Explorer Mikael Strandberg says expedition cheats threaten the survival of the life he loves so much.
For almost 30 years explorer Mikael Strandberg has crossed deserts and seas, mountains and plains in search of the meaning of life.
In the decade up to 1996 he cycled from Chile to Alaska, from Norway to South Africa and from New Zealand to Cairo, amassing nearly 150,000km (90 000m) on two wheels. Not content, he continued his quest for discovery during the following decade when he covered 7,500 kilometres on horseback, foot, skis and canoe through Patagonia, east Africa and north east Siberia.
Yet Strandberg admits that it was just four months ago that the true meaning of life may well have finally presented itself to him in a little bundle not much bigger than a GPS: Eva, the new baby daughter who sports more hair than the 48-year-old Swede himself has, he says, moved him not only to hang up his boots and temporarily shelve plans to cross the Arabian desert by camel but also prompted him to speak out about an issue he feels is threatening the very nature of the adventuring and exploration he has dedicated his life to – cheats; those who claim to have scaled a height they never reached, polar explorers whose timings, routes or methods simply do not add up, or worse still, those who purport to have undertaken an expedition that was in fact a complete fabrication.
“Babies are so genuine you just can’t fake anything with them,” Strandberg says. “Everything about them teaches you there are no short-cuts in life. Becoming a parent has given me time to think about honesty and read articles I have never read before – a different kind of literature than the kind I read when I am preparing for an expedition.”
Strandberg says although there are many documented examples of proven fraudulent claims and a growing debate on the issue simmering away among members of the professional exploring community, nobody wants to upset the apple cart with accusations or suspicions. “No-one dares to raise the issue publicly,” he says, “but those who complete their challenges as honestly and as straight as possible are getting fed up. I’ve spent all my life doing expeditions and I feel it’s time to bring this up.
“I want to start an open discussion on what effect this will have in the long-term and how future generations will view exploration if it turns out there have been a bunch of fakes. I also would like to create set rules to govern what constitutes an expedition. For example, you need a certain set of photos, SPOT/GPS measuring – and so on.”
Strandberg says although he also does not want to point the finger at people he suspects have lied about or embellished upon their achievements he believes they should only be given one chance. “If they do it once and they get caught and make a confession then they should have the benefit of the doubt to continue with life but if they continue to lie and purposefully mislead the public that is an entirely different matter,” he says.
One bogus expedition that deserves its place in the Hall of Shame was that of Richard Fipps. In 2005 the American self-proclaimed cowboy claimed to be riding from Mexico to Canada on horseback to raise money for charity but was exposed as a fraud midway through his supposed journey by a journalist who discovered him far from sitting in the saddle but sitting at home in his living room in Nevada. Incredibly Fipps had previously been discovered weaving a similar web of deceit in 2002 when he led the public to believe he was riding from Alabama to Utah.
Then there was the case of Australian speed and endurance adventurer Peter Treseder. In 2001 a Sydney-based publication suggested many of the claims made in his book Treseder, such as cycling 3,000 kilometres through Australia on a standard bicycle in six days or paddling Bass Strait from Australia to Tasmania in just four days, were pure fabrication.
False claims in mountaineering or polar expeditions can be particularly hard to prove unless an adventurer publicly admits he has lied – as happened recently with Christian Stragl.
In August last year the Austrian alpinist claimed to have summited K2 in a solo 70-hour push – he even provided ‘photographic evidence’. A month later Stragl admitted the photo had been taken just outside base camp 1,000 metres below the summit. Explaining to Austrian television his reasons for lying Stragl said, “This pressure came from inside me. Fear of death is bad enough, but the fear of failure in an achievement-oriented society is worse.”
Strandberg says there is no excuse for a seasoned explorer to lie but he can understand how pressure may cause young inexperienced adventurers to exaggerate their achievements – Strandberg admits he himself was guilty when he first started out not of fabricating facts but of “embellishing in terms of strength”. Ego, he thinks, is to blame for many of the false claims in the world of exploration. “Fifteen years ago I was part of a documentary where the producer said that I had cycled more kilometers than any other human being and touring cyclist, which is complete hogwash. But it stayed there for years and even came up when I did a pilot for the Arabian Expedition. I have made mistakes for sure. But this is important: I have never ever told a lie about the travels I have done. I have never said I have been somewhere when I haven´t, or climbed a peak I haven´t. But I have made the common human mistake of pretending to be some kind of a world champion when I am, in reality, nothing more than a human full of errors and faults. But I stand for my CV.”
Polar explorer Jim McNeill agrees: “It is spin, bluff and puff driven by the quest for profile, their own egos and lack of integrity and core values ultimately resulting in their own financial gain,” he says.
But Michael Robinson, historian of science and exploration and Hartford University says the reasons for lying in these situations can be very complex. “Humans are sophisticated animals and lying is one of our most sophisticated tools. Explorers and adventurers have the added burden of expectation. There are people who are anticipating great things: sponsors; fans; PR companies; and the general public,” he says.
Strandberg questions whether sponsors can blamed. “A lot of explorers have said that the reason they faked things is because they felt so much pressure from media and sponsors but that surprises me because I’ve been doing it for 25 years and I’ve never felt that kind of pressure.”
Adventurer and author Paula Constant believes some people definitely do lie to gain more media attention and in turn sponsorship. “There are those who lie deliberately to make their achievements more media friendly and impressive to the public at large.” But she says the media in turn plays a part in tarnishing the credibility of exploration as a profession by actively publicising what she believes they often know to be fraudulent claims for the sake of a good story.
Explorer Graeme Joy says ultimately lies and false claims in the profession make it a lot harder for honest adventurers to achieve their dreams. “Fraudulent claims bring discredit to the expedition world and make it harder to get sponsorship,” he says. “If a false claim is widely believed it means someone else can lose the opportunity to achieve it for real, especially if it needs sponsorship to bring it to fruition, because it has apparently already been done.”
Strandberg believes the ever-increasing focus on scaling new heights or beating the fastest times is turning expeditions into “sporting challenges” and the true meaning and nature of exploration is being lost.
“It shouldn’t be about who gets to the pole or the peak fastest, it’s about building bridges between people; building bridges of understanding and opening people’s eyes to other cultures,” he says.
And while others continue, some honestly and some not so honestly, to race to the poles and scale the world’s mightiest peaks, Strandberg’s latest project will continue to gain momentum. The voices that join his open discussion will grow louder and those cheated from a fair chance will eventually, undoubtedly expose the cheaters.
You have been warned.