What it takes to be an award winner
In 1910 Cardiff donated more money than any other city in the UK to the costs of Scott’s expedition to Antarctica. Two days before departing Scott and his team joined members of the Cardiff business community at a dinner at the Royal Hotel.
In 1982, the hotel manager invited a group of friends to celebrate the anniversary of that dinner. The Captain Scott Society was formed from those who attended. Soon thereafter they decided to do something proactive to encourage future expeditions in the spirit of Scott. They created the Spirit of Adventure award. The Sir Vivian Fuchs Award youth award (for ages 11 to 19) came some years later.
I spoke to Jack Wright, who has been the Expedition Secretary since 2011 and is in charge of managing all the award applications.
How do they fund the awards?
The money comes from their annual subscription, £25 each from about 180 members. That generates some £4,500 a year, of which £2,000 goes to the Spirit of Adventure and £500 goes to the youth award.
How does the selection process start?
The Expedition Secretary is responsible for receiving the applications, sorting through the many general enquiries and encouraging applicants to write better proposals. He will evaluate the applications based on a “marking matrix”, and draw up the shortlists, the projects that seem “really worthy”.
How many applications do they receive?
In 2017 the youth award received 77 enquiries which led to 35 actual applications, and a shortlist of seven. The Spirit of Adventure award ended up with six finalists selected from 61 applications.
“Sometimes we get a phenomenal amount of applications. It’s almost a shame that so many people apply. Other times we are almost scratching around. For the short-list, I attempt to make a cross-section. By the time it gets to adjudication its not going to be all mountaineering, or all skiing, or sailing.”
The Sir Vivian Fuchs Award youth award (ages 11 to 19) is not an award in support of organised youth adventures.
“On the youth side I usually struggle,” Jack said. “I get a lot of applications for things like Project Trust, who do gap year volunteering placements. The youngsters have to generate something like £6,000. All these people are doing is pitching up at an airport. It’s all organised for them. None of those have won the award.
“We seek out youngsters that are showing initiative, doing something more on their own. Like the boy who went off to Mongolia with a friend on bicycles, and then down into Iran. That stands out."
Jennie Roberts won the youth award in 2017, doing glacial melt research in Nepal for five weeks as part of a larger expedition. “She got the award because it was tinged with science. That’s one of the things we look for. Rather than just being outward bound and adventurous, does it have some sort of community value? If it involves some sort of scientific research, so much the better.”
“The calibre of some of the applications ten years ago were probably stronger and better than what we get now,” Jack said. He is particularly proud of Felicity Aston. “She was the leader of our 2006 winner, the Arctic Foxes - Greenland Quest. Our award really kick-started her career of being an adventurer. She’s gone on to win a Polar Medal and an OBE. She’s almost a Ranulph Fiennes with what she’s gone on to achieve in the last decade.”
What makes for a good application?
“It has to have a programme. If it’s got a community or science element, that gets a tick. If it’s novel or unusual, that tends to push them to the fore. And we look to see if they’ve done some research, rather than just swanning off.”
In choosing, the Expedition Secretary, followed by the adjudication panel, consider seven elements:
- Send in a decent letter describing the nature of the expedition and its objectives.
- Planning and programme dates. “I’m keen that there is some structure to it, that they’ve planned what they are doing prior and during the expedition.”
- Finance and funding. “We don’t want to see them just being reliant on our reward. We expect them to have checked out other funding options.”
- Logistics. “How do you get there, what do you do once you are there.”
- Scientific or community value. Jack gave as an example the 2015 winner, the Karakoram Anomaly. “You get these glacial dams and then communities downriver are vulnerable to a breakout. That was a very interesting application. Not only were the team getting into a remote region, and doing scientific work. They were also briefing the communities downstream on what was likely to happen.”
- Unusual firsts. “I get quite a lot of things that are almost like Guinness Book of Records challenges, rowing oceans and swimming straits, that sort of thing. They don’t tend to win.”
- What will they get out of it in terms of character building. “Whether they are likely to go on and lead further expeditions. What they hope to get out of it for their work life. That’s one more for the youth.”
Jack’s recommendation for anyone unsure where to start
“Often successful projects have picked something a university or an alpine club has done before, and then adapted it somehow to make it personal, to work really well with what they want to do. That’s the kind of thing that catches the eye.
"Last year’s winner was a university-based project, to go off to Bolivia to study high-altitude effects.”
