For what is the tenth in my ongoing series of #sideproject interviews I’ve found an interloper who may not be what I’ve been looking for… In this interview I speak to an old acquaintance who seems to have been doing some incredible things for no purpose whatsoever.
I first met George just over a decade ago as part of the University of Bristol Expeditions Society. He is now a Creative Technologist for design studio Kiska in Salzburg by workday and an adventurer-mountaineer for the remaining 67 hours of the week. I’ve been following and admiring his many expeditions via social media for the last few years and we finally caught up via Skype for an interview that tested my grip on what side projects might be.
“Why don’t you just go to the Wetherspoons, why do you have to fly to Scotland for two days of climbing?”
This question characterises the typical response George has had throughout his career from work-mates trying to understand how George has persistently optimised his non-working week to squeeze in the most activity possible from life in general.
For several years now, George has appeared to live for the weekends; getting out of the office as early as possible on a Friday to go see friends, climb mountains, and plan expeditions. This habit evolved into his 67hours blog, several fortnight-long expeditions to central Asia, and a TED talk on finding, climbing, and broadcasting the ascents of unclimbed mountains.
George credits one of my previous interviewees Tim Moss with setting him off towards more adventurous mountaineering in central Asia and (to complete the loop) George was in the same expeditions club as myself and Laura Moss (wife of Tim)!
“Purely a Hobby.”
In all my previous interviews my subjects have been doing amazing things on the side-lines of their day jobs – creative projects, plotting future careers, making a difference… but despite all the dedication, determination, effort, and achievement George insists: “It has absolutely no grand aim or purpose. There is no game plan or structure.! I’ve just taken it to quite an involved level!”
For a chap who uses his annual two-week leave each year to travel out to the central Asian republics and climb the unclimbed summits he’s identified through poring over old soviet-era maps and Google Earth this seems like a pretty extreme hobby.
But George is insistent it isn’t going anywhere. Yes, he’s passionate about mountaineering (but not mountain-athlete passionate, he doesn’t ‘train’ for his expeditions). Yes, he’s got some good problem-solving skills from his work and has learnt his mountaineering craft over many years, but he’s neither planning a career linked to mountaineering, nor does he have a long list of achievements in mind. In fact, George is keen to downplay the apparent intensity and skill required and is disappointed that some mountaineers “oversell” their achievements and make the sport appear more inaccessible than it is.
He just seems to be enjoying himself and indulging a love of both planning and mountaineering. He does concede he likes responding to problems: “It is challenging to get a lift in a remote part of the world when you don’t know the language”, and responding to the problems that arise on expedition is half the fun, and he concedes that:
“I like the feeling that, barring the polar regions and extremes of altitude, I’d know how to survive on almost any mountain on the planet. I quite like that idea… It’s not about conquering summits, that’s a bit Daily Mail. I do like the storytelling aspect though, and it is a much better story when things don’t quite go to plan!”
A day after the interview George emails me and adds “I didn’t mention it, but I’m actually very proud that it IS only a side project. I like the fact I squeeze my hobby around my job, I don’t know if I’d enjoy it so much if I didn’t have that challenge too!”
The Day Job
One of the reasons I think George is quite content to see his expeditions as going nowhere is that he has what appears to be a very satisfying day job. He works for a world-leading product design company, in a creative role developing prototypes and early-stage concepts, with a great company culture that is as passionate as George about the great outdoors.
“This is the only employer I’d have shared my 67hours website with; if I’d done this with previous employers they’d have been wondering if I was committed enough if I just seemed to be living for the weekends. I’m 6 minutes from a ski-lift up a 2000m mountain here, they have a two-hour lunchbreak to enable skiing, and they appear to be pretty tolerant of broken limbs and being late if you’ve gotten stuck in the wilderness!”
That mix of nearby gradient and a great job for a great firm tempted George out to Salzburg when his fiance suggested they live in Europe for a while. With a job this good it’s easy to understand why George isn’t using his spare time for career development projects. Except he is, using any remaining availability for part-time software and mechanical engineering work…maybe he does have a side project after all…
FOMO and Psych
So, if you’re enjoying your work, what does motivate you to risk your life on the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan or travel to remote Russia when you’ve convinced yourself you might die?
“FOMO – The Fear of Missing Out, and ‘Psych’ – knowing how psyched I’d be to do something exciting! I do get really jealous of seeing people doing great climbing or knowing it’s great snow in Scotland, even though I’m in the Alps. I was jealous of friends climbing in the Avon Gorge in Bristol when I’d just come back from an amazing three weeks in Pakistan!”
“There is also an appeal because by going out to central Asia it’s different to what other people are doing. When more British climbers started going to Kyrgyzstan we went to Tajikistan, then we decided we could do something even more remote and dangerous so we went to Pakistan.”
A very serious ‘hobby’
What George does is not a side project by my formulation; it’s not consciously going anywhere career-wise to constitute ‘tomorrow’s plan’. However, calling it a hobby doesn’t really do it justice. Maybe I’ll just call it “what George does” until I work it out…
3 tips for would-be adventurers and mountaineers:
- “For most people, without kids and partners etc, the biggest barrier to adventure is effort. Just get in the car, drive to Wales, and climb a hill. Even if you stay in a fancy hotel that’s a start.”
- “Saying that, anyone can survive one night in a tent. There are no bears in the UK, even if you get wet it was only one night and you can dry out before trying again. The barrier to participation in the UK is super-low.”
- “A lot of people seem to use their weekend to either recharge from work or worry about whatever they’re doing on Monday. Just go and have an amazing weekend, most jobs are more tolerant of you recharging in the workplace than you’d believe!”