Yan, Liam, and I arrived in Quito on Friday the 28th of April after a long haul flight from Amsterdam. I'd travelled from Edinburgh, Liam from Glasgow and Yan from Bristol. The flight to Quito was almost empty and we stretched out in the middle row, each of us with a triple seat. Result!
Only 1 of our 6 check in bags had been lost and we'd been stung out of about £300 by KLM for excess weight. All in all, we took it as a win considering the amount of equipment we needed for the journey ahead. We knew we had a few days to wait in Quito for the lost bag, so we kept a level head, unlike an incredibly
rude Londoner who shouted expletives at the airport staff, thoroughly embarrassing himself and earning the 'British reputation.'
This was the end of 2 long years for me. 18 months ago I had transitioned into civilian life from the Marines to become a rope access technician like my brother Ben. During my last few months in the corps I had split up with my long-term girlfriend, someone who cared for me in a way I'd never experienced before, and this point in time was undoubtedly the most mentally challenging point in my life. My parents noticed that I wasn't coping very well, and dad came to me with the idea of an expedition that had not been attempted since he had dreamed it up, back in 1968.
To travel down the Amazon, following the rivers from the highest source; The place on Earth that is closest to the sun, the summit of Volcán Chimborazo. I latched on to this idea and it became my new relationship. I was completely devoted to this project, working on it for 4 hours every evening after work and gym had been finished. I regularly forgot to eat, I was so engrossed in: map building, website building, grant applications, sponsorship requests etc. I had more to plan in these two years than I had to do in nine years as a Royal Marine Commando. I knew that planning on such a scale affected my social life and recognized that I wasn't as attentive a friend or family member as I had been before. But everyone was supportive and once they recognized my commitment to the project, their support and understanding increased hugely. The Summit to Sea journey had begun. (Although it was initially called "The Road From Chimborazo."
As the two years progressed, I was fortunate enough to have my good friend Yan commit to 100% of the journey with me. Once I'd formulated the plan I sent him an email to which he promptly responded, "Yes!". Yan (Ian Roberts) and I had met as marines deployed in the Indian Ocean and had become good friends.
My brother Ben Bathgate (rope access) and Liam Schneider (doctor) committed to Stage 1, with Jake Morley (American paddler) committing to Stage 2. I was fortunate enough to meet Joy Fitzgerald (professional Scottish sailor) who arranged an interview for me with Chris Tiso (CO of Tiso Group LTD) who in turn chose to believe in me as a leader and believe in the expedition. He had previously arranged sponsorship for my dad during a mountaineering expedition in Turkey. There have always been close family ties due to my dad’s relationship with Chris's parents. Chris put the full weight of Tiso Group LTD behind us as an equipment sponsor. Through them and the hard work of Andrew Price, we had success with Berghaus, Scarpa, Grivel, Lorpen, MBC and Garmin. We'd be kitted out with the best possible equipment for the perilous journey ahead. Through my friend Malcolm Russell, we also had success with Insta360 who gave us four of their new X3 cameras with mounts and accessories. These innovative 360 cameras would give us the opportunity to get some very unique footage. Finally, I made an agreement with Moira Matheson (Edinburgh Uni Ecology student) She asked us to do sound recording throughout to expedition to monitor frogs. This gave us a worthwhile scientific goal, a purpose beyond just that of adventure. Our other goal was of course to raise money for charity. Yan and I chose three charities that were close to our hearts: Rainforest Concern, Royal Marines Charity and RV1UK.
With this success and many others the expedition dream began to become a reality. I'd made a plan, over 200 painstaking hours mapping the route on QGIS and by the end of that period, I knew it was possible. We had backing but we needed financial sponsorship. Our JustGiving page was doing well, but solely due to generous friends, it proved hard to get the message out beyond them. The grant applications that were replied to said no and many others disappeared into the ether. Finally, through Viki Mendelssohn I was advised to hold a fundraiser. We held an auction at the Royal Navy Club in Edinburgh and friends donated all sorts of gifts from Air BnB stays to chopping boards.
I gave a speech about the expedition, mum and Laura made food, dad and Hannah soled raffle tickets and we held the auction, brilliantly hosted by my school friends, George and Gavin. To finish off, Steve and Ara played us out until midnight with a great live performance. The response was astounding, we raised around £7000, the top item being a beautiful expedition painting, done by Kat. Yan and Cara then planned and held another auction in Exeter. Another great response from friends and family got us up to £10000 which meant we now felt we had enough to begin the expedition.
We conducted practise expeditions throughout the two years, bringing the team together on The Spey and The Tweed and also in Wales, Devon and Glen Etive. In March 2023, only a month before we were due to leave, the Captain Scott Society got in touch to say we had won in a grant application I'd sent to them a few months prior. This was a great bonus and Dad agreed to go down to the dinner in June to accept the award. We'd be out in South America by then.
By April 2023 I was utterly exhausted. The year before I felt like I was ill as often as I was well. The stress was manageable for me, mentally I was pretty good, but my body seemed to be rebelling, probably because I was suppressing background issues and doing too much. But it was all necessary work and I needed to act on all the motivation that I had in order to tie up all the loose ends prior to leaving.
I had a fair bit of anxiety when considering my own leadership. How would I navigate relationships whilst being on this trip with my brother and friends, how would they react to unpopular decisions. My plan was to be chilled and go with the flow, after all, we are all sensible and know what we're capable of within our skill sets. In hindsight, this worked out well enough despite some minor choices being discussed for far longer than was required to reach an adequate decision. Generally, it would turn out that all of us agreed on the best course of action, suggested by different team members in different scenarios, and it turned out that there was never a time when I felt the need to put my foot down. I decided that based on experience, Ben would take charge during climbing scenarios, Liam lead medical decisions, Jake had the final say on the water and Yan and I would share the decision making regarding everything else.
Worries aside, the expedition was a go. My entire life for two years had led towards this expedition and then suddenly the team and I were in Quito. Holy shit we're actually here!
Amazon Summit to Sea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzZc94qL_A4
Pre Expedition Training: