Climbing the worlds highest mountains, first ascents, paddling remote rivers, and living with tribes people. Dig in!
April 1, 2020
Editor credit: A big thank you to our editor Jakub Marzec (Kuba) for his work on this!
Rolfe: He was sheltering an RPG and he stopped the whole convoy. And then basically hundreds of other kids’ kind of climbed on board all super heavily armed up. And, you know, they started robbing everybody. My girlfriend is like, Holy shit. You know, what's happening here. So, I pulled her towards me and we were like trying to cower in amongst all the people, but sitting on our truck...
George: Hey, it's George and welcome to the Call to Adventure podcast. We are on a mission to help create happier people and a healthier planet. So, let's get after it. Hello. Hello. I hope everybody's keeping well in uncertain times, I'm really excited to share today's episode, one of my favourites and features a good friend of mine who is truly one of a kind and takes a life of adventure to the next level. I met Rolfe under pretty coincidental circumstances. Actually, I cycled through France and then ended up house-sitting for him and his awesome wife money whilst they went on holiday. I'd never met them before and didn't really know much about their story beforehand. So, it was a real treat to get to know them. Rolfe's love for adventure and zest for life is second to none. The scale and variety of his adventures is remarkable. We talk about his work as a high mountain guide and his many, many mountaineering adventures but it's not just limited to mountaineering and climbing. We dig into a six-week trip paddling, the Congo that became a seven-month Epic getting stuck there as civil war erupted. Getting held up by kids with RPGs. A little bit about his time living as a climbing bum in the Andes and travelling around South America, meeting remote tribal groups on a 16-week knowing trip through the Amazon basin and a dugout canoe and all sorts of other things. And even him and the family just rocking up in Africa to live with some tribes, people without much planning or an invite. You can actually book on a number of adventures with Rolfe as your guide, just head on over to CalltoAdventure.uk. Now, given the uncertainty around Corona, we've updated things to give you more flexibility and peace of mind. So, you can move your deposit to a different trip if you need to do that, or you can change dates up to 31 days before departure for absolutely free. So, you can book with no worries. I feel really blessed to have met Rolfe, his wife, Marnie, and the rest of the fam. And I'm sure that his tales of adventure will certainly inspire you to get out there. So, without further ado, enjoy today's episode with Mountaineer and all-around legend Rolfe Fin.
Rolfe: Yeah. Hi George. It's been a pleasure meeting you. The context of our meeting is quite strange in its own sense. And you came to live with us for a couple of weeks to look after a dog Mellie while we're on holiday. It's great to be in a fantastic time and just to meet you and hang out. So yeah, it's a pleasure to be doing this podcast with you.
George: It's, these are always the best, the kind of happenstance things that happen. I bought my microphone just in case something happened and I got to record a podcast. And then, yeah, I'd been in touch with your wife, Marnie, about house sit and then a few little tidbits of adventure got dribbled here and there. And I was like you said, oh yeah, I'm taking a client to Everest because Marnie mentioned that you had an expedition company. And I was like, yeah, Everest base camp looks great. And you were like no Everest, Everest. And I was like, okay, well, let's have a little look at this. And then little bits of adventure have kind of trickled out from there. So, I'm keen to get into it. There are loads of stuff that I want to ask you about your, the clients that you've done and the expeditions and the all-round adventure stuff. But other than the kind of background that I've just given, can you just tee us up for your journey into climbing?
Rolfe: It starts back to my arrival in Australia when I was around 10 years old from Holland. My parents are Dutch and my dad is an engineer and he's scored some work in Australia and he dragged the whole family with him and then we set up shop in Australia and made it our home. And then it grew from there. My parents wanted to see every nook and cranny of their new country and they dragged us along. And the whole my adventurous career developed from there basically we were doing lots of wild camping and lots of exploring in Australia National parks. And then on the back of that at around age 14, I started rock climbing of which is there's a hell of a lot to do in Australia. And then after that straight into mountaineering, when I was 17 and I started exploring first the mountains of New Zealand and then from there practically everywhere, there's a mountain we've been to basically,
George: So, you were pretty young to be getting into the game, especially for mountaineering and your first big trip was New Zealand, right. And you were kind of young excitable and we talked a little bit about it in the car. When we went to climb the other day, you had a pretty rude awakening and kind of a very tough entrance into the world of mountaineering and it’s kind of got real very quickly. Can you just give the kind of high-level keynotes on that?
Rolfe: It was the wakeup call that's always at the back of your mind but when you start the climb and particularly if you're starting off as an apprentice, you start to, you know, understand how serious the environment can be. But obviously when you're kind of like 18, 19 or so, you're not thinking about it as much because you've got these immortality complex. And yeah, my first season in New Zealand ended up very tragically with two of my friends getting killed in an avalanche and my brother was buried for an hour or so and we found him barely alive. Yeah. So, it all brought home the seriousness of what we were doing and the seriousness of the environment we were in. Prior to that, my younger brother was killed in a rockfall in Australia. He was hit by a rockfall on a climb, and he died of a brain haemorrhage about a week or so later. So, all these things combined certainly had a huge impact into the realization. Yeah, we're okay. We're entered into something pretty serious here, but at the same time, the power of what we were doing and the fun and the amount of self-worth and purpose we were getting from climbing, certainly these tragedies didn't stop us. And all the guys that were involved in an in the scene at a time continued climbing, they've all found jobs as guides all around the world. And basically, everybody's still got their finger in the pie as it were to continue what we were doing. So, despite it being a rude wake-up call, it was also okay, the message is here and we were now obviously going to take more care and understand a bit more about what the environment is and how serious it is.
