As a professional polar explorer, John Huston has completed otherworldly expeditions to the South Pole and Ellesmere Island and is a veteran of the first American unsupported expedition to the North Pole. Huston started his career in the Minnesota Boundary Waters at Voyageur Outwards Bound School, where he encountered a passion for cold weather, Ernest Shackleton, and the adventure lifestyle. Fast forward to today, and Huston is still bragging major expeditions but also tours as a motivational speaker, adventure consultant, and works with his alma mater (Northwestern University) overseeing Project Wildcat, a freshman orientation backpacking trip open to all incoming students. Huston has an easy-going attitude with a systematic approach to life and adventure, and if one thing is clear upon talking to him, it’s that if you ever get a chance to meet a professional polar explorer, be sure to ask them a few questions.
Fin & Feather: When planning for a big adventure expedition like the North Pole or Ellesmere Island, what were some of the main considerations taken in preparing?
John Huston: My primary consideration, once I figure out what kind of expedition it’s going to be, is choosing the right team. That makes the biggest difference. It could be the most beautiful place on the planet and if you don’t like the people you’re with, if you’re not getting along, if you’re not functioning, it can suck. You can look throughout all the historic expeditions and when egos get too big or in the way, then the story loses its luster. It’s a safety thing as well, you’ve to be able to solve problems, because there are always going to be problems; you have to be able to get past personal difficulties, because that will always happen as well; and you have to choose teammates that have the same character and moral motivation as yourself. Do that, and openly discuss the vulnerabilities of the partnership, and you’ll set yourself up for success.
F&F: For adventures in the North Pole, where sub-zero temperatures were a daily occurrence, how did you get your body ready for the demanding environment?
JH: For big polar expeditions I think you have to be used to the cold. You can’t train in a freezer, you have to train in real conditions to deal with a lot of variability in the weather and develop your own systems. That means doing a lot of smaller expeditions or having some sort of job where you are working outside in cold temperatures, so that you become used to all the little nuances of staying warm and knowing when you need to do something different to warm up. That’s the only way you’ll ever warm up, by being humble enough to know that you are cold and that you need to do something differently about it. If you ever get into laziness or start to shut down in situations you’re going to pay a price and get frostbite.
F&F: While adventuring in the North Pole, on top of the freezing temperatures, you were dragging behind you 55 days’ worth of supplies. What’s the best way to get your muscles in tune for this kind of big trip?
JH: I recommend for whatever kind of expedition it is, a nice hearty, structured physical training regime. Mimic the same motion as you’ll be doing on the expedition. I’ve seen a lot of mountaineers sign up for polar expeditions, because they’ve done certain peaks, and they want to do a polar expedition, and they get their ass kicked. It’s totally a different thing. It’s not mountain climbing. Your body is being used in a different way and if you don’t train to simulate that motion, then your mind is not going to be adjusted to it either. A big part of difficult and structured training regimes is that your mind is also getting kind of used to the feeling of what it is going to be like. If parts of your trip are going to be boring and you’ll be hauling sleds across the snow for hours and hours of your day, your training should somehow resemble that. Your mind becomes familiar with the pace then, and how you occupy your own thoughts out there is a major part of the experience.
“You can’t train in a freezer, you have to train in real conditions to deal with a lot of variability in the weather and develop your own systems.” – John Huston
F&F: What were some the main problems or concerns you encountered with the North Pole expedition? How did you go about overcoming obstacles that got in your way?
JH: I was scared about the North Pole trip, mostly about failing. We raised a considerable amount of money for the trip and over 75% of unsupported expeditions to the North Pole fail within the first two weeks. So I was just damn scared of failing, and Tyler* and I worked really hard to get realistic expectations. We talked through things that could wrong, what would our difficult sections be, and what was our approach to those difficult parts. Although there never was, or is ever, going to be a perfect match between expectations and reality, the more we thought about it and the more we trained, the more we developed our framework. Then we realize that the reality is sometimes easier than you envisioned and sometimes it takes a step up. It’s not so much meditation, but more visualization, with the discussions of what it was going to be like out there
Editor’s Note: Tyler Fish was Huston’s adventure partner for the 2009 unsupported expedition to the North Pole.
F&F: You have a packed schedule right now while on tour and promoting your past adventures, but is there any next adventure you’d care to give readers a sneak peak at? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
JH: I’ll be going on big trips every two years as long as I’m physical able. In 2017 I’ll be guiding a trip to Baffin Island, which will be a little more of an introduction to ice travel, with 10 days on the ice, but passing through some of the most terrific scenery you can find anywhere in the world including the bases of Mount Thor and Mount Asgard.
Editor’s Note: To find out more about Huston’s touring schedule and public speaking attributes, be sure to check out his website; John Huston.com – that’s also where you can find out more about his upcoming trip to Baffin Island where you, yes you, could join Huston on this incredible polar expedition.
F&F: Any quick advice for aspiring explorers looking to take their next big adventure?