Interview with Polar Explorer John Huston on How to Deal with the Post-Adventure Blues

John Huston at –50°F on the way to the North Pole. ©johnhuston.com
John Hus­ton at –50°F on the way to the North Pole. ©johnhuston.com

Hav­ing made a career out of polar explo­rations, John Hus­ton has many oth­er­world­ly expe­di­tions under his belt. With adven­tures rang­ing from the South Pole to Ellesmere Island, Hus­ton is also a vet­er­an of the first Amer­i­can self-sup­port­ed expe­di­tion to the North Pole in 2009, which required nav­i­gat­ing over ice while tot­ing along 55 days of food.

While Hus­ton is quick to acknowl­edge the many highs he expe­ri­enced on these trav­els, he is also open to speak­ing about the moments that occur after a big adven­ture, the re-entry into civ­i­liza­tion and deal­ing with the come down back into soci­ety. While it might not res­onate with every­one who ven­tures out into the nat­ur­al world, if you’ve ever felt the rush of excite­ment van­ish the sec­ond you get home, then Hus­ton has a few wise words for deal­ing with the post-adven­ture blues.


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The Clymb: For your 55-day, self-sup­port­ed expe­di­tion to the North Pole, were there any moments you remem­ber as the peak of your expe­ri­ence?

John Hus­ton: There is no sin­gle moment that I point to as the big high, instead it’s small things like my team and I com­ing to the end of a ski day, with a real soft alpine glow on the hori­zon, and we just have this full feel­ing that we put in a sol­id, hard-work­ing 12-hour day cov­er­ing some real dis­tance, know­ing that we are going to have a hot meal real soon and we’re in this incred­i­bly beau­ti­ful place on earth. It’s those lit­tle moments that com­bine hard work, scenic set­tings, and the peo­ple you are with; that cre­ates the high for me. That can hap­pen sev­er­al times a week if the vibe is right.


The Clymb: After expe­ri­enc­ing things like that, remote sun­sets in arc­tic regions, and 55 days of ski­ing across glac­i­ers, how long did it take you to get read­just­ed back to your ordi­nary life?

JH: After the North Pole it took a cou­ple of months, oth­er expe­di­tions have been short­er. I was so focused on the North Pole trip, and I knew it was so dif­fi­cult going in. I was so focused on the trip itself that I couldn’t imag­ine life after­wards. So I think for that trip in par­tic­u­lar I didn’t have a big plan of what I was going to be doing with myself after­wards. I didn’t know what to do next. I’m a guy who likes to be doing stuff, and while some days of R&R can be good, it was almost too much.

John Huston on the First American Unsupported Expedition to the North Pole. ©johnhuston.com
John Hus­ton on the First Amer­i­can Unsup­port­ed Expe­di­tion to the North Pole. ©johnhuston.com

The Clymb: Besides the obvi­ous phys­i­cal chal­lenges of the expe­di­tion, what do you think caus­es this almost lethar­gic after­math?

JH: On expe­di­tions I feel like I’m tied into a very sim­ple life and have a sin­gu­lar focus that is very engag­ing. When I come home and that all goes away, you can almost relate it back to some­thing like col­lege, when you work real­ly hard to study for a test or write a paper for sev­er­al days, and then it’s gone.

There’s some­thing like a vac­u­um left in the mind, and it takes time to read­just and feel sat­is­fied with what I’m doing every­day.

All the slight com­pli­ca­tions of day to day life that are always part of life, whether that is choos­ing what to eat every­day, or deal­ing with traf­fic or emails com­ing in, all that noise doesn’t exist on the ice and all of our meals are cho­sen for us, we are just focused on mov­ing for­ward and stay­ing safe and work­ing as a team. So, to come home and have that go away and not real­ly be able to relate the expe­di­tion life to a vast amount of oth­er peo­ple, it can feel a bit lone­ly in that depart­ment when I come home.


The Clymb: How have you learned to deal with the noise and poten­tial come down after a big expe­di­tion?

JH: I felt the post-adven­ture blues more keen­ly ear­ly in my career, and I think that I’ve learned to expect them, or to be able to head them off at the pass bet­ter as I’ve got­ten old­er. Hav­ing a fam­i­ly and wife helps in that depart­ment quite a bit. To ward them off though, I’ve learned to just plan what I’m going to do next before I come home from the expe­di­tion, so I have some­thing I’m look­ing for­ward to.

Espe­cial­ly when I’m on the ice, I am always mak­ing lists of what I want to do, where I want to trav­el or where I want to eat when I get home. If I’m able to make good on some of that, it feels real­ly nice for my moti­va­tion. I had this han­ker­ing for a par­tic­u­lar kind of ice cream when I was trav­el­ing my way to the North Pole, and so I went and ate some of that ice cream a cou­ple of times when I got back home, each time I was like, “yeah, this is what I want­ed.” It sounds so sim­ple but mak­ing good on that stuff, and not let­ting that noise dom­i­nate you or tell you what to do, is impor­tant for read­just­ment.

Some­times when I come back from an expe­di­tion, I’ll have to talk to the media or cer­tain peo­ple even­tu­al­ly, but I don’t like to let the world know I’m back for a lit­tle bit. I just want that time to focus on what I want to focus on after I get back, like my fam­i­ly and read­just­ment. The world is always mov­ing fast, and as soon as you jump back in, it’s going to sweep you along. It’s those tran­si­tion times that I try to man­age.

