Leading from the front

With trekking from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole just one of his daring exploits, Julian Thomas reveals exactly what adventure means to him

Between 25 November 2014 and 9 January 2015, having already conquered Mont Blanc and Gran Paradiso, Julian trekked from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, becoming one of only 300 people to have made the journey without mechanical or wind assistance since Roald Amundsen (1911) and Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1912), who became the first to achieve the feat. In April 2017, he went to the other extreme, running 156 miles across the Sahara Desert in the gruelling Marathon des Sables. Here, he discusses what adventure means to him and how it informs the Wellington ethos.

When did you first develop an interest in adventure?

For me, it started as a child with the Ladybird Adventure Book: Captain Scott. I had that book by my bed for many years. I was fascinated by Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and the great polar explorers of the Victorian age. As a child, I loved the outdoors, I played a lot of sport and loved to walk and run long distances. I dreamt of one day taking on that polar challenge myself but then, as so often happens, along came the realities of adulthood and the great adventures I had planned somehow morphed into ‘something that somebody else does’. I never lost my love of the outdoors, though, and over the years, without making a conscious decision, I developed a great passion for extreme challenges.

The nudge that finally pushed me back towards my childhood dream was the desire to raise money for Bliss – the charity which supports premature babies and their parents. I had seen at close hand the incredible work they had done to support two of my closest friends and their children: both born prematurely and in danger of losing their lives. I wanted to put something back. Thus, the expedition I had first planned 36 years ago as a 12-year-old was resurrected and, after two years of planning and preparation, I set off for Antarctica in early November 2014.

What motivates you to find new challenges? 

People often say to me, “You don’t seem to be scared.” That is not the case – I am scared. But part of the challenge, part of the joy, is to take yourself out of your comfort zone, to face your fears and then to conquer them. In Antarctica, we faced brutal conditions – temperatures are unimaginably low, the chill can pierce your clothes and your skin, so that the cold envelopes your bones and you feel cold from the inside out. Yet, when I reflect on my experiences there, I don’t think of the hardship, only the adventure and the excitement. Reaching the South Pole was unforgettable – there was no sense of anti-climax, just pure elation, and a feeling of contentment that remains with me to this day. So, there is the thrill of conquering your fears, and then there is the thrill of experiencing something new and the privilege of witnessing something few people have seen. Antarctica is stunning: a fragile continent of ice, snow, rock and little else. Its simplicity is beautiful. 

Having experienced the conditions in the South Pole, the Marathon des Sables seemed, to me, a logical next step. Temperatures in Antarctica can fall as low as minus 50 degrees; in the Sahara, they often climb above 50 – I wanted to test myself in both extremes. Once such an idea is planted, the key thing is to commit – and that can mean anything from booking the flight, to paying an entry fee, or hiring a guide. When you commit, everything else falls into place. 

How have your experiences shaped your approach to leadership and education? 

I have a great belief in the power of challenge in developing leadership, teamwork and responsibility. None of my endeavours would have been possible without effective collaboration – and it really comes down to emotional intelligence. Developing emotional intelligence is something I make a priority at Wellington; we encourage all students to appreciate the immense power of kindness and empathy, and these qualities shape our approach to leadership.

The spirit of adventure is strong at Wellington College. It is a very energising place to work – for both staff and students. Our ‘Inspire’ lecture series features tales from a colleague who mushed through the Yukon, and talks from mountaineers, Channel swimmers and marathon runners, all of whom happen to teach at the College. Staff lead by example and, in doing so, help to foster a culture that prizes adventure. We are fortunate to have 400 acres of parkland to explore and in which to embrace adventure and challenge. In the Lent term, ‘The Kingsleys’ sees 1,000 enthusiastic students and staff taking part in a mass run through the College grounds, culminating in a plunge through Swan Lake; in the summer term, hundreds of Wellingtonians dive into the icy waters of the outdoor pool in the ‘Maniacs’ Competition. 

Of course, the adventures continue beyond the College gates. The Marines section of the CCF recently visited Norway, and experienced snow-holing and cross-country skiing. I love the fact that nothing is done by halves at Wellington: Gold Award candidates on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme head to Knoydart, a peninsular off the West Coast of Scotland, accessible only by a four-day walk and boat trip and dubbed the remotest place in mainland Britain. Meanwhile, the Open Water Swimmers cross the Channel every year in relay. 

So strong is our commitment to outdoor adventure and leadership, that we are in the process of looking for a site for our Hougoumont Project, which will provide opportunities for Third Form students to spend an extended period away from school in relative isolation, supported by an appropriate curriculum, to develop life skills of resilience, self-reliance, confidence, leadership and independence. I guess you could say that adventure and extreme challenges are part of the Wellington DNA. 

Julian Thomas is the 14th Master of Wellington College

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