George: Yeah. It sounds like that kind of wakeup call changed you a bit as a climber and your approach to what you were doing for climbers that don't have quite such a cricket bat to the face of this is some really serious shit. What kind of advice do you give to people who are getting into that kind of thing? Who don't have that really strong lesson to learn from but are starting to get into the more kind of sketchy stuff?
Rolfe: I've been climbing now for 35 years and guiding professionally for 29 years and it's the change of attitude towards the mountain environment and climbing and adventure in general has really changed over that time. And the change in attitude is probably really driven by, I guess, social media and things like YouTube and that has made people want to be in that moment now. But the people who survived the learning curve are basically people who have taken this step by step approach and you need to walk before you run in this kind of stuff. And the typical progression that used to exist in a British climber was to get some hard roots in your local environment on the about, you know, if you're living in London, say you would make trips to the peaks and you make trips to the Lake district and start climbing that, and then go on trips to Scotland, spend like a couple of seasons there in the winter and then go on to the Alps. And then from there a couple of seasons in the Alps and then luke them to the big arranges. And then when you first go into a super high-altitude expedition, like say above 6,000 meters, then just to find an easy objective first learn everything there is to learn about climbing at altitude and then progressing into bigger and bigger projects. But that timeframe is usually around three or four years, maybe even more, maybe five or six years. You know, if you're looking at the people who are attempting base camp, who are attempting K2 then you won't find anybody sitting at the base camp of K2, who's got less than say 15 or 20 years of mountaineering experience behind them. And that's the kind of apprenticeship you really need to be doing. If you're looking to do some really ambitious projects.
George: One really interesting thing that we've talked a little bit about, you just mentioned K2 then. K2 is a mountain that's known to people who know or have at least a kind of little bit familiarity with climbing. Whereas everybody knows Everest just because it's the highest in the world. And there's been a lot of controversy and misinformation and different opinions on what the state of affairs is at Everest. And I think I was probably guilty of this, not really having an informed opinion because everyone's seen the photo of the hundreds of climbers queuing to summit and then there was that spate of deaths there. But you kind of had a bit of a different take on Everest as a whole and what it can be and you guys tend to take a different approach to what most people are doing. Can you just talk about a bit about that?
Rolfe: I've been on four expeditions to Mount Everest 2 to the South side and 2 to the North side, I summited in 2016 with a client every single time I've been to Everest, I've worked as a guide. And so, the impression you get and the feel you get from the mountain and what the mountain is about is very different to how your clients see it. Obviously, we're looking at it from a management perspective about how to manage not only the team but all the, the logistics and how to work with our Sherpa team and to support the client in the best possible way to get them to the summit. So, everything has to align before we make a summit attempt, and that gives you a very different take on the mountain and climbing it. And for example, this year, we attempted a summit attempt from the North side from Tibet, which actually is a lot less crowded. It had like 130 or 140 foreign climbers at the base camping, in contrast, to probably triple that number on the South side in a pole. And we had four out of our six people reach the summit. And there's a lot of stories that came back from our expedition and they were all quite dramatic and they all seem to be fed by the reports that the media were given about, you know, how dramatic it is and surviving storms and cues on Everest and this and that.
But you know, what, if you're working a mountain and seeing it from a guide perspective or a Sherpa's perspective that is life at 8,000 meters. You know, you can't expect it to be absolutely perfect. You can't compare it to climbing a 6,000-meter mountain or a mountain and the Alps, your way, way above the death zone, everything is redlining in extremity. You're looking at something that, you know, the weather changes the consequences of just 10 degrees, sorry, 10 kilometers, speed different, build up is going to really affect the dynamics of the climb. You know, your breathing, how cold it is, everything is extreme, extreme, and more extreme. And so that's what, as a guide and a Sherpa we know to expect. And if it's your first time at this kind of altitude, and it's the first time to do something like this, then it seems like a huge deal. It's a big slap in the face, and it's a massive wakeup call and said, wow, this is the reality of this kind of environment. But if you're there a lot, then it's I can't say it's just another day in the office but certainly it's, there's a lot less surprises that's for sure. And the stuff that people write about is really not that dramatic when you're on the ground. For example, the queuing that happened on the South side in Nepal shore, you know, it was a long queue, but I don't think there's been an expedition on average for the last 15 years where there haven't been accused at the Hillary Step, or haven't been cues just below the South summit and these kind of cues are always there. And basically, you don't try to do a summit attempt unless the conditions are perfect.
So basically, it wasn't a big deal to stand in the queue for 40 minutes or 45 minutes. It's not an indication of the state of whatever's has become at all. Basically okay, this is now part and parcel of the modern version of climbing Mount Everest. Okay. It's a confined route this year the cues form only because of the narrow window of opportunity, the weather was only favourable to reach summit for a very small amount of time and people went for it. Then in contrast to last year, there were say a 10 day window of opportunity and the cues were a lot less because some teams just started to go on day six and some teams decided to go on eight a day eight, and all these teams who left to a later date, they virtually had the summit to themself.
George: Yeah. That's fascinating to hear because that's certainly not what you tend to read in a lot of places. You mentioned a couple of times, Sherpa's there, they're obviously crucial to teams getting to the summit. I think a lot of people don't have an idea about what it's like being a Sherpa, what they're actually doing. And can you talk a bit about what it, because you, you have a team of Sherpas that you kind of work with, right. Can you talk about how you found them? What makes a good Sherpa and what their life looks like?
