Alex Hibbert

Universal Expedition Standards

How do you define what is an Expedition? Or an adventure? What is the ethics of today´s exploration? Well, there´s been many articles written on the subject lately by me or others on my site. One of the most read is regarding the unsupported/being first issue. I also brought the issue up in this article with many good comments. Another one is CuChullaine O´Reilly´s article on Ethical Exploration. There´s really no accept set of rules. Explorers Web are really the closest with their list of rules and definitions, but they, like the site itself, only tend to exploration and adventure regarding polar areas, climbing and crossing oceans. And this is only a tiny bit of this genre. But, the other day, I was following the reports from Yemen on Twitter, I came across Alex Hibbert´s idea for a Universal Set of Standards, so I asked him if he could write an article on the subject, which he has below! Even though he focuses on polar travel, this can be applied on any Expedition. Read his excellentarticle and please comment and once again, start the debate! Just so you readers know, even though I publish his thoughts, it doesn´t necessarily mean that I agree on his opinions.

The need for Universal Expedition Standards

by

Alex Hibbert


I came up for the idea for Universal Expedition Standards whilst waiting patiently, or at times not so patiently, on the edge of the Greenland icecap this spring for the weather to clear in order to start a speed crossing. It was not to be and had to be postponed to August. However, the basis for UES had been in my mind in its constituent parts for months, if not years. In all areas of outdoor sports and activities, there are both national and international governing bodies. There are also a plethora of qualifications for the budding or professional climber, kayaker, diver and the list goes on. These tend to be controlled by groups or clubs without a vested interest or financial agenda and have grown to garner such respect that their name speaks volumes. For example, you know beyond reasonable doubt that an IFMGA mountain guide will be of the highest quality, should you wish to be guided or instructed.

What struck me, however, was the number of increasingly popular adventurous activities there are now available for those with the time and money to spare. This explosion in popularity may be for better or for worse, but that is a debate for another time. Most of these do not have a governing body, due to their obscurity, and have grown through word of mouth and shared experience, with the internet playing a major role. One example, apart from things like Stand-Up Paddle Boarding and numerous others, is my chosen specialism – polar travel.

As the desire for anyone and everyone to experience the polar regions developed, there became a need for guides from the late 1990s onwards and inevitably, a more than fair share of cowboys became involved in the industry, in order to make a quick buck. To secure insurance and indemnity to guide on icecaps or the Arctic Ocean, guides are still obliged to gain mountaineering qualifications, since it seems like the ‘best match’, despite the fact that many of the skills are irrelevant. It seems absurd that some underwriters require a guide to hold an IFMGA award, the pinnacle of mountain guiding qualifications and one that takes years of dedication, for another activity which bears only a slight resemblance to climbing.

Aside from guiding, which in the polar expedition world is a small slice, there are the independent expeditions. These groups venture onto the ice every year, expecting rescue cover from local authorities or private companies who operate aircraft, despite many having little more than hiking experience in the British hills. There was, until recently, no control over access but some authorities, such as Greenland Home Rule, have begun to crack down on novice expeditions due to the high chance of needing to rescue. Just this season I spoke to the Tasiilaq helicopter pilot, who services Greenland icecap crossing teams, and listened in horror to his stories of plucking bodies off the icecap just days before, following relatively mild icecap conditions. Greenland has borne the brunt of the post-credit crunch rush to undertake polar expeditions, cheaper than to either Poles, but by those without the understanding that Greenland is not ‘Antarctica-lite’. In spring, the temperatures are just as low, winds as fast and crevasses as treacherous. Anyone who sees Greenland as the easy option is either stupid or ignorant.

I use examples from my own area of experience but the principle applies to every remote or challenging endeavor – be it ocean rowing, open-water swimming, caving – the list goes on. It is very hard to apply conditions, control and rules to a group of people who thrive, myself included, on the lack of them.

