Thursday, July 08, 2021

Expedition in full autonomy - World First expedition


This article was first published on the SEF's blog (Society French Explorers)

For several years, the expeditions and exploits of various adventurers and explorers have been highlighted in the media and on social networks. This is a very good thing for the ecosystem, since we need a certain visibility that will eventually allow us to sell a derivative product such as a book, a film or a conference. Obviously, some people receive little or no media coverage and we don't hear about their feat or only in a restricted circle linked to the discipline such as caving.

Since the 1980s, the number of challenging expeditions (with a record objective) has exploded and as in any "sport", there are certain codes to be respected by the community. There is no national or international federation for sports expeditions, but there is a terminology, a vocabulary that is understood by the older generation and that must be known. The danger of not mastering this vocabulary is that a novice will announce an expedition and make a mistake that could cause a lot of friction in the community.

In short, the community regularly discovers a misleading publication about an expedition that makes it more difficult in the eyes of the public than it really is; either deliberately by using a vague word that is open to interpretation, or clumsily. The feat is then embellished by a journalist who is not familiar with the milieu and the reader reads an attractive story that seems daring but is not in comparison with other expeditions.

Sometimes the unspoken facts make it clear that an expedition is being lied about. This is rare but not anecdotal.

The two most recurrent problems concern world firsts and the notion of complete (or total) autonomy. There is some subjectivity when these points are discussed but over time a certain consensus has emerged.


Note: this text is intended to be concise and only partially details the problem that exists when there is a lack of knowledge or precision in the description of expeditions with feats.

World firsts.

There are the 'big' world firsts such as climbing Everest first or reaching a pole. Within the big notable firsts there are styles and variants. Climbing Everest solo or without oxygen is a different style. A variant is for example a new route. One can be the first to climb Everest by a new route or go to the pole from a different starting point. Often when the challenge is more difficult, bold or dangerous, the community recognizes the achievement.

There are also various firsts that depend on the person: first of a particular nationality or having an attribute such as a disability (blindness).

There are firsts that are buzzworthy and not really interesting firsts. The first to snapchat on top of Mount Everest. In itself this is a first, but it could have been done before and does not demonstrate a new way of achieving the feat that requires preparation, intelligence or significant risk-taking.

Louis-Philippe Loncke Simpson Desert Trek 2008

You can try to become the first person to reach the top of the world wearing a pink helmet. You're more likely to be laughed at than congratulated.

Some people invent ridiculous world firsts that are easy to dismantle: being the first person to kite 100km in less than 8 hours in Antarctica... when someone had already covered 600km in 24 hours before and didn't brag about it because it's a distance that is regularly achieved.

There are firsts that are combinations of challenges that make sense and others that do not. The 7 summits challenge makes sense (climbing the highest peak on each continent). Is it meaningful to be the first to walk across the 5 largest islands in the world? It's less obvious because depending on the definition you take, you don't have the same 5 islands. Moreover, how can you define a crossing of a place? Crossing Italy from North to South or from East to West is not the same. Should we add the crossing of the big islands that are part of Italy like Sardinia and Sicily? In any case, every serious adventurer and explorer should always present a map of the route.

Complete autonomy

A subject that is still being debated today is the interpretation of carrying out an expedition or a challenge in complete autonomy. Especially in English, where the terms "full autonomy, unsupported, unassisted" can be found. We will limit ourselves here to challenges with "horizontal" progression between a well-defined starting point and finishing point, which can be the same in the case of a return/round trip journey or a loop.

In simple terms, being completely autonomous means not depending on anyone for the duration of the challenge. One could say in some cases to be alone in the world during one's challenge, humanity outside of our bubble no longer exists. The term can be used in sailing, but it is mainly used for polar expeditions (North Pole, South Pole, and Greenland)

What does it mean in practice?

Refusing to resupply or receive help underway and this includes not having preplaced food drops or equipment in certain places. The regular mistake is for people or groups who are 'on their own' without a logistic team and who are actually self-sufficient on long human powered journeys (often walking). They buy food along the way, or even rest in hotels or stay overnight with the locals. As it is not "mum" who does the shopping because they are old enough to do it alone, they think they are complete autonomy, which is not the case.

If we walk to a lake and a kayak is there to cross the lake, it is an assistance because the kayak has been placed beforehand. It is therefore not possible to claim autonomy if you move across continents by sailboat or plane, for example. In this case, we would have a long journey made up of several expeditions which can be in autonomy. But it is important to understand that any autonomy ends as soon as you are re-supplied or receive external help.


Use an asphalt road? A track? A bridge? Is it an aid? Well, it depends on the context and you have to compare it to the past. If you take out the humans, it seems that using man-made structures is not considered as assistance. So you can be completely autonomous and use that. Except that there are exceptions to this. In polar areas, there are theoretically no roads. This is why (among other things) Colin O'Brady was heavily criticized after his crossing of Antarctica. He used the flat road maintained by a track vehicle that runs from the South Pole to the coast. This line or route is marked with poles so it makes navigation a breeze. The physical and mental effort (direction to take) is made much easier. And compared to other previous expeditions that avoided or did not use this track, this is not correct. It is clearly an aid of hundreds of kilometers.

