much later in my career that I decided to look up the actual definition.

The definition of Expedition

‘A journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research, or war.’ – Oxford Dictionary

This then led me on to what is exploration, as I know I am not going to war any time soon and I am not a scientist seeking to research anything or anyone.

‘The action of exploring an unfamiliar area.’ – Oxford Dictionary

Now I am not a complicated person, but I know that unfamiliar area in this context means, somewhere you or possibly anyone else hasn’t been before. But in my mind, I like to believe this has a broader meaning. In my opinion, I think this is an unfamiliar area of your abilities, character or personality. I am sure lots of people have their steadfast opinions on the matter, but this is my interpretation.

When I watched men and women on Discovery attempt these extraordinary feats of endurance, it wasn’t necessarily the challenge of the mountain, cave, ocean or otherwise they had to overcome, it was themselves. They always appeared to be completely exhausted, with potential failure pushing them harder and failure itself causing them to be utterly disheartened. After a short time, they would usually do a reflection of their efforts and learn about themselves, as opposed to learning more about the challenge.

When I attempt my journeys, which I have or will be posting in the future on here, they will have been designed to push me physically, emotionally and psychologically. Therefore I consider everything I do on here an expedition. These are the factors that I currently believe affect each one, and these will change over time.

Physical endurance

I have felt my body slowly falling into disrepair on expeditions, but have chosen not to quite yet push the absolute limits. I have so far attempted to be as prepared as I can be, and therefore minimise the impact on myself. I think this is definitely the easiest to prepare for and maintain. But factors like sleep, food and water will always play significant roles. It also feeds directly into psychological and emotional endurance. When I was in Mallorca I didn’t prepare myself enough on day one with water and ended up with a banging headache and muscles feeling a little worse for wear. It was easily and quickly remedied, but it shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. On more harsh and remote expeditions this could have been significantly worse, it was a wake-up call.

Psychological Endurance

High Atlas, Morocco 2015
Gollum looking for holes in his air mattress

My preparedness through planning and organising the expedition is definitely how I reassure myself to maximise my enjoyment. It also helps me focus on other matters, like equipment tweaks, niggles and injuries. Everything that impacts the psychological state on an expedition. However, when you become tired these start to slip, and immediately affect your determination, commitment, etc. and it begins to deteriorate and consequently ‘what ifs?’ creep in. One occasion for me in Morocco was when my inflatable mattress gave up, and I also split my Camelbak. Frustratingly I couldn’t find the hole in the mattress, which didn’t allow me time to wind down after a long walk and was guaranteeing a shocking night’s sleep. And I had never used Camelbaks before, this was the first time, and I was kicking myself for not sticking to what I knew or for not trying it out beforehand. This all knocked my confidence and I worked hard to ensure I sought solutions and maintained humour and enjoyment throughout the expedition.

Emotional endurance

Definitely, the one that I think people underestimate and can creep up on you without a hint or a clue. Homesickness, loneliness, fear of the unknown, anger and frustration, anything that could break you really, they are all caused when something is not going right. This could be one or combination of this list, equipment breaking, injury or illness, fatigue, malnutrition, same food for days or even weeks, getting lost, weather, etc, etc. We definitely experience these problems in day to day life, but they are amplified significantly in remote places. Whilst in Cambodia, I had to push myself hard in the jungle on day 1. I was suffering from a cold-like illness and fatigue, it was absolutely pouring with rain and the guides to build the camp had got caught up with another group. I just wanted to go back to the town and relax, I was really having a hard time keeping myself from quitting.

Nizwa Towers in Oman 2006
Looking back at my solo of Nizwa Towers traverse 2006

Ultimately I believe no matter what I have written above, my definition of the word expedition will evolve. And this will only evolve as all three of these are pushed to the limits and appropriately beyond. With each expedition, several lessons are learned, and these are normally through the failure of something. But as long as you recognise this, then you can make it the learning experience it needs to be. Looking back at those hiccups in the road and reflecting is what makes us improve. They also have a part to play in our everyday life.

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