Matthew Pike meets adventurer Jamie Fitzgerald to discuss coping with the fear of death and why young people should get outdoors
Jamie Fitzgerald has many strings to his bow. Not only is he an adventurer, having rowed across the Atlantic in world record time and trekked to the South Pole, he’s also a presenter of prime time TV show First Crossings, a motivational speaker, a leadership development consultant and has also played a leading role in The Big Walk – encouraging kids to enjoy the outdoors.
With child-like enthusiasm he spends as much of his time these days promoting the outdoors to others as he does enjoying it himself. He feels it’s particularly important for kids to experience what nature has to offer.
“When I think of any personal development there are real merits to people stepping outside their comfort zone into a foreign environment,” says Fitzgerald. “I’m passionate about the outdoors and, for young people, I think it’s a real leveller because you move away from some social norms, the haves and the have-nots.
“For The Big Walk we weren’t just walking. We were sometimes milking cows, hanging gates, feeding pigs, making sausages – different experiences with the common theme of how to achieve a goal. Then we discussed life goals they can apply this to.”
Fitzgerald is no stranger to foreign environments himself. He’s volunteered to put himself through missions many of us would find hellish. But he says he never goes on a venture for the sake of it.
“I need to know that what we’re doing is for a reason. It’s that feeling of progress – not necessarily mileage – but perhaps about information gained and relationships developed.
“Sometimes when we think we’re making the least progress we realise afterwards we made the most progress. On the Atlantic there was a day when we rowed into a storm and decided not to put out the sea anchor but to just keep rowing. This was hugely influential because this meant we didn’t drift backwards and the distance we made by everyone else drifting backwards when they put out their sea anchors was the distance we won the race by in the end.
“At the time we were literally not moving over the face of the planet, so it was awful. But reflecting afterwards it was hugely pivotal.”
The risk of death is always something Fitzgerald has had to manage on his expeditions and his journeys for the First Crossings programmes. But he believes the actual risk is rarely as great as the perception.
“The first thing we always ask is whether the chance of death is a legitimate risk or a perception of death,” he explains. “Antarctica’s a good example of that. Nowadays, you’re a little bit silly if you die. It’s possible to fall into a crevasse of course, but dying of cold is a bit strange because you know it’ll be cold so you take extra clothes in preparation. We were able to eliminate that perception of death.
“With First Crossings, the perception of some of the scenarios might be really risky but it’s a work place and we have to put steps in place. We manage the risks and write safety plans for the challenges and stunts we do.
“We learnt our lesson in the first series when we overstepped the mark and I almost drowned in the Buller River. With our heavy hobnail boots I got pulled under an eddy current and was under water for some time being swept around a big ‘S’ bend. And that taught us a lesson that we needed to be grown-ups.”
Filming for the third series of First Crossings is currently taking place. Fitzgerald says this series will approach things from a slightly different angle. “We want it to be not just about the mountain climbers or geographical firsts, but also psychological firsts, search and rescues that took place and ship wrecks in the Antarctic Islands.
“Kevin (Biggar) and I don’t want to fall into the trap of telling people about journeys for the sake of it. We want to make sure they’re journeys relevant to society or people today.
“I guess you could say everything anyone enjoyed about the first two series will be there, plus some better stuff!”