Kayaking the waterways of Antarctica is challenging at the best of times… but even more so when you have 25 inexperienced tourists in tow. We spoke to adventure kayak guides Ewan Blyth and Sophie Ballagh, to hear about what it takes to be a guide in one of the most unpredictable and hostile places on the planet. Their story, “Navigating the White Continent”, talks of the highs and lows of taking tourists on a once in a lifetime expedition amongst the ice sheets of the polar region.
How did you get into kayaking originally? Did you both start kayaking in similar circumstances?
We were both drawn into kayaking by passionate, devoted outdoor education teachers during our schooling years. Very similar men in many ways just in different schools, in different countries, providing opportunities to similar students.
How did you get into adventure guiding? Have you guided anywhere other than the Antarctic?
Sophie’s direction in life pointed towards guiding from the moment a school careers advisor identified it as a potential career path.
I on the other hand, started a little differently. After a professional career in a totally non-related industry (a desk-job!), I fell into outdoor guiding rather unexpectedly and without meaning too and my career took off from there. We’ve both guided in many parts of the world but keep being drawn to the Antarctic because it is so special and so unique.
As you say, Antarctica is a pretty special place. Even someone who has never been there before an appreciate that! What does it mean to you to be out on the water, in such an incredible place every day?
It means we have perhaps the best office in the world! Though, sometimes it feels like there are some problems with the air-conditioning. We return to Antarctica because of the place, because of what it means to give people the gift of experiencing a place otherwise mostly off-limits for people. The outdoors is our temple, it’s our place of belonging and exploration of the outdoors satisfies our curious minds.
Can you describe to us what a typical expedition with clients entails?
There is no a “typical expedition” – that is an oxymoron. An expedition is a unique experience shared just by those on it. Weather conditions are different, personalities are different, group dynamics are different, events and timings are different. What they all share is a collection of people getting to know each other through a lens of witnessing an incredible environment and then gaining a deeper understanding of place and of person – individual and as a whole.
It seems surprising that some people come on your trip without ever having kayaked before! Antarctica seems a pretty extreme place to start. Is it common for completely inexperienced kayakers to come on the trips?
Yes, most would consider Antarctica an extreme place to learn. But it is very common for completely inexperienced clients to come to Antarctica and kayak for the first or second time in their life. And we just cater to these needs. We are dynamic, we can adjust as needed – that is the art of guiding. And ultimately our product is very safe even if the perceived risk – of kayaking among icebergs in freezing water – is considered “extreme.”
What are the biggest dangers when kayaking in the Antarctic?
The greatest hazard as we see it – both in terms of likelihood and consequence (the two key factors of risk) – is ice. This can be in the form of icebergs or glaciers. Both can be incredibly beautiful but incredibly dangerous if humans behave inappropriately around them and don’t both respect them and understand the risks. Trying to communicate this to clients can sometimes be very difficult as it can be challenging trying to understand the risks of something you have never seen before, especially when you’re caught up in the moment and want to make the best of an experience you’re unlikely ever to have again.
What goes through your mind when a client puts themselves in danger? How hard do you find it to keep your calm?
Simply managing that risk right. How could that client’s action impact others? This comes fairly naturally now. Sometimes it can be a calm, collected approach and at other times a more direct, authoritative approach is needed. Knowing the right approach for the right time is part of the art of guiding.
What do you find most fulfilling about being a guide?
The best thing is seeing, hearing and feeling the joy that your services and skills have brought to people and their lives, and seeing that they now too have a piece of the place in their hearts.
If you were just about to embark on your first ever trip in the Antarctic, what advice would you give to yourself, looking back now as an experienced explorer?
Take lots of photos but also take lots of time without a camera to absorb the place. Photos will tell stories later, but memories will come from being in the moment. Most importantly though, take good gloves! Never underestimate the conditions. Disrespect them and you will be bitten.
And finally, what advice would you give someone who was nervous to set out and explore?
Prepare. Getting your expectations in line and having knowledge always eases nerves and provides a better foundation for success from the explorations. And finally go out with an open mind, manage yourself safely and be grateful for all that comes your way, good or bad. There is much to be learnt from both.
by Ewan Blyth and Sophie Ballagh issue 213
To read more about Ewan’s and Sophie’s experiences guiding in the Antarctic, click here.