Analysis of Andrew Skurka’s Yukon Expedition

The Yukon

The aim of this essay is to analyse case study material from an established expedition and evaluate the performance of the expedition in one specific area.

Andrew Skurka received the Adventurer of the Year Award in 2007 and since 2002 has completed about a dozen solo expeditions. It was his Alaska – Yukon Expedition (AYE) that caught my eye – he was the first person to have done it. This expedition lasted for 176 days starting March 14th and returning on the 5th September 2010, during which he travelled 4680 miles by skis, on foot and on a Packraft.  His aim was to traverse the Alaska Range and Brooks Range in one trip. He describes this as wanting to achieve an “exceptionally unique, rewarding and challenging experience”. 

(http://www.andrewskurka.com/AK10/about.php, 2010)

the route

I have chosen to write about this expedition because I am very interested in that area of the world and how different the seasons are, compared to here in England. I like the fact he has three main ways of travelling, adding a bit of variety and giving me more to look into regarding his kit list and how he packed. I like the way he documented his journey, buying a new camera along the way, keeping in touch with loved ones and fans whilst out amongst the mountains. The fact that you can do that with today’s technology is just fascinating.

Credit Andrew Skurka
Credit Andrew Skurka

I am interested in gaining new experiences, travelling and documenting them along the way; something I have done before and want to carry on. Therefore, by choosing an expedition where the main aim is to go somewhere never gone before, the ethos between us is the same. In an online interview he was asked would he go back?  His reply was that it was very beautiful and really enjoyed it, however, as his life goal is to gain many new experiences then no, he wouldn’t go back. This I agree with, hence why I am especially intrigued by the Skurka AYE Expedition. 

I aim to assess and evaluate the factors affecting his choice of equipment, one of the most important elements of planning under technical leadership skills. I will look into how having the applicable knowledge reinforced his planning strategies and techniques.  This will take into consideration the packing aspect and whether being sponsored altered his choice. 

Although writing about this expedition may be limited by the fact that it hasn’t been established for long (at time of writing in 2010) which means I have no academic material to look into, I have two main information sources; firstly I am in email correspondence with Skurka himself and secondly, the internet. Skurka kept a blog whilst in Alaska.  He updated it often and also, interlinked with the National Geographic set up a blog where the public could send him questions. This, I think, was an important aspect in keeping his morale high as he was travelling solo. 

As this expedition finished earlier this year (at time of writing, 2010), there is currently limited written material about it.  There will however be an article about it in the March 2011 issue of the National Geographic magazine. I will be using expedition handbooks to look at advice and applicable theories. The internet provides blogs from Skurka whilst out travelling and his personal website provides a lot of information about planning, including a gear list, food advice and a final itinerary.  I also found out his mother played a big part in his expedition and I can use her as a source too.  

The objective tests Technical, Interpersonal and Meta skills, which every good expedition should.  As he is travelling solo I feel the Interpersonal skills needn’t be evaluated. Regarding Meta skills, he did encounter problems and had to use his perception skills to get through, however, I am looking into the technical skills needed for the expedition, as this has many fundamental values which I can explore. The specific area I will assess will be whether the fact he was sponsored limited and deterred his choice of gear or whether this was beneficial to him, also if he would have preferred another brand. I will look into what his gear means to him, my main focus being how he decides what to take and what to leave behind. I feel this is important as the gear you take can be the make or break of an expedition. 

Sponsors want publicity – when seeking sponsorship it is important to find the right company which wants the type of publicity you can generate, be it sales of the latest product or primetime television coverage. There are pros and cons with gaining a sponsor and I want to use Skurka’s AYE expedition to discover whether it has been helpful to him or not and whether it changed how he went about his journey. Commitment to the sponsor is a big issue, also there is a need for a unique selling point, as there is with the products you use, the food you eat and the same applies for an expedition. 

Companies will only put money in if they believe they can get something out of it and there is every expectation that the expedition will be a success. Sponsors will be looking for two types of expedition; external, which involves high end publicity and internal, which is the test of a prototype. I plan to evaluate the planning phase of Skura’s latest expedition. He states that it took 12 months in total for the whole expedition – 6 months planning and 6 carrying it out. When packing you have to think about weight and whether you can get equipment which performs two jobs in one while retaining the high quality. 

Skurka was sponsored by GoLite who provided him with equipment.  He tells them what works and what doesn’t and from this, they develop a mutual partnership as they can then go on to design future products which could then make them a profit. This is important because these designs can then help with other future expeditions.  

Staying comfortable on an expedition requires maintenance of homeostasis of the human body. (Long S, 2003) To achieve and maintain the correct temperature requires different types of gear, and this is where the layering system comes into play  A dynamic equilibrium is held by consistent control and regulation of the body, the sensors we have notice the change within this regulated variable and the effector responses take the appropriate intrinsic or extrinsic action. (Jurd, 1997)

The physiology of the human body has given us hairs which involuntarily become erect and trap air when we get cold.  The base layer is of most importance when energy requirements vary. Skurka carried two different types of pants, tights and base layer shirts.  As materials have developed with hydrophobic properties and insulating synthetic layers it means that the shirts can be worn more often, meaning less equipment needs to be carried. The two shirts he used were not made by GoLite (his sponsor), however he found that they both had defining properties – the two tops were made by Ibex and Ex Officio, both long sleeved base layers.  The Ex Officio top is designed with a very effective bug deterrent feature. He also chose an Ibex long sleeve top; because it was wool it was more effective in the cold and wet conditions, and the post trip comment for this was that it was most definitely worth taking. Having found that Ibex designed such a good piece of equipment, only time will tell to whether he will go back to GoLite and if they will design something similar. Skurka (pers comm. 2010) tells me that “I also try to find the companies that are willing to make the gear I want, if they don’t make it now”. 

