The idea of an ‘expedition’ seems to hold a lot more weight than the idea of ‘adventure’. It seems more risky, less everyday. So what’s the difference? When does an adventure take that extra leap and become an expedition?
If you’re like me, anytime someone says ‘expedition’ you think of Ernest Shackleton trying to get to the South Pole.
So I was a little surprised to find myself on an expedition earlier this year, with the remarkable Terra Roam, who let me join her on a section of Expedition Climb8.
The expedition was an 800km winter traverse of the Australian Alps to gather data on the changing alpine climate, with the aim of setting a record for the summit of dozens of NSW and Victoria’s highest peaks in winter*.
While COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria put the expedition on hold and cut my involvement short after just one week, it got me thinking about when something becomes an expedition – partly because when I told people I was joining ‘an expedition’ I simultaneously felt like a total imposter and a total badass.
I’d always vaguely assumed an expedition required outside funding to make it official, but clearly, Climb8 would’ve been no less an expedition without its Australian Geographic funding.
So I asked some experts – people who’d been on what I saw as actual expeditions – to get their thoughts on the question, and while we were at it, see what their advice to a novice expeditioner might be.
*Not everything went as planned, but that, I suppose, is the nature of expeditions.
Spear Rafting in NZ’s Fiordland
Coralie Fleming is a non-binary adventure athlete and activist, who was part of a team that received a North Face adventure grant for a 2018 ‘though-hike-spear-rafting’ expedition from Milford Sound to Doubtful Sound in New Zealand.
While that was their biggest officially documented expedition, Coralie says that in retrospect some of the multi-day traverses and crossings they did solo in Alaska would also count as expeditions.
Coralie describes an expedition as having three crucial ingredients – originality, an element of the unknown, and a degree of risk.
‘I don’t believe that an expedition has to be ‘the first of it’s kind’ to qualify as an expedition,’ Coralie says.
‘It’s less about social capital and clout of being the first person to do a particular thing for me, and more about enjoying the process of testing yourself and new ideas in a wild landscape.’
The Unknown …
‘Discovery, whether it’s the discovery of place, self or personal limits is a really important expedition ingredient for me,’ says Coralie.
‘The unknown can bring you closer to yourself or further away, so it’s a really important hallmark of an expedition for me.’
‘How you manage yourself, navigate challenges and if you’re part of a team, how you respond to your teammates in times of chaos and confusion are all really important test pieces.’
Element of Risk …
‘There’s no way around it, expeditions are a high risk undertaking. Expeditions require a significant amount of risk management skills, so for me, questioning the degree of risk relative to the degree of unknown elements in what I’m planning, is a key deciding factor between whether it’s an expedition or a good ol’ adventure!’
For Coralie, their Fiordland expedition had an extra element of personal exploration. After saving for years, they were due to have gender-affirming surgery after the expedition – without winning the grant, doing both would have been impossible.
‘The expedition was me saying goodbye to a gender identity that wasn’t authentically me. Being on the expedition reaffirmed who I am as a person and the journey I wanted to take next,’ Coralie says.
Multi-pitch Climbing in Peru
Emily Small, founder of women’s climbing and alpine group Climb and Wine, says she’d consider an expedition ‘to be something unguided, where you are self sufficient with skills, knowledge and gear, and that pushes your skills and knowledge.’
While most of her expeditions have been mountaineering, she added that, ‘a multi-pitch climb I did in Peru once, which was rarely climbed and had limited beta on it, essentially became an expedition for me just because of the challenges involved.’
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‘It was an absolute fuck fight. It was a nearly 200 metre climb, but was only meant to be a grade 18 sport climb and take four hours. But the pitches were all 40 metres with only two bolts each – most of which could be pulled out by hand – and there were moves that felt like 27,’ Emily says.
‘We were out there for about 10 hours … I still don’t know if we were ever on the right route.’
Emily says that although her partner was a strong climber, she quickly discovered he didn’t have the necessary rope skills.
‘This became the first time I had to step in and take the lead on rock,’ Emily says.
‘Having to problem solve on the go and take charge in tense situations made Emily realise what she was capable of – and what her gaps in knowledge and skills were.’
Roaming Around Australia
Terra says her first expedition was as a toddler, when she slipped out of the house alone and crawled more than a kilometre down the road before a neighbour spotted her and took her back home.
She continued adventuring alone as a teenager and adult, and in 2018 she became the first woman to walk solo and unsupported around Australia.
Terra talks about expeditions as being, ‘the dream of exploring, discovering new places, escaping our comfort zone and pushing ourselves to new levels of emotional, psychological and physical endurance.’ And, more specifically, ‘every expedition involves an element of risk. Otherwise, what is the point of doing it?’
Exploring Solo or in a Group?
As a largely solo expeditioner, whose first team expedition was Climb8, Terra says, ‘There are advantages and difficulties in both approaches. If you go solo, only you are responsible for what happens … in a group expedition these decisions are made as a team based on collective experience and knowledge. This usually results in more fluid and cohesive teamwork but can sometimes create conflict.’
‘Terra emphasises the need to choose a team carefully, don’t just look at technical skills, but consider team dynamics, personalities and motivations.’
Coralie echoed the same sentiment with regards to their team-based expeditions. ‘Am I going to get along with you?’ is a question I should’ve asked more,’ they say.
Success or Failure?
When it comes to measuring the success of an expedition, Terra says that while Climb8 didn’t entirely go as planned, ‘there’s no such thing as failure. Not every expedition is successful on the first attempt but this doesn’t mean it was a failure. Learn from the mistakes, regroup and try again.’
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Emily takes this sentiment a step further. ‘I love failing,’ she says. ‘With failure comes challenge.’
‘When I fail it means I’ve pushed my limits as far as I can, and that’s the real achievement. Easy is boring.’
Coralie raises an important point about accessibility and community – it’s a privilege to go on an expedition, and if you’re going to get some major kudos for it, think about what you can do with that.
‘It’s important to remember that the time, access, and funding required to pull off an expedition are inherently related to privilege,’ they say.
‘It’s the responsibility of all of us in this space to do the work it takes to diversify these opportunities, to decolonise how we ‘explore’ and adventure on stolen land here in Australia, and how we bring the community along with us.’
And this might actually be the real point here – not whether something is an adventure or an expedition, but what you do with that experience. It doesn’t matter if snowshoeing through the Australian Alps with Terra makes me an imposter or a badass; what matters is if I use that experience for something beyond my own benefit.