At Eddie Bauer/First Ascent we get approached for Be First sponsorship by a literal ton of highly motivated athletes with slightly insane ideas about completing a crazy epic to the ends of the earth. But when the proposal arrived from the four seriously fit, highly motivated and just a little bit nuts recent MBA grads from the Arctic Row endeavor, we were more than a little bit stunned. Collin West, Paul Ridley, Neal Mueller and Scott Mortensen plan to ROW ACROSS THE ARCTIC. Yes, you read that correctly. Launching this Sunday under the Explorer’s Club flag, they plan to spend a non-supported month at sea in a specially designed rowboat, making progress one stroke at a time through 1,300 miles of territory more suited to polar explorers than doubles sculling. And they plan to complete this oceanic crossing following a portion of the Northwest Passage that has been ice-free for less than a decade.
But this is no normal crew and no normal mission. Ridley successfully rowed across the Atlantic in 2009, but spearheaded this effort to raise awareness about the drastic change rapidly happening in the Arctic ecosystem—specifically Northwest Passage—from climate change and energy innovation to environmental protection. The team has already been featured in media outlets from Bloomberg Businessweek and the LA Times to WGN Chicago as well as completing a shakedown test by rowing across Lake Michigan. The foursome plans to launch Sunday, traveling nonstop from Inuvik, Canada to Provideniya, Russia. Along the way, you’ll be able to track their progress on the Arctic Row website and view their images on the First Ascent Facebook page. They created a very interesting video about the preparation process, but for more personal perspective, in the first of a three-part Arctic Row series on the Born Out There Blog, this is the backstory on the motivation and mindset it takes to dive into a mission of this magnitude.
The Crew: Collin West, Neal Muller, Paul Ridley and Scott Mortensen. -EB Editor
Words by Scott Mortensen, Images courtesy of Paul Ridley
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
That was my first reaction after reading Arctic Row’s post, November 9th, 2011:
We are seeking a fourth rower for our mid-2012 row across the Arctic Ocean. Please email us if you are interested. Include a paragraph background about yourself so we can get to know you.
An old high school chum named Brandon Savage told me about the project through Facebook. His message contained an introduction to Arctic rower #3, Neal Mueller. “You two are the only people I know who have climbed Everest and you both have done some incredible things in your lifetimes,” He wrote. “I think it appropriate that you meet and hopefully there is a good match either for Row for Hope, or potentially for a future project!”
At that time, I wasn’t interested in any new adventure-philanthropy projects. But of course, I googled Row For Hope & Arctic Row. In this day and age it would be rude not to.
Row for Hope was the 501(c)3 founded by siblings Paul and Joy Ridley after losing their mother to skin cancer in 2001. Paul was Arctic Row’s current team leader and most experienced ocean rower. Back in March of 2009 he travelled 3,000 nautical miles over 88 days to become the youngest American to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat. Though he raised well over six figures for cancer research he also paid some heavy dues along the way. “I swore I’d never do another ocean crossing after that trip,” Paul told me later. “But explorers have terrible short-term memory.” Here he was a scant 3 years later organizing Arctic Row. Billing it as the “exploration world’s last great first,” Paul teamed up with Neal Mueller and an all-American adventure-racer from Texas, Collin West. But there was one more position left on the rowboat. To create the ideal 2-on-2-off rotation they needed a fourth person. Specifically, they were looking for someone with expedition experience, transmedia skills and a background in grassroots fundraising.
“Not me.” I continued reading the job description.
At least the Arctic Row expedition was not just an adventure for adventure’s sake. These guys were working with scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to collect plankton and help track marine life i.e. migration patterns of baleen whales. Moreover, they were exploring an ocean in a remote part of the world that affected all parts of the world. They were reaching out to a global community by showing that climate change wasn’t just an environmental issue, it was a humanitarian one.
“The only thing I love more than tall mountains are big oceans.” I thought.
Uh-oh. I was getting sucked in.