This situation therefore spawned my vision for the Universal Expedition Standards – UES. I am aware of the plans for International Polar Guiding Association qualifications and other initiatives, but I believe that they have inherent problems. Not least, the fact that anyone who proposes a governing body will have an interest in how it is implemented. The rise in those wanting to ski in the Antarctic and Arctic is increasing and naturally more and more people will therefore offer services as guides. It makes sense that a small group will attempt to include their colleagues and friends, whilst freezing out those considered undesirable and thereby limiting competition for lucrative jobs. Not a healthy state of affairs in my mind for a market that should be dominated by quality and openness.

The UES is not a competitor or alike the proposed IPGA, the climbing IFMGA, MIC or any other example. It is not a guiding qualification. What the UES aims to achieve and become is:

  • Non-proprietary – an open standard governed by the community
  • Free – no money changes hands and so cowboys or business-interests are excluded
  • Voluntary – not being UES approved does not stop you from getting flights, insurance or backing. Having UES approval can show a positive effort has been made, rather than disable those who don’t feel it fits them

The current criteria are:

  • Expeditions of any style or discipline can apply, free of charge, to become approved as a UES project. In order to qualify, these criteria must be met:
  • Press releases must not contain exaggerated or inaccurate information, nor omit information in order to enhance the impact of the statement.
  • Expeditions must carry at least one form of emergency communication system, including VHF radio, EPIRB, EPLB or satellite telephone. The chosen system must have sufficient power sources for the duration of the expedition. In addition, communication must be carried aside from a beacon (e.g. EPIRB/EPLB). This is to allow assistance/advice to be sought for minor and non life-threatening injuries without necessitating use of a beacon (which involves significant expense and commitment from national authorities).
  • At least one member of the expedition must hold a recent and valid nationally recognised wilderness first-aid qualification.
  • The expedition must have a nominated representative in their home country responsible for coordinating rescue in the event of emergency.
  • In order to state an expedition is ‘unsupported’, the team or individual must not receive external assistance which physically aids motion, including dogs, engines or sails. Skis, bicycles etc. are not considered support. An unsupported expedition will also not involve resupplies of any kind originating from a third party.
  • Guides employed by a UES expedition must have at least 100 days of relevant experience.
  • Approval is based on fixed, objective standards and does not involve subjective decisions.

The 100-day experience criteria for expedition guides, in order to be UES approved, is to combat the rise of companies and individuals who offer dangerous and inadequate services. Whilst not a supporter of open-source, crowd-sourcing or other internet generated movements (I believe in open markets where skills are rewarded with pay, not a credit-line), I do want UES to be self-policing. Criteria such as the one which attempts to rein in outlandish and uncontrolled press releases with exaggerated statistics is not there to make expeditions safer. It is included to try and re-introduce common-standards and honesty into the competitive world of expedition promotion and publicity. Something good for the future of the adventure and expedition community as a whole. At present, many who stick to the truth are out-competed by the claims of others – surely not a positive situation.

So, with the aims and hopes laid out in front of us, I welcome peer-review, amendments and comments to see if we can really make something of UES and the expedition world.

Alex is a world-record holding polar expedition leader and photographer. Only 25 years old, he has spent over one hundred and fifty days unsupported in the Arctic and has crossed the second largest icecap on Earth three times. His highlight to date was leading the 2008 record-breaking Tiso Trans Greenland which, at 1374 miles, is the longest fully unsupported polar journey in history. From 2008 Alex spent a period as a Royal Marines Officer and his first book, The Long Haul, was released in March 2010. He was elected a member of the prestigious Explorers Club shortly after. In the spring of 2010 Alex guided an international team 350 miles across the Greenland icecap. In 2011 he plans to break the world speed record for a Greenland icecap crossing followed by Arctic Ocean plans for 2012.

15 comments

  1. Every association in existence today has a founding moment, when a group of like minded people band together for a common purpose/cause and declare, “We need our own association”. An association should be founded upon solid principles, needless to say in this instance, a lot more than just polar experience.

    The first step is always having a core group of leaders to serve as the organizing committee. Men and women with the greatest of experience, they will be the new association’s first officers and board members. So “credibility” of the founders is very important.

    As far as having to pay fees to apply and join, that is the correct and only route to take (even travel agents pay fees to join ABTA), it will also sort out the wheat from the chaff. Otherwise, how does an association work? cover administration fees? which there will undoubtedly be in the future.

