Six Dashing Explorers And Their Watches
A new generation of adventurers talk to MR PORTER about their favourite destinations – and the timepieces that help them get there
The notion of adventure has changed significantly in the century since Captain Robert Scott set out on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. His exploits were indicative of a golden age of adventure, when stoic men ventured into the unknown to fill the empty spaces on maps. But by the time Mount Everest was finally climbed in 1953 – the last “first” left – things had changed. Now satellites, rather than intrepid explorers, mapped the Earth and expeditions, stripped of that purpose, became ever more extreme feats of athleticism, which failed to engage the collective imagination in quite the same way.
Yet today, for a new generation of British explorers, something of the spirit of Captain Scott’s expedition endures. Motivated by social, scientific and environmental aims, not simply athletic, and supported variously by corporate companies, car manufacturers and watch brands, which can see their designs tested in extreme conditions, these modern explorers are proving that adventure can be as attention grabbing and awe inspiring as it was 100 years ago.
Mr Ian Finch
Ex-Royal Marine Commando Mr Ian Finch has spent more than 10 years in remote environments documenting indigenous cultures and ancient traditions that are threatened by the modern world. As part of an ongoing project, Traditions First, Mr Finch has spent time in Alaska, Mongolia, Greenland, Indonesia and Tibet, and for his latest journey, canoeing 2,000 miles down the Yukon River, he set out to find the original inhabitants who live along the river’s course.
What makes a great adventure?
Whenever you go on any adventure, there has to be something you can share with people, a great story that moves you and draws you to the landscape and the people there.
There’s an anthropological aspect to your expeditions. How central is this to what you do?
Every trip I do has a cultural thread. There’s always a reason I want to meet these people, whether it’s because their traditions are fading out, or they have interesting spiritual beliefs, or social problems in their communities. Ultimately, I’m fascinated by how these indigenous communities are, historically, closely connected to the landscape and the wildlife, something that we lack in our society today.
Where does this interest in indigenous ways of life come from?
I’m fascinated by traditions and what’s happening to them, whether they are surviving in the modern world, whether they are being passed on. There’s a huge gap between the elders and what’s happening with the children, who are typically leaving the communities for the bright city lights. There’s a real danger that there’s going to be a void when it comes to traditions such as language, music, dance, clothing. I feel really strongly that these traditions – as is the case with traditions from Britain – should be passed down and kept going.
How do you ensure you approach these communities appropriately?
There has to be huge cultural sensitivity when you go into these communities. As a photographer, it can be quite difficult. All you want to do is use your camera to document their way of life, but it is important to be patient and respectful of the situation. More often than not, people are open to you, but it takes time to build a rapport.
How has the experience of meeting these indigenous communities changed your perspective on our way of life?
One thing I always take away, especially from the time I spent in Alaska recently, is that we’re losing our sense of the natural world and how we fit within it. Though many indigenous communities are facing restrictions on how they can interact with the land and wildlife, and their culture is changing as a result, in the Western world we’ve lost that understanding of nature. We need to learn from these communities to understand our place within a wider eco-system.
You’re wearing a Bremont. To what extent is your watch a tool?
Timing counts for a lot. It can sometimes be the difference between life and death, and having a good, reliable timepiece is essential. If you’re on a mountain range and you need to be somewhere before the sun comes down and temperatures drop, knowing the time is vital.
Mr Kenton Cool
1858 Automatic watch by Montblanc
Mr Kenton Cool is one of the world’s leading mountaineers, having established new routes and led expeditions around the world. Aside from summiting Mount Everest 13 times, Mr Cool is the only climber to have completed the Everest triple crown – climbing the neighbouring mountains of Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse without returning to base camp, a feat previously thought impossible given the amount of time spent at high altitude.
You’ve climbed Everest 13 times. What keeps bringing you back?
There’s a professional aspect – I work as a mountain guide, taking clients up and down the mountain – but I also just love being there. Conditions change, the client changes, the weather changes, little nuances that make it different each time. Then part of me is chasing the non-Sherpa record of 15 ascents. I’ve already got a reputation for being the first Westerner to summit each year, and I still have that motivation to be the best that got me into climbing at university in the first place.
What do you do when you get to the top of a mountain?
I normally have a drink and something to eat. If the weather is good, you can stand and look out at these uninterrupted views. Even if you see manmade objects, like taking in the view of La Paz, glittering in the moonlight, from the summit of Illimani in Bolivia, it feels like it belongs there. Then you have to think about how to get down again.
You’ve achieved a few firsts in your career, including being the first person to climb three neighbouring Himalayan peaks – Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse – in a season. Are there any other challenges you have your sights on?
There are still more unclimbed 6,000-6,500m peaks than climbed. A lot of people say adventure’s dead and point to those who feel a need to come up with more curious ways to make their expedition unique, but there’s still so much left to do in mountaineering. Each footstep you make on an unclimbed mountain is making history. That’s real adventure.
Most mountaineers wear altimeters and heart-rate monitors. You keep it old school.
I’ve always worn analogue watches. They just work. It’s almost my trademark now, one of the little nuances that sets me apart from my contemporaries. You can go to the Royal Geographical Society in London and see the watch worn by George Mallory, the climber who famously lost his life on Everest in 1924, and it’s not dissimilar to the Montblanc 1858 Automatic I’m wearing now.