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The Clymb: Did exer­cise have any role in the read­just­ment process? If so, how quick­ly did you put your body back into the phys­i­cal demands of a strict exer­cise reg­i­men?

JH: Any­time I’m feel­ing a lit­tle bit off my game men­tal­ly, exer­cise is huge for me, and most cer­tain­ly fol­low­ing any big trip. After the North Pole I took up swim­ming, and that helped get me going again. The Rus­sians have used sim­ple exer­cise to treat men­tal ill­ness for a long time, and while I’ve nev­er expe­ri­enced men­tal ill­ness in my own life, I’m the kind of per­son who gets a lit­tle grumpy if I’m not work­ing out sev­er­al times a week. So I think exer­cise is a big part of my post-adven­ture rou­tine.

For the North Pole I took a month off. Oth­er expe­di­tions that weren’t as phys­i­cal­ly intense, where my body wasn’t as wast­ed, I was able to resume run­ning and bik­ing right away, and felt like I was in real­ly good shape, and that’s kind of fun to take advan­tage of. I’d be used to ski­ing 10–12 hours a day and sleep­ing out­doors, so when I go do a sim­ple six mile run it men­tal­ly felt like ½ of a ski ses­sion I had been doing six times a week. It’s a great feel­ing and a dif­fer­ent men­tal­i­ty. My mind is geared for the long run when I’m out on an expe­di­tion, so it’s rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple to do short­er work­outs back home.

John Huston. ©Glenn Fellman
John Hus­ton. ©Glenn Fell­man

The Clymb: Tak­ing advan­tage of your phys­i­cal abil­i­ties after a big trip is one thing, but how about the men­tal aspect? How do you process all your thoughts about a big trip after it hap­pens?

JH: After my trips I want to talk to my expe­di­tion bud­dies who live in Nor­way and Min­neso­ta, because I know they under­stand the expe­di­tion expe­ri­ence. That can be real­ly nice to solid­i­fy some of the mem­o­ries of what hap­pened on the trip. Also, we wrote a book about the North Pole, and even though we didn’t start writ­ing the book until a year lat­er, that was a great expe­ri­ence for putting the trip away and putting clo­sure on things. I don’t rec­om­mend peo­ple go write a book necessarily—that’s a big pain in the ass—but jour­nal­ing and just get­ting some of those thoughts on paper, even just going through pho­tos, that can be a big help as well. I like to have a lit­tle sep­a­ra­tion before I do any of that stuff though, but it jogs my mem­o­ries and puts the trip to bed in a nice way.


The Clymb: What caus­es the feel­ing of want­i­ng to have that sep­a­ra­tion?

JH: Every­one is dif­fer­ent, but I’ve always need­ed that sep­a­ra­tion, so I can feel detached a bit from the expe­ri­ence emo­tion­al­ly. I think what it comes down to is your pho­tos and videos and what­ev­er you wrote dur­ing the trip cre­ate your mem­o­ries, and I like to give myself some time to breathe before I relive the trip. I think I’m more relaxed and have that detach­ment so I might pick up things that I wouldn’t have nec­es­sar­i­ly if I looked at them right after the trip.

John and Elle on Baumann Fiord, Day 12 of 65, New Land 2013 Expedition, Ellesmere Island. ©Kyle O'Donoghue
John and Elle on Bau­mann Fjord, Day 12 of 65, New Land 2013 Expe­di­tion, Ellesmere Island. ©Kyle O’Donoghue

The Clymb: You have a 10-day expe­di­tion that you are guid­ing to Baf­fin Island in the Spring of 2018, have you already start­ed mak­ing any plans for what you want to do after return­ing from that expe­di­tion?

JH: I am already plan­ning to take my wife out to din­ner when I get back from the trip, part­ly because she will be tak­ing care of the kids while I’m gone. For small trips like that, and big trips too, some of the best times are at the end when you have a delib­er­ate cel­e­bra­tion of the trip. After the North Pole we had this huge par­ty in Nor­way, and it was a big high­light that every­one who attend­ed will nev­er for­get. For small­er trips too, espe­cial­ly ones with a team, it’s nice to have some clo­sure where you cel­e­brate the end of the trip and talk about what hap­pened, laugh about it, and put it to bed. I think it’s impor­tant for any­one who goes on a trip to carve out a lit­tle time to put the trip to bed and not just let it run loose and flow back into the rest of life to be for­got­ten about.


The Clymb: What val­ue do you per­son­al­ly find in big expe­di­tions, and what dri­ves you to keep going back to explor­ing the ice?

JH: There is def­i­nite­ly an after­glow fol­low­ing a big expe­di­tion, it’s a fun expe­ri­ence. Every trip I learn a lit­tle about myself and what I want to be doing with my life, so it kind of re-cen­ters my pri­or­i­ties. Expe­di­tions are damn fun, chal­leng­ing, emo­tion­al and dif­fi­cult, but they involve a sin­gle­ness of pur­pose and often take you to very beau­ti­ful, remote part of the world, and it’s fun to make those dreams hap­pen.


To learn more about Hus­ton and his big expe­di­tions over the ice, you can check out his web­site at www.JohnHuston.com, which also includes infor­ma­tion on his speak­ing tour, his book, For­ward, that recounts his self-sup­port­ed North Pole expe­di­tion and details about his 2018 Baf­fin Island trip, of which you can join Hus­ton and fel­low guide Sarah McNair-Landry for two weeks of explor­ing this polar par­adise.