Dan Bull is an Aussie adventurer who loves a milestone. He’s the youngest person and first Aussie to climb the highest mountain and highest volcano on every continent, but his latest expedition was even more bonkers. Dan’s now the world record holder for the highest altitude kayak, yeah, he carried it up there.
On March 7 2018 near the summit of Ojos del Salado in the Atacama Desert, Chile, Australian adventurer Daniel Bull cut a lane out of a frozen lake with his ice axe and began to paddle across the surface in a kayak he’d carried up there. The water was -0.1°C, refreezing behind him and turning to ice as it splashed onto his clothing.
At 5707m above sea level, his 2.5km paddle was the highest altitude kayak ever. Even the lake itself (currently unamed, shall we call it the Bull Pond?) is one of the highest bodies of water on earth. To get there, Dan struggled through the worst snow in decades and spent 3 days holed up in his tent hiding from 140km/h gusts of wind with a -45°C wind chill.
Oh and he was also carrying an inflatable kayak and a slew of mountaineering gear, bringing his pack weight to a bit over 50 kilos.
What brings a person to risk their life on solo expeditions and world record attempts? I had a chat with Dan to find out what drives him.
So Dan, I’ve heard you referred to as an ‘adventurer’, rather than a ‘mountaineer’, how would you describe yourself?
I’d describe myself as an ordinary guy who’s had some extraordinary dreams, and has decided to chase those dreams as far as possible.
I don’t like the idea of limiting my potential, so ‘adventurer’ or ‘explorer’ appeal because of the broader connotations, even though I’ve actually spent most of my recent years on mountain tops.
Yeah you’re definitely into mountaineering! What is it about summitting mountains that draws you in?
Most of my childhood memories are of aerial views, looking down on the action below. I’d climb trees whenever I got the chance. Or onto rooftops. Or anything else I came across. I realised early on that whilst some people are afraid of heights, I actually had a passion for heights. I loved the thrill of the climb and seeing how high up I could get. And the views from the top; getting a different perspective on things. So for me, high altitude mountaineering has been the ultimate way of fulfilling this passion.
Were you always into adventures and physical challenges? Or was there a tipping point?
I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors in nature and testing my perceived limits.
I suffered a number of health ailments as a kid, so I was aware of my body’s limitations and I decided, when I was a bit older, that I didn’t want them to hold me back. This in part has motivated me to overcome my weaknesses and discover how far I could push myself, both physically and mentally. From my experiences, I’ve also learnt about the body’s resilience. I learnt that I can keep going long after my body tells me it’s time to stop.
One of the big challenges I faced was severe chronic childhood asthma, which exacerbated my fear of not being able to breathe sufficiently, particularly at extreme high altitude, where the air is already thin. Thankfully I’ve been able to push through the physical elements in recent years, despite having to be hospitalised when I was younger – it’s always scary being in an ambulance as a kid.
What is it about solo expeditions that you enjoy?
I began pursuing my climbing ambitions by joining commercial trips and tagging along with groups who already had their expedition objectives mapped out. As I grew my experience and confidence, I enjoyed the ability to plan and define my own objectives, set specific goals and customise tailored adventures, focusing not just on the ‘what’, but also the ‘how’. For example, I’m now more enticed by attempting a first ascent or a new route on a mountain in its off-peak season, facing off against wilder weather conditions rather than crowded trails.
Not all of my solo expeditions have been planned, however. In order to complete my decade long quest to climb the highest mountain and the highest volcano on every continent (known as the 7 Summits and the 7 Volcanic Summits), I had to survive a solo summit push on the highest volcano in the world, Ojos del Salado. It was definitely one of the toughest expeditions I’ve endured, but as a result, I think also one of the most rewarding.
When you’re on an expedition what would you say is the most important aspect to get right?
Firstly, getting back alive. Secondly, returning in one piece. Unfortunately, I’ve seen people fail both of these objectives.
What expeditions have you undertaken in Australia/NZ? Where’s your favourite place in Australia/NZ?
I’ve spent some time in and around Kosciusko National Park as it’s the highest place in Australia. I also love Wilson’s Prom in Victoria and the Blue Mountains in NSW. Admittedly, I’ve spent more time exploring the remote corners of the globe than I have my own backyard, so I’m excited about undertaking more adventures in Australia and NZ.
Over the years my parents have shared stories of their own youth in NZ, my Mum spent a year at boarding school in Hamilton and both parents later hiked and kayaked around the South Island together. So the anticipation for my own NZ adventure has been building for some time.
What would you say to people who think that challenges (like kayaking at the highest altitude) are silly or not worth the risk?
I’d say they’re probably right. And both my friends and family have had no worries expressing similar thoughts.
But to me, it’s pursuing such high-risk challenges that feel most worthwhile. I’ve always dreamt of making history and entering the record books. And I loved reading The Guinness Book of World Records as a kid, so discovering a record in exploration or adventure that’s yet to be broken in this time, it really motivates me. And I’m pretty excited to be contributing to the latest edition of Guinness World Records with my own World Records.
Any advice for people out there looking to take on their own challenge?
You really just need to take that first step out of your comfort zone. And then take another step. And just keep going, ideally in the right direction. I think a lot of people will be surprised by what they can achieve, if they commit to something and persist.
Trust me, if I can do what I’ve done, with all my ailments and physical limitations, anything is possible!
Awesome, so tell us about your next challenge.
Whilst I’m actually very content being back at sea level after my most recent high altitude expedition, I’m considering having a shot at the Highest Swimming world record. I’m not a swimmer, so I’d be starting from scratch. As yet I’m not fully convinced it’s a great idea. I’ve done a lot of things people would consider foolhardy, but this would take the cake.
Rather than adding more layers of warm clothes as you do when climbing higher, I’d be taking everything off and then diving into subzero waters. That’s if I can crack open the layer of ice that guards the high altitude lake throughout most of the year. It’d be pretty epic.
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