An interview with Tim Jarvis, Australian explorer of the year

Smart practice

Tuesday 01 April 2014

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed a small rowing boat across 900 miles of some of the world's roughest ocean, travelling 1,178 miles from Elephant Island, trekking across Antarctica, finishing at South Georgia Island in 1916. What began as a mission for exploration turned into a mission for survival when disaster struck, and struck again. His journey has been described as one of the greatest survival stories of all time.

Last year, environmental scientist, author and adventurer Tim Jarvis led an expedition to Antarctica to replicate the 1916 journey, following the same 1,178 mile route, using the same equipment, food and technology as Shackleton did almost a century ago. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, Tim succeeded in completing his journey.

The Shackleton Epic took four years of planning. What hurdles did you face during the early stages of planning the expedition?

The main hurdles and risks with organising such a complex expedition began long before we set foot on Antarctica. They related to simultaneously progressing interrelated financial, personnel, regulatory and logistical issues across a range of disciplines. For example, on the finance side, corporate sponsors would not commit until they were confident a film would be made about the expedition, as this represented the main means by which they would get recognition for their involvement. Broadcasters would not commit until the sponsors were confirmed. High calibre personnel would not commit until they knew the expedition was definitely going ahead, and that of course relied on getting sponsor and broadcaster commitment. In addition, permits and insurance could not be progressed until the final shape of the expedition was known and this, in turn, relied on all the other aspects being bedded down. The role I was faced with, as expedition leader, was to break through this impasse by committing to the project and providing seed capital, time, resources and ongoing assurances to all parties until such time as the project gained critical mass and moved on to a successful conclusion.

I believe there is no such thing as failure, so long as you attempt things at the limit of your or your team's collective ability. By the same token, if you are not 'failing' from time to time, then you are probably not taking on difficult enough challenges or setting your sights high enough - Tim Jarvis.

You speak about having a clear vision and breaking it down into achievable milestones – getting the 'big rocks' in first. What were the three biggest rocks of the Shackleton expedition?

Big rocks were central to the success of the expedition, in particular the actual big rocks that provided the ballast for the boat which prevented us from capsizing at sea! Leaving aside these literal rocks, the first of the 'big rocks' was getting the right vision in place as to how and when we wanted to undertake the expedition, which was just as Shackleton had done it 100 years ago, in time for the 100th anniversary, and putting in place all of the milestones to enable that vision to be delivered. The second of the big rocks was recruiting key team members who would help provide energy, expertise and resources to make it happen. The third big rock was securing the commitment from broadcasters and sponsor organisations to fund the project.

You are certainly outcome focused and motivated by the end goal. If you and your team had been unable to complete the Shackleton expedition as originally intended, would you have considered it a failure, or simply a testament to how difficult it must have been to complete over 100 years ago?

I believe there is no such thing as failure, so long as you attempt things at the limit of your or your team's collective ability. By the same token, if you are not 'failing' from time to time, then you are probably not taking on difficult enough challenges or setting your sights high enough. The fear of failure is a real fear during expeditions, but it more closely relates to letting yourself down and not performing to the standard you expect of yourself, rather than a completely unforeseen event, such as an accident, equipment failure or weather conditions that prevents you continuing or completing your mission. Shackleton was an incredible leader and his team members were of the highest calibre, just as (if I can say so) were ours. However, both teams certainly had and made their own luck. I am still in awe of what Shackleton achieved 100 years ago, given that he lost his ship, had to live for many months on the ice before his boat journey, left most of his men behind on Elephant Island, had no map of the mountains of South Georgia and no one knew where they were. We had none of those circumstances and still found it incredibly difficult. We made it and his legend lives on undiminished as far as we, the modern team, are concerned.

Have there been any expeditions that you have set out to achieve but were unable to? If so, what were the reasons? Are they still on your list to do at some point in the future?

I made an unsuccessful attempt on the North Pole together with an expedition partner back in 2002 and have been back since. My partner in 2002 suffered frostbite about halfway through the journey and decided he could not go on. All of our plans for our journey to the Pole, which was a 1,000 km journey across a dangerously thin skin of ice on the surface of the sea, were reliant on there being two of us. Among other things, a partner was needed to pull the other out of the sea on the frequent occasions we broke through the ice. The insurance for the expedition only allowed for one emergency extraction in the knowledge that the journey could not be completed solo, so it was 'one out, both out' and I had to abandon when he withdrew. Failure is feedback, as the expression goes, and I learned some key lessons from this failure, including harnessing those feelings of disappointment to help motivate me whenever resolve has dipped on subsequent expeditions, learning to better assess individuals' readiness for an expedition, and as far as the North Pole is concerned, learning that immersion suit technology is the way to go in such precarious terrain.

You have been forced into very physically and mentally challenging situations in very extreme weather conditions. How were you able to keep perspective and make rational decisions to stay on course under such demanding circumstances?

There are three basic techniques I focus on, over and above undertaking a good risk assessment, having the right team, having prepared as well as one can for the likely conditions you will face, and having a good sense of humour. Number one: it's important to retain a sense of perspective by remembering the reasons and motivations that placed you in the situation in the first place. Writing these down can help, even if the reason was simply to test yourself in difficult conditions, as it's really just a case of being able to remind yourself of the reasons when things become tough. Number two: stick to a routine that you know will get you to the finish line, busying yourself with detail almost as a way of distracting yourself from the source of concern or frustration. Number three: work towards small milestones when conditions are too trying to consider anything more. You will use all of these techniques at different times depending on how positive or negative you feel about things, but all are important. Ultimately, as long as your desire to continue exceeds your desire to stop at any given moment, you will prevail. As Shackleton said, "by endurance we conquer".

Was there a particular moment growing up that may have sparked your interest in conserving the environment or committing to such extreme and daring journeys?

I think my childhood experiences in Malaysia really sowed the seed for me. There was no television to watch, obviously no internet, and plenty of amazing wildlife and nature to explore. I remember a defining moment when I was with a group of kids and we got lost on a school excursion at our school's jungle camp in rural Malaysia. We were all 12 years old. I realised that if we followed the sun we could roughly navigate our way out of trouble, and two or three hours of rough bush-bashing later, we emerged intact from the jungle on a remote beach. Based on the fact we'd been originally dropped north of camp to go on the excursion and the camp was on the coast, we headed south and finally reached the camp several hours later in total darkness. That awakening of a resourcefulness I never knew I had has remained with me to this day.

What's next for Tim Jarvis?

It certainly won't involve a journey in a small, unseaworthy boat! The next adventure for me is a project that involves mountaineering around the world to highlight the effects of climate change in the equatorial region, while supporting projects that are doing something positive about the problem in the countries through which I'll be travelling. I'm pretty excited about it as it combines my love of adventure, the environment, advocacy, and importantly 'action'– all in a region that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is going to suffer some of the worst effects of climate change. This region is home to approximately one third of the world's population, many of whom are poorly equipped to deal with it. The difference with this next project and the Antarctic is that this expedition involves contact with people, which is obviously a very different dynamic compared with polar expeditions that are often solitary pursuits. I'm relishing the prospect of it.

Tim is an environmental scientist, author, adventurer and public speaker with Masters degrees in environmental science and environmental law. He is committed to finding pragmatic solutions to major environmental issues related to climate change and biodiversity loss. Tim is the Director of an outcome-focused environmental initiative Do-Tank where the emphasis is on solving problems by action not advocacy. Tim also works as a sustainability adviser on multilateral aid projects in developing countries for organisations including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and AusAID.

To learn more about Tim Jarvis, his environment projects and expeditions, visit


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