Inspiring Individuals: Geordie Stewart, the youngest Briton to reach the 7 Summits
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There are a few incredibly motivated and resilient people out there. Whenever I’m in need of motivation to keep pushing on towards a goal, I find immense inspiration from learning about the incredible feats of others. I recently attended the Mountains on Stage short film festival which did wonders for my sense of adventure and drive. And that’s the essence behind this interview series with Inspiring Individuals (see all seven interviews here) – I hope you’ll gain some drive for your own goals, whatever they may be, from these individuals’ infectious passion, their persistence and their accomplishments.
The latest person I had the pleasure of interviewing was Geordie Stewart, who’s currently spending a year cycling solo from the UK to New Zealand! When we spoke, he was at the 4-month point in northern Kazakhstan, battling mid-winter snow and freezing temperatures of -30°C. He’s now in north-west China with a long, long route ahead of him through China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia to reach his destination. You can follow his journey via some beautiful photos and brutally honest Stories on Instagram: @Geordie_Stewart.
Quite apart from his current expedition, at age 22 he became the youngest Briton to reach the 7 Summits (the highest summits on all 7 continents, which include Everest at 8848m and Aconcagua at 6962m), so he’s got some serious credentials. You can buy his book about the 7 Summits, ‘In Search of Sisu: A Path to Contentment via the Highest Point on Every Continent’ on Amazon, which I’m really excited to read.
Q: The title of your book about the 7 Summits references the Finnish word Sisu, what does the word mean to you?
A. I’ve had a love affair with Scandinavia for years – I feel very attached to their culture, their love of the outdoors and desire to be in nature, and I’ve done a lot of cross-country skiing in Norway & Sweden. I’ve tried to go to all those countries including the Faroe Islands and Iceland as well and I’m really fond of the region. I went to Finland 5 or 6 years ago with a big backpack and hitchhiked my way into the woods. I was bored of the autumn and early winter in England, which is just a bit crap, and I wanted to find snow. So I was camping around Finland and I came across a Finnish couple, who saw me and said I have a lot of Sisu, which means inner courage. I read about it a bit but didn’t truly understand it. When I was writing my book, that word suddenly came to me as a concept of importance. My initial understanding of the word was ‘inner courage’ or ‘grit’ in physical conditions. The last few weeks here in Kazakhstan have been Sisu in terms of sheer inner struggle. But I’ve spoken to some amazing Finnish people about Sisu and it’s more about having strength of character to open yourself up emotionally and physically and take you out of your own comfort zone, whatever that may be. It could be a physical endeavour, but it’s just as much an emotional or mental journey, and about pushing the perceived boundaries you have in your own mind.
Q. How did you feel once you’d achieved your big goal of the 7 Summits, and how did you keep taking yourself out of your comfort zone beyond that amazing feat?
A. I think the reality is that you go on different expeditions or journeys at different times of your life, for a variety of different reasons. Fundamentally, when I was 17 my reasons for wanting to do the 7 Summits were very different than those for this cycling trip. There have been lots of other little adventures in between then and now, but your own state of mind has a big impact on why you want to do a certain expedition. When I was 17 or 18, this particular cycling trip wouldn’t have given me the same relentless focus and drive that I had at that age for those climbs, and equally, having left the army at 29 I don’t think the 7 Summits would have given me the same thrill. But I wanted to do 7 Summits for a number of reasons: to seek a sense of achievement, to get over mental health issues and just a desire to explore and push comfort zones. But this trip is so totally different from that. It’s 10 years since I’ve been doing big expeditions and after lots of time in the army, but this trip is a wholly different prospect and that’s why it appealed so much. The nature of being on a bike by yourself is intensely vulnerable. You’re in the middle of Kazakhstan alone and your life is your bike. You don’t speak the language, you have no phone reception, you don’t know where the next village is, and then you have an issue with your bike. It’s those circumstances that are totally unique. In terms of comfort zones you can always find something slightly different, whether it’s physically, emotionally or mentally.
Q. Which was your most challenging expedition?
A. I’d never cycle through northern Kazakhstan in winter again! I have to say, I’ve done a lot of trips but this particular stint I’d never want to do again! However beautiful, it’s quite a challenge. Of the big expeditions, Everest round 1 was pretty tough. I was pretty young for such a big undertaking and specifically the circumstances that arose higher up the mountain were so unique and almost totally catastrophic that it was a very intense experience to go through at quite a young age. You learn a lot about yourself and other people but it was encapsulated in an pretty full-on couple of days. Thankfully nothing bad happened but it very easily could have to me or my teammates and those were real moments of genuine fear and isolation. Partly because I got so close to the summit [just 150m away!], I wanted to go back. And you go through such an intense experience that you feel easier with uncertainty afterwards, for example like my tent blowing away, c’est la vie. Often there are only certain things you can control, and on a trip like this you have to accept a degree of uncertainty.
