Where is left to go? Hopping on a plane to travel halfway around the world has become part of the humdrum of modern business, and it’s as easy to plan a backpacking trip to Bhutan as it is a sojourn to South Beach. Even Timbuktu has an airport and hotels with ratings on TripAdvisor (though at the moment, given Malian politics, you might want to think twice about going).
Any sophisticate will tell you: there’s nowhere new left to discover. Humans have been everywhere and seen it all at least once. True adventure is dead, at least on this planet.
But don’t tell that to Alex Bellini. Born in the Italian Alps in the same year that his über-adventuresome countryman Reinhold Messner became the first person to ascend Everest without supplemental oxygen, Bellini has adrenaline in his bones. His own quests began in 2001 with the Marathon des Sables, a 250km, six-day race across the sands of the Sahara. Over the next few years, Bellini walked across Alaska and then rowed solo across the Atlantic (227 days) and the Pacific (294 days). His 70-day footrace across America in 2011, from Los Angeles to New York, seems almost mundane by comparison.
Bellini, though, isn’t especially concerned with being the first person to do something. “The limits of endurance challenges are pushed further and further every day,” he says. “I think the biggest challenges are within ourselves.” Now living in Britain with his wife and two children, Bellini’s most recent adventure was a trek across Europe’s largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, sprawling some 8,100 square kilometres along Iceland’s southeast coast.
His physical ceaselessness has provided opportunity for deep reflection: “The best and most authentic way we have of gaining knowledge and understanding is to push ourselves beyond the boundaries of our habits and certainties,” he explains, pointing both back to what adventure has always been – a quest for gaining knowledge – and forward towards what adventure means for him and has come to mean for our modern world. Adventuring involves external and internal hazards, and the internal ones may be the more difficult to understand and overcome.
Bellini spent 13 days alone on the Icelandic glacier with only his skis and supplies for company. “Pulling a 60kg sledge for many hours a day is not an easy task, but sometimes it was the easiest part of the journey. Think about sleeping in a wet sleeping bag for days, managing a frozen foot or hand, or the lack of visibility that can prevent you from skiing confidently in an area with plenty of crevasses.”
Because the journey was undertaken in the darkness and cold of the Nordic winter, Bellini’s mental preparation was only half the battle. He collaborated with Italian clothes maker Paul & Shark, better known for its sailing gear, to create the -40 Capsule Collection, which included “a down jacket that could protect me from the cold when in the tent”, explains Bellini, “and a special wading jacket that reacts according to the temperatures”.
“The clothing performed very well and it proved to be built to last,” he says, both of which qualities are related to the primary aims of the challenge: namely, “to raise awareness and inspire action about climate change and respect and care for the environment”.
For his next exploit, Bellini is planning an even more ambitious task, both physically and mentally. Beginning in late 2018, he will spend a full 12 months alone on an iceberg, following it down from its calving location in Greenland southward into warmer waters. Entitled Adrift and making use of a customised survival capsule, the idea is to draw attention to climate change – and quite possibly the biggest challenge, he says, will be boredom.
As in Iceland this past winter and when he was crossing the oceans on solo rows, “the mental attitude needs to be the same: very much oriented to problem solving, open to embracing the unexpected and always being ready to read the messages that come both within your body and from the environment around you. These skills can definitely save your life.”
It is a solitary way of being that Bellini has come to be very familiar with – hence his Instagram handle, @alexbellini_alone – but preparing for such a challenge involves a vast team and network of planning. And it also involves a deep understanding of his motivations: “As a father, I have the responsibility to show my two daughters what it looks like to take life by the helm and do everything I can in pursuit of self-realisation.”
It is this self-realisation that is the ultimate pursuit of the modern adventurer, but the physical trials and tribulations cannot be overlooked – which is why, as I speak to Bellini, he is preoccupied with the next step of his training. “In three hours’ time,” he says, “I will start running for six days nonstop in a 1km loop. This has nothing to do with adventures, I know, but very much with self-exploration. This is the kind of thing that helps me to learn from doing and to explore mental challenges.”