After some time for reflection following the completion the mammoth crossing of the Greenland ice cap, we caught up with Brando Yelavich to get his perspective on the expedition, the biggest challenges he faced, and what he learned about himself through the experience…
What was your favourite part of the trip?
My favourite part was the time it gave me to analyse my life. The first week all I could think about was the walking, the ice and the flat, but after that I was able to really get into my head and start asking myself some deep questions about who I am. Being part of a team was also a really cool experience. I’d never been on an expedition with other people before, as my other trips, walking around the coast of New Zealand, and Stewart Island, were solo. When you’re part of a team you have a leader, have to follow directions and are with people of different physical and mental abilities. I enjoyed it, and would definitely do it again.
What was the most challenging part?
Boredom, as every day we were faced with the same thing, white ground and white sky, or blue sky. The various landmarks including a massive old radar station at around the halfway point were the only things we could hold onto as a goal to reach. It was quite tough on my brain, as I am ADHD and need a lot of stimulation with physical things. Some days being on the ice was like looking at a blank canvas but having no inspiration to paint. I found the daily routine good, although it was a bit mind boggling to come home and suddenly find it’s dark at night. In Greenland we could be walking at 2pm or 2am and the conditions were almost exactly the same. Experiencing a total whiteout in a hurricane was another amazing challenge. I roped myself to a tent and took about 10 steps out in it to experience what it was like. The camp was immediately gone from sight and it made me realise just how easy it would be to disappear out there. I had no way of knowing which way was up, down, left or right. Another big challenge was the final two days of the expedition, which were combined into one with virtually no sleep.
What went through your mind when you were finally completed the expedition?
About 300m before the end I lost my ski, which skidded to the bottom of a hill, so I walked the last bit. It was a surreal, heart-warming and amazing experience to realise we had done it. There were a few tears and everyone started hugging each other. We were all so tired so we put up our tents, and the next morning walked the final 150m to a tiny piece of rock beside the sea, which wasn’t white with snow. It was party time in our heads, but there was nowhere to party.
What did you learn or discover about yourself?
Part of living with ADHD is that I can be a bit self-centred around my goals and what I want to achieve. I have been with my girlfriend for five years and on the journey I thought about how much she’s changed her life to suit my goals and what I want to do, which is absolutely amazing. I had a mind awakening experience where I realised my happiness isn’t just about me being happy – that I need to think about whether I am doing things for both of us and not just me. Life is about the ones you love and it’s important to make other people happy too.
What skills did you have that you found most valuable?
I think the big one was my navigational skills. I had no idea how to navigate across a flat, white piece of ice without a compass, but knew my intuition and deep-seated genetic instincts were strong from the times I had spent in the outdoors, relying on myself to survive. I also learned some great new navigational techniques from our master polar guide, Bengt Rotmo, such as how to use the sky, and wind to navigate on the ice. I had always thought I didn’t need a guide, but being guided by Bengt, who has crossed Greenland successfully 13 times, was like attending the university of polar ice caps. This changed my perspective on the value of having an experienced guide with you.
Any comments about the team itself?
It was great to be part of a team and having the guides made it so much easier. It was interesting for me, as in my mind prior to the experience, being in a team meant everyone sharing the load and doing the same amount of everything to get through. But this experience was all about utilising members of the team for what they’re good at. For instance I would call myself a very strong person so I carried quite a lot of extra gear on the journey. In the past I might have thought, that’s not fair, I’m carrying all the gear, but I realised by doing this I was helping the team to reach its goal. It was educational for me.
Was there anything you couldn’t wait to eat or do once you left the ice or got home?
I had countless cravings and we had so many conversations about the foods we were going to eat when we got home.
How have you settled back into normal life after the trip?
What a lot of people don’t realise is that it can be difficult to adjust when you first get home and realise this cool and memorable experience is over. The dopamine from the constant exercise and looking at the GPS at the end of the day to see how far you’ve gone has stopped. It can take quite a while for the body to get back to the real world and for the mind to accept that real life is good too. This feeling doesn’t last long, but it always happens to me, and is part being an explorer. I call it the ‘expedition blues’ a bit like when people get the blues in the winter.
Reflecting on what you know of Nansen’s crossing – what would you consider some of the similarities and key differences on this trip?
For us, the real story from the journey came from within, rather than what we were doing on the ice. I imagine it was quite different for Nansen. There were definitely no solar panels or devices to keep charged when Nansen did the crossing, and I’m sure his sled wouldn’t have dragged as easily over the ice as our plastic ones. Our gear was also waterproof and warm. Probably the biggest difference between the two expeditions was that we always had a way out. It was still an amazing adventure, but back in Nansen’s day, if something went wrong, they died. In one sense that is the essence of adventure when the outcome is uncertain.
I’m sure there were some amazing similarities between the expeditions too. I wonder if Nansen and his team thought about similar things on the ice that we did.
How have you been inspired to go out and share your story?
I was able to get a blog out every day from the ice, and had a live tracker so people could follow my journey every day on my website. That was pretty cool. Now I’m back I will start to release photographs and video footage I shot, and tell the story.
What messages will you be giving to audiences about the trip?
My main goal is to continue the work I do online, to inspire curiosity and encourage people to be explorers. By that I mean inspire people to question everything, look deeper, and be explorers in everything they do, whether that is exploring, mathematics, science, the ocean, hiking or accounting. It’s about being an explorer in your field, owning it and doing what you do because you love it. The Greenland expedition will definitely be another tool for me to continue to inspire people, and also share the message of modern and past explorers, who have always thought outside the box.
Would you recommend others apply for future expeditions and why?
Totally. I definitely recommend people apply and if they don’t get in don’t let that stop them having their own adventures. I’m grateful to Antarctic Heritage Trust for making it amazingly easy to have such an awesome experience in a place that is quite difficult and expensive to get to. People should seize the opportunity and make their own luck.
Do you have any advice for future expedition members?
As human beings we are capable of achieving absolutely anything. Ordinary people do extraordinary things every day, and we’re all ordinary.