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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.