If you want a holiday that isn’t just good but spectacular, you should perhaps put more thought into who you go with. And Mike Peake suggests that the ultimate travel companion is a world-famous guide or explorer…
In April 2007, long-distance backpacker Andrew Skurka set off from the Grand Canyon to walk ‘The Great Western Loop’, a 6,875-mile journey which takes in a vast swathe of the left hand side of America. Upon his triumphant return in November the same year, his status in the adventure community skyrocketed. National Geographic named him an adventurer of the year and everyone from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal wanted to speak to him.
Skurka became a hot ticket.
With brains to match his brawn, he realised that ‘exposure’, while nice, wasn’t going to buy him a house or convince his girlfriend he was serious marriage material. In fact, he now says, he was “a backpacking dirtbag,” spending as many days on trails each year as he could and then working as little as he had to in order to get by.
When Skurka hit 30 in 2011, he decided to turn the thing he knows and loves into a business and set himself up as a backpacking guide offering less-experienced hikers memorable and meaningful adventures in the Rockies. Five days with Andrew costs around £1,200 – not bad considering the experience, planning and fireside stories he brings to the table. “I was tired of financial uncertainty,” he says, “and going into business doing something I loved was a more appealing option than a 9-5 job.”
Though he perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, Skurka had cottoned on to something that is only now starting to become a bit of a ‘thing’: namely that big-name adventurers are not only there to bag sponsorship money and chase news headlines, they can also show us lesser mortals how to we can have an awesome adventure, too.
At one end of the spectrum is Bear Grylls. His popular Survival Academy offers trips ranging from 1-5 days, but he’s not normally there to haul you up the mountain or help you build a raft. If you want the man himself to show up, you’ll have to pay an incredible – wait for it – £110,000, though that does include all fees for a group of up to 10 people.
Rather more affordable is TV’s Ray Mears, who leads several adventures a year to places like Namibia and charges a jolly reasonable £5,000 for 10 days. Even more wallet-friendly is Kenton Cool, the famous mountain guide who helped Sir Ranulph Fiennes make it up Everest. It’ll set you back around £475 a day to get one-on-one tuition from Cool, one of the world’s most vaunted mountain guides, which is not a whole lot more than what you’d have to pay to go climbing with someone no one has ever heard of.
There are other adventurers who are starting to smell the potential of offering themselves up as personal guides, too – people like Jason Lewis, the first person to circumnavigate the globe using human power.
“I’ve certainly thought about it,” says Lewis. “Getting amateurs into the field and having a grand adventure is something I’ve always felt passionate about, and I’ve done it several times, though I’ve only asked people to cover their costs. But seeing as I’ve already done it for free and a couple of times it’s not been very pleasant, then hell, why not charge for it?”
American ultrarunning legend Karl Meltzer has given some thought to the matter, too. “I really do think my future may be in giving people running tours in really cool places,” he says. “Something for later life – especially if there’s decent money in it.”
While there’s little doubt that accomplished adventurers can bring a wealth of experience and opportunities to the table, might it also be true that once money changes hands it suddenly becomes a little bit corporate? Can clients ever really be anything other than this week’s meal ticket?
It’s a question not lost on Andrew Skurka, who tries to get to know his guests months before every trip for this very reason. He acknowledges that each of them has paid good money to be there and that he needs to match their enthusiasm.
But he says he is “unapologetically comfortable” with having turned something he adores into a business, even though he could never have envisioned this would be how he pays the bills when he first started hiking. “My earliest trips were motivated by nothing but passion, and at the time I fully expected there would be a stage in my life at which point I’d have to get a conventional job,” he says. “This is far better.”
Jason Lewis has no qualms about paid hand-holding either. “As long as there is complete transparency, then it is no different to any other kind of consultancy work,” he says, pointing out that while consulting is certainly not the reason he got into adventuring, he first considered the idea more than a decade ago.
The chance to hit the road with a seasoned adventurer is something that usually most of us would only dream of, but it’s becoming a reality (if you can afford it). Why trudge aimlessly through the Rockies when the king of backpackers could show you how it’s really done? What you’re really paying for here is expertise that will turn your incredible adventure into the experience of a lifetime.