Rolfe: Yeah. We're kind of unique in a sense that we've worked with all our teams for a long time and it's not just unique to our Sherpa's in Nepal. This is also very typical of our teams working for us on mountains, like Kilimanjaro for us on mountains, like Aconcagua working in the Andes, working in Alaska everywhere, where we formulated a ground crew has always been based on us, knowing them since they were young. And we went through the whole growing up thing together, we went through the whole thing of, you know, climbing together and then starting to become business partners along the way. And that's like, for example, with our Kilimanjaro crew, I met the guys first, when they were porters, I was working as my first or second season on Kilimanjaro. And we hooked up with our porters. We really connected, had a great time climbing Kilimanjaro, and they were like 16 and 17. And they just started as a, as a way to make money for their families. And they were logging all these heavy loads up Kilimanjaro. And, you know, we saw something in these kids. We said, okay, listen, we're going to put you through school. We're going to get you through, get your qualifications.
So, you can become a guide on Kilimanjaro and there's no obligations to come and work for us. But if we see you in the future and you like being a mounted guide, let's talk, you know, and then that's the basic relationship we have with all our crews all around the world. And our Sherpas are no different. We've known the Sherpas, our Sherpa teams for a long, long time, at least 15 years. And we've been certainly on, I don't know, maybe 50 or 60 expeditions to the Himalayas, together we've been through hell and back. And we are not only using them as an employee, employer perspective at all. It's like, we're not just taking them up for the job. We're heavily involved with their families. If there's a disaster strikes a family of say, one of the Sherpas loses that life, we're there to pick up the pieces for the families, sending their kids to school and supporting the widows. You know, as long a period as we can financially, we're always there for them. And we've got this huge bond with all our teams everywhere because we're not just connected to them as an employer basis, we're part of their family. And they're part of our families and the doors are always open if they are in Europe or they find themselves here, they can come and stay. We have a house full of people the whole time. People from Morocco, people from Argentina, people from everywhere around the world, sleep [unclear 00:16:29] for sleeping in my bed, sleeping everywhere.
Basically, it's a great family connection and because of this, our clients also have a very different insight into a country when they come on our expeditions. Because for example, when we do come to Nepal, say for one of our start tracks to base camp to Track to Everest base camp. When we're there we go and visit the families of our teams and they have a night or so in his Sherpa houses, they drink with the Sherpas who now Everest guides or who work as Icefall doctors in the Khumbu Icefall. We played football with all the kids. We hang out with all the kids and often our clients, they end up having a massive connection with our local teams and end up sponsoring kids to send them through school and all that sort of stuff. And it's not just about achieving a summit or having a target to fulfil it's about a huge experience and the biggest part of that experience with the local teams. And once people have had an insight into somebody who lives a life totally different to your own, then it's a huge way to connect with people and it's a fantastic way of, you know, sharing people's lives. And because they do lead such a different, I would say a much humbler existence than us, much less complicated. It's a really nice connection for people in the West to have, and to understand that, Hey, you know, these people might live on the other side of the world and we only hear through media. We only hear the bad news about, you know, everybody else, but actually they're pretty cool people on the ground.
George: Can you talk about the couple of guys that you had on who were having the kind of anti-Brexit, Brexit, and then their views were changed after like spending their time on expedition and what happened there?
Rolfe: Yeah. Without going into too many details, we had a guy along, he's actually a great climber and he's a good friend of mine, but I would certainly say that our political opinions don't really match. He was a staunch Brexit supporter, but more from an immigration standpoint. And he came on expedition with us and he had a great time and he made a huge connection with the local people and he certainly owed his summer success to the local people, but more his experience was multiplied by a million times by visiting the families of the local crews and having a really deep insight into how these people lived. And as a consequence of that, he's sponsoring two boys to go to school, give them a better quality of life. And that is despite the fact that he pulled his kids out of school. One of the schools they attended in the UK because they had too many immigrants. And I thought, you know what, it's at least, you know, this is not part of the expedition as such we're there to climb mountains, we're there to reach the summit. But this is a huge behind the scene kind of story that is actually a lot more significant in the bigger scheme of things than reaching a summit. And I think you said it was like the black belt move.
George: Yeah. I thought that was an amazing story and it's another Avenue of how adventure and expeditions and this kind of stuff can change people. Like it really does. So, I'm not even going, well I'll say it but they always say travel broadens the mind but then adventure kind of takes it to the next step where you purposefully put yourself in a very uncomfortable position. And a lot of people talk about the benefits of like personal development, personal growth, a lot to do with self-confidence doing things that they thought they could never do. And kind of really feeling like they are becoming the person, a bigger person than they were before they started this big target, whatever they were doing. But then there's so many aspects to it, like we've talked a little bit about how it makes people more responsible in the way they interact with nature. And then there's that example of like the kind of human side of it, where people realize that people around the world are just like them. They just live somewhere else. And I heard something the other day that I thought was kind of to the same point where they were talking about how with Brexit, the people who argued that immigration was the biggest determinant of why they voted Brexit. It's almost always people who live in small rural countryside towns who don't really have any immigrants.
The people in the city who live with immigrants just realize because they have so much contact with them. They're like, Oh, they're just people and that's fine. So, I'm fine with that. If we're going to get a few more doctors nurses in, then like, that's no problem for me. Whereas it's kind of built up to the boogeyman when you live in like a small town in the middle of nowhere and they're like, oh my God, these people are so different. They're going to let ruin our way of life. So yeah, another really powerful Avenue of adventure that I think is really fascinating. You've done a lot of these amazing trips and had some fascinating experiences but now you're at the point where you're doing a lot of expeditions still from things that a lot of people think very extreme to even the things that in the climbing world, people think are like big, big boy stuff. So how do you think about risk now for yourself with a wife and kids and the fact that you need to spend a lot of your time away on expedition? How does that all play around in your mind?