Messrs Ross and Hugo Turner
Left: Mr Hugo Turner. Right: Mr Ross Turner
Emergency II watch by Breitling
Since rowing across the Atlantic in 2011, becoming part of the youngest four-man crew to complete the journey and the first twins to row any ocean, Messrs Ross and Hugo Turner have specialised in setting world firsts. In addition to climbing Mount Erebus and cycling to the Green Pole, the most inaccessible point in South America, the identical twins became the first to reach the continental Pole of Inaccessibility in Australia by paramotor, collecting data for the Department of Twins Research at King’s College London in the process.
What are the advantages of going on expeditions as twins?
Mr Hugo Turner: A clear advantage is that you can share the experience together. We’re also so much stronger as a team. We’re each other’s eyes and ears. We can look out for each other.
Mr Ross Turner: We know exactly what skills the other has because we’ve grown up together. We know exactly what they are going to do at any given moment. That’s definitely helped us out a couple of times.
You’re involved with King’s College London’s Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology. What does that entail?
Mr Ross Turner: Each year we subject ourselves to a full-body scan, which covers everything from bone density, fats and bloods to cognitive function and gut microbes. Then with each expedition we do, we are tested before, during, when possible, and after to study specific ideas. When we climbed Mount Erebus in Antarctica, for example, we recorded stress levels and brain function as we climbed and oxygen levels decreased.
It must be reassuring to have a distress beacon in your Breitling Emergency II watches when you’re out on an expedition. How do you know when you need to use it and call in help?
Mr Hugo Turner: We failed to cross the Greenland ice cap in 2014, and that sense of failure still looms quite large with us, but you have to appreciate that you’re not going to succeed on every expedition. I guess the skill and, ultimately, the adventure is to know how much it’s worth pushing that envelope.
Mr Ross Turner: The Emergency II allows us to push our expeditions just a little bit closer to the edge, the edge being failures or safety issues, or environmental factors, or your own health. You always need to come back alive. We’ve all read in the papers about people who haven’t come back. I don’t feel sorry for them because they knew exactly where that line was, and that’s the problem. You have to think, to use your experience, to come back another day. If you’re dead, you can’t.
Mr George Bullard
S500 Supermarine Automatic watch by Bremont
At the age of 19, Mr George Bullard completed what was described by Sir Ranulph Fiennes as a “genuinely ground-breaking” expedition – the longest fully unsupported polar journey. Since then, Mr Bullard has covered more than 2,000 miles on foot in polar regions, led expeditions in the Amazon, the Indian subcontinent and Svalbard and, most recently, kayaked from Greenland to Scotland.
Many of your trips have had a purpose, such as testing the theory that an Inuit kayaked from Greenland to Scotland. How important is that aspect to your expeditions?
It’s vital. I don’t think there’s space in the 21st century for people to do expeditions purely on human endurance. For me, it’s absolutely central to have a reason to go to these extreme places, whether that’s scientific or otherwise. People understand better how these wider issues affect their lives and engage more with it.
What do you fear most on an expedition?
I suppose I fear not coming home. Out on expedition, living in the wilderness, you have an acute understanding of the power of nature. When Mother Nature is angry, you really know about it, and you worry about not seeing your friends and family again.
What have you got in the pipeline?
For my next project, I’m getting back together with my old teammate, Alex Hibbert, from a trip we did in 2008, which became the longest unsupported polar journey at the time. We are aiming to be the first to reach the North Pole in winter unsupported, which means walking in complete darkness, but the main purpose of the trip is the data that we can bring back. There’s a real dearth of information on the Arctic Ocean in winter and it’s central to understanding why the Arctic is melting so quickly.
What attracted you to the Bremont Supermarine S500 and what role does it play on your expeditions?
For a start, it’s English. It’s got great heritage. I love its story and I love the people behind it. It sounds like it should be a gimmick, having a wristwatch in this age of digital technology, but whatever expedition you’re on, it will prove vital. It could be that each hour you need to stop to drink and feed, and for the more arduous trips, it’s important to know where you are in your daily routine. You really do live by the clock in these remote environments.
Mr James Aiken
Mr James Aiken’s meditative, atmospheric films are inspired by a passion for the remote landscapes of the North Sea and North Atlantic. A surfer and sailor, Mr Aiken tells stories about the sea through the people who live and work in these extreme environments. A critically acclaimed film on Arctic surfing in 2013 was followed recently by a sensitive vignette that documented the lives of an Icelandic sailor and Greenlandic hunter.
What draws you to the remote, bleak locations you film?
There’s an intensity to the landscapes of the North Atlantic and North Sea. Nature there is so powerful. The movement and energy in something like a storm hitting a dramatic coastline, for example, really lends itself to film.
How far would you go for a good shot?
I don’t set out to go to extremes, but when you’re out there, you do find yourself starting to push the boundaries. If you’re doing stuff that involves risk all the time, you actually become less of a risk taker because you’re playing the odds so regularly and need to be safe to balance it out.
What are the challenges specific to filming in these locations?
The main challenge is the weight of the kit, especially when you’re going somewhere remote. It takes one person to carry all the camera equipment, which means someone else has to carry all the camping equipment when usually that would be shared between two. Then you need to conserve battery life for the cameras because you can’t charge batteries off grid. I have had to develop a sense of when I don’t think a shot is going to be worth shooting. It’s like going back to shooting on film. I have to be constantly aware of the environment I’m in, of certain elements that I wouldn’t notice if I weren’t filming here, such as weather patterns, tidal movements, light angles.
How important a tool is your TAG Heuer Formula 1 watch?
As a sailor, so much revolves around the time of day and, in the places I sail, understanding the tide is vital. If you don’t get to certain places when the tide is going with you, you’ll be stuck for six hours. You also have these timing terms of celestial navigation and your orientation of the heavenly bodies, which is a really important fallback if your GPS breaks.