When I set out on foot in the spring of 2012 to cross the widest part of South America, an amazing journey that took close to a year, I had certain ideas in mind about the challenges that stood in front of me. As a former special forces soldier in the Israeli military my background included gruelling training and experiences that provided me with some insight into what my team might face, but the real lessons I learned had to be experienced to be fully understood. In some cases we were fortunate to survive the education process.
I’ve outlined five key lessons which can apply to extreme expeditions elsewhere in the world:
Choose Team Wisely
As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When in a remote area where there is no easy return and no chance for a quitter to quit, the rest of the group is saddled with the damage and must suffer the consequences of a weak link. This could include significant lost time, resources and money, and it could even risk the lives of the group. If a person is unable or refuses to continue and it throws off a timetable, it could result in danger from weather, animals, humans, darkness, etc. There’s no telling the potential impact until it’s too late.
It’s important to conduct physical and mental evaluations of the group ahead of time to be as certain as possible that everyone is up for the task. It won’t guarantee it, but it will help to expose problems or weaknesses that can either be resolved ahead of the expedition or disqualify someone from the group. If you do make a mistake and end up with a ‘weak link’ during the journey, cut your losses as quickly as possible. Don’t provide multiple chances for a person to redeem themselves when the risks are so great. Selecting the team includes having reliable, consistent support back home, which means a person with good communication and problem solving skills should the need arise. My wife, Noga, while based in Florida, was a critical element to the success of the expedition with real-time mapping and problem solving capabilities when difficulties occurred.
Select Proper Footwear
Proper footwear is literally the basis of any expedition – you won’t get far without it. Nothing will slow down or derail an expedition more quickly than footwear that is not meant for the requirements of the journey or is not properly broken in. I knew this key point, but learned it again the hard way when a couple of my team members didn’t heed my warning about breaking in footwear ahead of the expedition. We had only ventured two hours when one of my team members started to fall behind the group. He had such a bad blister on the heel of his foot that I had to perform roadside surgery to remove a large flap of skin and melt candle wax on the wound so he could keep going. Don’t just break in your footwear, test it in similar conditions to your expedition to make certain it will hold up when the time comes.
Danger is the biggest concern of any expedition. It can come in many forms. To minimize the chances of danger, and especially when in a rural land, never stay too long in one location – no more than one night, then keep moving! Otherwise it gives people and animals a chance to size you up and make a dangerous or even deadly plan.
This was my biggest mistake while crossing the South American continent and it could have been fatal. As it happened, this mistake resulted in my team and myself being kidnapped under gunpoint by indigenous tribal men and taken 70 miles away from our original expedition path to a location where we were held for 72 hours while the U.S. and Israeli governments considered options to secure our release. We were fortunate to be able to escape under the cover of darkness from the camp we were held at and into the depth of the jungle due to the lax efforts and heavy moonshine drinking of our captors. Some other times along the expedition I was not as lucky. A prepared, disciplined and capable team is always ready to move fast and has a better chance therefore to avoid facing dangerous situations.
Learn Host Countries and Government Contacts
Understand the customs and protocols of the people and governments associated with the journey. It’s difficult to become an expert about all aspects of such complex matters, but learn enough to know how to deal with the most likely issues that could occur. This includes, if possible, securing the written support/approval ahead of time of officials along the path of your expedition. Having written support of host governments was a major help during my South American journey. During the expedition, count on local knowledge as you move along. Ask about best routes and potential pitfalls while considering the reliability of the source and obtaining multiple opinions to confirm the best data. It’s also essential to have a written record of your own government/embassy contacts in the countries you visit, along with the headquarters information of these agencies in your home country.
Expect the Unexpected and Never Give Up
No matter how much you plan, the unexpected is bound to happen. Remain calm, focused and take the time needed to make the best decision. Taking the time to make the best choice is much more important than making a quick decision if there is time to do so. Never, ever give up. My group encountered many dire situations including not having a sufficient supply of drinkable water, but we were able to drain the water out of plants, even in a dry desert environment. There’s a solution to almost every problem if you keep a positive outlook and carefully evaluate the circumstances and options.
Mickey Grosman served in the Israeli military from 1966 to 1973. He currently owns a demolition business based in Orlando, Florida. Mickey is planning another extreme expedition elsewhere in the world for 2014/15. To connect with Mickey visit www.mickeygrosman.com.