    When an association is being set up, there will always be the doubters that feel they will be hard done by, or will not qualify for membership. Either, because they know they don’t have the qualifications or because of a grudge against the board member(s). The whole point of an association is that it “is” a self governing body, set up to give credibility to the industry and guidance to the members. In turn this gives reassurance to potential customers and gives customers a point of contact to complain, if needs be.

    Personally, I feel that the IPGA “is” the way only and correct way forward, self regulated (like all other associations) by experienced individuals from within their own field.

    Anyone can carry a gun and wear a 5 pointed badge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the sheriff. In other words, anyone can be be a cowboy, but not anyone can be a polar guide.

  2. “In order to state an expedition is ‘unsupported’, the team or individual must not receive external assistance which physically aids motion, including dogs, engines or sails. Skis, bicycles etc. are not considered support. An unsupported expedition will also not involve resupplies of any kind originating from a third party.”

    This part might require little polishing as there is also the much used term “unassisted” and here we are talking about assistance and support in the same sentence. Might be misleading to some. And hoe does UES regard to getting re-supplied along an expedition?

  3. An article of many contradictions . There appears to be some personal agenda.True safety standards have a responsibility to be monitored by an executive body that can issue meaningful accreditation. ‘Governed by the community ?’ ‘Self policing’. Please could you explain what that actually means? Bodies with no real overall monitoring in place is useless and is just a badge. Is Mr Hibbert also suggesting that there are bodies operating in polar travel who are unethically set up for pure financial gain as he seems to be pointing the finger at some specific groups? Quite a accusation!! I am intrigued! Please could he provide a bit more detail on this …
    However – Surely this IS about the growth of people wanting to explore the frozen parts of our planets being protected from those who have no real experience and are out for a quick buck and is not about ‘openess’ but surely about experience and credibiltiy.usually built up over many years? What does Polar experience mean ? Should we start to differentiate between ARCTIC expeditions and POLAR expeditions? Land ice and sea ice? Who should be deemed as those with Polar expertise? What is a true Polar expedition ? Maybe your next topic for discussion..

  4. I would like to congratulate Alex for formulating the idea for a set of Universal Expedition Standards. This is an excellent foundation for future discussions.

    While I think the original concept is a great start, I would suggest that one portion of the exploration world has been overlooked, namely those of us who travel or explore with animals.

    An excellent case in point is British explorer, John Hare, whose “Voices of Exploration” interview was recently featured on Mikael’s blog. John has made legendary journeys across the Sahara with dromedaries and across the Gobi with Bactrian camels.

    Likewise, Holland’s renowned camel traveller, Arita Baaijens, has also used her animals wisely during her many journeys into the lesser known corners of the mighty Sahara.

    Nor are the equestrian travellers associated with the Long Riders’ Guild to be forgotten. Yet they are too numerous to mention.

    Nevertheless, what greatly concerns me is not travel masters like John and Arita, or the seasoned Long Riders who are Members of the Guild. What needs to be considered is what occurs when naïve would-be travellers set off with animals, and thereafter either seriously wound or kill them through ignorance.

    In this age of cheap air fare it is easy to overlook the fact that since the dawning of the 20th century mankind has lost the majority of its collective animal travel wisdom. The result is an alarming case of equestrian amnesia, one wherein the basic knowledge of our ancestors has been lost without a whimper of complaint.

    Some recent cases demonstrate how horses, for example, invariably suffer when people set off with romantic notions but precious little practical experience.

    In 2009 an American woman set off to ride the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. Because her entire purpose was to set a record crossing, she rode her horses unmercifully. In the first half of the journey, she had to be rescued by US Forest officials twice. Eventually she intentionally chose to take her horses along a dangerous cliff side trail which had been clearly marked and forbidden to horses. Both animals fell hundreds of feet to their death.

    Further east, during a journey across Mongolia in 2010, an Australian rode his horse until it had raw holes in its body the size of dinner plates. These wounds became infected with insect larva. When Mongolians attempted to rescue the horse, the Australian sold the animal instead to a Chinese butcher.