Rolfe: It's a question I get asked a lot about this balance thing, about the risk I'm willing to take and, and everything else. But basically, the fundamentals are that if I'm working as a guide, then I'm taking nowhere near to risk to reach the summit or to achieve our target. As I would, if I'm going out with buddies, everything has to be absolutely perfect to reach the summit of a mountain, particularly something that's super high, like say Everest, or say Cho Oyu or Manaslu or all those kinds of we meet peaks. We absolutely wait for the most perfect conditions before we go to the top and everything has to be planned according to meet those conditions. But if I'm out with my pals, then it's a different story. It's just like, I still like to keep my hands in the fire and, and unfortunate enough to have three or four clients who let me decide, give me free rein as to what we should be doing and so we do still try to do some interesting projects.
Like last year we were on the great Trango tower of Pakistan or climbing North faces or staff, or climbing big technical roots here. Like I live in the Pyrenees or, you know mountains like Armando Blom and stuff like that. And all these kinds of peaks they certainly have an enhanced level of risk, but still, if I'm guiding them, it's nowhere near as extreme as what I'm doing with my friends. And I'm a Mountaineer at heart. And I grew up, as we talked about earlier, understanding the potential of what could happen, if things go wrong or, you know, your head by objective hazards like avalanches or rockfall, or icefall follow whatever the weather changes that is all kind of planned for as best you can through experience, particularly, you know, if you're, we can read snow conditions very well, we cannot assess the avalanche danger very well now. But if I'm out with friends, then we're still trying to do stuff that's interesting to us that seems kind of crazy to other people, but it's keeping my hand in the fire and it's confirming the fact that I can do stuff that I could do when I was a kid. That's part of it. But also, once you get addicted to hard albinism, you're never going to give it up. And the reward seems really obscure to somebody who isn't involved in the game but it's actually the closest thing to being a junkie. And you, you can say things like, yeah, they're adrenaline junkies and you watch movies like "Rioting Giants" and all that kind of stuff.
And say, yeah, these guys are addicted to adrenaline, but, you know, it is just like, that's shortly stuff at mountaineering expeditions are long lived stuff and you're cranking up the potential. But equally the rewards that come from achieving your summit, like that are just amazing. And of course, every single time I've done an, a nice project with friends or clients I'm in great with most more specialist clients we walk away and we think we're never going to do this again. And then as we're walking down the glacier, you know, that feeling really subsided really quickly. And we started looking around and we're looking at these peaks and going, Hey, how about that one? It's a hell of an addiction, but it's an enjoyable thing. I need my fix. Maybe, maybe once or twice a year where I'm doing stuff with friends and the rest of the time I'm working as a guide. And a lot of my work now is climbing seven summits, which I'm super familiar with. Like you mentioned, I've done a lot of Kilimanjaro. A lot of Aconcagua, Denali's, Everest and all that kind of stuff. And I'm just about to sign up for a season in Antarctica to climb Vinson multiple times and all that, that is sort of just stuff I know really well. And I know about the potential risks of climbing these mountains and we manage those risks really well, and we never have any problems with clients on these kind of trips because of the background support they get from myself and from my crews,
George: You mentioned Cho Oyu before, which is over 8,000 meters, right. And I wonder if this is part of your kind of adventure fix that you need a couple of times a year, but what was behind the 24-hour challenge for Cho Oyu that you did there?
Rolfe: Oh, that was just a question of circumstance. It wasn't a plan challenge. What I did ended up doing was summiting the mountain twice in 24 hours. First of all, I had one team who we brought up who were at the high camp, and then one of the team members felt ill. So, I brought her down to a lower camp where we spend the night together and then we climb back up to the high camp the next day. At this point, the first team was frothing at the beds and ready to go to the summit. So, we went to the top and we summited in an 18 hour round trip. Then I came back down and met up with the second part of the team and summit it at had had like four hours to brew up and drink and eat, and then do another 20-hour trip back up to bring the second lot to the summit. So, I didn't really plan it. It was just actually was quite interesting from my perspective to see if I was capable of that. And yeah, I was functioning and I was making rational decisions, I was you know perfectly in the zone. And yeah, it actually turned out to be something like a 50-hour day, all things considered and most of the time was over 8,000 meters and it was great to confirm, you know, to myself at least that, Hey, I can actually do these stuffs. I'm capable of doing this kind of achievement you should, like.
George: I was surprised even from like a tiredness perspective, like you've got that altitude, the tiredness that, well, I guess exhaustion is probably a better way to describe it. Like it's not just not sleeping that much. It's like physical exertion and then the fact that you're at 8,000 meters and all the kind of biological effects, but then there's the fact that you're the guide and you're kind of the guy who everything sets on as well. That's I guess not everybody's cup of tea but sounds, sounds like an awesome thing for you to do as a kind of, just to know, like, this is the kind of level that I'm operating at.
Rolfe: It's always interesting to learn that about yourself and, you know, it's not just guiding teams to the summit. It was also like before the second team, the first thing was already descended with the Sherpas. I had one Sherpa left to help support me for the second team and we spend the night back in the high camp after our summit. And then we descended the next day where there were some massive avalanches on the way. So, it was super highly intensive stuff. And, you know, I actually never felt really tired during the whole time. It was beyond, you know, you're talking about getting catching a second wind and all that sort of stuff but know done how many winds I must've gone through. But the funny thing was when I got back to base camp, eventually I think by then we were like into 60 hours maybe 65 hours of being on the move and climbing and I was obviously beyond exhausted. I couldn't even talk anymore, but when I got back into base camp, I couldn't sleep and I didn't sleep for two or three days. That was absolutely why it's my mind was just going through the tape nonstop. It's like rewind, rewind, rewind and that are found super interesting too, because it just, like, not only had I been awake for like two and a half or three days, it's more that actually I didn't get to sleep for another two days, because I was just kind of rewinding the tape, I was absolutely totally wired about the whole experience.