Who makes the final choice?
The shortlists go to the adjudication panel, which is made up of six to eight members of the general management committee. They then have a long day of judging.
“It’s always a bit of a surprise,” said Jack. “The person I mark highest almost never seems to win. That being said, the last year or two the winners have really stood out a mile. It’s been quite easy to put them at the top of the pile.”
What makes an application “stand out a mile”?
“I think it’s thoroughness. A good application tells you quickly what its objectives are. It’s been well researched, maps are involved, they understand the terrain and topography. They’ve researched the transport, thought about the hazards. They are working to some sort of programme.”
He wants details that show proper planning. “There obviously needs to be a risk assessment. A lot of these applications don’t include things like that.”
How the information is presented matters
This is not an award where the panel are looking for video applications. Jack wants a well planned proposal on paper.
“People can’t just say ‘see my website’. By the time we’re down to the final six, we need an application that somebody can read, with all the appropriate maps, references, programmes. I had a guy last year put in a very snazzy video introduction, but at the end of the day it didn’t cover as much as a well-crafted written application would.”
Much as he emphasises thoroughness in planning, he’s not asking to be swamped with extraneous details. “Sometimes some people just bombard you. There’ll be a risk assessment that covers everything from deep vein thrombosis on the flight to falling in a river without a lifejacket. Yes, they do need to think about these things, but give us the most relevant information.”
He wants a document that can be read through in 10 to 15 minutes. “I think that what people really need to do when they make these applications is to give their draft to somebody else to read.”
Where do the winners find the rest of their money?
“The youngsters tend to be funded by parents and odd jobs. On the senior side a lot of people are very ingenious. There are a lot of organisations out there that do funding. And then the really high profile adventurous things where people are going to set records tend to get sponsorship from companies.”
The obligations of the Spirit of Adventure winner
It is a condition of the award that the successful applicant gives a presentation to the Society after their attempt, normally at the AGM. “We use it as a form of getting a worthy speaker.”
So while the awards are open for applications worldwide, Jacks says in reality it is best suited to UK residents. “The problem is the dinner and AGM invitation. We only pay travel of £100 plus a hotel night.”
What makes for a good presentation?
“An element of humour, no more than 30 minutes, keep it brief. Some good photographs and maybe some well-annotated maps of where they’ve been can work wonders. It is good to have something visually impressive.”
What happens if the winning project doesn't take place?
The 2014 award is recorded as 'withheld' but in fact the winner failed to get her project off the ground.
“The logistics just didn’t hang together," said Jack. "I keep tabs on how things are going. I like it when they take off in August / September. This was dragging on… By November some of the expeditions that didn’t win were up and under way. The chairman wrote to her and she returned the money. It’s only happened twice in all the time the award has been going.”
Struan Chisholm, the only double winner
Struan Chisholm received the Spirit of Adventure award in 2013 for the Silk Road Tajikistan Expedition. And then again in 2016, for his expedition to Kyrgyzstan. The aim there was to explore and climb in a set of relatively unexplored and poorly documented valleys in the Djenghi-Djer mountain range, and to share their findings with the mountaineering community.
Jack admires the ingenious applications, who find creative ways to keep the costs down. “Take Struan and his crew. The first expedition they did, they bought an old 4x4 vehicle in Inverness and literally drove all the way to Tajikistan. One of them learned mechanics, so if something broke on the vehicle they were able to work on it. By the time they nursed it back to the UK, it was good for nothing. A total wreck. Those are the type of things that I find fascinating.”
Struan and his friends, they really do put together a very good application, they research things thoroughly. They like to get together every year and plan something pretty novel.”
Struan told me that winning the Spirit of Adventure Award for the Djenghi-Djer expedition “gave the project credibility with other potential supporters, and it made a major contribution to the cost of the expedition. The Captain Scott Society has a very interesting history - having them backing us and interested in our success, that spurred us on to fulfil the objectives of the expedition."
The one thing that winning the award didn’t do for Struan? “…convince my mother that going on expeditions is a good idea. I’m not sure anything will do that.”
Jack’s final word on what makes a successful application
“Before I retired I was a project manager. I tend to think you can achieve objectives and make things work if you take some time to sit and think about duration. Think through each stage and time things. There is nothing worse than an expedition when they’ve run out of time, or it’s been extended and they’ve run out of money.
"Something that tends to impress is research, and the ability to set yourself goals and targets.”