I get asked two questions more than any other at the talks I give about my polar expeditions. "How does one go to the toilet in minus 50 degrees?" and "Why explore?"
In the context of geographical exploration "Why explore?" is normally a loaded question, often put to you by someone who has already decided in their own mind that most if not all earthbound exploration has already been accomplished. By definition modern day explorers are just going through the motions, rehashing what's already been done before. Our goal is more about trying to find somewhere beyond the range of a mobile phone tower rather than an un-contacted tribe.
But this isn't right.
Firstly, even a cursory look at the facts reveals we haven't explored everything. That we have explored and exploited more of our world than we had 50 or 100 years ago is indisputable. But indisputable too is the fact that the more we delve, the more we discover. Plus many new journeys of literal exploration still remain: many of the world's mountains haven't been climbed, much of the ocean floor has not been mapped to any degree of detail and if you speak to any two biologists they'll likely disagree as to how many species we share the planet with, the range being surprisingly broad, at between 3 and 15 million.
Perhaps more importantly though: this isn't actually the point as exploration has never been solely about the literal journey but as much about exploring yourself and your ability as the things you discover along the way. Back in the good old days when large tracts of the planet still remained uncharted exploring and adventuring were part of one exciting package such that trying to disaggregate the personal versus literal reasons was something of a moot point.
But in reality both have always existed. Exploration is the adventure of seeing whether or not you can achieve something, the thrill of trying, and the process of learning more about yourself and your surroundings that going on the journey to find out teaches you. It always has been. It is why Amundsen went to the North Pole even though others had been there before him and why people still try to see if they can make it to the top of Everest today. Not to be the 10,000th person to reach its summit, but to see if they can do it, because the journey and the challenges overcome along the way help them find out more about who they are. And so it was with my expedition to retrace Ernest Shackleton's survival journey in a replica of his boat James Caird followed by a climb across the mountains of South Georgia using period gear and equipment. We went on our journey both to honour him but also to see what we would discover about ourselves in attempting his remarkable feat a century on from the original.
None of this is news. That we as individuals need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it I believe is as relevant a concept now as ever. This 'human spirit of adventure' I believe lies at the heart of artistic expression, advances in science, medicine or politics, or any other sphere you care to mention. If for some people it manifests itself in the need to climb mountains and cross oceans just to explore what lies inside you then so be it. We should not lose this desire to explore nor demean those seek to, whether it is the adventure of personal discovery or a more literal journey of exploration they seek.
Certainly Shackleton knew his motives and had a good crack at explaining them after his ordeal: "That was all, except our wet clothes, that we had brought out of the Antarctic... that was all of tangible things, but in memories we were rich. We had pierced the veneer of outside things. We had suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man".
The answer to the other question is of course "quickly."
Shackleton: Death or Glory airs on Discovery Channel on Thursdays at 9pm from 24th October.