23. Paul Rose: At the front line of exploration and adventure

Sue Stockdale talks to Paul Rose about his life at the front line of exploration, and finds out about some of the skills he has learned in the world’s most extreme environments that help him navigate modern life. Paul was the Base Commander of Rothera Research Station, Antarctica, for the British Antarctic Survey for ten years and was awarded  HM The Queen’s Polar Medal.

Paul Rose is one of the world’s most experienced science expedition leaders. He helps scientists unlock and communicate global mysteries in the most remote and challenging regions of the planet. Former Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, Paul is Expedition Leader for the  National Geographic Pristine Seas Expeditions The Royal Geographical Society has awarded Paul the Ness Award and the Founders Gold Medal. 

In addition, as a broadcaster, published author and journalist, Rose presents BBC television programmes on current affairs, science and the environment. He is Ambassador for the UN Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions  For his work with NASA and the Mars Lander project on Mt Erebus, Antarctica, he was awarded the US Polar Medal.   A mountain in Antarctica is named after him.  For more info on Paul see his website. 

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Paul Rose

Paul Rose transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] Today on Access to inspiration I’m talking to Paul Rose described as a man at the forefront of exploration and one of the world’s most experienced divers, field science and polar experts who spent 10 years as base commander of Rothera research station in Antarctica. I’m intrigued to discover his life of adventure. Paul, welcome to the podcast.

Paul: [00:00:25] It’s great to be here. Thank you, sue.

Sue: [00:00:27] Now with all your varied background, you’re now a TV presenter. You’re an expedition leader, you’ve been a polar explorer, and a professional diver. What is it that is your most favorite thing to do?

Paul: [00:00:41] For me, it’s having that sense of colour in my life, so if I’ve just  been at sea rolling around in heavy conditions, cramped spaces, lots of noise, full on for weeks at sea. Then for me, it’s getting back somewhere that’s dry, warm, and not [00:01:00] moving, or if I’ve been in a hot place working in the desert or something, then I’ll do anything to get up into a cold place. So I have this complete circle going all of the time. For instance, you know, working in Greenland, working in Antarctica, obviously it’s cold.

Obviously things are hard work on a small expedition just to make a cup of tea. You’ve got to go out and chip out some snow and ice and melt it in a pot and boil it. And finally you get this glorious cup of tea. You can sit back in the tent and begin to live. Oh what a thing it is to come home from those expeditions, get on the train and have this guy walking down the middle of the train and say, would you like a cup of tea? So for me, it’s the variation of color in life, but it drives me.

Sue: [00:01:50] I imagine that all of these experiences that you have had in your life all, have an element of remoteness to them. You can’t get much further [00:02:00] extreme than Antarctica, What are you like when you’re in a built up city with no grass, skyscrapers, thousands of people around you? How do you feel being in that sort of environment?

Paul: [00:02:11] Normally I am lost. I do well in, in flat open spaces or underwater or featureless environment. But I get lost in cities. It’s often Joelle who gets me on the right direction. And another thing that happens to be in cities is I’m always wearing the wrong clothes. On an expedition, you’re always wearing the right clothes for that moment. Something you have used for many years you know exactly how it works. You look at the conditions at sea underwater on the ice, you know exactly what to wear, but then in a city, maybe I’ve got a meeting. And I’m wearing my very best suit and my sharp shoes and looking fantastic as best I can. But guess what? It’s minus five outside [00:03:00] and then you are hopping amongst puddles and slushy snow in your expensive shoes. So you look smart in this meeting for 20 minutes. So I’m often lost when you find me the city, I’ve lost and wearing the wrong clothes.

Sue: [00:03:15] I’m imagining that you’re wishing to get back out into the wilds again.

Paul: [00:03:18] Exactly. Cause it’s so much simpler. I suppose the noise and the sorts of claustrophobia of, of urban life, it’s the simple things I like, you know, polar regions tend to be white, blue or black, and there’s not many features. And similarly at sea,  out on the open sea it’s a very simple perspective. And that’s the thing that gives me. A sense of freedom and opportunity and peace.

Sue: [00:03:45] So tell us what, what’s it like? I mean, spending 10 years as base commander down there in Antarctica, I’m sure people might think that’s a prison sentence. What were some of the highlights from my experience for you?

Paul: [00:03:59] Well, the highlights are [00:04:00] working with amazing people because you know, scientists need a lot of support staff. And approximately it’s about three support staff to one scientist that seems to be in a sort of a universal number that really hasn’t changed because scientists need pilots, boat drivers, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, dentists, doctors, cooks, and support people of all kinds. And being an Antarctica, being the base commander with this team of a hundred plus people. Absolutely everybody is focused on the message. And brilliant. There’s a wonderful thing about that is it’s just great. I would walk around the base sometimes, you know, head trying to deliver this extensive ambitious polar program at the end of the world’s longest supply chain and worrying almost about how it was going day to day, but being with that group of people is [00:05:00] amazing. And that’s always been the highlight for me.

