Polar Expeditions and Writing with Ash Routen

Travelling Lines Adventure Careers, Guests and Interviews

This week’s interview is with Ash Routen – an outdoor writer, adventurer and scientist. Ash specialises in cold expeditions and writing about extreme adventure news. That’s a bit of an over simplification – but I’ll let him explain!

Read this article if:

  • you’re interested in cold or polar expeditions
  • you want to get great advice about getting into outdoor writing
  • you want to see an example of mixing a 9-5 and adventure

Or if you just like hearing stories about other people making careers in the adventure world. Might give you some inspirations! Anyway, that’s all from me – I’ll let Ash take over for the rest of this post!

What do you do?

I’m a public health scientist and I work in a university research department, based in a hospital in Leicester. It’s a diabetes research centre, so we spend our time developing community interventions to prevent or manage type 2 diabetes. My specialism is physical activity.

I spend a lot of my time in front of a computer writing scientific journal articles, presentations, funding bids etc. It’s that decade or so of solid practice writing day-in day-out that I’ve leveraged to try to make a side-line career as an outdoor and adventure writer.

So, working in research is my 9 to 5, that’s what keeps me going and pays the bills. Outside of that, for the past 2 years, I’ve been writing about the outdoors. I started writing articles for outdoor websites for fun in summer 2017, and then latterly I’ve been earning a bit of pocket money writing mostly about expedition and adventure news.

That involves reporting on polar, desert, ocean row, high altitude mountaineering news for a variety of outlets. That’s where my core interest lies, but I also do book and gear reviews and write about hill walking as well. I’m still a baby in the writing game but, in time I hope to learn and progress. We’ll see!

How did you get here?

I guess the best way to tell the story is this: the outdoor and adventure writing was born out of getting a bit more serious about adventure and going off on my own expeditions. Growing up I’ve always been active. I’d been in the Scouts, done DofE, hill walking with my Dad, and rock climbing at University. Then most of my twenties I was doing a fair bit of mountain walking.

But it was the tail end of 2015 that things changes. My girlfriend at the time bought me a book about Douglas Mawson who was an Australian polar explorer. About 1912 he was down in Antarctica, primarily doing scientific mapping, and he had a hell of a time on a sled hauling expedition. Both his mates died; he had to eat his sled dogs. He had a real tough time and oddly there was something in that that I identified with (weird I know). It awoke long-held teenage dreams of going on an expedition to the high latitudes of our planet and high mountains.

Polar Expeditions and Writing

So from that point, I booked on a polar training course in Norway and loved it. At the same time I started writing about it. Now I’ve subsequently gone on to do my own small independent expeditions. Going on an Arctic trip isn’t a run of the mill sort of thing, so I wanted to make sense of what I was doing and share it. I just seemed to enjoy writing and as I enjoyed it I came up with a few ideas of what else I could write about with regards to the outdoors.

That was when I pitched – just cold pitched – to Dan Bailey at UK Hillwalking. Well in fact I submitted a couple of pitches and he was kind enough to publish them. That was summer of 2017 and they were my first pieces of outdoor writing in an established outlet. And it went from there…

One of Ash’s first articles

I got work with Explorers Web (we like to say it’s the number one global and expedition news site) and suddenly I had access to world class adventurers in the polar, desert, ocean and mountain environment. That experience gave me quite a lot more confidence to pitch to more established outlets. In the US I got a piece in Outside and then in Rock and Ice, in the UK, UK Climbing, and then it snowballed from there. I looked at other places like national newspapers or magazines such as Trek and Mountain, Adventure Travel, Red Bull and it just seems to have gathered steam from there.

I’ve been fairly persistent and I guess relatively bold. I’ve sent out a lot of cold pitches, and asked for interviews with some pretty interesting and well regarded outdoor folks. In some cases it’s worked out and in some cases it hasn’t. Don’t dwell on the rejections I found. I learnt that from academia, which is a pretty harsh environment is when it comes to critical feedback.

Did you always intend to make your work related to adventure and outdoors?

I think this has been answered to some extent in the previous question. No: I’d gone to university and trained in Sport and Exercise Science. After that I started crafting a career in academia and spent 10 years or so working towards it. But really, in the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to do something related to the outdoors and expeditions. You know, serious adventure: go on remote expeditions and write about expeditions.

I’ve always been really interested in the limits of human performance both mentally and physically. There’s nothing like an expedition to stretch those. Thankfully I seem to have somehow fallen into this world and gone on my own small trips and started finding my own limits. I’m also meeting, interviewing, writing about and talking to really interesting people in that area. So although I didn’t intend to start out like that, I’m really grateful that somehow I’ve managed to get some work and have the opportunity to be in the outdoor industry a little more.

Funding Adventures

All of my adventures, which are very modest as standards go (mainly glorified holidays in my eyes), are self-funded. I haven’t received any money from sponsors or the like. I’m lucky in that my day to day job gives me a reasonable amount of disposable income. Also, I don’t have a partner, dependants, or children. So I can think, “I might just go and spend £250 or £300 (or much more!) on that down jacket”.

