When an injury ended Charlie Smith’s dreams of becoming a pro rugby player, he turned to the cold! What started as one mad adventure has turned into a full-blown passion. We spoke to him about what he loves about the cold and his biggest achievements so far.
What made you decide to take on expeditions in the cold?
Now that’s a tough one. I think when I was 16, doing one of my first big expeditions – trekking across Iceland from north to south unsupported – I had this obscenely heavy rucksack – it was actually one rucksack strapped to the back of another – it was something crazy like 40kg. Every time I got to the top of even the slightest hill I kept thinking ‘I really wish I was on skis right now’ and that’s where it began. Not even kidding. I mean, I’d also packed two hardback books (I read each cover to cover about 10 times on that journey).
I remember one of them was ‘The Killer Mountains’ and the other was ‘Walking the Amazon’ by Ed Stafford. As we we’re hiking, apart from my wish for skis I kept thinking ‘well, at least I don’t have to worry about snakes’ and so I’d probably say that it all started there.
What do you love about being in the coldest places in the world?
Outside of the incredible stories that you get from the colder places on earth, there’s something primally addictive about putting yourself in extreme & wild environments. Whether it’s the cold, the mountains – or I’ll admit, even slightly warmer places – I find there’s a captivatingly simple-ness about putting yourself out there. For me, I find that simplicity in the mountains and the cold far more than anywhere else. There’s something to uniquely beautiful about your entire existence being the rhythm of one foot in front of the other.
What does being on these expeditions teach you?
I’d probably say the key things I’ve been taught is a better sense of perseverance and perspective. I think I’m a pretty different person to who I was when I was younger, and I’d probably attribute that to these expeditions amongst other things. I guess that’s part of growing up, too.
There’s something quite humbling when you’re walking through the middle of an impenetrable snow storm, it’s rain, sleet, hail & snow and frozen winds whipping ice crystals at any bit of skin you’ve inadvertently left exposed – you’re constantly losing visibility of your team members because of how opaque the blizzard is around you – situations like that really makes you focus on your processes, your movements and you become significantly more aware of yourself in your surroundings. It helps you get perspective of what actually deserves stress and the perseverance to keep on trucking forward.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to face while being on one of your adventures?
That’s a difficult one. I think all explorers / adventurers live by the ideals of ‘if everything goes to plan, they wouldn’t call it an adventure’ – which is weird because I swear we spend half our lives trying to mitigate those risks. Honestly, I’d say the biggest challenge is the first steps – as cliché as it sounds. Once you get going, as long as the planning & prep is dialled, it’s usually straightforward.
I also went blind out in Greenland. That wasn’t a fun ride.
What has been the biggest accomplishment or best thing you’ve experienced so far?
I don’t think I could put the words together to do it justice, but the best thing I’ve experienced so far is getting onto the Icelandic highland plateau after dragging 100kg worth of kit behind me after uphill skinning for 2 weeks without seeing sunlight – and finally being greeted by this otherworldly expanses of golden light hitting everything in view – Vatnajokull, Hofsjokull (these monotlithic glaciers in the centre of Iceland) & every step of our route for the next 100km ahead. It happened on Christmas day this year and honestly, as experiences go – it’s definitely up there. We took 5 minutes to call our family on the sat phone to boot. It’s those moments you don’t expect that are the best experiences. The ‘adventures’.
How do you balance work/day job and your passion?
Many, many hours in front of a computer at all times of the day and night. Barely ever sleeping. Training in weird cycles. It helps when you know that it’s worth it in the end, so I just cling to that when the going gets tough – in both the work & passion aspects of my life.
When those two areas collide, it can be a really rough ride. I actually designed Levison Wood’s newest book cover from a tent whilst battened down in a massive snow storm earlier this year. But you know, when Levison Wood calls, you answer.
Who do you look up to? Who is your biggest influence?
This is a really, really tough one. I’ve been fortunate enough that the people that initially inspired me have turned out being people I’d consider my friends. I’m always a little hesitant to name names, but I’ll always look up to Al Humphreys – when I was much younger, planning my very first ‘expedition’, he was not only a massive inspiration – but actually went out of his way to help me get started. I’ll never forget that and hope I can have that effect on someone else one day too. Aside Al, Martin Hartley. He’s one of the world’s leading polar explorers but he’d never tell you it. I think he’s been to the north / south pole about 11 times – I don’t think I’ve ever asked – but he’s always there for the right reasons – not to grab records, but for stories, science and documentation. I’d go so far as say he’s one of the old-school explorers, not someone going out of their way for personal gain, but for a bigger picture. Something I believe we should all get behind.
What do you do to relax?!
I’m doing it right now! I tend to work. I don’t like the feeling of not doing something. I’m not sure whether it’s a guilt or an anxiety or whatever, but I just know that if I’m not doing something productive, I’m either asleep or planning. My expedition partner Stef hit the nail on the head I think where he said ‘Charlie isn’t Charlie unless he’s running at 110%’. But I guess that’s the point of all this though, to enjoy everything you do so it doesn’t feel like work anymore.
What is your next goal or challenge?
I’d love to tell you, but I won’t – yet. I’ve had ‘itchy feet’ throughout lockdown and then with the heatwave that hit the UK – I’ve been busier planning more journeys this year than ever before.