Sue: [00:05:03] So the clarity of purpose and the simplicity of, I suppose the surroundings and then the human element seems like it’s a heady mix for you

Paul: [00:05:12] have that clarity of purpose, is a big thing for me. I’m very good at shutting out noise and other priorities and focusing on the main single aim because that’s how we lead expeditions. We have one suitable aim. And a careful ranking of supporting objectives. So it’s a very important, at key times to close off those supporting objectives and get back to the main aim.  Is every decision I make going to get this part of the ocean protected is every decision I make going to get me across Greenland  those kinds of thoughts. So I, I’ve developed that a talent and a love for closing off, focusing on the single aim that matters.

Sue: [00:05:59] Well, that [00:06:00] sounds like it’s a really important thing, and particularly at this moment in the world when everybody’s got an increased level of uncertainty in what they’re doing, what tip would you give to people just now to help them based on your own experience?

Paul: [00:06:18] There’s something about being useful. My job description is an expedition leader, so I’m typically out, I’m not very good at just being.  So even for me, it’s just going back to basics of being useful when, when you’re stuck in a tent in a bad storm and the storm last, say a week or 10 days, and it’s just you and another person in a small tent, you’ve got to be useful.

So you may be out shoveling some snow. Nip out again to check the guys to make sure that the tents ok. Have a quick look at the weather and all of your equipment to make sure it’s all right. Get back in think well in in a half an hour I’ll start making some [00:07:00] tea and in an hour I’ll make some cakes or something.

Do anything to be useful. Radio back to the base at the right time and try and do useful things. Repair some equipment that may be has come onto it. So at home here I’m, I’m being useful, I’m keeping fit. I bought another guitar, so I’m trying to remember all the things that I can hear myself play, but I’ve forgotten how to play them . Cooking more, doing anything that feels useful and building in interstitial fitness, everything I do, I’m trying to do on the bike or by walking or running. And I promised myself that when I go into the office, I do 10 pull ups on the pull up bar that’s now by the door. So there’s a sense of being useful, and that’s the one single word that always remembers a sense of usefulness in what you’re doing. And the other thing is just allow it to happen. We can’t control at the [00:08:00] moment exactly what’s happening with COVID-19 and you can’t control an enormous storm at sea. But what you can do is control what’s happening on your boat or a big polar storm. You can’t control what’s happening in your tent and how you are looking after yourself feeding and drinking and things about this. So there is a sense of separating the things that you can’t control to those that you can.

Sue: [00:08:28] I would say another facet that we’ve seen, certainly on the television programs you’ve presented, Paul, and even talking to you today, is your really strong sense of optimism and an upbeat energy. Where does that come from?

Paul: [00:08:42] Quite sure. I’ve always been an optimist. I think if we really looked at it, we would say that, cause I don’t have a lot of talent. I make things happen by often a sheer force of will. People say that  the Paul [00:09:00] quite a good leader, because he gets his head down and runs at it. So why dont I just follow him. So I’ve always been optimistic. What I’ve realized that I’m trying for something that I’m not sure I can do. I’ve often given myself a talking to. I’m sure I can do it, whether it’s a rock climb, skiing across Greenland a big expedition, putting something complicated together. I’ve always accepted that you don’t need to know everything to make it happen. You could know maybe half of it and then hope the rest will just flow as you go into it. So I think of boats, if you go around the British coast and a lot of fabulous boats that are absolutely perfect. Absolutely. They’ve got all the best electronics that got best at best insurance out of the most fabulous boats, but they’re never doing any big journeys.

They’re just there because maybe the owner wants to do one more little bit to make it a bit more perfect, you know? So you don’t have to be a hundred percent ready to make great things [00:10:00] happen. So I loved that as a kid because all of a sudden useless. So I could still make things happen as useless as I was. So that gave me optimism.

Sue: [00:10:10] So tell us about Paul Rose as a youngster then. What was life like for you? Were you always wanting to be an adventurer?