But also the outdoor and adventure writing has helped to supplement that income and pay for trips. It means I don’t feel too guilty about buying a big piece of equipment. But I can also leverage the ability to review and write about equipment. This has meant that I’ve had quite a lot of equipment given to me. Remember with that, of course, that nothing is free. I take the responsibility of giving return on investment to sponsors seriously – and to companies who give you equipment to review for outdoor magazines.

What advice do you have for someone trying to mix adventure with a career?

I’ll answer in relation to writing. The first thing is: you have to be aware that it’s a hard slog. You’re not going to be paid for it initially, so you’re going to have to do your 9-5 and write in the evenings, weekends and early mornings. So you have to have a bit of love for it and dedicate your free time to progressing until – or if ever – you are able to make it your career if that’s what you want to do. I haven’t managed that yet.

Secondly, find someone that is in the industry and seek their advice on how to write a pitch, approach interviewees, what stories sell etc. I didn’t do any of that and have learnt as I’ve gone along, but it would have no doubt improved my success rate if I had. As well as finding individuals you can join organisations such as the Outdoor Writers and Photographer’s Guild who have an awful lot of experienced folk who can offer advice and mentorship. They also help spread the word about your latest articles etc.

Thirdly don’t be afraid to reach out and ask people for interviews. Don’t worry about getting rejected or concern yourself whether they like your idea or not, or whether they think you are established enough as a writer, just do it and do it now. A great example from my personal experience is a small piece I wrote for UK Climbing from a telephone interview I’d done with Reinhold Messner.

Be Bold – Ask for What you Want

Many of your readers will know Reinhold Messner: he’s a hero to many. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the first guy to climb Everest solo and without oxygen. He’s someone who I really held in high esteem.

I’m interested in the limits of human performance and he’s someone who has really pushed those historically… and I thought, “You know, why not just email his secretary? Why not just reach out? He’s a human like the rest of us, let’s see if I can track this guy down.”

And just simply by asking, sending a one-off cold email. I got what I wanted: a phone call with him, and a subsequent article. Might not be the best piece, but it’s a start. If you had told me five years ago I’d have the chance to chat to him as well as so many other people who have done exceptional things I would have laughed in your face. So I guess, if you don’t ask you don’t get.

Finally, like any activity you need practice to progress. Reading brings ideas, and churning out regular words hones your craft. I’ve probably written 200k or so words for my day job over the years, and 1-2k a week for the last two years on outdoor stuff – and my grammar is still shocking and I’m often way too verbose, among many other weaknesses. I’ve got a great editor at ExplorersWeb who I’ve learnt a lot from. If you find someone like that hold on to that relationship because your writing will improve immeasurably.

How Should Readers Interested in Becoming an Outdoor Writer get Started?

I think the best place is to start writing for yourself or your friends and family. Short essays about some of your own trips is a great way to get started. Personal blogging is a little saturated so you could always post your words on Facebook, or sign up to a blog hosting site like Medium.

Most importantly write about a topic you are passionate about and have some expertise in, and keep on churning those words out and see what folks reaction is. If you get a bit of a readership going who give positive feedback, then it might be time to think about getting in touch with someone in the industry to think about a published piece. I caveat all of the above with the fact that I’m only a few years into giving this a go…

You might also like: How I Became an Outdoor Adventure Writer and Editor – with Alex Roddie

Or Going on Cold Expeditions?

Cold expeditions are not as technical as climbing or mountaineering, so you don’t need lots of skills. The main risk is cold injury and hypothermia. Apart from that it’s pretty damn safe, unless bears, open water or crevasses are involved, and even in those cases experienced folk mitigate those issues very well all the time. Unless you’re in the Canadian north in Winter don’t buy into the -60 degree temperatures, life threatening winds or other bluster you see related to cold trips. There are so many superb and knowledgeable folks from Norway, Canada and Russia etc who travel in these environments with the minimum of fuss.

There is, however, an awful lot to get your head around from camp craft to dressing correctly, skiing efficiently, food management, navigation, weather etc. But I think if you’re already experienced in winter climbing, ski touring or winter camping you might need not to upskill too much more to get started.

That said, I do think it is a good idea to go on a small training course. I went on a 6 day training course/mini-expedition in Norway. Really for me it was a case of taking all of my current skills (e.g camp craft, knowledge of navigation, nutrition etc.) and just transferring that into a hostile cold environment. From there I felt relatively confident to go out and do my own trips.

It is dependent on your prior experience, but there are now some very good polar guides running fairly short intense training courses. For those of us with some outdoor experience behind us, these can be a quick start to doing polar expeditions fairly quickly and independently post-training.

Or as a friend of mine often quips, “be lucky enough to be born Canadian or Norwegian!”

Hear More from Ash

You can find out more on my work and expeditions at www.ashrouten.com

I’m pretty active on social media. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter using the handle @ashrouten.

Sign up to my Newsletter for occasional updates on global adventure news and what I’ve been up to recently: https://mailchi.mp/be4a9dcdc0bb/ashroutenoutdoors