It’s not the case on a well-known official hiking trail. If, for example, one decides to do the GR20 in complete autonomy, well, the GR20 uses bridges, bits of road... and this is not a problem since the path is well defined and is the same for all.

Louis-Philippe Loncke Tasmania 2007

If you want to establish and prove a record in (complete) autonomy, you have to make sure you can prove it. Nowadays, a GPS tracker allows you to report points on a map in real time. You can see the route taken, the geolocation with "timestamp" allows anyone to estimate that you have a "slow/normal" progression speed if you are heavily loaded at the start (for example with a 45kg bag on your back), that you have frequent breaks, that you have not stayed 30 minutes in a village (hey, have you been shopping?) or even worse, that you have spent a night in the village (in a house or in a tent?). It is also obviously considered "normal" to sleep only in a tent (or natural place, cave, under the stars) outside a village. This gives an additional indication of evidence. Not doing it is subject to suspicion. A GPS is also accurate to within a few meters, proving that you took the bridge or crossed the river below on foot or by swimming is difficult to prove if you stay within a few meters. If you really wanted to avoid bridges or roads: you try to have a witness and film the section where you deviate 50-100m from the human structure and you try to have a GPS tracking point that is not near the bridge.

For the polar world, veterans and specialists have developed PECS. The rules and terminology have been developed to be able to announce an expedition in a way that is clear to everyone.

In a populated area where there are encounters, one should only accept smiles and discussion. We don't go so far as to cover our ears if someone tells us that there will be a storm tonight. If there is a storm we will see it coming and since we only sleep in tents, we will get the tent wet anyway. Knowing the weather is not considered to be a help because it doesn't in itself help the physical effort part of the progression.

Neither is the use of a GPS to navigate or even more recently a drone to spot crevasses or leads on the Arctic ice pack, part of the modern equipment. Amundsen or Hillary didn't have this equipment but if it existed at the time, they would have used it. Their technology at the time was the compass, the sextant or petrol.

In autonomy, it is normal to be able to use nature: wood to make a fire, a river, a pond or snow to make water, to fish, hunt or pick fruit. (Not the fruit of a farmer near a village of course).

What about electricity? In autonomy, you ideally recharge by solar panel or via battery packs that you carry. If you use tracking to prove a record, one can admit that you charge a battery on a power grid. Why would you do this? Because it is energy consuming. What will not be accepted is, for example, to leave with a smartphone and recharge it every evening in a hut because you use it to navigate with the GPS active all day. In this case, you carry maps, a compass or an extra GPS that lasts several weeks without recharging. What is clear is that you have to document in an honest way how you have achieved a challenge in complete autonomy. Don’t hide any information that could decrease the “wow” of the expedition.

What about a film crew? The same thing needs to be said. Ideally, you film yourself. The film crew cannot "touch" the adventurer. A film crew on a well-used hiking trail is obviously acceptable, as they are not going to be an important moral support. On the contrary, it often wastes time because it is sometimes necessary to "replay" a passage several times, such as crossing a bridge. In very isolated places like the poles or deserts, it is different. Solitude (alone or in a team) has to be part of the challenge. So a team filming from start to finish is no longer really autonomy, or let's say it's not what you're supposed to be looking for in a committed, solo, autonomous adventure. Here too, we can tolerate that for the reasons of a film, a team comes during the first and/or last days of the challenge, even a little bit along the way. We would obviously accept a team at the start of the expedition, at the North Pole and on the other side of the ice pack.

But in general, during the expedition, we film ourselves, even if this often means setting up a tripod, move backwards, passing in front of the camera and coming back for the tripod doing three times the distance.

Louis-Philippe Loncke Tasmania Winter Trek 2016

Anecdotes from expeditions in full autonomy: As I put on my heavy backpack, a hiker nearby picked up my walking sticks and gave them to me. I had to request him to put them back on the ground to make sure I wouldn't get any help. This happened to me twice. The same goes for people who try to offer me a biscuit or other sweet. You have to refuse.


You don't have to invent a world first that is less than an already established record. No, you can't be the first person to reach exactly 4000m on Mont Blanc and come back down.

You have to stop with firsts that are multi-disciplinary and cross a geographical area that doesn't make much sense. Being the first to progress from London to Helsinki via Paris, even if you do the seas by kayak makes no sense, it so unique of course no one has done it. It has no major challenge.

No more world firsts that are combinations of challenges: climbing Everest, kayaking down the Amazon River and rowing across the Atlantic. These are superb, separate expeditions that have nothing to do with each other. However, no one has yet descended the longest river on each continent in a kayak, which makes sense.

In autonomy, you are looking for the most "difficult" but not impossible way to reach two points on a well-defined geographical area, such as a well-defined and known path, the tour of an island or a lake, a crossing of a country, continent, mountain range or desert with boundaries that are chosen, determined in such a way that nobody can contradict you. Don't walk with a cart full of food from Dunkirk to Bordeaux and claim that you are the first person to cross France on your own.

If you have an expedition where you want to announce a record. Before you announce it to your friends, media and potential sponsors, do your homework. Just because you haven't found anything in English in 2020 on the internet doesn't mean that a Russian or an French didn't do it in 1985.

And above all, provide a detailed map of the planned route AND the actual route if it is very different. Aiming for Lisbon - Miami by rowboat (6666km) and arriving in Boston (5125km) is huge but it's a bit of a miss.

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