Renaissance man: Earl de Blonville
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY Renaissance man is someone who’s adept at using an ice axe but can summit a peak without one; who feels at home navigating white-water rivers in a kayak; who has the unyielding urge to sail to the ends of the Earth; and who can confidently pen their tales of adventure upon their safe return. Sixty-year-old Australian explorer Earl de Blonville fits the profile.
Driven by curiosity rather than the desire to conquer, Earl’s lifetime of mountain instructing and white water kayaking has seen him travel the world seeking opportunities for exploration and discovery. Along the way he’s clocked up an impressive resume of first ascents, and an equally inspiring list of first descents. He completed the first sea kayak circumnavigation of Tasmania in 1979 and was the first to paddle south to north across Bass Strait. In 1986 he launched Australia’s first private Arctic expedition, a sailing and kayaking journey that later encouraged business executives to step into an unfamiliar realm to develop new leadership skills.
Now complementing his expeditions with corporate speaking and leadership coaching, Earl hopes to share his spirit of adventure with explorers and businesspeople alike. In 2010 he published Seventh Journey, an account of his adventures (and misadventures) in the Arctic and he hopes to head back to East Greenland this year to embark on a new expedition and to work on a number of book and film projects.
What inspired you to become an explorer, kayaker and mountain instructor?
I was a boy growing up in the bush with no running water or electricity and certainly no entertainment, so I spent a lot of time by myself. I developed a sense of self-reliance and a fascination with what lies around the corner, or in the next valley, or over the next hill; I had a childhood of incredible freedoms. When I was 11 I moved from the bush to the beach and started solo sea kayaking; I saw this old lump of a kayak and I bought it with my pocket money, did it up, and used to go out surfing and sailing with it. I was a very independent little kid, and when I was a bit older I became involved in Outward Bound, which led me into mountain instructing.
Did you attribute the origins of climbing career to Outward Bound?
Yes. I started rock climbing formerly at Outward Bound, and I used to work with the director there as an assistant climbing instructor. He was a very good climber; he climbed a lot of the tough parts of Kilimanjaro and made a number of first ascents in Australia. He was the first to climb Balls Pyramid, a peak near Lord Howe Island, which was a pretty pioneering effort. He said it was like climbing on Weet Bix, where you had to keep the holds together with your hand so they all didn’t just crumble away.
Earl on sweep oar leading the first commercial raft descent of the Himalayan river Sun Kosi that runs from Tibet to India.
Since then you’ve done a number of first ascents…
Yes, well in Austria a friend and I made a few first Australian ascents. We climbed the highest mountain there, and we made some good climbs – also first Australian ascents – in the Dolomites in Italy. I climbed Mt. Ida, which is one of the highest points in Greece, on the island of Crete. I just happened to be over there and fell in love with Crete, and when I was walking around during the winter I saw the peak, and although I had no climbing gear with me at the time – no crampons, ropes or ice screws, just an old ice axe – I just decided I was going to climb Mount Ida if I had a direct route. It is completely covered in snow and ice in wintertime, oddly enough; it’s a pretty serious snow and ice climb right in the middle of the Mediterranean, so I climbed it solo without any gear whatsoever. It was a long and difficult climb and I was nearly killed on the climb down when the whole of the snow face began to move.
Were you frightened when that happened?
No, but I was very surprised. When I get into very, very difficult situations, I talk to myself, and I had to do that then. I talk myself into being very focused, and almost take over as a second person and tell the first person what to do. That works for me, I did it then and it kept me alive. I’ve since read about a study in Canada, where a group of athletes talk themselves into a much higher level of performance.
