You may remember New Zealand’s John Dennis from my January post, Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Journey. John’s struggle with depression became an oft-painful journey of self-discovery as he struggled to understand how depression affected him, along with the stigma that too often prevents men and women from seeking the help they need. John now spreads awareness about depression, trauma and mental illness through Expedition dare2express, his upcoming solo, unaided expedition to the South Pole! It was an honor and a privileged to correspond with John, and I’m so excited to see him take on this amazing challenge.
Tell us about your current project.
I’m planning an ambitious, though achievable, solo, unsupported traverse to the South Pole in November 2015. I’ll be departing a start point known as Hercules Inlet heading North/west to the pole. We’ve realized that I’m not going to set any speed records, so it’s all about reaching the pole in good fashion, rather than in an emaciated state as some others do. The walk (or stroll as I call it) is 1150km (730miles) and I’m hoping to do it in around 45 days. I feel I have it in me to do it a fair bit quicker, but all plans are very much for that time. It’s a case of “let’s see how it goes, before pushing on”! Safety in this environment is paramount – my wife and two children will tell you that without hesitation.
What inspired you to begin this expedition?
My inspiration has come from the darkest moment of my life actually. Back in early 2013, my life took a horrible turn and by May 2013, I’d hit a wall and was staring down the barrel of severe depression and PTSD. A completely horrendous episode, though off the back of it, I’ve made some life changing thoughts and had some experiences that I’d never dream I’d have. Essentially my inspiration came from my wife who stood by me at the worst and helped me through. Her helping me, being patient with me and nurturing me gave me inspiration. It gave me a sense of purpose.
I grew up in rural New Zealand, though spent time as a youngster living in Papua New Guinea and remote regions on Western Australia, to include a little island where 800 people lived. So my upbringing was very traditional and tough. We weren’t poor, but we certainly did not have money. It was hard.
Having always been ambitious and adventurous, I was told that exploration is something that I’d never do and was not allowed to consider it. I loved nothing more than watching nature programs and grew up idolizing Jacques Cousteau. I remember when he officially launched the first re-breather scuba system – a bubbles system that allowed him to be one with nature – that was a great day. He spent a lot of time in the Antarctic Ocean and quite frankly, I wanted to be him. Who wouldn’t?
I’ve always been a decent sportsman, but never pushed myself, much to a couple of rugby coaches annoyance. My recovery phase (so it’s called), led me to see things in a different light to what I had always done. My personal goals of big business and wealth are not a driving factor any longer. My goal is to raise as much awareness for depression as I can. It’s the unseen illness that no-one understands, or actually comprehends how down right horrible it really is. Oh and I get to do something pretty cool in the process.
What do you hope to learn or teach from this experience?
I’m constantly learning things about myself and about others. I’m pushing myself harder and father than I have ever done and I’m surprising myself daily as to who far I can go. It seems limitless almost. What the mind wants the body will deliver if you work with it.
My first training trip to Haugastøl, Norway in February was completely out of my comfort zone and was something that I certainly had not done. There has been a lot of self-expectancy leading up to this trip, I felt overwhelmed once we had finished the course. The course was run by a company called Expeditions 365, with Carl Alvey and Hannah McKeand. Both outstanding polar guides and great people and it was a brilliantly programed event giving us (myself and 4 other chaps I’d not met till we started Tom “Freddie” Howells, Stew “Yeah” Edge, Tom “Bomber” Lehearn and Jojo “City Boy” Regan. We shared something together that I will certainly never forget and what a team. I’d not laughed that much for a very long time). The course delivered all the basic skills to undertake a trip, also delivering basic systems for that environment. Hannah is as mad as a box of frogs on skittles and Carl is a big lad, very northern (England), frank and a downright nice bloke. That both are actually and my tumbles learning to Nordic Ski gave them many laughs…
My second training trip (a trip that has its own merits, but my focus on Antarctica only saw this as a training run, not for the event it was) again in Haugastøl, was a 16 day expedition. Carl was to join me for 4-5 days, but it was quickly noted by us both, that I needed to break out on my own sooner and he left me on the second morning. It was a liberating thought and actually relived a lot of pressure as his experience and my two weeks training back in Feb were playing on my mind. This trip was all about finding out about myself and if I could actually undertake this feat later this year. It was pretty conclusive at the end of it and the answer was simple… YES, I certainly could. Though not all plain sailing with weather playing a vital role in my training, I’ve come away with the confidence that I can achieve it and its given self-confidence like I have never had. 15 days on my own, averaging 560m ascent daily, covering a little shy of 280km (175miles), to date has been my greatest achievement. I had one days planned rest (to get used to tent life in the certain event of winds on Antarctica) and 33 hours non-negotiable tent time due to high winds. In all I felt chuffed I’d made it and with all digits and toes intact; no Ran Finnes for me!
I don’t judge others, but I see other people going on the work grind for what… social standing, secure lives. That is not a negative, or intended to be, because that is the way things are. No, I don’t see the complete benefit of that and what it actually gains you? Is it about admiration, or indeed seeing the envy that you have more than others? For the first time in my life, it’s about being comfortable in who we are as a family and doing what we feel is right.
The teaching side is teaching how to overcome adversity and things in your life that would normally kick you down every time you try to stand up. I’m doing a few talks to school kids about my adventures and using my life experiences to hopefully inspire the next generation of adventurers. So far it seems to have worked and kids have been sending my some fantastic things in the post. One little girl named her sled after the expedition and wants to do what I’m going to do. Putting that down as a big tick in the box.
What would be your advice to someone that wants to take on their own larger-than-life challenge?
My advice would be… DO IT! You are a long time in the grave, don’t go to the grave in a graceful and dignified manner – go in kicking and screaming, body broken, worn out, but having led a life that you wanted to do.
My strongest advice would be to take advice. Listen to people that have experience, use that knowledge to plan and execute to the best of your abilities.
A quote from Roald Amundsen “I may say that this is the greatest factor: the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck.”
This is a quote that I regularly think of and one that helps me maintain my focus for planning my trip.
Who is your favorite explorer, adventurer or scientist?
Wow, that is a loaded question. There are so many people to take inspiration from. Amundsen, Cook, Hillary (of course) – modern day adventurers like Hannah McKeand, Al Humphries and people like are great inspiration to younger people and that is admirable. But I take my inspiration from people who do things daily that others would not consider possible. Seeing someone walking down the street with physical disabilities, knowing that people are staring, yet doing what they need to is more inspiring than anything that the “adventurer” label can produce. Odd I know, considering what I am about to do, but I don’t have those scares, mine are invisible, but they are there and will always be, so my way of inspiring is to undertake this event and prove that mental health can be overcome with confidence and drive.
Though all that being said, if you pushed me, it would be Jacques Cousteau.
Ah, well that would be telling. A start is to look at the Yukon Arctic 300/430 race in 2017. I have enjoyed my polar training so much, that it’s given me a drive to look at doing trips like this regularly with the eventual goal to take people out to this environment professionally. But that is a distant goal and not in any planning just yet!
Amazing! Your journey is an inspiration; thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
(All photos and media courtesy John Dennis, Expedition dare2express)