Interview I did for Wolsey. Check it out on https://www.wolsey.com/blogs/magazine/meet-the-accidental-adventurer
Most explorers grow up dreaming of adventures in the frozen wastes, inspired by titans like Ernest Shackleton, but Vijay Shah stumbled into his life of adventure
Vijay Shah was part of the first British ski team to cross the Arctic’s remote Penny Ice Cap on Canada’s Baffin Island, opening up a new route in the process. This achievement was added to his experiences of solo-ascents in the high mountains, and guiding groups in the Peruvian Andes as a British Exploring Society Leader.
This life on the edge is a far cry from a seven-year old Vijay’s predictions for his future. Growing up in the urban landscape of East London he wrote in primary school that he wanted to grow up to be an accountant. The outdoors was a closed book as he grew older until a British Exploring Society expedition to Svalbard in the Arctic opened his eyes, and within five short years he was leading his own expeditions...
Q: Tell us about your Penny Ice Cap expedition?
A: ‘Our crossing of the Penny Ice Cap was the epitome of what an expedition should be. Start of with some heavy emotional baggage of having had to unceremoniously retreat off the same route three years earlier due to frostbite. Mix it up with rescuing a lost polar bear cub and bringing it back to its mother. Then finally throw in the danger of skiing over very thin sea ice all to the backdrop of some of the most amazing vistas on the planet, and you’re left with a picture perfect postcard of an adventure!’
Q: Did you think you’d become an explorer when you were growing up?
A: ‘If you were to tell a younger me that I could one day call myself an ‘explorer’ I’d say you were mad. Explorers were something I couldn’t fathom or relate to. They were white for starters, making it hard for a younger me to relate to them. And what made them want to risk life and limb, and have a thoroughly miserable time of it for some ideal or record? That was completely alien to me. In contrast, the ideals that my community upheld were family, education and hard work; activities other than these three were ‘unnecessary’ and ‘frivolous’.’
Q: What did discovering the outdoors do for your mindset and sense of self?
A: ‘I wouldn’t say that I knew that I was missing something in my life before I discovered the outdoors, but after I did it was clear there was something missing before that. Discovering the outdoors felt so natural and real, and far more precious than any of the creature comforts that we’re taught to aspire to.
‘Once I’d pushed past the boundaries of creature comforts, being in the outdoors I felt I was answering some innate yearning that I hadn’t known existed. I have never felt as peaceful or content as when I’m out on expedition or remote travel.’
Q: You’re a qualified aerospace engineer – do you bring that expertise into expeditions?
A: ‘Absolutely. In the Arctic our survival is dependant on our equipment – half way through the Penny Ice Cap expedition we set up camp after a hard day’s skiing to find that our stove didn’t work. Despite having snow and ice all around us, without a working stove we may as well have been in a desert, and as all our food was dehydrated we would have no food either.’
‘We carried a spare stove but that didn’t work either; absolutely bizarre and very unusual for both of our stoves to not work at the same time. A sense of urgency was now setting in. All three of us were inside the tent cleaning and changing parts of the stoves like some sort of factory, but the stoves just wouldn’t light. Meanwhile the temperature was descending rapidly. We were approximately nine days of skiing away from civilisation in any direction, but we could only go on for a maximum of three days without water and food – this was getting serious.’
‘Looking at things systematically and using my engineering knowledge, I realised that the probability of both stoves and all our spare parts not working was miniscule to non-existent – there must be something else. After checking our fuel source there was only one possible reason left: oxygen. Immediately I completely opened all the vents of the tent and finally the stoves roared to life – the sweetest sound I had ever heard!’
Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about leadership in the outdoors?
A: ‘Listen. It’s such a simple thing yet we fail at it so often. It’s easy to think that as a leader we always know best, but a team that feels they have been listened to and heard are much more compliant, and more willing to follow you.’
Q: What’s the best piece of outdoors advice you’ve ever received?
A: ‘It’s not your equipment that will get you through but your attitude. When it gets tough, it doesn’t matter how good your equipment is if you don’t have the heart, the belief and the determination to get through it. But if you do have the heart and the tenacity, then you can achieve the extraordinary.’
Q: What’s been your most nervous moment on an expedition?
A: ‘I was on a short alpine holiday in the French Alps and we were attempting a simple route leading from the top of the Mer de Glace glacier in Chamonix. We started at 2am due to the high temperatures during the day but by 9am the temperature was over 25°C celsius and it was heavily affecting the snow quality, so we decided to retreat.’
‘Suddenly my partner slipped in the snow and fell – the rope between us stopped him, but it pulled me off my feet. I dug my axe into the snow but it didn’t bite at all and I hurtled pass my partner. There was an open crevasse below and I fell into it – the crevasse narrowed as it descended and after bouncing off the ice walls I became wedged horizontally between them, facing downwards. All I could see was the blackness of the crevasse below. I couldn’t move my arms, and my legs were freely dangling. We were forced to call for a helicopter rescue, which was the longest wait of my life.’
Q: And your most rewarding one?
A: ‘When I summited Nevado Pisco at 5,752m I was all alone on the summit. The views were spectacular, and especially amazing as I had solo climbed the mountain, my first alpine style ascent. There was not a soul to be seen, or heard, or who knew I was up there. There is a certain gravitas that you cannot experience anywhere else other than when your fate is solely in your hands.’