Tell me about the white water descents you did in the French Alps…
Well I was working as a professional mountaineering instructor in Scotland and North Wales and there was a bunch of us there, all instructors, and we said, “Let’s go for a trip!” So we all chucked our money in, got a mini-bus, put all the kayaks on our boat trailer and hauled it over to the French Alps. There are some monumentally big rivers there and we’d organized to go paddling with the local white water kayak club. When we got there in early summer, there had actually been a lot of rain. Not only was there heavy snowfall during the previous winter, but there’d also been a lot of rain, which meant that all the rivers were really big and quite a few of the big rapids that we knew of were actually washed out, they just didn’t exist anymore. That also meant that quite a few rivers that almost never ran, were running, and there was one in particular that hadn’t run for years but was now a very serious white water river. So we pulled into town, we went to the kayak club and they said, “This is way too dangerous; we’re not going out in these kinds of conditions.” But we went anyway, and we did some spectacular rivers in south of the Alps, rivers that flow right down to the Mediterranean. We were there for a couple of weeks hitting some big water, and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever done simply because it was tough, it was pioneering and it was a lot of fun.
You’ve done some pioneering sea kayak journeys in Australia as well. You were the first to circumnavigate Tassie…
That’s right. Yes, it was 1979. I thought it was my idea, but I met another guy and he said, “That’s funny I’ve had that idea as well.” So we did it together, and we were both pretty determined, hard-headed guys, so it was almost a trip with two leaders, but he was bigger and tougher than me so I let him make the decisions. Of course, before we headed off there was a lot of stuff in the newspapers calling us suicidal. One local expert commented: “It would be too suicidal, don’t do it. Tell them not to do it.” That got put into the newspapers, and cost us a lot of sponsorship on the spot, but we did it anyway, and during the trip, we got caught in the biggest west coast storm in living memory. We had 70-foot waves breaking over the headland and I’ve still got the photos to prove it, but we basically went round without incident. And now sea kayakers come to Australia from around the world, because to circumnavigate Tassie is considered the acid test of top level sea kayakers.
What’s it like to paddle in those conditions?
Well there’s an awful lot of wind and an awful lot of sand blowing around. The tent gets blown flat and the kayaks are buried by sand. So all you can really do is hide in the bush and wait for the winds to go away. And then wait for the seas to die down, and then just get on with the job. Storms come and go.
Earl using the swell to rip him through a narrow gutter on Phillip Island.
How important is it for you to head out on these kinds of adventures?
The difference, I guess, between adventure and exploration is that an adventure is often just a quest for thrills, whereas exploration involves looking for answers. So I’ve always been an explorer insofar as I’m driven by curiosity. I don’t have an ambition to stand on the summit of the world’s eight tallest peaks or to be able to say that I’ve done them. I mean, if I was climbing in the Andes and found a cave halfway up to the summit that was full of mummified bodies, I’d forget the climb because I’d be much more interested in how those mummies got up there. So I’m always driven by curiosity, though of course there are times curiosity takes you to some strange places and there are times when things get tough and you have to fall back on your inner resources. Certainly I’ve had a lot of those experiences, but I didn’t set out to do that. You don’t set out to do that, but it’s nice to know that if you do get overcome by some unexpected bad weather shall we say, that you can cope with whatever mother nature throws at you.
What holds you together when things get tough?
Camaraderie and teamwork. When you stick together with your expedition team like a band of brothers, you discover incredible powers of survival and resilience that you never realised you had. Nobody knows how they’re going to pull up when times get really tough, so it’s important to get out and do things so that you begin to discover yourself in difficult circumstances.
You lead executive expeditions now…
I led Australia’s first executive expedition. I had a ship up in Greenland on the west coast, so I got together four guys, four multimillionaires and said, “Right, well we’re going to make the first Australian exploration of west Greenland. The ship is up there. I’ll go up and fix it up, you fly in, and off we’ll go.” So that’s what we did. They drove the boat. They did the navigation. We went up into the ice cap and explored some interesting areas, including the area where the berg came from that sank the Titanic, and we had a fantastic journey. The purpose of that sort of an expedition is actually to throw the learning and the experience back onto their shoulders so that they come back and say, “We did it.” Not that somebody else showed them what to do. I’ve got another trip that I’m thinking of taking next year which is designed to give people the experience of leading an expedition themselves. So we’ll set things up to enable each person to lead for a week. They’ll get to make all of the errors and fix all of the problems that they create and learn the hard way. That’s the kind of learning that you can’t get anywhere else on Earth.
