Lessons from the ice with Geoff Wilson

If you’re needing inspiration, if you want to do seemingly impossible things, go on mad expeditions, or just generally live life to the fullest, Geoff Wilson has all the advice. The Gold Coast veterinarian, adventurer, entrepreneur and strangely sane crazy person broke several records with his most recent solo expedition across Antarctica, ‘The Longest Journey’.

He used only his legs and wind power (a kite) to travel further unsupported across Antarctica (5306km) than anyone else. No support means he had to carry everything he needed to survive the 58 days in the ludicrously sub zero conditions, down to -90oC on some days. Yes, Geoff has learned a thing or two about what it takes to do the impossible, and he’s super keen to share the lessons.

Life lesson #1: When it seems like things are going really badly for you, instead of being all “Poor me”, know you’re being directed to somewhere else you need to be.

‘The Longest Journey’ was an epic from the idea stage to the victorious completion on 7 January.  In order to even attempt this feat of human endurance Geoff and his team needed permission from the Russian, Norwegian, South African, Australian, American and French governments to travel their Antarctic territories along the planned route that would enable maximum use of the winds. No mean feat, and as it turned out more impossible than the proposed journey. With more examination of the winds and possible routes, Geoff’s cameraman hit upon a new route. This route would get around the worst permission problems, utilise the wind and lead Geoff to being the first Australian to set foot on the Pole of Inaccessibility (chew on that name for a moment), and be the first and only unsupported summit of Dome Argus, a peak 100km across and 4091m high.

Of course, it was not as simple as that summary makes it seem. In such a wild place anything can happen. Geoff says, “The ice ridges were brutal. Everything started dying on me, food bags, technology, and several fuel bottles all died. I was a third of the way to the South Pole but if I lost more fuel the whole trip would have been off. So on day 30 I headed for Dome Argus instead of the South Pole as planned. It was disappointing but then we realised that if I hadn’t turned then I wouldn’t have nailed the wind angle for the Argus summit.” Another example of being pushed in the right direction by seemingly bad circumstances.

Life Lesson #2: You can achieve more if you have a reason beyond just you.

Each adventure, Geoff raises money for a charity. ‘The Longest Journey’ was dedicated to the McGrath Foundation, breast cancer research, chosen as a close friend of his battled breast cancer. The Sahara expedition raised funds for a home that helps women escape from trafficking. Geoff says, “If it’s just for you you’re going to pack up and go home, you have to have a greater purpose.”

Life lesson #3: You need people who know you and believe in you, who can support you through the worst times.

Most of us would think Geoff is crazy and/or possessing some sort of super human qualities but he says “What makes me different is I have a believer on the sidelines to piece me back together when times are tough.” He is talking about his wife Sarah who he could communicate with via satellite phone.

When he was ready to quit 23 gruelling days into ‘The Longest Journey’, when the temperature with wind chill didn’t rise above -70oc, Sarah told him to have a good meal and eight hours of rest then decide. It made all the difference and Geoff did wake up ready to continue. Sarah, the rest of Geoff’s family and team never waver in their support throughout all of the big expeditions.

Life lesson #4: Don’t quit when you’re in fatigue mode, wait until you feel better and then decide if you really are done.

Along with this endless support is the notion that when you think you can’t go on, it’s probably not true. Geoff says “When you feel like you’re done, you’re not actually. The body has a way of letting you know when you’ve truly got nothing left.”

His recovery after day 23 and subsequent completion of ‘The Longest Journey’ was another example of, “don’t give up when you’re feeling fatigued, wait until you’re feeling good.” This applies to every area of life, not just a crazy expedition through punishing conditions.

Even with the expeditions, Geoff says, “when I finished Antarctica I thought that would be the last of my polar expeditions, that I was done. Now I’m ready to go again, (he laughs) I’m in the early stages of planning the next one.”  The arctic circle is the next destination and by the sounds of it, Geoff is far from done.

Life lesson #5 : Life is too short to be doing something you don’t want to do.

Geoff feels he has the best of both worlds, loving being a vet when he’s home and treasuring the expeditions. He is fulfilled and he thinks everyone should be. He says, “you’ll be so much more effective as a human if you’re doing what you love.”

The fact that 72% of Australians hate their job he believes goes a long way to explain the rising levels of anxiety, and high suicide rate in Australia. Going hand in hand with the resilience message, Geoff wants to encourage people to “get out of their (hated job), learn and re-train!” He is quick to point out that it needs to be done responsibly, it doesn’t have to be a wild risk.

Geoff doesn’t see himself as a risk taker as each expedition is meticulously planned. In his view people are taking bigger risks by eating poorly, not exercising, or the way they drive than he does on his expeditions. The man has a point, risk is a matter of perspective.

Life lesson #6: Resilience is the ultimate muscle to build.

This is where our conversation really dove into the realm of mental health, and mental strength. Geoff says, “a wild environment will find every crack in your psyche. So much will come up that you will have to deal with. I’m not anything special, it’s resilience. I’m 80kg dripping wet, just an average guy and most of my strength is mental.”

He believes Australians have had it too easy in recent years and so have not built resilience, the kids especially lack the ability to face adversity. He assures me that this mental strength and resilience can and should be taught to everyone regardless of gender and stage of life. He says, “you don’t build character rubbing sunscreen on your face at the beach, you build it in the mud pit fighting and scratching. Hardship is a part of life, we need to teach kids to relish a challenge, to not fight it and sit awhile with it.”

Not content to just talk about the need for resilience, Geoff is actively teaching this important skill.  He is available to speak at schools, to corporations and you can even ‘Ask Dr Geoff’ via Instagram @drgeoffwilson.

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