The following interview was conducted by Alastair Humphreys, who recently released his new book GRAND ADVENTURES, for which Karen Darke contributed the foreword...
Alastair: I remember meeting you before I cycled round the world and being so inspired that you had ridden across the Karakoram mountains. I didn’t care that you were in a wheelchair: I just thought that was such a cool trip and I was jealous! How did people in Central Asia react to a “disabled” person doing something as hard as that?
Karen: It was an amazing trip! I remember feeling inspired by the fact that you were going to ride around the world (I’d still like to do that!). The journey through Central Asia was a long time ago now – 1993 – and the border between the old Russia, (now Kyrgysztan) and China hadn’t long been open for crossing, so tourists were almost non-existent. In Kyrgyzstan the people just welcomed us and were so generous with their food, water and sharing their homes. As we didn’t speak the same language I don’t really know what they thought of the wheelchair. I remember they just welcomed us with open arms and were so incredibly warm and kind. In China the people seemed very intrigued, and huge crowds would gather around us, just staring at us. The kids liked having a seat on the back of the tandem and a quick spin around though!
Alastair: What do you prefer – a remote adventure like skiing across the Greenland ice cap, or something like cycling down Japan which is all about the people you meet?
Karen: That’s a good question. I think they are very, very different sorts of trips. In a remote place, you work more closely with the team you are with, and that is both a special and intense experience at the same time. You are far more co-dependent and bonded together, and also feel far closer to nature and wilderness because you are so utterly immersed in it. On a trip like cycling through Japan, it is culturally and socially so much richer. Ultimately it’s people, their characters, generosity, spirit and smiles that I remember and that really stays with me and impacts me most. I think I prefer that sort of trip, where you are meeting people and learning so much more about a place, its history, culture and character than being in the complete wilderness. But pure nature and wilderness offers something different that’s harder to define, harder to place, but also very impacting. One of my favourite journeys was three months sea kayaking from Vancouver, Canada to Juneau, Alaska. I think that’s because it was special in all aspects – the team I was part of, the absolute harmony with nature and its rhythms, and also because we met lots of people along the way – fisherman, sailors, people living in remote communities. It was a trip that had all the elements – people, team, culture and wilderness.
Alastair: I spent most of the summer of 2012 crying in front of the TV at how amazing the Olympics were. Your hand-holding finish was just extraordinary. How did the experience of being an elite athlete compare to pushing your limits in the expedition world on something like El Cap?
Karen: It’s completely different, but I think pushing my limits in the adventure / expedition world has helped me develop some inner toughness that really helps for training as an athlete. I’m reading a book at the moment called ‘Spartan Up’ by the guy that started the ‘Spartan’ series of races. His philosophy is to put people through so much hardship, repetition, endurance and physical / mental struggle that they come out tougher and more resilient to deal with the knocks and challenges of everyday life. I think tough expeditions have done that for me, so now when I have a hard training session, or race, I know I can dig deeper, or survive it, or keep going, and that we have more in us than even we believe we do at times. I love being an athlete and the structure of daily training, and feel really privileged to meet the people I do through it, to get to see places & parts of the world I otherwise wouldn’t, and the experiences and learning it brings. The only down-side is that months of adventuring isn’t really possible! There is one time of year (autumn) when you can have a month off structured training, so there is a window of opportunity at that time of year that I try to make the most of for other adventurous activities! But being an athlete has a really positive impact on my daily life – getting to do what I love everyday as my job, and the health & fitness I enjoy as a result of it. Sometimes it can be hard keeping motivation high for a four-year Olympic cycle, training when you’re tired or juggling the rest of life, which is different to an expedition type experience where it’s only intense for a relatively short period of time – weeks or a few months, but not years.
Alastair: Would your adventurous career have been particularly different if you hadn’t become paralysed or were you always set on an outdoor life? I don’t want to belittle the difficulties by suggesting that you’ve done such cool stuff because you are paralysed, but I wonder what you were imagining your life to be filled with before you fell off that cliff?
Karen: I have no idea how my life would have been if I hadn’t ended up paralysed all those years ago. Certainly I’m sure I would have got more into climbing and big mountain / greater range stuff, but who knows. It’s a bit like that film ‘Sliding Doors’ where one decision or incident totally changes the course of your life. I can’t know what direction my life would have gone in if I had survived the climbing accident with my spine intact. The stuff I’ve done since becoming paralysed has been about who I am deep down as a person – with a love of adventure, sport and the outdoors. I think people find it more surprising or inspiring or something because I happen to be paralysed, but for me I just feel fortunate to still be able to do things I love (albeit in an alternative way), and for great friends and companions without who most of the adventures I’ve experienced would never have been possible.
Alastair: What advice do you offer to people who are dreaming of adventures but feel too daunted to begin?
Karen: For me every adventure usually begins by feeling very daunting. Maybe that’s the nature of adventure – a journey with an unknown outcome. There was a time when I was first paralysed when pushing my wheelchair around the hospital grounds was a big adventure (no joke) – kind of a mini-expedition. I think adventures can be anything – small or large, in your garden or on the other side of the world. It’s all about entering into the unknown and doing something that seems to some degree unachievable. When I’ve felt really daunted by a forthcoming adventure, I find it helpful to write down all my fears of likely problems. Then I try and think of one thing I can do, no matter how small or silly it might seem, to make myself feel more optimistic, or to have a potential solution to each of these perceived problems or worries. For example on the expedition skiing across the Greenland icecap, I bought a fish-tank thermometer which has two temperature gauges, so that I could keep an eye on the temperature of my foot and my hip [as I have no feeling there I cannot know if they are becoming cold], and reduce the risk of getting frostbite. I also carried a rape alarm in case we met polar bears as I understood they don’t like loud noises and I felt the most vulnerable of the team. Maybe they were crazy solutions, but they built my confidence, helped me overcome some fears and therefore made the whole adventure seem just a bit less daunting.
Alastair: What trip would you go and do if I gave you £1000?
Karen: I would go sea kayaking (but I can’t do that on my own!). Sea kayaking is cheap because you can sleep on beaches and live on lentils and porridge, and I love living with the rhythm of the tide and sleeping to the sound of waves. As for where I’d go… I’d love to sea kayak around Mallorca or the Balearic Islands – a special place to me with a kinder climate than northern Europe. Though I also like the idea of sea kayaking from Finland to Sweden through the archipelago. I’d also love to just get on my bike from my home in Scotland and ride all the way across Europe. Inverness to Istanbul maybe! I reckon that would be do-able for £1000, but I’d need a friend to come along too as towing my wheelchair and all my camping gear, whilst do-able, is a struggle as soon as you hit any big hills… and I generally prefer adventures with friends more than on my own!