The value of preparation, the folly of unsupported self-confidence and how a truly dedicated individual can accomplish the incredible were the lessons to be learned from a guest speaker at the Salmon Arm Secondary Jackson Campus on Feb. 16.
John Cantor, an Australian adventurer, has embodied these values in his decade-long quest to traverse the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Cantor recounted the story of his three failed attempts to conquer the grueling 1,000-kilometre hike and 600-km kayak journey through the Alaskan mountains, followed by hard-won success.
Cantor emphasized that failure isn’t the dirty word that some make it out to be; instead he champions the idea that failure can be a beautiful thing that is integral to building resilience.
Four days into his first attempt to traverse the mountain range in 2008, serious stomach pain and accompanying problems eating and sleeping left Cantor unable to safely continue the expedition and so the decision was made to send in a rescue helicopter to retrieve him.
“I truly believe my success was born lying in that helicopter,” he said.
He added that nothing the Brooks Range could throw at him could compare with the devastation he felt at having to be rescued.
Cantor would return to the Brooks range for the next two consecutive years. Battling severe anxiety and chronic injuries, he had to cut the expedition short in the first few days of both attempts.
In advance of his fourth attempt to traverse the mountain range in 2012, Cantor asked himself two questions each day: “What am I doing to achieve this goal?” and “Could I be doing more?”
He took extreme measures to prepare himself and his equipment, going as far as to swap out toothpaste for the all-purpose Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap to save weight in his pack.
After all of the preparations, traversing the Brooks Range was a test of Cantor’s resilience. He developed Achilles tendinitis on the fifth day of the journey, causing extreme pain. He found the pain would ease slightly if he hiked non-stop, not even stopping to eat, so he began replacing meals with olive oil and weight-gain shakes so he could keep up the energy necessary to hike 12 to 14 hours a day.
“You’ve already suffered so much. Why not suffer a little bit more and make it all worthwhile,” was the mantra Cantor repeated as he worked his way over the mountainous terrain towards the end of the hike.
One day, Cantor found himself off his planned route and in frightening terrain. By the time he got back on course he had added 16 kms to his journey, but said he was in a positive mood because he felt he had overcome the toughest day of his life.
Shortly after getting off course, Cantor reached the start of the kayak portion of the journey. In his inflatable kayak he had to fight strong winds as he made his way down the river. As he neared the end of the kayak journey, he battled exhaustion in order to take advantage of a break in the weather. He arrived at the end of the traverse about 4 a.m. on July 16, 2012. A weather system arrived at 6 a.m. that stranded other paddlers for six days.
Cantor’s 31 1/2 day journey set the speed record for a traverse of the Brooks Range.
Cantor wasn’t finished with the range and began planning for an even greater challenge — a winter traverse of the imposing mountains. He attempted the winter journey in 2014 but extreme weather and the risk of losing fingers to frostbite caused him and his expedition partner to call it off.
True to form, Cantor plans to try again. He is in the midst of a 15-month project which includes training in Revelstoke and taking time to acclimatize in Alaska that will culminate in another attempt at the winter traverse in January 2019.
The students in the audience were transfixed by Cantor’s stories; many of them stopped to ask him questions after the presentation.