Q. Which was your most enjoyable expedition?
A. Alaska was very cool. A beautiful place and surroundings, and a really interesting, very multinational team. We summited on a beautiful day with a bit of hardship. Then the trip to Indonesia was a pretty interesting one. I bolted onto a team of 9 Americans and we were in the jungles of Western Papua for 2 or 3 weeks going through mud, rainforests, swamps and river crossings. You’re with a local tribe who are your porters and you have a ridiculous rock climb at the end – it was a fun trip but totally random. I had a very few odd months actually where I went from Antarctica to Indonesia to Everest almost as back-to-back expeditions, which was crazy.
Q. Which was your most surprising expedition?
A. Definitely the first expedition to summit Aconcagua in Argentina, because I learned so much. Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas – it’s a big mountain. It was really cool, although in hindsight it was just a bit rash. Much the same as this bike trip, you learn a lot in the first few weeks when you’re suddenly put in a tough situation and have to adapt. I went off by myself on that first trip to Aconcagua and I bolted onto a random British team. I knew so little about what I was undertaking and I even lied on the application form about my experience. I had a total mishmash of kit fumbled together from a climbing shop, from my dad’s sailing gear. I’d put the level of ambition quite high, but after that I felt pretty comfortable to do a few of the others because I’d already been to almost 7,000m, which gives you a good psychological boost. One of my old school teachers told me that Aconcagua was the most interesting summit in his eyes, because no-one else was doing that at the time. When all my mates were working or travelling in Thailand, I went off to join a team of people all 15 years older than me to climb a really quite big mountain. I didn’t think that at the time because I was set on what I wanted to do, but actually to make that lifestyle choice and commitment was quite a big step.
I’ve always loved adventure and exploring as a kid – I was always the child who was playing around on a mountain bike, climbing up trees and coming back muddy, that’s what gave me a kick when I was younger. So it’s not that much of a surprise that I ended up doing more of these trips. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t summited Aconcagua, because I had this lofty dream of climbing the 7 Summits, which is actually frankly ridiculous when you’ve no experience, but fortunately it worked out. I do occasionally wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t reached the top. But I did enjoy it, it was a great learning curve emotionally and socially because of the people I was around and it gave me confidence to keep pursuing the goal.
Q. A lot of people dream of adventure but many people never get round to achieving their dreams. What motivates you to complete these expeditions where others don’t manage it?
A. I’ll write some books on this in the future. The psychology of why people do trips fascinates me, it always has. I find it a very interesting subject and I think about it a lot on this cycle because I have time. I covered it a lot in my book. More books in due course. It’s too easy to give a shorthand response I’m asked why i came on this trip and the short hand answer is simple: i wanted to see beautiful places and meet interesting people and challenge yourself, and that’s true. But there’s a different, more interesting reason, that you can’t give a quick response to.
Being told you can’t do it is a big reason for a lot of people. It’s often a massive f**k you to people who say you can’t do it. I get told all the time that you can’t cycle to Kazakhstan in mid-winter, but I thought “yes I probably can – it’s just going to be hard”. I met this Australian motorcycle couple in their 50s on the Transfagarasan Pass in Romania and I told them my plan, and they said “you’re f**king crazy, you can’t do it, you’ll die, it’s unimaginably cold. Have you been cold before – have you any idea? You’re a f**cking idiot. Good luck”. Them telling me it’s impossible makes me say “I think it is possible”.
I’ve pondered the stage of life that people go on a trip like this. Most people, like Charlie Walker (who cycled 43,000km – read my interview with him here), normally do big cycles like this when they’ve just left uni or school and they want to do something cool and see the world. I’m 29 and I find now is a good time to go on a big adventure, because most of my friends are getting married and having children, which I didn’t want to do. I think it’s an interesting crossroads.
Q. How do you cope with all of the languages you come across on this trip?
A. I’m awful at languages. The language should be an issue in China, but Google Translate is incredible. Talking about vulnerability and being outside your comfort zone, suddenly being surrounded by a lot of people when no one speaks your language, you realise you’re absolutely screwed without the language. It’s frustrating. Especially on a bike, the nature of this trip and part of the appeal is that you’re forced to adapt to situations you’d never normally want to be in ever, because you don’t have a choice. Somehow you have to communicate to buy food or water. You don’t have a choice and you have to do it – it’s terrifying and character-building stuff.