Expeditious: John Huston

Quick Interviews from the Edge of Adventure



I'm going to be frank. John Huston is an American legend. He's a midwestern kid that was Chicago born and bred and learned many of his outdoor skills at a Outward Bound school in Minnesota. His resume is a long list of awe-inspiring expeditions that include a 72-day expedition recreating Roald Amundson's 1911 South Pole expedition in Greenland, a 100-day dogsled expedition with adventure-god Will Steger, a 57-day South Pole expedition, a 65-day skijoring journey to document the arctic frontier, and with teammate Tyler Fish, was on the first American team to make it fully unsupported to the North Pole. Furthermore, when he's not out in the wilderness, he spends his time teaching his craft at Northwestern University.

It takes incredible discipline and strength, both mental and physical, to pull hundreds of pounds of gear through negative temperatures for weeks on end, and John Huston makes this seem easy. No matter your opinion on polar exploring or any dangerous pursuit, there is a lesson to be learned by observing John. Everyone would be better off if we looked for and found that same strength within ourselves to follow our passions and dreams to make them a reality. So to that end, I'm an honored to pick the brain of American Legend and Polar Explorer, John Huston. 



MFA: You and Tyler were the First American Unsupported Team to reach the North Pole unsupported. Seven years have past since that expedition, what does it mean to you now?

JH: That trip will always be a vanguard trip of my career, not necessarily because we were the first Americans to do it, but to go the North Pole unsupported is a rare accomplishment. I think only fifteen teams have done it throughout all of history. It's very, very difficult and the chances of failure are very high. The majority of teams that attempt the North Pole unsupported, fail; so the fact that we accomplished our goal, and prepared right.  It was a big risk at that time in my life. I put everything in my life on hold to focus on the North Pole for three years. As you get older, have a family, and things like that, it's difficult to do that sort of the thing. To have that singularity of focus on one major expedition that has a high probability of risk and failure, it will always be cherished as something that was a big journey.

MFA: A big journey is an understatement! It had to change things for you. I know, amongst other big changes, you got married shortly after returning home.  How did that expedition change your life and what has it taught you?

JH: I was so focused on the North Pole, that when I tried to envision my life beyond the expedition, it was all a black screen. It was all on making it to the pole. It was my total focus. It made me think differently about expeditions. So many things about that North Pole trip were totally awesome. Living on the Arctic Ocean for 55 days was an awesome experience because it’s the most awesome power of nature I've experience. But also, when you're racing for a pole you don't have time to fully enjoy what's around you all the time. It's stressful. It’s a race, and you need to make certain time markers.  So when I went to Ellesmere Island in 2013, it was a bit of a reaction to the North Pole trip because I wanted to do a trip that wasn't as stressful. I wanted to tell a story of a remote place in the arctic and really take time to film, photograph, and take side detours if we felt like it.  Whereas when you're going to the North Pole, you're going to the North Pole, that's your total focus. You have plenty of time to think and look around while you're skiing, but making it to the pole is what dominates your thoughts. So I'll do other polar expeditions when I'm racing to a pole, but it's nice to have other objectives as well.

Mountain Folk Adventure: In 2005 you were a part of an expedition that recreated Amundsen's 1911 South Pole Expedition. Is there anything you learned on this expedition that directly contributed to your success of the North Pole Expedition 2009?

John Huston: This trip was actually in Greenland. It was a big film project. They used Greenland as a venue to pit a modern Norwegian team and a modern British team against each other to recreate the first race to the South pole. So it was all 1911 period food, clothing, equipment, and everything was in the original style. The big thing out of that was connecting me to the Norwegian polar explorer network. Those connections have become totally invaluable, and also just fostered some lifelong friendships. And to be able to learn from the best in the world was an awesome opportunity. And I tried to make the most of that. Also just being on a team from the very start that was competent, and well run, and did safety the right way, and communicated the right way; all that, were great models for me to take moving forward. I did go to the South Pole two years later, the actual pole. I was guiding that expedition, and it was a kind of warm-up for the North Pole.