George: Yeah. I think you probably had about five years’ worth of adrenaline running through those adrenal glands in like three days just completely buzzed. So Climbing is kind of come a long way over the last 40 years, and it's very different to what it used to be as it started as kind of fringe sport. And I'm sure a lot of people have seen Valley uprising, which does a really good job of kind of showing the evolution of what was a kind of anti-establishment movement of like, fuck the way things are. I just want to do something different a bit like skateboarding, or I guess surfing used to be too. And now it's become a lot more mainstream professionalized and it's a sport much more than a kind of lifestyle for some people anyway. How do you think about how climbing has changed? Because you've been in it for a long time now, like three decades. And what would you like to see more of or less of going forward?
Rolfe: Sure. There's been a lot of changes. I mean, I first started climbing in 1984 it is actually the year I started climbing. And at that time, it was very fringe and there were very few people at my school, for example, who climbed, in fact it was only two. Ha! And I mean, in comparison to the rugby crowd and the football crowd and everybody else, it was a very strange thing to be doing to sneak off after school or during school hours or whichever time, with every minute we had to be climbing rocks and yeah, but amazing thing about it was that the freedom it gave you that you didn't have an obligation to any team. It was not a team sport. It was only about yourself. It was only about putting a problem in front of you and trying to solve it yourself and the French here have a great phrase that climbing is as much about your body as it is gymnastics, as it is chess, you know, your body performs to move and your mind thinks about to move or combination like that, and so that's how we saw it too. It was like a great, not only a mental problem, but also physical problems.
So yeah, really good and from that progression, we started mountaineering and even that, it was seen as pretty fringe, you know, there wasn't a lot of people mountaineering and the only people who probably were, were on guided trips, there wasn't too many independent alpinists; and I think that is still the case because, you know, the parts of climbing that have really progressed are like the indoor climbing scene and the guided scene in the Alps and the expedition scene where, people are paying money to join commercial expeditions, and that's great. I mean, it's a great way for people to get started and a great way for people to experience the mountains for the first time. I'd say the Alpinist movement, the best alpinists in the world are really not known to anybody.
You know, I mean, I'm sure that if I were to ask you who are the top five alpinists of all time, you wouldn't have a clue and that's still the case. I mean, they operate really independently, really in the shadows of the world and they are doing stuff that you've never heard of, you know, like, mountains, like Biarchedi three or Cerro Torre, or all these kinds of peaks that people are not familiar with. People are familiar with like mountains, like Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, Everest, of course, but from an alpinist's perspective, that's very different. I mean, it's more about the beauty of a line, the beauty of a peak, the challenge of a problem. So the progression has been in places like competition climbing and guided climbing and expedition climbing in a sense with where full commercial expeditions, but, and that's great and that's really good to see, you know, it's important for people to not only understand the benefits that these sports have for themselves and by themselves, but also that particularly once you start expedition climbing that opening up of the greater world, the various aspects of an expedition from not only about the challenge itself, but meeting local people and everything else, all the benefits like that, and visiting foreign countries and seeing how different people live cultures and all that kind of stuff; it all adds to the experience and it's very important that people have an understanding of that and experience that and live that and do that kind of stuff. It's super important, but then, you know, always in the shadows, there's your alpinists then and I think fundamentally people realize that this is a very different aspect of climbing.
This is a very different game and to be able to play the game well and to operate as an alpinist, is a higher level it's a very different world and you need to know your staff and you need to climb at a hard level and you need to be able to take risks and rationalize the risks and understand the potentials of when things go wrong and how things go wrong and how you can problem solve, and it's certainly a game that's not for everybody and that's why it probably has so few people doing it.
George: You obviously love mountaineering with a passion after this kind of 30-year career of doing all this amazing stuff. Has there ever been a point where you've considered pulling the plug on it or is that never even kind of crossed your mind? You've just dealt with, whatever's come across your plate, but you always knew that you were going to continue.
Rolfe: I mean, the thing is with mountaineering, it's something I grew up with and something that's super ingrained in the psyche, and it's always going to be part of me, but it's not just the chasing adventures in the mountain. It's also been about chasing adventures in different environments, like going on extreme expeditions into the desert and polar stuff and jungle stuff. And I would say that the scariest moments I've had have certainly been in places that I wasn't really super comfortable with, like the rainforest, for example, we were on a sponsored expedition to paddle the Congo river in Zaire and yeah, we were in a civil war and that whole situation certainly brought about a huge realization like, Holy shit, we're here in not only in a kind of crazy environment, like the tropical rainforest, trying to run it in canoes, but also it is hell a lot of fighting and stuff going on around us and that is the closest thing where I've thought, okay, you know what, you know, we seriously need to have a rethink about what we're doing and perhaps we shouldn't purposely throw ourselves into these kinds of situations and actively look for them and to see what you know, where, wow, wow, wow, let's go and do this. Let's try this, let's try that. You know, just because there's a blank on the map, that doesn't mean it's not dangerous.
George: Okay. Right. We're going to dig into this one. So, what actually happened, I want to hear this.
Rolfe: It was, we wanted to paddle the Congo river and they provided us with some money and lots of stickers and promotional material. And yeah, it was an interesting scenario because we were thinking that from source to finish, it would probably take us around six weeks to do it and I guess we were quite arrogant in this kind of thought, because we were just looking at, you know, things like flow rate, and we're looking at the map from satellite maps and all that kind of stuff and we're thinking, you know what, you know, it couldn't be that bad. It's a big river and all that sort of stuff. So we didn't actually get to the start, to the very source of the mountain because of also because of political problems at the time and we started a little bit further downstream and we quickly realized that what we thought was going to be a quick little adventure, maybe six weeks would probably take a lot longer. And the overall time we spent in the country, and this is in 92 and 93, it actually took us seven months to get out of the country and during that time there was an overthrow in the government, maybe it was 94, but anyway, there was an overthrow in the government and the whole country sort of exploded into a civil war and next door countries like Rwanda are also experienced a hell of a lot of problems and everywhere around us, things were kicking off. And so not only were we coping with the difficulties of being in a tropical rain forest, running a river, but also with a lot of rebel soldiers who were coming from a lot of different factions. They weren't just government or, and rebel forces, but a lot of refugees and a lot of people moving around and so we were pushed here and there by circumstances and eventually after seven months we managed to get out of the country.