The backpack he chose determined the weight he was to carry – over the years he has decided to get lighter and lighter, with the repeated saying “Go Lighter” on his website, which also interlinks with a play on words regarding his sponsors, GoLite Ltd.  The GoLite Pinnacle rucksack carries up to 18kg comfortably and has been ergonomically designed for long distance usage and winter conditions.   At most Skurka carried 15kg during the late winter to spring leg of the journey. At the food depot there was another pack waiting for him along with the rest of his food supplies, and this was to last him for the summer and early autumn length. This pack was designed by ULA and was the prototype for 2010. Even though he is sponsored by GoLite he can still test out other companies’ future products – this is a good way of getting his name known and maybe for future expeditions ULA will be inclined to sponsor him.  This suggests that because he has been sponsored by GoLite, he became a recognised explorer, thus opening more doors and giving him the opportunities to test out new products. The more “top of the range” products that will become available to him will gradually increase; this could result in the performance of the expedition escalating as new products reduce the limiting factors of an expedition. 

Equipment choice for this expedition required a lot of thought, especially as it was such a long period of time that needed to be accounted for.  In my opinion he travelled very light considering the time period and conditions he had to contend with.  I think this is due to not only previous experiences, but what is available to him which otherwise wouldn’t be, for example the prototype ULA backpack.  Skurka (pers comm, 2010)  states “I try to be sponsored by the companies that make the gear I want” This tells me a lot of research and knowledge has gone into what he requires for this expedition to be a success. Skurka (pers comm, 2010) explained “I have never contacted companies like Gregory, Spyder, or The North Face – they don’t make what I want”. The sort of products he needs are high performance, top of the range and therefore costly; sponsorship and fundraising are two ways of acquiring the kit he needs. Skurka (pers comm, 2010) says “Having sponsors certainly improves the likelihood that my trip will be a success”…“I wouldn’t have all the top-of-the-line stuff,” 

He had many advisors to help plan the expedition route, and advise on the environment and weather conditions – this all influenced his choice of equipment. The best way to find out about a new location is to ask others who have experience of the conditions. He contacted Professor Roman Dial who has explored Alaska and Ryan Jordan, a publisher and leading practitioner in trekking styles and technique. He found many Alaskan guides and adventurers who have all experienced not only living there but exploring the outback from a rucksack. They included people like Erin McKittrick, Bretwood Higman, Bill Merchant and Ed Plumb. It is ideal to get advice from a lot of people as each will have specific areas of interest, therefore increasing the amount of information you will gain. 

Skurka had a kit list for which he wrote pre and post trip comments; this was a requirement of his sponsorship.  His main aim when being sponsored is to test the kit – by looking at the kit list we can see that he has many critical comments about some of the gear he took. For example, the Solomon La Sportiva Fireblade shoe he found would be “near- perfect if a forefoot plate were added”, it is this sort of comment which would be taken forward and redesigned. I doubt this altered his performance, and also I doubt that he has worn these shoes on an expedition before. Also with his choice in ski boot, he used a Crispi Mountain 3-pin Telemark boot which fitted him well but was not waterproof and never dried out. It is a piece of equipment like this which can make the expedition less comfortable. He did ski for two weeks longer than expected which could be due to travelling less during the day and at a slower rate due to being uncomfortable. If the human body is put under stress or pain then it is inevitable that tasks take longer to perform. 

On the whole Skurka benefited from the sponsorship as he is now able to get hold of some top line equipment which can enhance his performance therefore resulting in him being able to accomplish more with reliable gear.  I therefore believe that being sponsored has become an advantage to Skurka.  To me, it seems like there is no downside to being sponsored by GoLite for Skurka – he tests their products and gains equipment for more expeditions and in return they get a more thorough understanding of what is needed in the market, whether changes are needed regarding ergonomics, aesthetics and materials. Overall gaining a sponsorship has not inhibited the performance of this expedition, it has in fact, had a positive outcome. (2,188) References 

Becker K. (2010). Cheap Tents Outdoor Gear – Adventurer Andrew Skurka on his latest Expedition. Available at: http://blog.cheaptents.com/andrew-skurka-alaska-yukon-expedition/

Jurd R. D (1997) Instant notes in Animal Biology. BIOS Scientific Publishers Ltd pages 88 – 89

Long S. (2003) Hillwalking Mountain Leader Training Handbook  Vertebrate Graphics, pages 46-49

National Geographic (2010) National Geographic Adventure. Available at: http://ngadventure.typepad.com/blog/2010/10/andrew-skurka-answers-your-expedition-questions.html#more (accessed: 10/12/2010)

Skurka, Andrew (2010) Personal communications. askurka@comcast.net

Winser S. (2004) Royal Geographical Society Expedition Handbook  Biddles Ltd, pages 92-98

www.andrewskurka.com

Appendices 


email

  1. I try to be sponsored by the companies that make the gear I want.  I don’t get sponsored by a company first and then sort through their product list to find items that will work.  This explains why I have never contacted companies like Gregory, Spyder, or even The North Face – they don’t make what I want.
  1. I try to find the companies that are willing to make the gear I want, if they don’t make it now.  Part of the benefit to them in working with me is that I put a lot of field time on gear, so I can tell them what works and what does not over the long term.
  1. Having sponsors certainly improves the likelihood that my trip will be a success, though it’s a primary determinant.  If not sponsored, then I would be paying for my gear, in which case I would probably be more cost-conscious – I wouldn’t have all the top-of-the-line stuff, and I probably wouldn’t replace things as often (e.g. shoes and socks).

Andrew

The questions were as follows: 

  1. What do you look for in a sponsorship regarding kit?
  2. How do you choose your sponsors?
  3. How is having a sponsor beneficial to your?

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