Tim Jarvis is an internationally renowned environmental scientist and polar explorer who completed the fastest unsupported trek to the South Pole in 1999. In January 2013, he and a crew of five successfully re-created Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous 1916 Antarctic survival journey by piloting a 22-foot wooden sailboat 800 nautical miles across the roughest seas in the world to South Georgia Island, followed up by a 32-mile overland trek across glaciated mountains—all without the aid of modern-day clothing or equipment. A 3-part documentary about the voyage, Chasing Shackleton, begins this week on PBS. In advance of the premiere, BACKPACKER reached Jarvis in London to discuss old school navigation, cold weather survival, and decisive action during a crisis.
Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and punctuation.Click HERE to see more images from the voyage.
BACKPACKER: First off, congratulations on a tremendous accomplishment. Have you had sufficient time to process the scope of it now that some time has gone by?
TIM JARVIS: Thanks, yeah, it was a true team effort, the whole thing. When you achieve something as momentous as this, it takes a long, long time to really sink in. What I would say is that we haven’t done what Sir Ernest did, but we got as close as you can by getting in a boat and suffering in the old clothes and navigating and crossing South Georgia with no real equipment.
BP: Hopefully you’ve been on vacation someplace warm since then?
TJ: [chuckling] No, I haven’t, I haven’t had a chance to do that yet.
BP: How did Shackleton’s story influence you as you were growing up? Did it serve as a touchstone?
TJ: His story was all about achieving a goal against almost impossible odds. His being able to pull off what he managed to do set such a positive example that it couldn’t fail to have an impact on me, or anybody who might be attempting to overcome self-doubt. Anything is possible if you persevere, if you assemble the right team around you, and if you remain optimistic in the face of the conditions that you face. It’s always been out there for me as someone who has been interested in doing things to test himself, particularly in the polar regions. It’s just the biggest expedition that one could ever attempt.
BP: And you took after Shackleton himself in that you looked for very particular characteristics in the people who would accompany you.
TJ: Yes, I wanted people who took ownership of things. I didn’t want employees, I wanted people who were so keen to come that they were prepared to start managing aspects of the expedition almost before they’d been appointed in the role. I wanted to see how well they’d perform before I effectively gave the green light to actually have them on board. It takes a lot of confidence to do that: to work morning noon and night on an expedition you’re not sure you’ll be a part until I, as the expedition leader say, ‘look, I think you’ve proved your worth and can come.’
The people I got, their CVs and experiences were incredibly impressive. We had round-the-world sailors and mountaineers and survival experts. They were people who were prepared to work for nothing, as we all did, to participate. In everyday life, they wouldn’t be used to having to prove themselves, the CV would speak for itself. I suppose it was the other way around here. But I also wanted people who were team players, not people who brought big egos along with them and that’s difficult when you’re looking at people of such a high caliber. Paul Larsen, our navigator, is a 7-time world record holder and narrowly missed out on being made World’s Sailor this year at the Rolex Awards. Barry Gray is head of survival for the combined armed forces of the U.K. These people are really top performers, and yet they were prepared to be assessed by me for their adequacy for the role.
I also wanted people with a good sense of humor. That was extremely important. You need that when you’re six men sharing a space the size of a queen-size bed—except, of course, we were sleeping on rocks and camera batteries. So they needed to have a fairly unique set of characteristics, a lot of skill and humility and pragmatism and not too much ego. And I hit the right combination.
BP: Do those qualities lend themselves well to other survival situations, too?
TJ: I think that’s absolutely right. The key is to not take yourself too seriously. To elaborate on that, if you go to the Antarctic and you think that your CV or previous experience is going to stand you in better stead to make the journey, you’re very much mistaken. At the end of the day, the mountains or the oceans or particularly the ice caps down south are not at all interested in how honorable your cause is. You’re only going to be able to do this if you perform on the day. So that requires a certain humility. I approach every expedition as if it’s my first.
Of course, you bring with you a lot of skills and mind games you can bring to bear on situations you face, but at the end of the day, you’re only going to succeed if you can perform on the next expedition. You’re only as good as your next step. I think that not taking yourself too seriously is all part of having a good sense of humor about your chances. Self-delusion is a very useful skill to have. You’re always convincing yourself that things are better than they really are and that sort of carries you through.
BP: How did you design a training regimen to prepare the crew for the conditions they might face?
TJ: The key is expectation management. In the case of the three climbers, including myself, we had to prepare ourselves for the kinds of ocean conditions we might face. Huge seas in a small boat that. frankly, was not very seaworthy, with no keel. We went through the Royal Navy Lifeboat Institute sea survival training course and put ourselves through a whole other course on cold water immersion to see how long we could survive in old clothes in -2 degrees Celsius [28.4 degrees Fahrenheit] water.
And the sailors needed to be prepared for what they’d face on South Georgia, which is essentially an Antarctic weather system. You’re climbing at quite high altitudes up over heavily crevassed terrain and descending very steep passes. Baz [Gray] took the sailors out and put them through their paces in northern Scotland and it’s amazing to see people who are at the top of their game in their particular discipline put in a new environment like climbing. It’s interesting to see how they react and it teaches you a lot about those people.
When we got to Antarctica, we did more training for 10 days and some crevasse rescue training. The main emphasis was on training the sailors to be better climbers. But at the end of the day, the three climbers and three sailors in the boat had to be made to learn the other skill set as best they could in the time we had available.
BP: What was it like learning to use—and then relying upon—century-old equipment?
TJ: All of us are pretty good outdoors people, and we’re all familiar with compass/map work using modern equipment, but in the case of using a sextant, none of us with the exception of [expedition skipper] Nick Bubb and Paul Larsen had ever really used one in anger before. If you’re a sailor under the age of 45, you would probably have never learned to use one. We’ve had GPS for 20 years or so, so why bother learning to use a chronometer to navigate by? Four of us learned how to use the equipment to the extent that we needed to, whereas Nick and Paul became experts.
BP: Is there something to be said for not relying on modern technology?
TJ: That’s exactly right. I had a friend who died on the summit of Everest and he was on the satellite phone to his wife until the moment the batteries ran out. Just because you’re in contact doesn’t mean it’s going to get you anywhere. You can overestimate how safe you are. It was the same when I did a journey across Antarctica via the South Pole in 1999 in a bid to be the first person to go across completely unsupported. As I approached the pole from the Weddell Sea—effectively doing the route Sir Ernest Shackleton was trying to do when the Endurance was crushed—I found that my GPS didn’t work in the last 300 km [186 miles] approaching the pole because satellite coverage was too poor to get a signal. It wouldn’t give me a fix on where I was.
I had to use a compass and look at magnetic variation, the sastrugi under feet, and my body as a kind of sundial, knowing that at twelve noon at my particular latitude, the sun would be in the north and my shadow should theoretically be pointing south. I used that to double check my compass and my sastrugi bearings to navigate. So it’s very useful skill to be able to get yourself out of difficult situations without relying on technology.