George: Oh well, that certainly meets the definition of an adventure as nobody's going here. I'm sure that's not through any good reason - let's go and see what's going on. So, Congo is definitely somewhere that even very adventurous, extreme, whatever you want to call them, people see as kind of off limits, you wanted to go there. It had that appeal and you were kind of pushed around by this fighting. What was the actual, like day to day of you paddling down in tract, were you like actually seeing these people, or were you hearing about it? Like what was the day to day like and how did that kind of go?
Rolfe: The safest time actually when I felt, and we all felt at the safest was when she, when we were on the river and when we were in the rainforest itself or when we were on the move or when we're trying to hitch from place to place or getting lifts on the truck convoys that were making their way through the rain forest on really bad roads. You know, we were involved in holdup situations where rebels were ambushing the vehicles we were on. We saw some pretty amazingly awful things and the river actually offered a huge escape for us. And once we were on the boats, it was, it was great. Okay, now we're back into an environment we understand. We, the day to day routine of running the river, being on the water and pulling into the shore every night and cutting a clear patch into the rainforest and putting up hammocks and sleeping in the rainforest and we were all from an outdoor background and one of the team had to be 'evac'ed' because he had an eye infection that he ended up losing one of his eyes. Another team member, which actually my brother, he ended up being evac'ed because he got malaria. We lost another team member altogether. She was an American girl. I mean, she, I later made contact with her through the magic of Facebook we reconnected, but that was like 10 years later. So, I mean, all these craziness happened and whilst we were in the country, and then it was called Zaire and since it's changed its name to Democratic Republic of Congo, but it wasn't so much the adventure as the circumstances that were proven to be pretty challenging. And that was basically, there was a government with a president called Mobutu and he was overthrown by a guy called Kabila and basically all hell broke loose, and we were in the middle of it and that's, it's more about the circumstance we are in that was utterly unpredictable and dealing with that rather than the actual river itself, which was actually a safe haven.
George: Wow, yeah. So, you were kind of that just as the pin was released from the hand grenade and then you're right in the middle of it and bang. Is there a thing that kind of sticks out in your mind of one of those holdups or one of those times where you were really kind of breaking it, thinking, Oh shit? Is there anything in particular, like a memory that you go back to that you think of a time that you were whatever held up, you kind of went through three or four different things that were like giant challenges, but is there one that sticks out where you were particularly worried?
Rolfe: Yeah, I mean on that trip, there's quite a few scenarios. I mean, they're hauled up situations, which you've also had always quite unpredictable but you know, you're on a truck and the trucks that they carry, not only cargo, but also a hell of a lot of human being sitting on top, because it's the only thing that's moving through the rainforest. So, if you're going to move from "A" to "B", you want to be on a convoy. So, they carry about say three or four trucks that'll have like two or 300 people sitting on the roofs of these things and on the loads of these things. And so, we were on one of those loads. On the maybe the second or the third truck down, and there's a lot of rebels. I spotted a kid maybe in like 14 or 15 or whatever, standing in the middle of the road.
Rolfe: And he was wearing a Mickey mouse tee shirt and like army fatigues and he was shouldering an RPG and he stopped the whole convoy and then basically hundreds of other kids kind of climbed on board all super heavily armed up and they held, you know, they started robbing everybody. It's, that's a scenario that's, you're dealing with something that's very unpredictable. You're looking at something that's super crazy and my girlfriend at the time, the American girl, I mentioned earlier, she was like, Holy shit, you know, what's happening here? So I pulled her towards me and we were like trying to cower in amongst the whole, all the people sitting on our, on our truck and trying to make ourselves as invisible as you can when you're the only white person on a truck and they quickly spotted us and then obviously the guns come out and he's all tooled up.
They all have weapons, they all have AKs and yeah, it was quite a crazy scenario because I was just waiting for the moment to get shot and to be relieved of all my possessions. And then my brother and a good friend of mine who was also on the truck, they started challenging the guys and they started swearing at these guys and yeah, that's kind of like, sort of brought the whole situation into a different atmosphere and things started to change very quickly and it, but actually it brought things to a standstill in the sense that these boys, and they didn't know what to do with white people who were challenging them and actually confronting them and being verbally aggressive towards them when they certainly had the upper hand and it came to a kind of a stalemate and they let us get off the vehicle
And they said, basically, just walk into the forest and don't look back and we're going to let you go cause we were just basically too much of an unpredictable element to them and they were only kids, you know, and I don't think they've ever had too much combat experience or experiencing using their weapon. So, the whole situation was probably as new to them as it was to us but certainly that's the craziness. We're dealing with something that's totally unpredictable and it can go many different ways and that's certainly one of these moments where I've thought, okay, well, you know, we're actually very lucky to be walking into this forest here and walking away from these trucks and yeah and these kids have actually let us go here.
George: Yeah. The moment where you kind of look over at your brother, just thinking, I mean, this is either a great strategy or a terrible strategy. It's either going to get us out of here or we're all going to be dead first. Wow. So yeah, that was kind of one river experience, but you also spent some time in the Amazon basin canoeing there. Was that before or after and was that kind of a bit more straightforward? Can you just tell us the story a little bit about your time there, how that came about?
