Quick Interviews from the Edge of Adventure
explorer rob small
Once upon a time, Rob Small was a "normal guy." He was living and working in the U.K. and, like many of us, wanted more adventure in his life. Like many aspiring adventurers, he quit his work, packed his things, and headed abroad. He wouldn’t visit home again for nearly 12 years, and when he did, he wouldn’t be the same.
In 2010, while living and working as a scuba instructor in Zanzibar, his home caught fire, trapped him inside, and nearly took his life. 43% of Rob’s body was burnt and doctors gave him a 27% chance of survival. There were no facilities to treat such a severe burn in Zanzibar, so for 10 days, Rob suffered. They decided to fly him home to the U.K. for treatment, but thought he wouldn’t survive the flight. He did.
After a month in a coma, 30 surgeries, and five years of rehab, we now find Rob finally getting back to his travels. Only now he has a purpose. In 2016 he will set off to finish Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trek to the South Pole. By doing so doctors will study his body in hopes of finding out more about what they call the “X Gene,” an unknown factor in the human body that allows it to survive extreme circumstances, such as severe cold or immense heat. Everything about Rob’s story is inspiring, brave, and potentially revolutionary.
Rob Small calls himself a "normal guy." I tend to think otherwise.
Mountain Folk Adventure: I have spent some time with other adventurers that have overcome massive hurtles in their lives that, like you, decide to travel the world and push themselves in extreme environments. So I would ask you what attracts you to adventure travel? And why have you made it a priority in your life?
Rob Small: Fear! [He laughs] I know it's not the normal answer that people receive to that question. It was fear that made me first leave home and move overseas - I actually had a dream that my grandkids asked me one day where in the world I had been, and I said I had lived in Aberdeen my whole life, but I've been on a couple of vacations. That terrified me. The thought of not searching and experiencing the world left me feeling afraid. A few months later I packed up and left Aberdeen and headed to the Maldives and didn't return for about 12 years. After the fire it was fear and anger that made me step up. Angry that the ability to do things was taken away from me and fearful that I couldn't do all the things that I felt I still had to do.
Now that I’m in the condition I'm in, everything seems to become a little more attractive. The ease that some of us have to climb mountains, run marathons, trek through jungles, or go on an Arctic/Antarctic expedition, or any adventure, is fantastic. But now, for me to do any of this takes a little more thinking and planning. The fear of giving up, or letting people down, because it’s a little harder is a great motivation.
MFA: For those of us that have never had a serious burn, how does a burn such as yours affect your mobility in the day to day? And how do you feel it will affect you in the extreme conditions your about to encounter?
RS: This part is rather hard to write, not because it's emotionally difficult or anything, but because it’s kind off all over the place. A burn, any burn, is totally life changing...there is a reason that you must see a therapist while in hospital or why TV crews are not allowed into the units. The life I knew before had gone, and it was never coming back. Once I got over that I would live, I then had to learn to walk again. Once that was getting better the realization that my life, my pictures, my clothes and all my belonging where gone. My home, my career and my ability to make money were also gone. Where would I live? How do I pay for anything? Food, clothes, heating, rent? And I was alone; I had lived abroad for the last 10 years, and at that point and knew nobody in London, had nobody to talk to, and nobody to do anything with.
The burns take a few years to mature, during that time they are painful, itchy and very red. On top of that, if you are like me, then there are more and more operations to get my legs back to the best possible condition. Wounds take a long time to heal and because of that the rehab process can be long and stalled while waiting for the previous operation to heal. I have had a further 15 operations since I have left hospital (30 in total) trying to get me walking without a limp or strength back to the correct areas.
One of the unknowns is precisely how my scars will cope with the environment in Antarctica, as nobody has really been there before with the extent of my injuries. While training in Norway I had, surprisingly, no problems at all, apart from a few blisters. But of course the weather is different. As you know Antarctica is the worlds highest, driest, coldest and most windswept continent with temperatures reaching a record -94 degrees Celsius. The possibility of my scars breaking down, due to the dryness more than anything else is quite high. But until we are there, we are not really too sure. However, in a way that’s all part of the adventure, and if I can do it, then anybody can have a go.