    There are other examples but the story is always a variation on the same theme. A human being obtains an animal, then forces it to sacrifice its dignity, destroys its health, and ends up killing it so as to gain some sort of transitory personal glory.

    As Mikael has aptly pointed out, the Long Riders’ Guild takes a stern view of these horse killers and we warn the public of their offenses in our “Hall of Shame.”

    Furthermore, the Guild will not tolerate the presence of a person who incorporates a horse into a deceptive, unethical or criminal act. Nor will we condone or sponsor any expedition that knowingly subjects its mounts to needless suffering.

    The Long Riders’ Guild in fact has no obsession with mileage. Though our members have set an assortment of world records during the course of their equestrian travels, we do not encourage a needless quest for kilometers, nor the lightning flash crossing of continents. When those are the goals, then horses, or other travel animals, all too often end up being wounded or killed.

    Thus, when we discuss the topic of Universal Expedition Standards, I believe it is vitally important that the public be reassued that the safety and welfare of any animal used in an expedition will be protected.

    CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS

  5. Thanks all for your input – the entire point was to get opinions and views.

    To begin with – I think that some may have missed the key points. First, UES is not a governing body proposal. It is in fact the ‘badge’ people refer to. Second, guiding is only a small part of UES. It was designed to apply more to independent expeditions in order to make a level playing field regarding standards and claims.

    @L. Fazzini – You’re quite right – experience is one distinct thing. Someone who’s ‘good’ for the community or industry is something different and this is impossibly subjective. Not sure having to pay for membership is a good idea as it means those with superior funding will prevail. IPGA hasn’t been launched so the details are needed before we can make a judgement.

    @Korpijaakko – The unassisted tag was actually a concoction of the ExplorersWeb founders and as with most of their rules designed to fit around the expeditions they themselves undertook. I prefer a much simpler rulebook which says physical external assistance is support and no physical external assistance is unsupported.

    @Brian – I’m always suspect about anonymous commenters but will address your points. No agenda since I seek to not control nor profit from UES. IPGA was used as an example (the only potential polar body at the moment) and my reservations about governing bodies were general, not about IPGA. I don’t like the idea of a small group limiting competition by giving themselves a self-awarded qualification. The Arctic/Polar points etc are valid and for another debate…..

    @CuChullaine Thanks! Yes I have neglected animal based expeditions and apologise since I know very little about them. Would love to learn more.

  6. Thank you for your reply – however there are a number of points you have not addressed. You clearly state in your article that ”It makes sense that a small group will attempt to include their colleagues and friends, whilst freezing out those considered undesirable and thereby limiting competition for lucrative jobs. Not a healthy state of affairs in my mind for a market that should be dominated by quality and openness.” This implies there are organisations set up that you believe are not ethical in their motives. ? Your reply to @Korpijaakko implies that the founders of explorers web set their own standards for their personal gain? I thought this was a website followed by many explorers across the globe – and have always found their site to be very informative. I believe that accusations made in writing should be substantiated by fact..

  7. Brian,

    Hopefully I’ll do a better job this time round. The quote that you used is indeed my belief – not levelled at an organisation that does not yet publicly exist but at the generality of human nature:

    Those in a lucrative and competitive industry, as polar guiding surely is, will seek to reduce competition to their services and corner more of the market. This is the same for any business. What I’m saying is that a polar guiding association will be most likely set up by a group of guides – thereby following the behaviour I describe. Over time, potential clients will most likely be told to demand a guide who is associated with this group – meaning those who have existed perfectly well before with excellent standards but unwilling to be brought under the regulation of an association will lose out. One natural solution is for multiple associations to exist, bringing us back to where we are now where clients book guides on their track-record and reputation.

    For clarity, IPGA does not yet exist publicly and I have no idea as to their ethical motivations.

    Regarding ExplorersWeb, they provide a very informative and comprehensive but have been very frequently shown to report from a particular point of view without neutral journalistic control. I have a good relationship with them because I provide honest press releases but am aware they have attacked some of my contemporaries. They did indeed start the rulebook via their AdventureStats.com site which first set rules regarding unassisted and unsupported. They used to have categories of A, A-, B+ etc. which I notice was pulled.

  8. contd.