Rolfe: Yeah. So, after Africa, I went to South America and I spent all up about, you know, four or five years in Africa and then moved to South America primarily to work. I was there working as a guide for in the Andes, getting to know the Andes, doing lots of climbing myself, just trying to eke out an existence as a guide, but basically we're climbing bombs and moving up and down the Andean mountains from top to bottom and wherever we encountered the off season, when the mountains were being hit by monsoon or bad condition, then we would go and run a river and we never tried to do it commercially. It was always just for our own purpose, but basically the idea was to buy a dugout canoe from a local village and the river would be maybe like a couple of meters wide and then just launch ourselves onto the back of these river and then just run it out.
And some of the trips were 16 weeks of just following the river and it took us straight into the rainforest and as you progress along the river, the river gets bigger and bigger and bigger, more and more tributaries flow into these rivers. And then eventually you finish up in the great Amazon river itself. So, that was basically just progressive journeys where we'd just launch yourself onto these rivers for our own interest sake. We liked the lifestyle of being on these rivers and meeting all these really remote tribal groups and communities and everything else that exists on these rivers and a part of these rivers and it was just lovely to be in the rainforest. So that was more about, you know, having fun and having a bit of an offbeat adventure in South America.
George: It sounds amazing. It sounds incredible, definitely on the list of I've got to do that or good river adventure, especially through the Amazon. It really kind of something takes my heart about that. Were you always met pretty well by the, by the locals, as you, as you kind of came down the river there?
Rolfe: One of the best things you've got going for you in this sense is that it's all very, predictable, you know, Let's say these communities have never had many Westerners or maybe even any Westerners peddle passed them in a dugout canoe. So, when three or four crazy kids come past, you know, in a canoe, it's all this kind of very unique to them. And initially, sometimes you get a little hostility, a little bit of anger, and I think that's normal, where people, they have a notion about the outside world and they understand that you could be a potential threat, but then quickly, everybody quickly realizes that actually, you know what, these guys are pretty harmless and you know, they're not carrying weapons and they're not, they have a Frisbee and you know, they've come to ask for food or they come to us to trade with us.
So, we would always have things like stuff that we could trade with the communities like fishing hooks and razorblades that they can use for their daily live and our soap and all that sort of stuff that they valued and that we could trade for food. So, we were certainly not an invasion leading force or anything like, you know, harmful to them and they quickly realized that. And we always had a couple of jokers amongst us who were great with kids. And then you know, so it's always, you know, at a very human level that you quickly, each side of the, of the divide quickly realizes, hey man, these are just normal human beings. They might be a little bit quirky, but actually let's, sit down and around the campfire and, you know, share a meal and, and share our stories.
And that's pretty well a typical response. I mean, there's certain areas in Amazon now, particularly if you're in Peru and Colombia, that are all a little bit more out of bounds because of the cocaine situation and that's, we encountered elements of that where we certainly not made to feel welcome and we realized, okay, this is not a very good place to be because of the situation here. And so, we moved on very quickly, but let's say all the rivers we paddled from Ecuador or Bolivia into Brazil into the low land Amazon, they were great. You know, the communities that we encountered were just great.
George: Yeah. So I guess kind of moving on to the last little phase of stuff that I'm really keen to ask you about for now is your other time living with tribes and living with people, but in Africa, in particular, so you, Marney and the kids went over and let's start with the Samburu and Kenya. Can you tell us what was the inspiration behind that and why did you end up there and how was your kind of experience? Marney's alluded to a couple of amazing things that happened, but I'd love to hear the kind of full story.
Rolfe: Well, initially we were doing adventure stuff. We're very maybe called summit focused or kind of like objective focused. So, we would try to cross the desert, or you would, we would try to climb a remote mountain in the North of Kenya or Sudan or wherever. And we would only be using local people to act as guides and to help us gain food and to find waterholes and stuff like that. So, we were employing local people to help us achieve our ambition, that kind of a thing. But particularly through Marney, it's, she has a much more anthropological feel to the whole thing and she loves being with tribal communities and so when I started traveling with Marney's for Africa, we spent like a year hitchhiking through Africa and her primary focus was, yeah, let's see like how many really remote communities we can get to,
And we met with the Embu people, the Omo people, the Hamar people, and the Samburu people to [inaudible 00:49:32] people and all these kinds of tribal groups that live in Ethiopia and Eritrea and North Kenya. And it was great, you know, this puts a whole different perspective on traveling actually to spend time with those communities. And there is a massive eye-opener just to see how they live and the simplicity of their lives, but also how complex their lives are at the same time, because their notion of what it is to be a human being is very different to ours. They don't have the same pressures as us in regards to a materialistic need, but certainly their spiritual needs and a spiritual outlook of how to be a human being is very different to us and that lend a huge element to traveling through these places.
And so since then, we've not only been on a, on a track to say these kind of places to climb the mountain, but also to incorporate as much of a local element as we possibly can just to help our clients understand, wow, you know, this is something utterly unique. Also, from our own family perspective, we also wanted to introduce our kids to that whole notion and we spend a lot of time with our kids in Samburu land and with the Maasai people in Tanzania and with the hugs, a Hunter and gatherer people in Tanzania. And we went hunting with the Hudzi, you know, these are the last true hunter and gatherers on planet earth. I think maybe in the Kalahari, there's a few still left, but this is one of the tribal groups that is still uniquely Hunter and gatherer and we spend some time with these people, with the kids and we hunted monkeys and we, yeah, man, it was great.