And will you intervene if everything starts to fall apart?
Nope. They can fix it themselves. And the other three leaders of course will have to bite their tongues so as not to override the person who is leading. And of course they’ll be the ones who actually learn the most, not the guy who is leading. They’ll all have to be business leaders to get onto the trip, and they’ll learn about themselves as leaders without the benefits of money and power and influence, or the ability to promote or punish. So they’ll have to lead from their heart, not just from their head, and not with authority but with persuasiveness.
Where will this expedition take place?
The Arctic, of course. My spiritual home.
Earl bivouacking on the beach during a sea kayak expedition.
You’re drawn to the Arctic. What attracted you to it in the first place?
The first time I was up there was in ’85, and in all I’ve made six trips there. I was attracted to go there by reading about a young English explorer called Gino Watkins. He was an extraordinary fellow. He actually invented the down filled sleeping bag and the dome shaped tent, so I guess you could call him the patron saint of a good night’s sleep. He was quite original in his thinking and led expeditions to East Greenland. On his second trip he disappeared without a trace whilst hunting seals in his kayak. For some bizarre reason I felt that I just had to go to Greenland to retrace his journey. So I was initially inspired to go to Greenland because of reading about this extraordinary young English explorer, Gino Watkins, and then as a result, I discovered I felt at home there.
Do you plan to go back there?
Yes. I’m heading back next year to do a pilgrimage to Desperation Island and rediscover where I was 25 years ago, and also to write a book on survival. I plan to write about my survival story, and also four other very interesting survival stories that took place in East Greenland. There’s something about east Greenland and west Greenland that reminds me of my incredibly free childhood. You can go where you want, you can do what you want, you can just make it all up and people respect you for who you are not how much money you’ve got or what you do, but who you are as a man. And equally you meet some most extraordinary people.
And it’s largely undiscovered as well, isn’t it?
Well, I mean they’ve mapped it, but as soon as you get a little bit away from habitation you’re in a complete wilderness that hasn’t changed dramatically in the last however many hundred thousand years. You can live quite well in the wilderness, just live off your wits and there’s food for the taking and living is a complete lifestyle. And I think the Inuit people, certainly on the west coast, have got a lot to teach us about sustainability. And that’s the intended subject of another book I plan to write after I’m done with leadership and survival, it will look at sustainability through the eyes of the Inuit people. Writing it will require living with them for a period of time, and there’s still plenty of Inuit hunters who just live entirely off the land. I want to find out what we can learn from these people that can guide us toward our quest for more sustainability, which would of course mean moving away from consumerism and brand identification and all the rest of it, and looking at the qualities within ourselves, finding out what matters.
How does it feel to be a role model?
Looking back, I can see that I have encouraged many people I’ve come into contact with to reach for their greater selves, and I’ve inspired lots of people to do things that they otherwise didn’t think they could. Years ago I met an extraordinary young man who wanted to get into outdoor education and I had to go and talk to his parents to encourage them to let him do it. Now he’s running a $15 million business in outdoor education, training 30,000 students a year around the country. He said that if it wasn’t for me he wouldn’t have done that. But quite frankly I don’t think I’m any sort of role model. I don’t know any parents who’d want their kids to be like me.
What advice would you give to young explorers?
Well, my advice would be to trust your intuition, have faith in yourself and if you can think of it, you can do it. And in our evidence-based society, don’t start looking for reasons why you should do it, just do it. Somebody said to me, life is a hard teacher; it gives you the experience first and the lesson afterward. You can’t learn to swim unless you’re in the deep end of the pool, so dive in and experience it. And if you think it’s a good idea, it is.