    In particular, ExWeb has consistently shown an anti-British view-point (which I’ll concede is partly our own fault due to the number of British expeditions which are inventive with their claims and often use the horrible word ‘conquer’, setting off colonial bells in peoples’ heads). More importantly, the ExWeb rules regarding coastal start points and support exactly, and not surprisingly, match the expeditions of the founders, the Sjogrens. They are most certainly not a universal standard which anyone else had voted or agreed upon.

    After-all, I want to bring us back out of the guiding qualification debate, which the UES are not involved with, and back into the main point – a badge to display which shows compliance with basic honesty and safety standards.

  9. Standards for journeys into the unknown, rules for trips off the beaten track, ethic standards outside common sense morality, badges of merit and valour, comittees and rules: it all sounds like a juvenile rehash of a boy scout’s delirium. For God’s sake keep your hands away from exploration, the last human endeavours beyond the control of pressure groups, associations, clubs and gouverning bodies.

  10. Alex
    Thanks for the reply

    But I still don’t get it. As you say…….

    #Non-proprietary – an open standard governed by the community
    # Free – no money changes hands and so cowboys or business-interests are excluded
    # Voluntary – not being UES approved does not stop you from getting flights, insurance or backing. Having UES approval can show a positive effort has been made, rather than disable those who don’t feel it fits them

    On your first point “governed by the community”.
    Who exactly is the community? and who would you include in that community, everyone? or a chosen few? A community should include everyone, including businesses and cowboys, otherwise you alienate parts of the community from the word go. Judging from a couple of the comments so far, I think you already have.

    On point 2
    If you then you divide that community into individual, business and cowboy. There goes another problem. How do you define a business? some individuals do it for a living, others do it to make some sort of money to pay the household bills therefore, that individual technically would be classed as a business or, being in business. Or would a business be classed as more than one person?

    Still on point 2
    How do you define a cowboy? and who would actually stand up and tell them, “you can’t be a member, you’re a cowboy”! or would that be a community decision? Otherwise how do you separate the cowboys from the good guys?

    On Point 3
    This is the confusing one, because what you’re actually saying is that nobody has to be a member as it’s voluntary. So that means that a credible person (number 1) doesn’t have to join and a cowboy (number 2) doesn’t have to join or is not allowed to join.So how do people know, or choose which one is not the cowboy if they both don’t have a badge? Or is it none of the above and choose number 3, the Astronaut?

  11. On that note, I’ll gracefully withdraw. Some have neglected to understand the facts and some simply don’t think the idea has legs. I think I’m in that latter camp now – the consultation has done what I intended it to do.

  12. Alex, I think your idea is excellent and I am sorry you stopped discussing the issue. I also applaud you for noting that ExWeb only concentrates on Expeditions where they themselves, the Sjogrens, have been involved. Their coverage of other types of exploration is extremely poor. They are also anti-British to a degree of disgust as you write.Please pursue your idea! Tom Sheppard, Leeds, UK

  13. Thanks Tom for your kind words. The intention of the UES was to provide something beneficial for the expedition world as a whole but to be honest most people didn’t seem willing to read the details properly. I have better things to do than responding to pointlessly angry internet people so thought I’d leave it.

  14. ‘The unassisted tag was actually a concoction of the ExplorersWeb founders and as with most of their rules designed to fit around the expeditions they themselves undertook. I prefer a much simpler rulebook which says physical external assistance is support and no physical external assistance is unsupported.

    ‘More importantly, the ExWeb rules regarding coastal start points and support exactly, and not surprisingly, match the expeditions of the founders, the Sjogrens. They are most certainly not a universal standard which anyone else had voted or agreed upon~~
    Quote A Hibbert June 2011

    I read your recent article on Explorers Web with interest- considering your public comment that they ‘have been very frequently shown to report from a particular point of view without neutral journalistic control. ‘ – it seems that ”when the suit fits” ……

  15. Brian – still mysteriously anonymous I see…..

    All media, whether newspapers, TV or online will have agenda, slant and bias. That’s no reason to boycott the lot of them. I don’t agree with some of ExWeb’s past comments but neither do I agree with some of the BBC’s. I still watch the BBC.

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