MFA: In a world where world first expeditions are dwindling and the market is so saturated with people wanting to go on expeditions, wanting firsts, and needing sponsorships and funding; what advise to you have for someone chasing these dreams?

JH: Fundraising is more competitive than ever. I think a lot of it is about relationships...coming in and presenting yourself authentically, and presenting yourself as a responsible professional. The people who are going to sponsor you need to be able to trust that you're going to do it right, and that you have a high degree of being successful, or that you're not going to have a big safety incident out there. A lot of that is a person's experience and track record and a lot of that is professionalism in which they present themselves.

MFA: Getting into the day-to-day while on a trip, how do you deal with the constant mental struggle? What do you tell yourself to stay positive?

JH: Yeah, how you entertain your mind out there is perhaps the biggest factor of your experience. If you let negative thoughts intercede, or if you start complaining in your own mind then everything's going to become more difficult than it needs to be. If you start thinking about failure at all, you’re going to increase your chances of failure. You have to be realistic and solve problems. That is a great way to occupy the mind. Little things happen all the time on expeditions that don't go as planned and I love the resourceful creativity that we have to use out there. I like when things go wrong. They are like little puzzles I have to solve. I mean I'm only human and don't like everything to go wrong, of course, but it's fun to use the resources we have available to try and figure it out. There's a lot of creativity there. Another thing is that failure or quitting is not something I let into my mind. I just keep it out of there. As soon as you start thinking of quitting as a possibility, it's become a magnet. As long as I'm able to keep myself moving forward, and keep coming up with solutions, and just keep on going to the next step, I'm going to figure it out. At certain points, it can feel very doubtful or impossible. It also depends on your team and your commitment. That's a big part of it. But the biggest thing about managing the monotony, because your skiing 12 hours a day or whatever, is not using an iPhone or iPod, and letting your mind just flow after a certain point.  It’s the rhythm of the skiing or biking or whatever I'm doing. It's kind of like a meditative state where the passage of time changes, and a 90-minute ski session can feel like 5 minutes if it's really flowing well. I think in today's world, people are always being entertained I think that being able to let my mind go and operate at its own pace, you can get to different places of engagement and positivity that you don't when you're plugged in. 

MFA: In your book “Forward,” you ask the reader this question, “What if you could take your most prized skills and passions and apply them to a far-flung, mind-blowing, sometimes scary dream? What would you do? For us the North Pole was that dream…” What’s your advice for people that are hesitant and nervous of the risks that often come with pursuing your dreams?

JH: I think it comes down to two things. Embracing challenges; there are all kinds of them. There are challenges that you chose and challenges that happen to you. If you run away from them, then life can become scary and you start to limit yourself. But if you're able to embrace those challenges and see them as opportunities for you to perform positively and keep a good mental outlook then that starts to snowball and you start to build confidence. There always little things that people don’t want to do every day, but if you do them well, you start to feel positive about that thing. And then there is also trying a lot of new things, and casting about, until you find your true passions. Those will change throughout life but if you can identify what you are truly passionate about, which is also realistic for you to pursue, then you can't go wrong if you pursue it. I think it's scary for people if they are making money or have other priorities. But if a person truly has a passion and pursues it, they will find a way to make money doing it.

MFA: What's it like working with adventure legends like Will Steger?

JH: Right, I mean, Will is a friend of mine. He’s a true pioneer. When he did his first expeditions with Paul Schurke in the 80’s, they had to read [Frederick] Cook and [Robert] Peary; they had to read to the original polar explorer text, to learn about where they were going. That’s a whole different situation than today. So I really respect his ability to make big projects happen. It's really fun to be around. He's a dreamer and he makes his dreams happen, and he never stops pursuing that, And that something that's very cool to see.

MFA: Teach us a bit about the differences in gear from a dogsled trip to a human powered expedition? What have you personally brought on one versus the other? Anything more or less?

