Thoughts from an ELT program graduate
I was 23, a post-graduate from university, and I had no idea what to do with my life. That’s not where this story began, but to save time it’s where we’ll start.
I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to continue to indulge my addiction to all things outdoors.
You see, at the age of eighteen I contracted a serious condition called the Travel Bug. I was vulnerable target for this parasite: I’d been in the Scouts, I’d completed the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, I was passionate about outdoor activities like hiking, sailing and climbing. The Bug wormed its way into my system in 2011, somewhere on the freezing upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. After that first mountaineering expedition I was infected – over the next years I begged, stole and borrowed (figuratively speaking) to send myself to far flung and unlikely places: Everest Base Camp in 2013; the Norwegian Arctic in 2014 and Borneo in 2015.
Expeditions seemed to be in my blood now. Every taste made me want more. I loved the challenge – felt happiest when I was uncomfortable in some way: wet; cold; tired; hungry; dirty. I loved engaging with cultures completely different to my own, and meeting new people whose lives seemed to belong to another world.
And so I was a post-graduate trying to find a job that actually interested me, with a bad case of the wanderlust and a big question – what on Earth am I going to do?
I wanted to go on expedition. I wanted to use my outdoor skillset, to do what I loved most and help other people to enjoy it too. Then – the lightbulb moment. What if I could go on expedition, but not as a tourist, or a mere participant? What if that could be my job? What would you call such a person? Some kind of… Expedition Leader?
Que the Google search: how to become an expedition leader. Behold, the power of internet marketing! One of the first recommendations was for Gapforce’s Expedition Leader Training course. And honestly, at first glance, it seemed too good to be true.
Accordingly, I did my homework. My research into the program and the alternatives concluded that this ELT course was the most intensive, comprehensive and best-value-for-money route into the expedition industry. Nothing of its scale and content was available in the UK, and to pursue all the qualifications, skills and experience laid out in the ELT by myself would take years and many more thousands of my scarce British pounds. What’s more, Gapforce assured me that it offered work to those who completed the course with a high grade.
And so I had a mission. But even when I was sure that program was right for me, it still felt like a huge leap of faith. Was I right for the program? Could I make a career out of it? I reminded myself that yes, I believed I was – and what other career could I imagine myself doing but this? I didn’t have an answer to that.
And so, one stormy day I arrived at the address of a remote bunkhouse in Snowdonia, Wales, equal parts nervous and excited to meet my fellow mad people and begin my transformation into an all-singing, all-dancing outdoorsman.
The rest, as they say, is history.
To fully describe my experiences of the ELT program would take many pages of writing, but I’ll do my best to do so in brief.
The briefest description would be this: it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. During the four and a half months of training and assessment I would travel further from home than ever before; live for weeks on end with the jungle canopy for a roof and ankle-deep mud for a floor; confront real danger; experience hardships that called for reserves of endurance I didn’t know I possessed; fought extreme fatigue and tropical illness and self-doubt.
Unfading memories come to mind when I think back to my time in the Jungle, like swimming a safety line across a rapid for a river crossing, or being woken at 4 in the morning by screaming as my instructors staged a very realistic ‘what to do if you encounter a machete-wielding maniac’ exercise, complete with fake blood… I recall the sense of solitude of days and nights alone in the forest with just my wits and skills to protect me. I remember the had-to-be-there hilarity of trying to make a fire shelter in torrential rain, laughing with my course mates as our campsite became an ankle-deep river… and the sheer excitement of standing before a cave entrance somewhere in Panama and being told in whispers by my indigenous guide that the scent we’re smelling is that of a Jaguar…
It was epic. It was exhausting. It was more rewarding than anything else I’ve ever done.
During the ELT program, my fellow trainees and I were put through our paces in mountain navigation; survival skills; presentation skills; risk assessment; wilderness first aid; water safety; cave rescue and more. But the most valuable thing I think the program has to offer is the chance to apply the skills you develop for real. During our time in Central America we had the opportunity to manage a Basic Jungle Survival program for another Gapforce adventure trip. What’s more, we went from pupils to instructors as we introduced the next wave of EL trainees to life in the rainforest. We even took a break from the jungle to travel to Nicaragua to reconnoitre our own mini expeditions in this colourful developing country. The combination of intense training and hands-on leadership experience was what made me feel truly like an expedition leader – someone who can handle anything that’s thrown at them.
To cut a long (and did I mention epic?) story short, I graduated from the ELT course in February 2018, at last earning myself the title of Professional Badass. Sorry, I meant to write, Expedition Leader. Since then, I’ve worked for Gapforce managing adventure programs in Peru and Ecuador, and more recently in Nepal for the Everest Base Camp Challenge. Expedition leadership requires hard work and commitment – on the job you have ultimate responsibility for the safety and satisfaction of your participants. You must culture an air of invincibility, even if it’s just an illusion – nothing can tire you; nothing can stress you; nothing can upset you. Every day brings a different challenge just as it brings new locations; new activities; new people. Recently, I’ve also taken on a new role with Gapforce in sales and promotion of our programs. I jumped at the opportunity as I’d taken that leap of faith with the ELT course, recognising that it would allow me to learn the ins and outs of the industry.
Whether you’re interested in a career in the adventure industry; want to gain impressive leadership skills to take into your own path in life; are training for the armed forces or just want to do something truly extraordinary, the Gapforce Expedition Leader Training is for the brave, the resilient and the dedicated.
So: you’re wondering whether you have what it takes, or maybe you’ve already decided that you do and want to know more about what lies ahead. Why not talk to someone who’s experienced it for themselves? The author of this article is available by email and phone to advise and discuss anything relating to the course from preparation tips to careers prospects to those gritty details that you just could not make up.
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