And for kids growing up, my daughter was 12 at a time and my son would have been like 14. It's something that made a huge impression on them and, you know, they're modern age kids. So, you know, they like social media and they like doing everything modern and everything is just like, they're not ignorant of what's going on in the world by any means. But at the background, there's always this experience that yeah, you know, apart from how we live our lives is also people out there very remotely who live a very different life to us. And I think that adds a huge dimension to their lives and having that understanding and having that influence at such an early age. And so, it, might've seem like to a lot of people, like a little bit of a quirky thing to do, to head off and leave with some tribal people with our kids. But I think, you know, from, from their point of view, it's been great and also, it's backfired or us because basically they couldn't wait to get out of home. They left to go traveling. My son's already left. He left home when he was 17 and couldn't wait to get out and explore the world for himself. And I think that's probably based on the influences he had when he was younger. And yeah, so he's certainly got the travel bug and I think we're kind of partially to blame for that.
George: It sounds like a most incredible, I don't know if education is the right word, but kind of experience to give to your kids and to share with them. Because if you think about our kind of in the West, our definition of an education, it's extremely narrow, you learn kind of maths, English, science, and then a couple of other things on top of that. Whereas there is so much more to learn about the world and about humans and about community and travel is probably the best way to broaden that education. But for people who love the idea of taking their kids to travel, but are scared by it all, or I've heard many people say I'd love to travel. I'd love to do what you do. I'd love to do this, but I have kids. What would you kind of say to those people?
Rolfe: Well, I mean, it sounds really cliched, but basically, I'd just say step out the door, just take that first step. And obviously you need to organize something like an airfare and everything else in a return ticket perhaps, but basically the best adventure is one that you just start and embrace, whatever circumstance throws at you along the way. And that's rather than planning every day. And you know, you need to be on a bus by this time and you need to be in this hotel at that time. It's best to free flow it and to throw yourself at an experience without actively seeking out any experience whatsoever. And just to see what happens. It's really worked for us. I mean, my wife is the best organizer in the whole world, you know, about basically say for example, when we visited the Hudza people, which I just talked about, we basically went there and they had no prior knowledge of us rocking up and we just brought it up and we just hung out and we ask, can we spend the night here and they were all very accommodating.
He said, yeah, yeah, you can pitch your tent here. You can camp here, whatever. And then in the morning, you know, we actually, we smoked a big fat joint with them. And then it was basically, I mean, the kids didn't of course. But it was basically, yeah, Hey, you guys want to come hunting, you know, and then all of a sudden, we found ourselves running through the bush at a hundred miles an hour and hunting for their lunch and dinner. And it was great. And that kind of experience you can't preplan or preconceive what's going to happen. That's the beautiful thing. And that's the magical element of adventure is just to do it and to get started. And it's the same with even just with an organized trip, say for example, I've run an expedition company and we take people all around the world to various expeditions, but for a lot of people, it's their first time in a country and not to be too objective minded, not to say, yeah, I'm here to climb this mountain.
I need to get to the summit of this mountain, but embrace the bigger picture and absolutely embrace even the things that are going wrong. You know, for example, you know, you might come to a bridge and you find that the bridge has fallen down, or you might find out all of a sudden the whole road has been washed out because of a Monsoon or that you've been attacked by an unbelievable amount of frogs. It's all these kinds of quirky elements that you shouldn't be bothered about. Really. It's just, it's just like, wow, this is just what an experience really. And, and that all adds up to a huge thing that you can't really replicate in our living in our day to day existence. You know, there's nothing like that. We live really predictable lives and we know exactly what time the bus is going to leave that is going to take us to work.
We know exactly what time we're going to have lunch. We're going exactly what time we're going on holidays. We know exactly what time we're going to the resort. We're going exactly what we do. What room are going to be staying in. All of this is hugely predictable. And just to break the mold, which is actually really easy to do. It's a very easy thing to do. And it's just like, I just mentioned this step out the front door and throw yourself out of it. And for the first time, I would say, go on an expedition or go on an adventure with a company that offers a big scope of itineraries and just say, you know what? I've always dreamt about going to Peru, and now I'm going to Peru and just to see what happens and you know, the objective might be to reach Machu Picchu but I'm going to love every single day. And it's not about reaching the target and getting to Machu Picchu. It's about enjoying and getting the most out of every single day.
George: That was a wonderful sum up of adventure and exactly how I feel. But you did it far more eloquently, and it's been amazing to hear your story and to hear a little bit, and I'm sure we'll do this again, but let's just close with a couple of quick-fire questions that I always ask all of the guests. So other than your parents, who are some of your heroes, just the first people that come to mind.
Rolfe: Okay. My heroes in life people you've never heard of, I have three. One is an Australian guy called Greg Charles, an American guy called Mark Twight and a Polish guy called Vojtech Kirtika. And they're all super alpinists. They all climb very remote mountains and they stay well below the radar and they're masters at what they do.
Georg: Going to get a few Google searches after that. I'm going to have to go and check them out. And yeah, the last one is do you think that heroes are born or made, do you think that it's nature or nurture?
Rolfe: Yeah. I think circumstance makes you a hero. So, you don't know whether you're going to be hero or not. For example, this, every season I was called a hero for rescuing one of my clients. I did one of the highest recorded single hand at mountain rescues. And from a lot of people perspective, that seemed to be a great thing to be doing. And I saved this person's life, but from my perspective, it's something that was just part of a job, part of my job. And at the end of the day, there's a lot of Sherpas who lived at his job every single day. So why was I called a hero and not them? And so, it's just a circumstance thing where you get presented with a chance to be a hero. Like my son, who's working in Cornwall as a surf lifeguard. And he managed to save somebody's life, the person was drowning in the surf, and he dragged this girl out and rescued her life. So, in the classical sense of being a hero is like the classic version of a hero. I think it's just not something that's bred into somebody or you learn to be hero. It's just something that circumstance throws at you and you get a chance to do something that's right.
George: Rolfe. It's been amazing. I've really, really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for telling us a little bit of you're great adventures in climbing in the Amazon and the times with your family too. That's been wonderful. Thank you everybody for listening. And until next time see you then goodbye.
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