MFA: Tell me your beliefs on the "X-gene," and why do you think it's important?
RS: [He laughs] My beliefs?! Well I struggle with it, to be honest. The words "X-Gene" will not come out of my mouth while giving any talks. I press play in the video and leave Andre to try and explain it. Partly due to the fact I'm just a normal guy and find it hard to think about. But mostly due to the fact that I'm not a Doctor and it goes over my head a little! [Laughs again] Because of TV we all hear the term "X-Gene” and think of the X-Men…Let me tell you now I have no super powers what so ever! Although I wouldn't be completely against wearing some kind of cool costume!
The “X” in “X-Gene” actually means unknown…so another way to write it could be the “Unknown Gene” In reality it is probably more like a number of genes, and how they work together in my body that is a little unknown. We are not coming back with a test tube of bright green liquid that will make people super human or anything... But we may come back with a better understanding of how my body reacts in a survival situation and if the way my genes act could possibly be duplicated in others when they are in hospital or a survival situation. Basically, can we give others the same chance of survival I naturally seem to have. It’s not a skill, I can’t turn it on or off. It’s just how my body reacts to things. I am not the only person in the world with this possible “X-Gene," just the only one stupid enough to put themselves back into a survival situation after being in one already.
MFA: There are so many great explorers. What brought you to honor Shackleton's journey specifically?
RS: I grew up reading about Scott and Shackleton, but was always more drawn to Shackleton. The way his men looked up to him and how he treated them, it’s a management style that stands the test of time. Also the way that it always seemed nothing was left to chance, that everything was thought about and planned for. It inspired me to not only want to do my own expeditions but also to put the same effort into all things I did.
I always planned to do something in Antarctica, but life got in the way, there was always another contract or job to do. I had planned to try the crossing of Antarctica, "The Endurance Expedition," but the fire put a end to that. Then while in hospital I was reading "South with Endurance," as I had some time on my hands, and a line stuck with me… "Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” It was like he was telling me to get on with it! [Laughs] So I did. Shackleton himself never gave up and he had faced hardship worse then mine. He has inspired so many people over the years, and me on more than one occasion. One of the things he spent most of his adult life chasing was the South Pole, so in my own small way, I wanted to do it for him and in turn show once again that “difficulties are just things to overcome.”
MFA: Training for an expedition like this is difficult even for those that haven’t been through the physical challenges you've faced. Tell us more about your training and how you're able to prepare for such an expedition?
RS: Because of the lack of movement in my ankles, knees, and my fake hip, the challenge has been building the strength in my muscles to sustain the continued walking and skiing required. Thankfully this, so far, hasn't been too hard. Most of the training has been mainly treadmill and bicycle work for cardio and weights for my legs, lower back, and triceps. The hardest part is probably the mental side, due to the unknown of how my scars will react. But we will have procedures in place to deal with this. The loneliness of a polar expedition is unknown to many people who think that because there are a few of you on the team, that you will be chatting and talking the whole time. The reality is that you spend the whole day in your own mind without talking much until you take a break, which is very short, or until the end of the day in the tent. 7-10 hours a day in your own mind can be difficult and something that you cant really train for…but in a way I’m looking forward to that.
MFA: What’s it like working with an adventurer like Thornewill? Can you give a little insight to his knowledge of polar expeditions and how it help you prepare both mentally and physically?
RS: Mike was the first person I talked to about the expedition about three years ago, before even mentioning it to my family or friends. For me I wanted somebody with experience to tell me if I was being stupid or if it was actually possible for somebody with my injuries to actually do this. Mike is calm, and methodical in his approach and has been a great sounding board in the early days and continues to be. Mike was the person behind his wife Fiona’s then world record in 2004, becoming the fastest woman to ski to the South Pole. Mike not only put that expedition together, but followed on the ice with another team to meet her.
I may be down as the expedition leader but I could not have managed to get this far if it were not for the help and advice I receive from Mike and the whole team. I believe that a strong leader is not afraid to have strong people around them. Surrounding yourself with strong people does not make you weak...its very much the opposite.
MFA: Thank You so much for sharing your story. We wish you all the luck in the world.