Mountain Climbing and Polar Bears, Oh My!
He has travelled to 28 countries and, as a mountain guide, has led over 35 expeditions in the mountains of Chile, Argentina and Ecuador. He has guided all seven of the world’s mountain summits and has summited Mt. Everest an astounding FIVE times!
Ryan Waters is known as a mountaineer, a polar adventurer and travel photographer. He’s pretty well-known but, to those of us who know him back home in Atlanta, we just call him "famous". How do I know him? He was Champagne’s roommate as young men just out of college at Ole Miss.
“When I travel to Pakistan people often ask if it is dangerous to go there, and say things like "you must be scared to travel over there". About the same day I took a photo of little school girls in a village, there was a mass shooting in my home country. So the simple answer is yes, I feel safe there."
The lens with which I know you is through your Ole Miss college buddies, who have taken very different paths than you. When you first started in this career, would you say that your friends were supportive or did they think this was a crazy phase?
When I was living with Champagne I was working as a Geologist so most people were surprised that I wanted to give up my career to work as an outdoor instructor. It was a challenge from a career standpoint so I took a big chance to do that, not really thinking about what people might think.
When did you know that this was more than a phase and that this was a long-term career?
I was 27 when I made the career change and I didn’t necessarily know that it was for good, but I could feel, even at that point, that I was going in a was right for me. I always knew that I wanted to travel and go on expeditions and I was hopeful that it was through the outdoor industry. I just kind of knew and I never gave up. My parents, thankfully, were always supportive too.
And what exactly do you do?
In 2005 I launched an expedition guide service, Mountain Professionals, with Dave Elmore, which guides mountain climbing, polar ski, and trekking expeditions worldwide. The company focuses on delivering high quality expeditions to small teams of adventurers on peaks that include all of the Seven Summits, both Poles, and treks such as Everest Base Camp.
If someone is interested in an expedition, what do they do to prepare and which mountain do they choose?
I recommend the Intro to Mountaineering course on Mt. Rainer. It’s a moderately challenging climb that teaches you basic skills and you can reasonably reach the peak if you want. A more common intro is Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s not a huge trek but you do deal with high altitudes, which is rather challenging. We also have polar ski training if that is something someone desires.
On May 6th, 2014, Ryan, along with expedition partner Eric Larsen, completed what has been described as "one of the most difficult expeditions in the world", a 53-day, full unsupported ski expedition from Cape Discovery Canada over 500 miles of shifting ice, open water leads, and polar bears to the North Pole that has become a documentary on Animal Planet television network, "Melting: Last Race To The Pole".
I really want to hear more about your polar expedition. What made you decide to do this?
I wanted to do it mainly because it was the last piece of doing this true Adventurers Grand Slam- climbing the seven summits and skiing full length to the North and South Pole. And we just got lucky when the Discovery Channel liked what we were doing and decided to cover it on Animal Planet.
The thing I remember from watching the show was the polar bear encounter.
Yes, that was pretty early in the trip, within the first eight days, we realized that about 25 feet away, there were two big polar bears right behind us. We could see on our ski track that they had been behind us, tracking us, for quite some time.
Did you freak out?
Initially, we threw off our mittens and shot off a small flare. They stopped for a minute but kept coming so we shot off our second flare. We had our sled with us so we were trying to progress but also get a safe distance, but we were moving too slowly.
That doesn’t sound good.
Eric got the gun out, which is really just loud since the first two shells are “bear scares”. They were only about 10 feet from us, which was pretty scary, so he had to shoot two shots to scare them enough to go away. It was a mother with a teen bear. If mama would’ve swiped at us, it would have been a very bad situation.
Why were they tracking you?
They are curious animals because they can smell you from really far away. They’ll do big circles around something they want to see but they won’t waste time on you unless they think...
Oh my! And how did the film crew fare on this expedition?
There was no film crew, we did it all! It was a lot of work but we captured some great footage!
Wow! You could be a documentary filmmaker. Add that to your list!
I love looking at your exotic travel photography! How do you go about asking people to take their photo in remote countries?
I try to become friendly with the people first before I take their photo. I slowly introduce the camera in that situation and show them the photo, which usually makes them want to have their picture taken.
You really capture the feeling behind their faces. Do you ever feel unsafe in these areas?
When I travel to Pakistan people often ask if it is dangerous to go there, and say things like "you must be scared to travel over there". About the same day I took a photo of little school girls in a village, there was a mass shooting in my home country. So the simple answer is yes, I feel safe there.
In your free time, you’ve gotten to explore some cool places outside of work. What have you enjoyed and where do you want to go back?
My favorite place to be is Argentina. I also find Antartica magical and not a lot of people get to experience it. I always love Europe & Southeast Asia, Nepal, Morocco...
I want to continue growing Mountain Professionals, working on photography, motivational speaking and I’m currently writing a book. I recently invested in an energy bar in South America. I'm really excited about that so I could see myself doing a bit more of those sorts of things, maybe in real estate.
Oh is that all?
I live in Boulder so I get exposed to interesting people and endeavors. Varied interests make life more interesting!
At this point in the conversation, I sent Champagne a text to let him know that I was almost done with the interview so he could come into my office, where Ryan was on speaker phone. Two nano seconds later he burst through the door and was talking football and fishing with his buddy and my interview was done. It was kind of the perfect way to explain the enigma that is Ryan Waters. In one moment he can speak about connecting with people on the streets of Pakistan or avoiding a polar bear, and the next he can shift into a “regular” person. This skill is the very gift that has taken him from Geologist to Adventurer to Documentary Star to anything else that he wants to do in life.
Ryan, thank you for your time and for sharing your adventures with us! All of your friends back home are so proud and wish you continued success!