Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Walking across the world

English adventurer in Sun Valley to share tales of monumental expedition


By JON DUVAL
Express Staff Writer

English adventurer Karl Bushby works his way up a mountain pass en route to Komsomolskiy, in eastern Russia in Sept. 2007. Photo courtesy of Karl Bushby and the Goliath Expedition

"What it becomes has yet to be seen," Karl Bushby said of an undertaking that has taken just over nine years thus far. He still has to cover over 19,000 miles before it can be called complete.

And that remaining distance, just like the 17,000 miles that came before it, will be done on foot.

The 38-year-old Yorkshire native, however, remains remarkably humble about his attempt to become the first person to traverse the globe using nothing but his legs and an interminable determination.

For Bushby, walking the 36,000 miles from Patagonia back home to England isn't about raising money for a cause or hunting for fame.

"It's the personal challenge," Bushby said in a soft-spoken British accent that belies the physical and mental fortitude required for what has become known as the Goliath Expedition. "It's to see if I can do what no one else has ever done before."

That feat he has already accomplished. In March 2006, Bushby walked, swam and scrambled through the Bering Strait, the 57-mile gap of ice and water between Alaska and Russia. He was accompanied by French adventurer Dimitri Keiffer for the historic event, which lasted 14 days and took the pair in a circuitous route of more than 140 miles.

While Bushby considered the Bering Strait as the greatest threat to the expedition's success, the previous nine years of travel were by no means filled with average tourist fare.

In fact, it's incredible that he was able to find a leg of his journey filled with even more danger than the swath of dense jungle and swampland that forms the border between Colombia and Panama. Known as the Darien Gap, this inhospitable environment is made only more so by the presence of warring guerilla groups, including FARC, the notorious left-wing Colombian rebels.

"I can't imagine doing this if I hadn't been brainwashed into thinking I was bulletproof," Bushby said, referring to the 12 years he served as a paratrooper in the British Army, his country's equivalent of the U.S. Army's Rangers.

"With my military training came a mental conditioning, self-confidence and the knowledge that physically I have been taken to all kinds of extremes," Bushby said. "I had already experienced all kinds of harsh environments, from jungles to deserts to the arctic."

It was also during that time that he began to give shape to his childhood dream of a feat that no one thought possible, that would test the limits of endurance, strength and commitment.

"After 12 years in the Army, I thought life was getting a bit tedious," Bushby said. "But I needed something significant enough to make me leave."

For the world's most intrepid pedestrian, this dream was catalyzed in 1998 when he set foot in Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost point of South America, with less than $1,000 in his pocket.

Despite the minimal amount of funding, which began with his mother's passing around a hat at work, Bushby has managed to keep upright and moving forward, as he describes it, often through unexpected sources.

"I've received so much support everywhere I've been since I left Europe," Bushby said. "It really shores up your belief in mankind when the poorest of the poor in the desert of Peru give you whatever they can."

Sometimes pulling a two-wheeled trolley, which he named "The Beast," on roads, or a sled over ice and water, or simply packing all his essentials on his back, Bushby has managed to make his way to Anadyr, in eastern Russia.

Once there, however, he again encountered visa problems that have plagued him ever since he made it across the Bering Strait.

Though he has been forced out of Russia a number of times to fly back to Alaska, where he's currently stationed, Bushby has never broken the expedition's cardinal rule of only moving forward on foot.

If everything goes to plan, he will pick up his trail of unbroken footsteps right where he left off at the end of February, hopefully giving him enough time to cross the frozen dirt roads of Siberia before they turn to into impassable miles of deep mud.

"It's a bit of a pain right now and it can be frustrating sitting around waiting for the paperwork," Bushby admitted in a tone that managed to be simultaneously resigned and optimistic. "But this is all part of the expedition. I have to accept it and be willing to take a kicking along the way."

While these kinds of bureaucratic delays could have been expected before he began, Bushby said he wasn't at all prepared for what has truly become his most difficult challenge.

"You can give me 20 Bering Straits, but nothing could kick my ass like falling in love in Colombia has," Bushby said. "It's something that shouldn't have happened, but did."

Through a friend of a friend, Bushby met Catalina Estrada, a civil engineer who he spent two months with while planning his trip through the Darien Gap.

Unfortunately for Bushby, Estrada hasn't been allowed into the United States or Canada to visit.

"She knows I'm not willing to stop and wouldn't ask that of me," Bushby said.

His future with Estrada, and just about everything else in his life, is a big question mark.

"I learned in the early days of the expedition to narrow my focus to the next turning point," Bushby said. "Before I could never look past the strait, now that it's over it has become more difficult to keep from looking too far ahead."

With a long stretch of land in front of him before he hits the English Channel, which he hopes authorities will let him cross via a service tunnel that passes under the 21 mile gap, Bushby is aiming at 2010 for his first steps on his home soil in 12 years.

However, with all of Asia and Europe in front of him, plenty of challenges remain, including the fact that he's almost out of money.

"If I have to come back from Russia one more time I'll be completely snookered," said Bushby, who received a financial lift from a book deal signed when he made it to Alaska, but that was spent almost entirely getting over the Bering Strait. "An expedition like this--an open-ended continuous trudge--doesn't exactly lend itself to sponsorship purposes."

Of the few companies that have stepped up to assist in the adventure is Ketchum-based Eye Safety Systems, which is helping bring Bushby to the Wood River Valley for a presentation at both the Sun Valley Inn and Hemingway School before he returns to Russia. Steve Dondero, director of marketing at ESS, said that along with supplying Bushby with goggles and sunglasses, the company hopes his visit will also help fundraising efforts.

"I'm looking forward to being in Idaho again," said Bushby, who passed through in 2002, but took a route east of Blaine County. "I'll be there to tell about my journey and people can take from it what they want."

"Karl's expedition is not necessarily about the miles," said Ramey Wood, who has been assisting Bushby for the last three years. "The story is really about the emotional and spiritual journey. It's about perseverance."

More information about Bushby's expedition, along with his fascinating journal entries, can be found on his Web page, www.goliathexpedition.com, or during his presentation at the Sun Valley Inn on Thursday.

What: Karl Bushby talks about his expedition.

Where: Sun Valley Inn's Continental Room.

When: Thursday, Feb. 9. Doors open at 5 p.m., talk begins at 6 p.m.

Cost: $12 entry includes signed poster.




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