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Adventurers discuss their greatest challenge

What does it take to achieve the impossible? Alex Honnold, George Bullard and Sarah Outen tell us about the challenges that have defined their careers, from enduring starvation on an icecap in Greenland to rerouting an entire expedition through Alaska

Adventurers discuss their greatest challenge
Alex Honnold on a steep limestone route, Greece. Image: Alamy

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Alex Honnold

The humble Alex ‘No Big Deal’ Honnold is a trailblazer. In June 2017, he accomplished the greatest feat in rock climbing history: he scaled the 3,000ft El Capitan wall in America’s Yosemite National Park — without ropes

I’ve seen a lot of walls, but El Capitan was the most striking, the most inspiring. It was always there in my mind as the ultimate challenge. So I worked up to it. There weren’t really any nerves. You basically prepare to the point that you aren’t nervous. But you have to prepare for scares: for example, if I suspect that my next step on the rock face is going to be scary, and it is, then I’m ready.

I’m afraid of danger. I don’t want to die. If I’m being driven by a drunk taxi driver, that’s scary. If I’m on a plane that’s about to crash and there’s a real chance of death, then sure, I’d be scared. With climbing I do things that I’m completely used to — it’s totally natural.

For me, the most meaningful moment of the climb was the elation I felt getting to the top. It was such a long-held dream finally realised. There were moments when I was climbing that were tinged with excitement, but essentially I was super focused and nervous. And then, when I got to the top, I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness. El Capitan is my favourite wall for sure, but not because it’s fun. There are plenty of other places that are more fun. Really it’s too big, too tiring.

Being the best in my field as a soloist? I’m not sure I am, but it’s about commitment. I’m constantly trying better myself. I love climbing and love sharing it with others. It’s one of those elemental forms of movement like running or swimming and I want it to be more accessible. Humans are basically apes and we should climb. Everyone should have the opportunity to try it.

What would my advice be for budding climbers? Focus on the basics, on how you move on the wall. With climbing it’s not so much about strength but technique and footwork.

Next I’m heading to Antarctica for an expedition with The North Face. I’m going to tackle the big granite walls in Queen Maud Land. I’ve climbed in cold conditions before in Patagonia and Alaska, and even in the American desert it can get surprisingly cold, but this will be an outrageous life experience. Veteran climber Conrad Anker is leading our team, but I’ll need to make sure my ski and cold weather equipment is spot on, and that my geographical knowledge of the area is perfect, so if I need to get out of somewhere, I can. alexhonnold.com

The historic event was documented for a National Geographic feature-length film, yet to be released. Previews at nationalgeographic.com

George Bullard taking a quick dip in polar waters. Image: George Bullard

George Bullard taking a quick dip in polar waters. Image: George Bullard

George Bullard

Today, George holds four world records, has undertaken countless expeditions across the globe, and is a partner of ultra-adventure outfit IGO Adventures. But a decade ago, when he set his sights on the record for the longest unsupported polar journey, he was just a plucky teenager, albeit one with an aptitude for tetrathlons

Adventures of any kind require a good deal of determination, focus, patience and mental fortitude. And then there’s the physical preparation to boot. All challenges, mental and physical, are amplified in the wilderness. In 2008, aged 19, I found myself on day 105 of what would be an almost four-month-long expedition. Alex Hibbert and I were trying to break the record for the longest unsupported polar journey in history. We had walked 1,150 miles of a 1,400-mile expedition across the Greenland icecap and, in all that time, we hadn’t seen another human or, ironically, the colour green. Hungry and exhausted, we were trying to locate one of our food depots that we had stashed on the outbound journey. It was that moment the realisation hit home: we had lost it. That feeling will stay with me forever. We had effectively run out of food. Let me say that again — we had run out of food!

Most people in the Western world are fortunate enough never to have to go without one of the four critical requirements for life: warmth, food, water, and air. I certainly hadn’t, so to be without food for the first time on the Greenland icecap was pretty difficult. The one thing that kept me going was the thought that if I went home now just because I was hungry, with the job half-finished, it would have been a complete waste of an incredible opportunity. I knew I would have felt a huge sense of regret when I collapsed onto the sofa at home, and that was enough to encourage me to give it my all.

We survived for nine days off small balls of fat with porridge oats (similar to what you feed birds in winter). We ate them like apples, taking it in turns to bite off a chunk. Having the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner day in, day out was a character-building experience in itself. Finally, after 113 days, we were dangerously hypoglycaemic but had achieved what we set out to do: we’d broken the record. Was it our determination, patience or focus? Probably a combination of all of the above came into play at certain stages of this life-changing expedition. georgebullard.co.uk

Sarah Outen, out at sea. Image: Getty

Sarah Outen, out at sea. Image: Getty

Sarah Outen

In November 2015, Sarah completed her most recent major expedition: London2London: Via the World, rowing, cycling and kayaking 25,000 miles around the Northern Hemisphere. The journey took four and half years and was all the richer for not turning out exactly as planned

I just loved my most recent big expedition; the immersion in the wild, the encounters with animals and communities, the challenges and the lessons. Of course, it wasn’t always fun. I ran the gauntlet of terrors and dangers, but there’s a lovely proverb that I write on my boats: the journey is the reward.

I think courage and adaptability are key. My journeys often haven’t gone entirely to plan; it took me two attempts to row from Japan to North America, for example. In 2012, I was rescued 700 miles into my solo voyage after being hit by Tropical Storm Mawar. I fell apart, yet it was during my forced stint at home that I met my partner, Lucy. I learnt a lot about my own mind and developed great empathy for others with mental illness.

My second attempt, in the spring of 2013, got off to a great start. I zipped eastwards for the first thousand miles, joined by hoards of iridescent mahi mahi fish, whales as long as swimming pools and albatrosses with aeroplane wingspans. It was magic. But I was then buffeted back by week after week of headwinds. I was four months in and it was clear I wasn’t going to reach North America before storm season.

My team and I made plans for me to divert to the Aleutian Islands, and I landed on Adak after 150 days at sea, grateful to be safe. But this diversion meant that to continue looping the Northern Hemisphere, I then had to kayak 1,500 miles through the islands to the nearest road in Homer, Alaska, and then cycle across the peninsula.

It turned out to be richest part of the whole journey. Indeed, of my whole life. I came across honking masses of sea lions, otters, bears and remote communities — all of us tied together by the challenges of surviving on this desolate coastline.

I am reminded of an Aleut motif as I write this: a carved wooden hand with a hole through the palm. The idea behind it is that we meet an experience, learn from it and share it, and then let it pass through. All our experiences, both good and bad, shape us, and we can learn from them all if we’re open to it. Sarah is an ambassador for Elliot Brown watches.

Published in the Adventure Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)