Adventurer and member of the Society of Explorers
21 May 2021
"I wanted to experience solitude over a long period of time; I think that today, it has become a luxury."
Matthieu Tordeur, you are a very well-known adventurer... Tell us about your career!
I am a 29-year-old man who is passionate about adventure, pushing himself, meeting others and myself. I grew up in Normandy, then moved to London to study at King's College before coming back to France to do a master's degree in International Security at Sciences Po Paris.
Despite my training in geopolitics, I was caught up by my true passion: adventure. For 10 years now, I have been on expeditions by bike, kayak, kite, on foot, sailing, in a 4L, on skis... I am an adventurer who likes everything. From my expeditions to the world's four corners, I bring back images, stories, and teachings that I share in conferences, documentaries, and books.
You became the first French and the youngest adventurer in the world to reach the South Pole alone on skis and without refueling. How does one come to embark on such an adventure?
It is the fruit of a dream and the result of a decade of expeditions. As a child, I devoured the adventures of Tintin and Snowy, then those of the great polar explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen, Paul-Émile Victor, Jean-Louis Étienne... They were a major source of inspiration for this adventure. I was fascinated by this great white continent, which for me, is the last frontier on Earth.
I wanted to experience solitude over a long period of time; I think that today, it has become a luxury. At the age of 26, it was a great gift to be able to spend 50 days alone and only for myself, without commitment, without appointments, without notification... in the largest desert on the planet.
You mention, among other things, the theme of surpassing oneself in several conferences that I have seen. But what exactly did you feel when faced with the white immensity of the Antarctic? How can we surpass ourselves when we don't see the goal of our objective and when every day seems to be the same?
Antarctica is a continent 28 times the size of France. It is the continent of all superlatives: it is the coldest, driest and windiest in the world. So when you find yourself alone in the face of nature and all its extremes, you are overwhelmed by a feeling of smallness and vulnerability. To hold on, you have to set a routine, a course, protocols, and objectives. For me, I had a chance: I had made the choice to be here. I chose to isolate myself from the world to live a time just for myself. I gave myself a space of freedom in a space of solitude. What counts in those moments is the reason for being.
Beyond this theme of surpassing oneself, there is also a real question of organization and rhythm. What were the driving forces behind your achievement?
To ski 12 hours a day for 51 days without taking a single day to rest, it was essential for me to structure my days and to sequence my effort into many objectives. In the morning in my sleeping bag, if I thought about the finish line or the end of my expedition, then I would be completely discouraged. It was too difficult to consider that I had such a long distance left, the task seemed totally insurmountable. So I divided my time into 12 one-hour sessions of skiing, with a five-minute break in between. A technique that allowed me to focus on short-term goals that, when put together, were small victories.
I also drew a lot of energy from celebrating the different stages of my expedition (the halfway point, my birthday...). This helped me to stay on course while being aware of the path I had taken. Finally, it was important to focus only on the things I could control. What's the point of fighting the wind, the whiteout, the soft snow...? I only cared about the variables I could influence, control and improve, like managing my stride, my breathing, my nutrition...
I've heard you talk about "gimmicks" to help you get motivated, get up in the morning, and move on. Can you tell us more?
Antarctica is an extreme environment characterized by its great emptiness, which makes it so interesting. There is no other way out than to learn to control yourself. To constantly question yourself. A solo expedition to Antarctica is a daily encounter with oneself. It pushes you to mobilize resources and faculties that you did not even know you had. You enter into a rather particular psychic mechanism by thinking back to memories and projecting yourself into the future. Otherwise, I used more artificial means like listening to a podcast or music.
How did you experience the return to reality, at least to civilization?
There is an American scientific base at the South Pole where about a hundred people work during the southern summer. When I arrived, a pilot who was about to return to the continent's coast in a Basler BT-67 offered me to join his crew. But I was not at all ready to leave these places that had made me dream so much. So I waited for him to come back and stayed 7 days on the base, surrounded by men and women passionate about Antarctica. It was like a decompression chamber before returning to Chile and France.
The return to reality was not as violent as all that. Of course, at first, it was strange to take a shower every day, to put on jeans and sneakers, but you get used to it (too) quickly. Above all, I am lucky to have succeeded in turning these adventures into a job. My expedition did not end when I reached the Pole. It continues to live on today through my conferences, my book, and my film.
You are one of the youngest members of the Society of French Explorers: does rubbing shoulders with great adventurers like Jean-Louis Etienne or Thomas Pesquet give you new ideas for adventure?
At the Society of Explorers, we are all driven by the same spirit of adventure, discovery, and transmission. I am very attached to sharing, telling stories, and raising awareness. I am not a scientist or an environmental specialist, but I am a witness to link the scientific community and the general public. I am currently collaborating on several educational and awareness projects on climate change.
"When you find yourself alone in front of this nature and all this extremity, you are overwhelmed by a feeling of smallness and vulnerability"
I imagine that in each expedition, you have to defy danger, even death... How do you deal with that? Do you manage to have fun every day despite everything?
Contrary to what one might think, I am not a hothead. I love life too much to rely on luck or chance. I did my training in the Arctic with the best polar guides to learn how to survive in these hostile environments. It has been a journey, a learning curve, and a progression. I believe that we are not equal when it comes to accepting risk and that it evolves with experience. My adventures are not a way to. I like the departure on an expedition as much as the return home. Preparing and mitigating risks beforehand is essential, but you must also accept that you cannot control everything. Paul-Émile Victor had a beautiful phrase on this subject: " In the adventure, nothing must be left to the unforeseen but everything is unpredictable. "