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Some of the more extreme speakers giving society talks regularly come to Eton’s Shackleton (adventuring) Society, a relatively new group run jointly by senior boys and Mr Couchman. Previous visitors have included ultra-marathon runners, mountaineers, climbers and trekkers, all taking on intrepid and thrilling challenges, in turn inspiring the students into tackling their own fears and trying out adventuring for themselves. Every year, the boys take on a gruelling Shackleton Challenge for charity, from a lockdown virtual half-ironman to a marathon hike across the Yorkshire 3 peaks. Boys have also been inspired by the recent adventures of Mr Couchman, who took on a personal challenge during the summer holidays!

Mr Couchman Completes Epic Solo 360-mile Icelandic Hike

Having been head of the Shackleton Society for a number of years, Mr Couchman felt particularly inspired to try a three-week solo expedition down Iceland, and he recounted his adventure with Oscar L, Shackleton Society Secretary.

Mr Couchman, a qualified Mountain Leader, hiked from the northernmost point of Iceland to the southernmost point over a gruelling 18 days, completing the 360- mile walk carrying 5kg of kit as well as all the food he needed. He says:

Having seen such inspiring speakers at the Shackleton Society, I just wanted to have my own adventures. I had walked the West Highland Way and the Pennine Way leading up to Iceland, but nothing compared to the challenge of it. It’s also nice to get abroad too.

Mr Couchman

After hitchhiking 300 miles from Reykjavik to the starting point, meeting lots of people along the way and depositing food in two resupply spots, the trek began on the Friday 8 July at Hraunhafnartangi Lighthouse – the most northerly point of Iceland. The plan had been to pick up supplies from the stashes in cabins along the way, but the Highland resupply hut in the middle of the trip wasn’t open, so Mr Couchman was forced to carry 10 days’ worth of food at one point. Despite that, he made swift progress, with 20 miles a day under his belt. He spent three days at a time without seeing anyone and mostly camped in the wild, with occasional basic mountain hut stops for relative luxury. Mr Couchman commented, “the landscape is really varied throughout the island – it’s all agriculture and lakes in the north (and I saw a humpback whale early on) and gets really mountainous in the centre.”

“The trickiest bit was the Central Highlands,” he says, adding that the challenge of crossing rivers of melting glaciers was a source of concern. With a face-covering to protect against midges, and ski goggles to stop the sand going in his eyes, Mr Couchman soldiered on through rain and wind chill which caused the air temperature to drop significantly. “It never got above 10 degrees, but the wind made it so much colder”. After 18 days of solo trekking, he said “it was a bit of a shock to see so many people around the south.”

“I’d highly recommend the route from Landmannalaugar south for anyone who wants a taste of Iceland without the full 18-day trek, which is actually not a very well-travelled route”. He had gained 38,000 feet of elevation in total, ending up at the south coast and another lighthouse, Dyrhólaey, – the southernmost point of the island.

As well as planning next year’s Shackleton Society trip, he already has plans to hike the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, an equally ambitious and impressive trip. We wish him very well in all his future adventures!

Recent Shackleton Society Talk

Back at Eton College, the most recent Shackleton Society talk was given by Phil Bigland, who just over a year ago rowed the Atlantic as part of a team of four. The quad, made up for Phil, Mac McCarthy, Dean Frost, and Jason Kerr formed the team “Elijah’s Star” in the Talisker Whiskey Challenge, rowing in memory of baby Elijah, born at only 25 weeks and who lived for just 37 days. Overall, they raised over £306,000 for Action Medical Research, a charity that seeks to save and change children’s lives through vital and life-saving research.

Phil spoke on the two-year preparation leading up to the journey, and the highs and lows of the trip itself. He highlighted the importance of teamwork, and knowing how to keep each other motivated, as one of their goals was to return better friends than they had started, something Phil was proud to have achieved. The leadup to the challenge involved lots of intense training, where mental discipline was as important as physical fitness. The team also toured the country to fundraise.

Phil Bigland explained the value of having a strong message to capture people’s interest, basing their goals around the number 37, for Elijah. They aimed to complete the crossing in 37 days, and raise over £200,000. After being featured on local and national news, and mentioned in conjunction with a widely watched episode of the BBC’s Repair Shop, the cause quickly gained traction. The journey itself was a challenging one, with many scary moments. “We started hallucinating after day three, soon after we lost sight of land,” says Phil, who felt the weight of what they had signed up for as a team. Camaraderie got them through it, along with comforts like “liquorice sticks in the early hours of the morning, really making you appreciate the small things.”

They celebrated Christmas and New Year on the boat, and a couple of birthdays too, finishing the 3000-mile challenge in just over 41 days. With over £300,000 in the bank for Action Medical Research, they were all incredibly proud of their team. Two of the crew plan to take on the Pacific next, but for Phil, “I said no way – my hands are still aching from January, and I don’t quite want to do that again”. He does have plans for a Nordic longboat expedition, but this will involve more sailing than rowing. Phil’s talk was full of touching stories of grit and practical insights into planning and team building. It was a superb talk and we wish Phil and the whole team every success in future.

Phil Bigland with members of the Shackleton Society