JH: On a dogsled trip, with the length of the trip, you can bring more items. But it just adds weight to the sled. It all depends on where you're going and what you're doing. Weight is the enemy to a good travel pace, no matter what. I've always tended towards gear that is well tested and I know very well, so I know how to fix it, I have a lot of experience with it. It might not be the newest or the lightest, but I know it's going to work. I think certain choices like that can make or break a trip. But on a dogsled trip, there're all sorts of gear you need to bring for the dogs that can make a very heavy load. Dogs eat about two-plus pounds a day, depending on the dog, sometimes more. That's a lot of food. In some ways, dogsled expeditions are much more complicated. Logistically, you have to transport the dogs, train them, and sometimes raise them. They can get injured, fight, you have to manage them. I thought our Ellesmere Island trip was a great hybrid because we skijored. So we had four people and four dogs. I love having the dogs out there because their personalities are infectious and it decreases the human-to-human intensity, because there four other teams out there. And the dogs add quite a bit of power so we probably did 50% more distance every day. It was very easy on us compared to hauling all our own weight all the time. It was tons of fun. To be able to have a dog with you, hitched up to a sled or yourself, and be able to glide is pretty incredible.

MFA:  You mentioned that the most important part of an expedition planning is finding the right partner? How does one really know?

JH: The team and whom you choose to work with is the most important thing. Doesn't matter how incredible the place you're traveling through, if you're dysfunctional or not getting along, it won't work. I think a lot of it does depend on your personal network and the relationship you have with people that would be a good expedition teammates or those trusted people that are two degrees of separation away through recommendations or connections. A lot of it comes through shared experience. Tyler and I were pretty different people, but we worked together at the Outward Bound School for a long time, and we had a common language. The same with my Norwegian colleagues, we know we like to go about things similarly we have similar values out there.

That being said you still never know. Tyler and I had our issues. We were able to solve them, but you never know sometimes until you test it out. You have to be able to really talk about your relationship. I'm a big fan of having structured check-ins, where no matter what else is happening, you stop and talk about how things are working. You focus on the relationship and reaching the goal. And if you have those two focal points, ego can fall by the wayside more easily. But it takes being deliberate and vulnerable, and the ability to say difficult things to each other. I'm not perfect at it either. I've had my interpersonal issues with expedition teammates but being able to see the long term, talk it out, have a common commitment, that you're going to stick together and succeed, no matter what come up, is a big deal. I try to look for those that are going to have similar values, train right, and aren't into the ego game. Sometimes you got to have a feel for a person and other times vet them out. I'm a bit wearier of guiding long expeditions because I don't want to spend two months of my life with a questionable relationship. It might turn out great but it might not, you never really know.

MFA: I think of expedition travel, or adventure travel, as the great equalizer and can teach people everything from patience and humility, to math, science and geography? You've made it your life? Can you put into words what it means to you?

JH: Well, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer. A life of adventure, getting out to see the world, and work in small teams in remote areas, I feel completely fortunate to be able to do that. To tell stories about remote places and get away from population density, to put it into words is tough. I think I live for the moments where effort and reward flow together. When you're immersed in nature at the same time, it's a powerful feeling.

MFA:  Tell me about Baffin Expedition and what you're excited for, and why people should go!

JH: I'm headed up for a short crossing of Baffin Island in the spring of 2017. Through Auyuittuq National Park, or Provincial Park as they call it in Canada. It is a classic ski route of the eastern Canadian arctic. It goes through a river valley that cut by the base of the tallest mountain face in the world. It's a great introduction to polar expedition travel. It's not going to be super intense. It's a two-week, beautiful expedition with relatively simple conditions. It’s a great opportunity for people that want to get a taste of arctic travel and see some of the most beautiful scenery in the arctic.  

MFA: Thank you, John. And good luck on Baffin Island!

If you would like to learn more about John or the upcoming Baffin Island expedition check out www.JohnHuston.com.