The lonely team
He had never skied before and his startup was still very young. Still, in May 2018, Thomas Tirtiaux decided to ski across Greenland with four other French entrepreneurs and a guide.
On May 1, 2018 we boarded a bus in Kangerlussuak that dropped us at the foot of the glacier on the west coast of Greenland, at the 67th parallel. Our goal was simple; to cross, in 30 days, the ice desert that separates us from the opposite coast. The challenge was another matter – for six months we had given up everything to prepare for this mythical expedition. For 30 days we would be 100 percent self reliant. There would be no-one to call if things got ugly, if we were feeling homesick or started fighting. It would be us, our skills as team players, our skis and our shelter at the outer edges of our comfort zones, in a white immensity of snow.
The sensation was very peculiar when we put our feet on the ice cap for the first time. On the one hand we all felt very excited, on the other perplexed. What had we gotten ourselves into?
Back home when I told people that I was taking a month off from work to cross a remote glacier covered island, most people looked at me as if I was absolutely crazy. When I added that I’m a founder of a young startup, the reaction was that I must be completely mad. Yet that is what Lucas Servant (Ignition Program), Maxime Lainé (Weesurf), Valentin Drouillard (Wape), Antoine Noel (Japet) and I decided, in August 2017, to do. We all had our personal reasons for taking on this challenge, but one thing we all shared was the desire to prove something to ourselves. The chance to really push ourselves to see if we had both the physical and mental resilience and the ability to remain team players even in the toughest moments, was our main collective motivation.
When putting together the team I was looking for people with determination, team spirit and depth of soul, all while having a taste for effort and risk. But those people also had to be entrepreneurs, I wanted to learn from them and share visions of entrepreneurship. The fact that we didn’t know each other from the start, was of course a risk. A bit like including a new member to a family after knowing that person for only a couple of months, or like introducing a new player on your football team mid-season. But the intense preparations made us get to know each other pretty fast.
Some of us started doing Yoga
There were quite a few challenges – like the fact that none of us had been crosscountry skiing before, and now we were taking on this 580 km trip. We hired Bernard Muller, one of the world’s most experienced guides, who had already successfully crossed Greenland twice. He developed a training program to make sure that we would be ready for all kinds of situations we could encounter during the crossing – including alpine skiing and pulling sleds. We defined an endurance training program, including crossfit, running and a lot of walking and some of us also started doing yoga. Since we were going to sleep in tiny tents and spend much of the time in somewhat uncomfortable positions, adding flexibility was a huge advantage. We also spent quite a lot of time on mental preparation, like reading books about great explorers like Mike Horn and Roald Amundsen. For me the most important book was “The First Crossing of Greenland”
by Fridtjof Nansen, a brilliant read for anyone, whether you plan on going on an expedition or not. And just like Nansen we then met the cold.
We knew that temperatures in Greenland could vary between –10°C and –40°C, and that the weather is highly unpredictable, anything from calm sunny days to violent winds or snow storms. I guess we all had the mental image of the North beyond the wall like in the series Game of Thrones in mind. In reality, the cold is constantly present. As I’m writing four months after the expedition, I still can’t feel parts of my feet. Out there the cold is a constant threat, no mistake is forgiven. When we woke up, the inner walls of our tents were full of ice, because of the condensation from our breathing. Each time we took a break our bodies cooled down very quickly. The first days were physically difficult, but without any particular problems – except that our feet hurt from not being used to walking so long in the cold. The landscape dazzled us, white ice as far as the eye could see, without any sign of life. Very soon one of the biggest challenges hit all of us – to think alone.
When you normally spend about two hours a week thinking about yourself, what do you do if you have eight to twelve hours a day of solitary skiing? The first hours we focused on warming up, optimizing our efforts, the last were more complicated. We then dissected our thoughts, our projects, our lives. It became an introspective and meditative experience that changed us all. As the days went by, we realized that everything was physical. There was not a single minute from sunrise to sunset where we did nothing. We had to take care of the burner, melt snow, eat, dismantle and assemble the camp, walk, heal, repair equipment, reorganize and take care of each other. The only time when our bodies were fully relaxed was when we finally lay on our mattresses, in our sleeping bags, wrapped in all their layers, like in cocoons. This became an incredible moment, calm and serene, but it only lasted for a minute, before we fell asleep.
One of our most successful days also became one of the hardest. After walking for many hours, the wind was starting to rise. In our monotonous days, this strong wind brought us change and started to galvanize us. But the wind had already exceeded our decided limit by 10 km/h. We could not agree on whether to go ahead or put the tents up. There was a great risk that we would not be able to get the tents up and therefore freeze to death. This had happened to an expedition three years earlier. After a discussion, where everyone had to scream to be heard, we ended up pitching the tent. For sharing experiences, we decided to swap tent buddies every six days. This is a bit of a breach of expedition code, but for us this principle was an important part of the human adventure. And how we were able to discuss entrepreneurship and learn from each other.
Anyone who has worked in a startup knows that it is a fragile ecosystem, particularly at the beginning. The average age of our five startups was two years, that is just at the very beginning of a hopefully long and successful life. In Solen, the company I co-founded, we were four people when I decided to go on the expedition, and 12 when I actually left. At times I felt like the most selfish person in the world – I would abandon my co-founder and the team at a period when we needed all hands on deck. In addition, Solen was selected to be part of the Accélérateur program at Leboncoin in March 2018. So needless to say, I sometimes doubted my decision to leave. But at the same time I was always confident that this expedition would make me a better person and entrepreneur.
The sky and the ground blended together
Although very different, startups and expeditions do have many things in common, three things stand out:
- The vision. A startup needs a clear vision just as we had only one goal: to cross Greenland. Sometimes, when we moved forward in a storm, we could no longer distinguish the sky from the ground, it was mentally very challenging. But the vision gave us direction.
- At Solen we are always listening to market feedback and our clients’ needs. Understanding the surroundings helps us to make quick decisions. During the expedition we were constantly listening to temperature updates, wind speed and snow quality as these insights helped us decide how to dress and what distance to plan for the next day.
- Most important: trust. For more than a year my co-founders, Clément and Enzo and I had got to know each other, all our strong sides and weaknesses. I would not change them for anyone. Everything moves so fast in the startup world, that if you can’t trust your team, you’re doomed to fail. In the same way trust is crucial on an expedition if one person cracks, the whole expedition fails.
The best time of the day, the moment everyone was waiting for, was when we set up camp. We put up each tent one by one – all together. We felt relieved, leaving the kilometers traveled behind us. Then came the most enjoyable moment – when we took our shoes off, enjoyed cheese, sausages and Swedish bread with butter. Eating my pack of butter became a ritual, a moment of luxury. We forgot all that was outside, our hardships and the cold. The physical effort also made us forget our daily lives in France. Strangely we realized that we didn’t miss anything except our loved ones. We did nothing but eat, sleep, talk, walk and think. We started to see things differently, everything seemed simpler and clearer. We finally saw ourselves as we were, not playing roles or trying to be someone else. The trust and respect between us were fundamental.
Back in France I realized that I have never experienced anything like this. It was our first adventure, and we’re already waiting for the next. Before going on this expedition I always thought that big adventures weren’t for me. Too hard, too far away, too expensive, too time consuming. But despite all that, I went on challenging my limits with five guys I didn’t know. Everyone can wake up their inner adventurer as long as you’re committed and humble in the face of nature.