Real Life Story: Young Explorer Leo
By British Exploring Society,
My name is Leo, I’m 24, and I’m about to graduate with a Master’s degree in Natural Sciences. My final year dissertation found me in the company of a PhD student my own age, but unlike me, she is well-travelled, outgoing, and self-assured. She told me how she had spent 5 weeks wild-camping in the Himalayas when she was 19; the trip had been hosted by a charity called British Exploring Society. She told me how the expeditions offered opportunities both to explore and to do a science project, and I was incredibly jealous – I had barely left my flat for the last months, let alone the country. My final two years of university had both promised in-person research opportunities, but those had disappeared with COVID-19 and I was preparing to graduate without meaningful lab- or fieldwork experience. Sitting on the grass on campus in the sun, surrounded by university buildings that had been closed for over a year, we got out our phones and looked up British Exploring Society together. They were running an expedition this August: 4 months away. Given the pandemic, it seemed incredibly optimistic at the time. I applied to go later that evening.
To my utter surprise, British Exploring Society accepted me onto the Scottish Highlands (Mark 2) expedition only a few weeks after my initial application. I had two concerns: I have a history of severe mental health illness, and I’m transgender. These things often cause problems, but British Exploring Society staff have been incredibly respectful and helpful throughout the process.
Once I was accepted onto expedition, I was set a fundraising target; because of the time I had applied, I had the space of about a month to meet it. I had never fundraised money before (outside of the perpetual school bake-sales that I think a lot of us were subjected to as children) and I was both anxious and excited by the opportunity to test myself this way. I set up a GoFundMe and a Facebook page advertising artwork commissions. I had never taken commissions before – but how hard could it be, right?
As the information pack from British Exploring Society had suggested they would be, most donations to my fundraiser were from friends. I had specifically asked my parents not to chip in, because at the age of 24 I had already relied on them to subsidise my living costs for the 5 years of my degree, and I wanted to see if this was something I could do myself. I was pleasantly surprised. My fundraiser reached £180 within 24 hours, and I hit the requisite £220 about 3 weeks later.
It was hard to ask for money at first. People displayed incredible generosity that I had not counted upon, and I did not know how to thank them properly. I was still sitting with a feeling of inadequacy when Training Weekend rolled around, and I did my lateral flow test (negative) and packed up my 48L rucksack ready and buzzing for 2 days of camping in Warwickshire.
The first thing that struck me at training was the diversity of people there. The weekend was for both Mark 1 and Mark 2 expeditions, an estimated 60 people staying in bubbles of no more than 6, spread over a huge field campsite. Naturally, it rained. A lot. My partner dropped me off at about 18:30: by 19:00 there was thunder and torrential downpour. I ran to my Fire (the bubble I had been assigned for that weekend) to find only one girl had arrived so far. She was wearing the same red Regatta raincoat I had just been given and struggling with a tent. I motioned her to get under the gazebo that marked our Fire, and our introduction to each other was me showing her where her hood was hidden – zipped into the collar of the coat. She was 17 and she had never been camping before.
Over the course of the evening, 2 other young people arrived at our Fire: another 17-year-old, much quieter, and partway through completing her Silver DofE, and (to my delight) another 24-year-old, who likes to cycle around Europe in his downtime. We were also introduced to our Fire Leader: usually a behind-the-scenes British Exploring Society employee, she had been asked short-notice to come and look after us. Clover was remarkably good-humoured despite the weather and the sudden change of plans. She huddled with us under the gazebo for a while, all of us hoping for a break in the rain. When one eventually came, we hurriedly set to putting up the 1-man tents British Exploring Society had bought especially for our expedition: usually, Explorers share tents, but British Exploring Society has made several changes to their usual routine to give this expedition the best chance of going ahead during a global pandemic.
Once the tents were up, we went for dinner. We wore masks around the campsite, and we were able to talk to members of other Fires from a distance. The money I had raised started to make me feel pleased instead of anxious: I had helped to enable the funding of other expeditions like this: opportunities for other people, especially those without the privileges that I had grown up with.
That night, I had a panic attack at 1 am when I found a spider in my tent (in my defence, I had already dealt with a moth, a black beetle, and an earwig, and, as it turns out, I have arachnophobia). I went down to the campsite reception, which was empty now – everyone was asleep, understandably – and called my partner to tell her that I was coming home, now, please. As we were talking, a car pulled up, and out came Clover and two other British Exploring Society Leaders – the rain had flooded the motorway close by, and a young Leader had become stranded. Unlucky for her, but very lucky for me. The three of them were shockingly patient with me (I was ready for a bollocking) and after half an hour, Clover came back to the sodden campsite with me. She managed to catch the spider, which was pitifully small, and left me with a plastic cup and a bit of paper should such an emergency happen again.
The rest of the weekend passed enjoyably and without further occasion for panic (unless we count the point at which I was told a 48L rucksack would not be big enough, and was loaned a 60-70L one instead. It’s almost the same size as me): we learned more about how best to pack the monstrously large rucksacks, how to orienteer, how to use trangias and comms, and more. By Sunday I was both sunburned and soggy, and desperately excited to get out to Loch Tay and poo in a hole.
When we got home, we found a spider had camped out in the bathroom. In light of my panic over the weekend, I named it Spike and decided I should let it stay: I felt it was time I started to tackle my fear. A couple of weeks later, Spike moved into my bedroom, where I did not want it to stay. I caught it on my own (a triumph in itself) and let it go outside. I think the kindness and understanding I received from those Leaders at 1 am was the encouragement I needed to recognise firstly that I have a phobia, and secondly that that’s not anything to be ashamed of – that acceptance has let me move on to challenging my fear, instead of pretending I don’t have it until I have a complete breakdown.
Expedition is now less than 4 weeks away. I tell everyone who will stop long enough to listen where I’m going, and why, and how excited I am. I am nervous, too – there’s a 60-70-litre backpack that I need to be strong enough to carry, we’re going to be living off of ration packs (which are an excellent novelty but I’m told that wears off) and there are going to be challenges that I haven’t even thought of yet. I do know, though, that I will be supported by British Exploring Society Leaders throughout all of those challenges, and that ultimately I am going to be a stronger, more resilient, more self-confident person because of this expedition. I know this because those things have already started happening. I can’t wait to continue my journey with my new friends and to make memories that will last a lifetime.