A survival mechanism in the form of reasonable logic kicked in: I preferred warm water & waves over frozen Viking playgrounds. Spending a month at sea with 3 big men on a tiny 6 foot wide rowboat didn’t sound like my idea of fun. Crossing 1100 miles of dangerous water seemed like an escape plan devised by prisoners from a Gulag labor camp. Speaking of labor camps, I had to get a real job. They called my line of work non-profit for a reason.
Just for kicks, I typed a response in the Facebook message box:
For most people, I imagine it would be a strange request to ask for an invitation to attend your Arctic Ocean crossing. It will be a punishing experience I am sure. However, after reading your bio’s I am confident that your team is skilled, courageous and supremely fit in mind, body and spirit.
Additionally, I trust the consistent good judgement of my friend, Brandon Savage who recommended this expedition to me.
If selected, I will make sure to bring my stamina, positive outlook and waterproof camera gear. Let’s connect and discuss the details.
Adventure Filmmaker & Professional Rescuer
I did not push send. There were student loans to think about. If I learned anything in my graduate studies on social entrepreneurship it was that big corporations made the most significant change on the planet –not four guys in a rowboat. What I really needed to do was become an inside man at Google, Apple or Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, grassroots movements were great. I had the time of my life pedaling a bicycle across America to raise funds for an orphanage in Thailand. I was proud to lead humanitarians up Mt. Kilimanjaro, build a community center in Honduras and join disaster relief efforts in Haiti. But it was time to work my way into a corporate position that wielded more global influence than ditch digging and donation drives. With Google, I made it all the way to the final interview. My potential boss was a cool guy with a good job. He told me they had a well funded R&D department and a radical cafeteria. Plus, he got to surf Venice Beach a couple times a week on his lunch break. As he read my CV, I could tell we were cut from the same cloth, “Rescue in the Death Zone. Adventure film about autism awareness & big wave surfers in Hawaii. Documentary covering a dream wedding for a girl with Stage IV breast cancer…Why do you want to work here?” The question caught me off guard. I didn’t really have an answer. There went my career in display banner advertising.
But Arctic Row? I re-read the job description and bio’s. Paul was the stoic. Neal the bravado. Collin the cool. These guys were legit. The expedition started to sound exciting. My filmmaking experience would come in handy if we came across any polar bears. My medical experience would be useful if we had any scuffles on the boat. Maybe I had that backwards. I’d never been to Alaska let alone the Arctic but you never know unless you go right? The grass was starting to look a little greener on the other side of the fence. But then again, I’ve never really cared what color the grass is, I just like climbing fences. That’s probably the answer I should have given the guy at Google but none of that mattered now. I was going to cross the Arctic Ocean, in a rowboat.
As I made my decision, I started to experience a phenomenon known as the Cliff Diving Reflex. The Cliff Diving Reflex occurs anytime a person willingly steps off solid ground into an unexplored abyss. It’s more existential than the Mammalian Diving Reflex, but shares the same physiology: audible gasp, shiver down the spine and an internal monologue that screams, “What the hell did I just get myself into?” It’s triggered by activities like cliff jumping, sky diving, big wave surfing, falling in love and other life-altering decisions that require absolute commitment to an unknown set of variables. When Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has reasons for which reason knows not of,” he was referring to the Cliff Diving Reflex.
I pushed send on the old Facebook. I got the job as rower #4. Like Paul, Neal and Collin, I was an explorer. Adversity was our catnip. The Arctic Row post might as well have read like Ernest Shackleton’s supposed advertisement for the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition,
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.
So here we were, jumping off a cliff and building our wings on the way down. Except our cliff was the Arctic Ocean. And our wings were a 29-foot-long rowboat. Classic.
– to be continued…
For more backstory, watch the first Arctic Row Webisode, Preparing to Launch, on the First Ascent YouTube Channel.
Collin West is a national championship adventure racer, follow him @collinrwest. Paul Ridley rowed solo 3,500 miles across the Atlantic Ocean while simultaneously raising funds for cancer research www.rowforhope.com. Neal Mueller climbed all Seven Summits, swam the English Channel, and is an avid rower www.nealmueller.com. Scott Mortensen collegiate rower, climbed Mount Everest, biked across America & is an award winning adventure filmmaker/EMT, www.scottmortensen.com.
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