An encounter with a multi-talented explorer
Initially a machinist, then a doctor and now an explorer, Jean-Louis Étienne pursues his dreams of adventure from one pole to the other with no signs of slowing down or getting tired. Without ever limiting or constraining himself, he is tirelessly imagining, designing, bringing people together, organising and travelling. He tells us about his passion for barren lands and the creativity which drives him to undertake new expeditions time and time again…
You were the first man to reach the North Pole solo, pulling your sledge. How did that great adventure shape your way of thinking about travel?
Jean-Louis Étienne : I took part in expeditions as a doctor for a long time, until the day when I wanted to launch my own expedition: going solo to the North Pole. My arrival at the North Pole was a unique moment in my life, a liberation, the moment when my plan came to fruition.
After 63 days walking alone, I had succeeded in reaching this point. It was a moment of sheer bliss and relief. I came back from the North Pole with one essential tool: self-confidence.
At the North Pole, the water is frozen, the air dense and the landscapes immaculate. How are your senses strained during such a trip?
Jean-Louis Étienne : There are three colours : blue, white and grey when it isn’t sunny. There is no smell, no noise apart from the ice creaking. It is a completely barren landscape which deprives your senses. In 1986, there was no GPS, no iridium phones: complete isolation, an intense retreat into yourself.
In hindsight, it was a great luxury. The North Pole is about learning to live with yourself. In this world where we are becoming increasingly connected, time spent alone is becoming a rarity.
By land, by sea with your schooner Tara, by air in a balloon, you have reached the poles by every means possible. Is this a way of endlessly exploring the poles?
Jean-Louis Étienne : Above all, I love using new vehicles. Before studying medicine, I received technical training and I still have a taste for technological design and technical drawing. I designed Antarctica (nowTara), a boat made to travel through ice. Sailing enables you to get close to the coasts, the ice, the animals and more. Approaching from the sea is spectacular!
I had an airship built in Russia to measure the thickness of the sea ice at the North Pole. I built a nacelle or pod, Polar Observer, which I used to drift on the sea ice to study its movements. I am currently working on Polar Pod : a new project, a new type of boat for studying the ocean around Antarctica. For that, I’m surrounding myself with people with all kinds of skills. I generate the idea and the desire around me.
Is the sharing of ideas a key part of your worldview?
Jean-Louis Étienne : Yes, simply giving people a unity of purpose, provoking discoveries. We all have a whole host of skills. We are like a big ball of wool, with a little thread that we are relentlessly looking for. You have to help people to find this little piece of thread, then they can achieve their potential. We are unaware of the riches we are made of.
When you were a child, you dreamed of climbing Mont Blanc, which you accomplished once you were a young adult. Do you have any dreams of adventures yet to realise?
Jean-Louis Étienne : I am continually living the dream because I remained loyal to the idea of exploration, this little light which was lit when I was a child. When I was young I lived in the countryside. I went for walks in the hills and I dreamed of the Himalayas, Mont Blanc and beyond. Then, I drew up equipment lists for camping in the Pyrenees, in winter. I didn’t know then that I was going to make it my career, my life.
The medicine and technology which I learnt were all tools to cultivate these dreams of exploration, which had long been inside me. If you have a dream, try to achieve it. You have to know that dreaming big doesn’t make things easy. There’s always a moment when everything gets complicated: that’s when you have to hold steady, resist the temptation to quit. The experiences which made me grow were when I resisted this temptation.