Adventure travel is, unsurprisingly, a cathartic experience for many, and especially for those who have more problems to overcome than most. But what about the guides and leaders? Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will hardly fail to have noticed my excitement at meeting Ben Fogle at a talk he gave at the Royal Geographical Society last night on the topic of adventure travel. Now I really don’t go in for celebrity adulation. I used to work for a world famous singer and have met dozens of celebrities from all walks of life. But I couldn’t care less about autographs and, having a terrible sense of facial recognition which is actually nothing to do with my sight loss (I scored 1/20 on the official famous faces test recently), I wouldn’t even notice if I sat next to a celebrity on the train. But I do have a few heroes, as mentioned in my Inspiration post, and Ben Fogle is one of them.
Why him as opposed to any other adventurer? I’m not sure really. Something about him has always fascinated me and filled me with admiration. No more so than the Extreme Dreams TV series where he led groups of ordinary but troubled souls to do amazing things. Some had mental issues, some had physical ones. Some made it to the end of the challenge, some didn’t. I asked him how he felt about these trips, and the people he met on them, and his reply was candid and heartfelt. As an experience, it was tough to be responsible for people with such disabilities or problems, but incredibly mentally rewarding to be responsible for changing their lives. He said he was still in touch with many of them today. But I got the impression that he would not have chosen some of them to go on the trip, and indeed that it was not the right thing either for them or for the rest of the group. Clearly some of them were picked for TV, and because failure and conflict make interesting watching. It also makes the trip seem tougher, and thus more rewarding for those who succeed, if others fail.
In his book The Accidental Adventurer (which I can highly recommend as a thought-provoking as well as interesting book about his various exploits), he writes poignantly about the harrowing experience – both for him and her – of the lady on one of the Extreme Dreams trips who was struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. She couldn’t bring herself to tell the others that he had even died, and talked about him as if he were still alive. You can sense his bitterness towards the production team who insisted that the topic be raised, and who threatened to raise it themselves if he would not. So he was forced to confront her, and actually it not only made good TV, but also probably helped her in the long run. Maybe she needed that push. I know how she felt, I’ve kept things like that bottled up until someone has finally forced me to open up, and I’ve always been glad they pushed me, though I’ve never had to do it on TV! But you can sense that it affected Ben deeply. What makes good TV is definitely not his top priority.
And therein lies the sign of a great leader (though I’m pretty sure Ben is too modest to admit that he is one). As Juan, my Peruvian guide on the Inca trail said, “A good leader should not just be a guide, but a true friend also.” I couldn’t agree more.
There’s something about adventure travel, and for me mountains, that can bring a great unburdening of the soul. A mental as well as a physical release. Maybe it’s the wide open spaces, the proximity to nature, the dislocation from the humdrum of daily life, or just being with total strangers, but I’ve often found myself not only reflecting on life, but opening up to others on such trips. I suspect it’s not uncommon for guides to have to deal with this. They meet a lot of people, they witness all sorts of events, and they are usually slow to judge. For me, it stems also from a need to assuage the guilt I feel at putting an extra burden on them due to my disabilities and health problems. In particular, my lack of sight means that, even if surreptitiously, a guide will usually watch out for me far more than for other people. Not that I want them to particularly, but it goes with the territory, and I’ve had to get used to that. Possibly the fact that I often have to reveal quite personal things to the guide, who after all is there to ensure my safety, brings us that little bit closer.
Just writing this post has a somewhat cathartic effect. Thinking back on previous trips and wondering about future trips and how the guides will react to the challenges of having me as a group member brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. Obviously hayfever. But seriously, I’d love to go on just one trip without all this extra mental burden to those around me. I hope that my guide on Kili will at least get something positive out of the experience of meeting me, to offset in some way the increased burden I put on them, even if it’s just the satisfaction of getting me to the top (there is absolutely no doubt that I will make it, unless I actually succumb to serious altitude sickness). I was mortified when Jose, the guide on my recent trip to Spain, called me his “little bundle of trouble” when we kissed goodbye at the airport. I’m sure he meant it kindly, but I still can’t help wondering.