The Magic of Campfire Conversations

23 March 2023

Welcome to the story of Mark Hannaford, an adventurer, philanthropist, and founder of World Extreme Medicine. Come along as he shares his background, passion for adventure and the stories behind some of his epic achievements.

Whether you’re an adventure enthusiast, healthcare professional, or someone seeking to make a difference, Mark’s story will captivate and potentially spark a change in your own story.

So join us on this adventure and let’s dive in…

The ‘glimmer’ years

I guess my interest in adventure and travelling to remote places started from a young age. My father was a Master Mariner and I started life in the maritime city of Plymouth, although when I was eight, we moved to Antigua after he became Harbourmaster of St John’s.

When work took him to the Middle East I boarded at Kelly College on Dartmoor. In fact, much of what I do now sprang from my experiences then, there were lots of opportunities for outdoor activities. Exploring Dartmoor fosters an expeditionary mindset; I returned there just recently for some running and wild camping. Access to the moor is under threat, it’s something we need to protect for the next generation.

My school career wasn’t the most illustrious! While I loved my exploits taking part in Duke of Edinburgh and the marine cadets, my school reports were appalling in all subjects bar geography. So my life and success is totally rooted in what I’ve achieved in my own right, not born of academic success. Although I was proud to become an Honorary Associate Professor for my work in Extreme Medicine in 2019, mostly because it’s not a nominal title but was genuinely earnt through a quarter of a century of work.

At university I studied geography and remember the day a tutor proclaimed: ‘With geography you’re not the master of any trade but jack of all trades. As a subject it ties things together and opens up the world.’ Indeed it does.

I took a year out after I was selected to go to Patagonia with Raleigh International. It was an amazing experience – I rowed down the coast to the San Rafael Glacier where I spent my 21st birthday, incredibly remote and surreal, just a glacier and nothing else. It was also surreal that by chance I passed by the glacier again aboard an expedition ship on my 40th birthday, returning from a summer season working in Antarctica.

Raleigh International is a great resource for people like me, the benefit is astronomical. Careers guidance won’t suggest you try your hand at being a mountain guide, but Raleigh sparks the idea that there’s something different you can do with your life. And actually, I did work as a mountain guide in Marrakech, on Kilimanjaro and in Syria!

No glint of conforming

Raleigh led on to so many fascinating opportunities. Travelling on an avian study in the Northern Territories of Australia crossing one of the most arid, isolated areas on earth, the Tanami Desert to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Back then there wasn’t the tech we all rely on so heavily now; we really were on our own. Even more so when I was a geological field assistant in Central Australia and we were dropped in the bush by helicopter, somewhere no one had ever been. The realisation struck that if for any reason the chopper didn’t return, no-one would have a clue where we were.

The spark for adventure dimmed momentarily for me when I started to think I might need to settle down into a ‘secure’ career and earn a proper wage. I took a graduate job with BT. My colleagues were great, very skilled people but many of them had been there their whole working lives. Very quickly I knew this wasn’t for me, that I wouldn’t be able to conform.

I remember one time I was stuck in a traffic jam with all the windows open, going nowhere, all I could think was what the hell are you doing? Shortly after that, I took a job driving RIBs taking passengers from boats to the shore to explore, in places like Kamchatka in the Far East of Russia, Antarctica, Iceland, Greenland, the Seychelles and Madagascar. I was back on track.

Ignited by a glaring inadequacy

I did some work with charity challenges in Jordan and Israel, the type where members of the public take part in hikes, climbs or bike rides to raise money for charities. The idea behind the challenges was great, but it became pretty clear to me that there were real gaps in the safety elements, especially in terms of medical back up. Sometimes I appeared to know more about medical issues than the support team – and I’d had no medical training.

The pioneering spirit emerged again, and I co-founded a charity challenge organisation – Across the Divide. But the set up was different; I made sure there was always a professional medic included, whether a doctor, nurse or paramedic. You could say we were early pioneers in these sorts of trips.

Across the Divide grew rapidly, at one point we set up around 70 trips in a single year. The BBC asked us to run the Children in Need Rickshaw Challenge and we organised Helen Skelton’s kayak along the Amazon for Sport Relief. Our involvement as Across the Divide was fundamental to raising around £103M for charity, at the same time introducing thousands of people to the outdoors, remote regions and taking them out of their comfort zone.

The spark becomes a flame

The decision to run a one-off training course for medics involved with the charity challenges, or those who wanted to get involved, was the spark that truly became a roaring flame!

During the course there were many lively campfire conversations, and the medics convinced me that their friends would be dead keen to take part in similar training courses. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak, and when they threw down the gauntlet I had to take it up. This first external course took place in the Lake District. It came as a bit of a shock when 70 doctors turned up! It became clear there was a burning need for the provision of training courses tailored to professional medics wanting to learn skills in remote medicine. Actually, I wasn’t sure why such courses weren’t already available.

That initial campfire discussion and the first training course were the foundations of the idea for World Extreme Medicine, which I founded in 2000. But having the vision was one thing, the real challenge was to translate this into courses with meaning. Courses combining passion and pragmatism, that medics ask for, but also ones that they need.

Much of the groundwork had already been done with Across the Divide – for example I knew people in Costa Rica who could help with a jungle course. I’d worked as a dog sled guide, perfect to inform the polar course. I had the contacts, skills, people, equipment, but needed to build medicine into the idea. I don’t have a medical background and it’s difficult for a non-clinician to create a medical discipline. The success of World Extreme Medicine is down to the generosity of the many clinicians who’ve supported me along the way.

For me, there’s always a need to keep pushing boundaries, keep learning, keep developing. Hence the annual World Extreme Medicine Conference; the first ever MSc in Extreme Medicine at the University of Exeter (and now the second at Northeastern in the States starting later in 2023); supporting film production for the likes of Mission Impossible, Jack Ryan and Transformers with consultancy and medical back up; founding Medics4Ukraine which has provided over £2M in supplies and training for Ukraine frontline medics.

But you’ll have to come back to find out more on that, in my Part Two!

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