Paul: [00:10:16] I have always been happy and had good mates and everything, but the main thing I wanted to be was out of school. I couldn’t do school. I didn’t like it. And along with a few of my mates, we were in a race to the bottom. Really just couldn’t do it and I couldn’t  understand books. I couldn’t learn from the books. therefore, I got angry. I didn’t like the teachers. And then me and my supportive little group of useless mates, we, we all ganged up, but we were those terrible kids. So just all I wanted to do is be out and with no imagination at all. I can still remember. That overheated Victorian radiator next to me giving off that paint, that hot paint smell. And all I wanted to do is be [00:11:00] out. I was good at being out of school. I was good at sports, but I could not be in that classroom. And at the same time on television was Jacques Cousteau, Hans and Lotte Hass, great diving adventures. And so just after that was Mike Nelson in his Sea Hunt television series, and mike was a fictional character, but he was having amazing, amazing adventures. Water. He was rescuing pilots from crashed airplanes and men from flooding mines. All the beautiful women wanted much for what you might to teach him to dive. And I thought, that’s for me. I’m going to walk down the beach with an enormous shark, scar on my chest, a diving knife. All the women are going to come to me. No school. That’s, so even at 11 I knew I wanted to be a diver but had no idea how to get there. Wasn’t in the family, but yeah, that was the thing that kept me going. Dreaming of being a diver, which was a bit like flying to the moon.

Sue: [00:11:59] So those television programs, they give you inspiration and they gave you a sense of direction?

Paul: [00:12:04] Oh, definitely. Yes, absolutely. And it looked easy. Jacques Cousteau wasn’t talking much about science. In fact, in those days he was blowing up reefs to get the Calypso into the reef. He wasn’t talking much about conservation. He was just underwater where these great team of men. Hans and Lotte Hass  were working on underwater with cameras and they were a great couple at working underwater. And Mike Nelson made it easy and at the end of his show, sit in the cockpit of his boats and he would give us a little lesson and say, you know. You be careful out there in the seats, a dangerous place for all I know. He was saying, now listen, Paul Rose, you be careful. I was convinced he was talking to me. I was completely hooked.

Sue: [00:12:51] So how did you get from that inspiration on the television, disliking of school to becoming a professional diver?

Paul: [00:12:59] What [00:13:00] I was 11 quite naturally. I failed the 11 plus. In those days, you could take the test again at 13 and 13. Plus. I failed that. I think I was the only one that failed the thing  and was on a steep decline in secondary school until our geography teacher, Mr. Gray too us to the Brecon beacons, I was 14. I fell in love with the whole idea of being out in the mountains.

We stayed at the Merthyn Tydfil youth hostel. We walked every day. I found it easy to work with a map and compass. I had no idea I was doing trigonometry or even mathematics come to think of it,but I had a feel for it and I had a feel for good, safe routes and descents. I was great in the water, the whole thing of communal living in youth hostel appealed to me, and I still remember those days of peeling potatoes into a bucket on the step of youth hostel in the rain thinking, wow. This is for me. And the days high on the Hills when Mr. Gray [00:14:00] was praising me, say, well, you’re doing great. And I, I was far too stupidly proud to ever thank him or react properly to that, but I did enjoy it and also enjoyed some of the kids at school, who were cruising school and passing all the exams. And I was happy to see them having an absolutely terrible time in the bad weather in Wales. So it did me good. I was succeeding at something.

Sue: [00:14:24] You also, you’ve also given me a sense of that illustration of your feeling of usefulness.

Paul: [00:14:30] I was there. I was in my place, you know, doing good, got back to school with the energy of having a great period in Wales and   in those days you could leave with your passed something. So I managed to pass metal work O level and that remains my highest academic qualification today. I’m very proud of it. So then I could leave. I’ve got an apprenticeship for  Ford motor company as a toolmaker. I loved every minute of it. I was earning money, [00:15:00] learning from great people, and there not only was there a group that were climbing and doing all these other great things, there was a diving club. I learned to dive, at the Ilford  British Sub Aqua club and I doubled up the classes  at Walthamstow so I could do two classes at the same time, pass out quicker. And I finally in 1969, Easter 1969 I was down at Portland Bill for my first ever dive, and I’m even now after a lifetime diving around the world in most remarkable places where people ask me, what’s my favorite place to dive? I always say, Chesil Cove at Portland.

Sue: [00:15:41] From what you’re telling us, Paul, it seems like curiosity and observation are two critical skills that you have had to have for your career. I’m wondering what are the other characteristics that [00:16:00] you’ve been able to bring to your life as a expedition leader?

Paul: [00:16:07] I like to simplify things, And there’s something about meeting scientists, a team of scientists or individual scientists with a very complex, risky hypothesis, a science plan that is basically, sometimes it’s a set of equations or some ideas or a big pile of old science papers and turning that into icebreakers and helicopters and divers and climbers and boats and making it work in the field. I love that. I really liked to get that and make it work, and it’s the same parts of my brain that enables me to deliver science projects. It’s the same as presenting television cause I’ll meet all kinds of fabulous people, leading brilliant lives that I aspire to. But we’ve only got maybe one [00:17:00] minute 30 so that little section on the television. So I’m thinking to myself as I’m walking along with them, Holy smokes, how can we take this brilliant piece of work and reduce it into one minute 30 while we’re walking through a wood or something? So it turns out I’ve got quite a good talent for that. So I like that. So it’s my strive for a simple well-focused life. Seems to come from that, that I can take a complex thing and I enjoy the challenge of turning it into something that’s simple to understand or deliverable practically with your work.

