Rafał Król is a Polish adventurer and explorer who has pushed himself to the absolute limits of endurance! His expeditions include traversing the Greenland icecap in whiteout conditions, a 400-kilometer solo expedition across Spitsbergen and pioneering a route through Sarek and Padjelanta, Laponia, Sweden, which is of the largest national parks in Europe. Sponsored by Berghaus, Rafał Król has put their outdoor gear to test in extreme conditions and helped to improve their designs.
The Greenland traverse saw Rafał Król and his expedition partner Norbert Pokorski face conditions of extreme cold and near constant whiteouts. Not only was there snow but towards the end of the journey there was also rain, which resulted in a lot of their equipment becoming wet and then frozen. It took five days to hike from the coast up to the icecap, followed by 14 days for the icecap traverse. During blizzards it was not possible see anything except for the end of their skis. Beating the monotony of this extreme environment took immense mental will power.
Those 14 days on the top were extremely monotonous. There is no life, no forms. When there was snow we tried to find a point to follow it: a cloud or a form of snow. The situation was much worse when there was whiteout. The visibility and contrast are severely reduced by snow, cloud, fog or blizzard. The horizon touches the ground, the eyes become tired very quickly and it’s impossible to estimate distance. There is no shade, edges, nothing to look at. Days with whiteout were mentally the worst. Rafał Król.
In his most recent expedition Rafał Król traded in the cold for the tropical heat of Haiti to document the effect on remote communities a year after the devastating earthquake. This journey, made along with photographer Paweł Łączny, followed the coast from the Dominican Republic to the Haitian capital Port au Prince.
Rafał Król Interview
We asked Rafał Król to tell us about his adventure career and what it takes to become a professional explorer…
CheapTents: What inspired you to become an explorer?
Rafał Król: If I said anything did it would be a lie. When I was 4 years old I had no plans of becoming anything like ‘a fireman or a soldier’. In my case it has been more like a process powered by each and every life decision and each and every trip. Suddenly, while you are doing your bit, raising funds and realising your plans, it turns out that from the perspective of others you already are an explorer and not, for instance, a fireman. The moment I started to think independently it dawned on me I had no intention of spending my life behind a desk and particularly I did not want to do same things 8 hours a day Monday to Friday all my life from the age of 25 to 65. Expeditions require an amazing synthesis of skills from navigation, psychology, foreign languages, geography to astronomy and materials science. This is what I very much enjoy.
CheapTents: What has been your biggest achievement?
Rafał Król: The fact that I am still alive. It is only partly a joke. For instance during my first winter traverse of Iceland through the Vatnajökull glacier we experienced the worst frost that had been there in 80 years; temperatures fell to –70 °C. Then it got warmer but a hurricane came with a speed of 200 km/h and stayed 36 hours. The shovel with which we wanted build an embankment around the tent simply flew away. My partner ended up with frostbite to several fingers. As soon as we descended the glacier (and it is the largest glacier on Earth outside the polar circles) the Icelandic rescue team took my colleague to hospital and I was left half way there, alone in the middle of nowhere. I bet I have better film script ideas than those of “127 Hours” or “Into the Wild”.
But seriously speaking my achievement is that I have created a system of training and courses for those who want to travel and explore. I may be one of only a few people in Europe who can prepare you for a polar expedition or other form of adventure. This year a participant of one of my courses made an ascent to Broad Peak. It may not seem much but out of his team he was the only one to make it to the top. And he is 54 years old… so it works! And I love it when young ambitious people come to my courses and I can share with them my knowledge and experience, so long as I am alive.
CheapTents: What is you biggest weakness?
Rafał Król: The fact that sometimes I do not know how to say ‘no’ to people. Then it turns out I have no time left for myself, not even to play the guitar, and I love to play my guitar.
CheapTents: What do you find most challenging about training?
Rafał Król: Perseverance I think. Training sessions must be REGULAR. They don’t have to be particularly forceful but you must train consistently. Paradoxically, before polar expeditions not only do you have to increase your fitness but also you need to put on as much weight as possible.
CheapTents: What has been your worst injury whilst on an expedition and how did it happen?
Rafał Król: The worst was dislocating my shoulder while exploring one mysterious mountain in Mongolia called Otgontenger. For full account of the accident go to Mongolia 2009 – Otgontenger. [Please note that this page is in Polish, however it can be read by opening it in Google Chrome which will perform a rudimentary translation.]
CheapTents: How do you assess and manage risks before and during an expedition?
Rafał Król: This is a very good question. Hardly anyone asks it although it is fundamental. First of all you need to assess external risks (like weather, terrain and other factors). Also you need to know your own capabilities both physical and technical, and your equipment. He who does not know his limitations perishes quickly. This is not a computer game with a bonus life. Generally, I gather information and do my research before an expedition. In my opinion if an accident happens during an expedition in 95% of cases the mistake was made BEFORE setting off.
CheapTents: You have explored cold Arctic regions and also the hot jungle of Haiti. Which is your favourite type of environment?
Rafał Król: The cold one, definitely. The risk is easier to foresee. The only danger comes from polar bears, cracks in the iceberg and cold. Exploring tropical parts like Haiti entails bacteria, creepy crawlies, hostile locals and whole regions affected by cholera epidemic. You can prepare for almost anything but human factor is always a lottery. For instance, when we finished our expedition in Haiti the bus dropped us off in the district called Cité Soleil (Sun City) which is a suburb of Port-au-Prince and one of the most dangerous places on Earth. We managed to leave there quickly. A week later some American tourists got shot exactly there. You can’t get prepared for something like that.
CheapTents: What plans do you have for expeditions in the future?
Rafał Król: It looks like in April 2012 I’ll be doing a very difficult solo expedition to Spitsbergen. In July I would like to finally make an expedition to the Putorana Mountains in Russia but the Russian authorities do all they can to make it impossible for me to leave Norilsk. I’m just approaching the second anniversary of this bureaucratic battle.
CheapTents: For other people who want to explore, what tips can you provide to help them on their journey?
- Know your capabilities (physical and mental)
- Get prepared BEFORE an expedition (on the internet you can find – well – almost all you need to know)
- Learn from the elder and more experienced. Acquire new skills but only REALISTIC ones. And don’t just read about things on the internet – leave home! A week of outdoor practice equals 3 months of reading 😉
In other words – join my courses!
CheapTents: What are your favourite bits of gear, and why?
Rafał Król: The favourite gear seems to be that which is always near or that which in a special way brings comfort and safety. I have special feelings for the expedition tents, small climbing rucksacks which I take everywhere, and my favourite fleece jacket, the Berghaus Scorch Mid Loft Jacket.
CheapTents: Any people or sponsors that you’d like thank?
Rafał Król: It feels right to thank Berghaus for supporting me with their products and implementing my comments in their new designs. I also want to thank my friends who forever support and wait for me.
CheapTents: Anything else you would like to say?
Rafał Król: My best wishes to all who read this. May you always follow your own path. Do what you feel is right for you. Listen to yourself not to others. And don’t waste your time, live!
If you want to ask me anything go to www.expeditions.pl
Thank you Rafał for taking the time time answer our questions.
Rafał Król Expeditions
- 2011 Haiti
- 2009 Grenland Traverse
- 2009 Mongolia
- 2008 Lemmenjoki
- 2008 Zimowy Trawers Island
- 2007 Kampire Dior
- 2007 Turcja – Ararat, Erciyes
- 2006 Laponia
- 2002 Kamchatka
- 2001 Spitsbergen
If you enjoyed this interview, why not read some of our interviews with other explorers?