Having started out at Goldman Sachs, Henry Cookson’s life changed thanks to a death-defying race to the North Magnetic Pole. Now a professional explorer, he opens up about the passion that’s driven him to the ends of the world and back.
Down-to-earth, jovial, and equipped with the kind of humour you’d want around if you were stranded at the end of the world, British polar explorer Henry Cookson is a man who’s journeyed painstakingly across the frozen, desolate Arctic tundra in a race to the North Magnetic Pole – as an amateur, no less – and set a world-record along the way. “We found ourselves high up in the Canadian Arctic in this town called Resolute Bay. Literally, there were polar bears walking down the street, Inuits driving around on snow machines, and cute little kids with fur-lined hoods strapped to their backs. I mean, it was surreal,” he laughs, recalling the Scott Dunn Polar Challenge in 2005 – and the people he’d competed against. “There were people that knew what they were doing – Arctic-trained Marines and professional long-distance athletes. And then there were us three guys: me, an ex-banker, a pub owner, and a tech geek – not your typical outdoor explorer group,” he recounts with a wry grin.
It all began with an innocent conversation – and perhaps a few whiskies, Henry recounts of a conversation with a friend about a ski race to the Magnetic North Pole in the Arctic. “Over a five-month process, they equipped you and trained you to have the basics to survive and not get eaten by a polar bear or fall down, crack the ice and freeze yourself solid. I mean, it was all sort of slightly Monty Python-esque,” he chuckles, recalling the beginnings of his exploration career. “Just the three of us going out into the wilderness in the Alps, not having a clue with all this brand new equipment, still in its new wrappers. We skated around this glacier on our new cross country skis, having never cross country skied before. And, as it was getting dark, I was like, ‘Oh, we need to put up a camp.’ We didn’t have a clue. We didn’t know how to light the stoves. It was slightly comical.” Fast forward to the end of the Scott Dunn Polar Challenge and astoundingly, they “not only finished the race, but we won it, breaking the race record at the time, and I think it still stands.”
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Coming from investment banking at Goldman Sachs, becoming an explorer certainly wasn’t a conventional career transition, but that exhilarating race marked a major turning point for Henry, sparking a lifelong fascination with pushing the boundaries of travel to extremes. Over the span of a decade, he’s tracked down the remains of a Soviet expedition at the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility, earned the trust of a remote Papua New Guinea tribe, climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, and partnered with Prince Harry in a Walking with the Wounded expedition with amputee veterans to the Geographic North Pole in 2011, raising over GBP 1,500,000 (approx USD 1,950,000) to support military and veterans charities. A conservationist, he has also raised over USD 1 million in donations to wildlife charities. Now the founder of the luxury travel firm Cookson Adventures he started in 2009, for him, a career in extreme travel – both for himself and via offering others the opportunity to witness these jaw-dropping sights for themselves – has become more ‘a way of living’ than a professional path.
“When I started Cookson Adventures, it was about the extreme remote. You’re carrying your own stuff, you’re exerting yourself, and you’re challenging yourself to something,” Henry says. Drawing from his own experiences kite skiing 1,700 kilometres across the Antarctic in -40ºC temperatures in just 53 days, it was a natural transition to go from planning these extreme expeditions for himself to leading physically-demanding expeditions for others. “It was born out of passion,” he says of his business. “I just fell into this amazing world and I was very privileged to have gone to parts of the planet, some of which no humans have ever laid eyes on.” Since then, he’s led private expeditions, all entirely bespoke, to the edges of the world, introducing the world’s first commercial submersible to Antarctica, an exclusive cave trek through Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong, the most extensive cave system on Earth, and guiding unscripted helicopter tours across golden expanses of the Kenyan countryside to spot majestic wild cheetahs, lions and elephants.
A decade on, Henry admits it’s no longer all blood, sweat and tears. Instead, as his business has matured, it’s slowly boiled down to creating a highly personalised version of adventure, which all begins in the mind. “People have different perspectives on what adventure is. For some people, it might be going to a certain country – that might be adventure enough. For other people, it’s being thrown out of the plane or crossing crevasses. We do things from honeymoons to multi-generational trips, in addition to the more adrenaline-fueled expeditionary-based experiences. You might be flying around in helicopters everywhere and flown from an amazing custom-built camp in the middle of the wilderness to the edge of a live volcano where there’s a beautiful lunch spread out,” he says. On the other side of the spectrum, he explains, “We have some clients who we’ve trained from zero to hero over a number of years to have those skills to do a polar experience.”
At the heart of his philosophy is a longing to delve deep into uncharted lands – a journey that pushes your mind to view things from an unfamiliar perspective. “It’s very easy to follow the pack and do what everyone does. Take Everest, for example. Something like 8,000 people have climbed the summit, and that doesn’t count the people who’ve tried to get up, nor all the support staff who are down in base camp. It’s a very busy place,” Henry relates. “But the Himalayas is full of thousands of mountains, some of them aesthetically far more peaceful, more interesting than Everest, and it can be yours. So, it doesn’t have to be about glory or the biggest, the longest and the furthest. It’s actually about what’s the more rewarding, more cerebral adventure for you.”
As for what happens after the expeditions draw to a close? Well, reality picks up again, Henry admits, although the experience lives on through stunning professional photography and film footage captured during the trip. “Sometimes, we’ll even bring in National Geographic-level photographers and cameramen,” he explains. “It allows that experience to then have a life of its own.” Conservation, too, has often become a big part of the expeditions he leads, from rehabilitating Kenyan rhinos to tagging sharks in the Pacific, collaborating with anti-poaching groups in Africa to working alongside fishing communities to spread conservation awareness. “People want a little bit more from what they do. They don’t just want to see experiments. They actually want to feel like they’re giving something back or becoming involved with the preservation place that they’ve been privileged to see.” Still, it’s all about shifting perspectives and relearning to appreciate an everyday standard of living that might have become normalised. “I think there is a lovely clarity that comes with getting on these trips and an appreciation of things beyond just the materialistic, which is something that’s obviously drummed into us every minute of the day through advertising and social media,” Henry elaborates. “It’s good to step out of that fast-moving current every so often.”