Sue: [00:17:48] Thinking about today’s world, the environment is quite a different place, I’m sure, than what it was in 1969 [00:18:00] what differences do you see today and what do we as society need to do, do you think?

Paul: [00:18:06] The biggest difference I think between  the early years and now is we have lost our contact with nature. We have a very strange relationship with nature. It seems. I keep getting the sense that people feel we are not part of nature. We carry on with our lives, our urban lives, where it could be completely remote from natural effects. You can eat any food you like at any season. You’re always at the right place. You can just cruise along, have happy life and nature takes care of itself. With this recent crisis, it was brought to life that we have. We’ve got a very disruptive relationship with nature. We need to get it back. And I’m optimistic, no surprise that this will be the sort of springboard for a better relationship because the only real longterm vaccine against future pandemics is to protect our [00:19:00] biodiversity.

And unless we do, we’re going to fall into another one. So this is an optimistic period for me, as hard as it is to say. So yes, in my life, I’ve seen a change in the way we accept nature. I’ve seen a lot more understanding. Who’s at a certain, such a level of awareness. I mean, I could go into any school and the children know about climate change, plastic pollution over fishing, young ones really get it. There’s such a high level of awareness but now we’re in a new phase and that phase is all about taking action. And I think that smart leaders, smart influences and smart businesses are going to use this moment in history to regenerate our relationship with nature protects us from the future.

Sue: [00:19:51] So it’s about how we integrate the two things together rather than having them disparate?

Paul: [00:19:58] we need nature. It doesn’t need us.

Sue: [00:20:03] Well that’s true. So in the, the situation when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in one of those remote parts of the world, I’m imagining a lot of the time you are alone, even though you’re part of a team, what goes through your head?

Paul: [00:20:41] I just keep myself together by being focused on the single aim. Sometimes if I’m with a small team, you know, guiding the team across groups or guiding in the mountains, or at the moment we’re moving all of the expedition plans, jogging it back one year or maybe even two years. So it’s a sense of keeping on the [00:21:00] mission, keeping on that single line. That’s how I keep myself together and also keep myself together by being physically active.

I’m really good  at what I call sort of secret exercise. So if if we’re at sea and we’re moving around with lots going on on the expedition boat, three or four dives a day, it’s all action. Then when I’m up and moving around the ship at various places, I’ll have a key spot where I’ll do sit ups. I’ll have another spot where I do my pull-ups, another spot where I do pushups, another spot where I pick up some weights, and as I move around the ship, I do that sort of secret exercise. There’s lots of people that have worked at me that know that it’s a good idea to have some secret exercise, and that’s what I’m doing here at the moment, stuck at home. So I keep myself together by having a simple challenge, like a piece of music or reading something inspirational, or that little bit of exercise goes a long way.

Sue: [00:22:02] So what would you say to our listeners who may be listening to your story Paul, and wanting to be doing something more adventurous themselves?

Paul: [00:22:10] I would you use the great HW Tillman line,  put your boots on and go. People used to write to Tillman and ask him was, you’ve just come back from Patagonia. Fantastic. Or you’ve just started gradually. Can we join the boat? Can we do this? How do we do these things? And in the end, he made at least two postcards and it just printed on it said , put your boots on and go. And I, I sometimes paraphrase that and say, the best thing to do is get going. Don’t be the person with the beautiful boat tied to the dock that isn’t quite perfect.

Don’t be that person that has all the world’s best equipment from the outdoor shops. And yet it never really goes by far. You better off going and take the risk and just go. You know, call in sick for work, disappear, go and do it. But here we are stuck [00:23:00] a week. We can’t go out there and go. So I would say, use this time to discover a purpose and whatever purpose that might be, and follow it to your heart and accept the risks.

It might be financial risks, it could be reputational risk. But there’s something in you that drives you to do this, and when you found that focus, don’t take your eyes off it and make it happen.

Sue: [00:23:30] Wow. I’m sure that’s motivated our listeners to get going. Paul, it’s been fantastic to speak to you today. How can people find out more about you and your adventures and projects?

Paul: [00:23:38] Yes. I’ve got an active website, which is Paul rose.org. I’m very busy on social media, but most of us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. So yes. So it’d be great to see you there.