Australian adventurer and explorer Dan Bull recently took out the Guinness World Records title for “The Highest Kayak on Earth” after kayaking near the summit of the world’s highest volcano, Ojos del Salado located in Atacama Desert, Chile.
At an altitude of 5,707 metres, Bull, 37, kayaked across a frozen lake. First, he had to carry an inflatable and foldable hybrid kayak on his back as he climbed his way to the lake. Then, he used an ice axe to pull himself and his kayak along the surface of the frozen lake to break the ice and prepare a kayaking lane for his attempt. Bull achieved this record sans oxygen mask or breathing apparatus.
Grok caught up with Bull—who is also the current World Record holder for the youngest person to climb both the highest mountain and the highest volcano on each continent—to find out what inspires him to go on these extreme adventures where the humidity can be as low as two per cent and the freezing water temperature (0.1°C) could kill you instantly.
We heard your original plan was to swim across the lake but that when you got there it was too icy. Do you still plan to swim it?
I’m still undecided about taking another shot of that swim. I know it would be pretty epic. From my recent attempt, and then obviously turning that around and into a success with the kayaking record, I realised that it’s one thing to prepare for a swim at sea level. Even though I was taking ice baths and I was swimming in the bay during winter, the reality is there’s definitely going to be an element of the unknown—as with anything us humans have experienced.
Everything that I’ve learned over the past decade of high altitude and mountaineering has told me that being in those environments you actually won’t have all these protective layers on. To go against that and to take everything off I think would be pretty tough. So, yeah, still undecided. But I’m actually enjoying being back at sea level for the moment.
How do you prepare for high altitude expeditions?
It’s not straightforward, particularly living here at sea level, to prepare for high-altitude expeditions. At sea level we have enough oxygen for our body to operate efficiently. As you go to high altitude, the atmosphere becomes thinner and the body actually struggles to operate. The organs start to starve from this lack of oxygen and eventually it can become deadly.
What I try to do is simulate, as much as possible, what I would be doing up there. It’s hard to cater for the different landscapes but I’ll in essence just go up and down the local hills as much as possible, and then I’ll usually add a lot of weight to my backpack so it’s super heavy. Sometimes I’ll probably load it up to forty-plus kilograms— or even fifty—and so potentially on an expedition you’re not always carrying that much weight particularly on summit day. What this does is add that extra stress to your body to somehow simulate the pressure you’d be under from the high altitude.
Who do you invite on your expeditions?
I’ve actually invited friends, colleagues and family members. I think because I’m always aiming high, in a literal sense, there always seems to be an initial interest and excitement, but then there seem to be some common excuses like, “I’d love to, but I don’t have time” or “I’d love to, but I can’t afford it”. A popular one is, “I would love to do it, but my partner thinks it’s too dangerous and won’t let me go”.
So, who actually goes with you?
I’d team up with certain climbing partners from my previous expeditions on occasion, but I think it’s definitely worthwhile as teamwork is a huge part in it. You’re possibly just seeing a photo of an individual on the summit, but there’s a lot of teamwork that’s gone into allowing that to happen, so working with people you can rely on and trust is huge. Often you connect with people from around the world. I’ve been on some expeditions where there’s a bunch of different nationalities and religions all covered under one expedition. It’s quite cool, actually, to see how everyone comes together for a common goal and would work together to support each other.
Do your parents worry about you when you’re off on your expeditions?
My parents are actually pretty adventurous. Maybe not to the level that I would take it. In terms of kayaks, both my folks are great kayakers. Particularly my mum. Surviving cancer and having hip replacement recently, she’s typically the one spearing us on in all sorts of conditions to get out onto the water and go for a kayak across some body of water to an island and things like that. I actually find myself trying to kick off with them on occasion.
How do they cope with you being on these extreme expeditions?
Mum and dad have quite different coping mechanisms, I think. Dad is very involved and excited, wanting to know every step of the way how I’m progressing, even to the point where he’ll be up all hours out here in Australia checking on my progress through the GPS tracker and also sending the weather updates and weather forecast to my satellite phone, “Maybe don’t get out of your tent tomorrow morning because there’s a storm approaching”.
Whereas mum on the flipside I think she prefers not to dwell on it too much while I’m gone. She’s obviously aware of the risks and I think her coping mechanism is to just forget that I’m even gone and to get on with her own activity. But then, of course when I’m back she’s very keen to hear the stories.
Is it really possible for other young people to do what you’re doing?
Anything is possible, especially with an open mind, perseverance and teamwork. I think I was particularly quite narrowminded when I was at school in terms of thinking, “This is what I want to do. I’m going to now follow this kind of career path”. But then I realised that there was a lot more outside of the classroom or the office.
To me, life is about grabbing opportunities. Taking risks, I think, is important. We all enjoy our comfort zone, and it’s called “comfort zone” for a reason. But by taking risks and embarking on adventures, I just think there is a lot of potential out there. For me, it’s about aspiring to do great things and helping others to do the same.
Some people might be thinking that you can’t make money by just going out on an expedition. In fact, it costs money. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve learned there’s a lot more to life than money. In mountaineering, money would go a long way. You do find—particularly on Everest and some of the big mountains—people with a lot of money paying for extra support, guides and Sherpas, and porters to help carry their gears. I think removing that and doing things more independently and working hard, training and being more independent gives you that insight that you really can achieve great things.
I’ve always aimed high. I think, for me, knowing that our time here on Earth is finite—you know, that we have one life to live—and talking about money … you can’t take that with you. I enjoy pushing myself, finding out what’s possible.
I love nature, I love the outdoors. That’s been the case since I was young. But then I also realised that a lot of people actually have a fear or a phobia of heights. I actually love heights. So, for me exploration and mountaineering is the ideal way of fulfilling that passion.
Moving beyond money, there are also tangible benefits to mountaineering and to having adventures where you’re putting yourself outside your comfort zone where you’re exposing yourself to the risks, pain and discomfort in order to achieve something. For me, a big part of that and one of the greatest rewards is that it puts things into perspective. It teaches you to stress less about the little things in life. Somehow, I feel more alive and I appreciate life more when I’m actually in these extreme environments and pushing myself.
Let’s say Greenland—three of us—we went into this uncharted valley wanting to be the first humans to climb these mountains and it was pretty brutal where we were trying to avoid crossing paths with polar bears and if you keep your eyes open for too long your eyeballs actually start to freeze because the atmosphere is so cold. I remember that was obviously tough at the time but then you get back to civilization and, all of a sudden, you’ve got hot food, you’ve got running water, plumbing, all these things that you take for granted. I still remember my first meal after weeks in remote Greenland. Just a hamburger, was like, the best food I had ever eaten.
What has been your favourite place so far?
Each expedition, each location has its own unique element. I think it’s a lot more than simply climbing mountains, you know? You’re actually exposing yourself to different cultures, different languages, different cuisines. You’re having to navigate through different terrains, it’s not just snow-capped mountains, but maybe you cross deserts, humid jungles, rivers.
To be honest, the diversity of all of those things is definitely one of the key reasons why I achieved my initial dream of climbing Everest but then decided I’d like to embark on a challenge that would take me around the world and experience these different cultures and diverse landscapes.
While taking a break here at sea level, Dan is mentoring young people to inspire them to dream big, realise their potential, take risks and embark on adventures. Follow him at Unstoppabull.com.