I write to you today from the bottom of a very large hole.
I have spent the last few months digging this hole.
Sometimes I pause digging and ask myself: “Tom, if no expedition you’ve ever organised has gone to plan, nor ended in the way you intended, why are you spending so much time digging yet another hole for yourself?”
This is a strange fact that has come out of my introspections:
No expedition I’ve ever led has turned out like it ‘should’ have.
For fun, let’s revisit this catalogue of errors.
First and still so very memorable was that bikepacking trip in the Scottish Highlands a decade ago. We were supposed to wild-camp a loop from Inverness through the Western Highlands and back. Instead, we spent half our time in bothies and hostels, the other half soaked and shivering, and only made it to Fort William before running out of time and taking the bus back to where we started.
Then came Ride Earth. With a monumentally grand plan came also the most monumental failure to achieve my stated goals. Like the arrogant 22-year-old that I was, I flippantly proposed to the world that I would cycle all the way round it. Off road. And that everyone should be watching my heroic escapade.
What happened instead? I ended up cycling halfway across a continent I’d never planned to visit, lost the vast majority of my friends, pulled a U-turn in Ulan Bator, and decided that cycling round the world could go to hell and got married instead. The round-the-world bike ride remains unfinished to this day. As a spectacular failure by my own definition of success, this really is something I am unlikely to ever outdo. (Cool story, too.)
I set off to cycle from Oslo to Tromso in the middle of winter; I only made it to Bodo. I set off to cycle from Vancouver to Los Angeles; I only made it to San Francisco. I set off to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats without any money; I only made it to Edinburgh and I spent £0.25. I set off to follow Iran’s longest river from source to sea; I neither found the true source, nor dipped my toes in the Persian Gulf.
The moment I discovered this startling fact was when in late 2014 I joined a horseback expedition, led by Leon McCarron, to follow the Rio Santa Cruz in southern Patagonia from sea to source. My job was to film the journey. It was only upon arriving at the source that I realised: this was the first time I’d ever celebrated completing an expedition!
Why this list of failures? And why draw attention to them? Shouldn’t I be embarrassed? Isn’t success important any more?
Herein lies one of the deepest and most common points of misunderstanding about what I do and why I do it.
None of these projects actually failed.
Less I overstate the point, is the only definition of success and failure that I (or anyone else who does what they do for the love of it) should care about is my personal definition.
And while it is often necessary to provide one-sentence summaries of journeys for the consumption of people who aren’t really interested and will immediately forget about them, the driving force behind all of these trips has been a desire to experiment and to learn, not to cross a predetermined finish line. This curiosity and willingness to seek new experiences is, to me, what adventure is really about.
Setting an outward goal can provide direction, sure – that’s useful. But when all’s said and done and I’m back home to decompress, I really won’t be losing any sleep over failing to reach the place I originally imagined reaching. As Leon quipped at the end of Karun, such unexpected endings are “the definition of doing something for the journey rather than the destination”.
So much for me shouting adventure philosophy from the bottom of a very deep hole. The question remains: Why so much planning right now, when the historical record shows that I am probably planning to ‘fail’ again?
This one is different. Well, it’s the same, but it’s different. Allow me to explain.
In the past, my goals have not mattered to anyone. I could have pretended that they did, and analysed at length my abject failure to achieve them, perhaps designing a new corporate motivational speech about the importance of failure, because I needed a new talk anyway.
But we’re talking here about building the first long-distance hiking trail across a nation of 3.2 million people – for those 3.2 million people.
This project is clearly no longer just about me.
Of course there is a personal element to this. It underlies the whole project; I crave a deeper knowledge of these lands I find myself living in, and the opportunity to gain that knowledge by building something – rather than just flitting through on some personal jaunt – is wonderfully enticing, and has motivated me to sit behind my laptop all winter, making connections and laying plans so I can do it.
But if the output of all of this really is going to a trail that is effective and sustainable and well-designed and ultimately used… then it would be irresponsible not to think long-term from the very beginning. After all, I might, in five years’ time, decide I want to move on from Armenia. What will happen then? The ‘Tom Allen Trail’ won’t maintain itself!
This has happened before in the region. One anecdote I’ve heard mentions a Polish team who decided that it would be cool to build a trail in northern Georgia. They turned up, cut a route according to the Polish national standards, waymarked it according to the Polish national standards, celebrated, and promptly left. Nobody in Georgia had anything to do with it. Nobody really knows about it. And, because nobody in Georgia really cares, the trail will become another overgrown relic in a country which does not need any more overgrown relics than it already has. (Or so the story goes.)
What this trail could – and should – become is a piece of the region’s heritage. What it could do is initiate multiple nationwide movements towards creating accessible, sustainable trail networks. Because while locals know the good routes and the beauty spots, visitors still have no way of getting at this information. What it could do is bring much-needed opportunity to a great many small and isolated rural settlements.
But all of this will involve a lot more thought than if I were to simply head out with a GPS unit and a bucket of paint, which is what my previous journeys have taught me to do.
So let me give you a run-down of what this hole I’ve been digging looks like.
Firstly, you may have pictured me alone, and slightly soiled.
But the last few months have resulted in the profound and heartening realisation that I am not alone. Not by a long way.
Allow me to introduce some of my new friends, beginning with the people I met in Yerevan when I opened my mouth last summer and started blabbing about this idea.
There’s Raffi, who created the Janapar Trail I was hiking when this idea coalesced. While he’s far too modest to mention it, he’s one of the most knowledgeable people in the known universe about the traditional lands of the Armenians. Raffi has explored and documented it all. He wrote the book on Armenian cultural heritage sites. Literally. He’s a walking font of knowledge.
Then there’s Alessandro, an Italian robotics engineer in the most unlikely – or perhaps not? – scenario of having married an Iranian-Armenian wife and ended up living in Yerevan. When I met him last year, he’d recently quit his job and was looking for something to do, ideally involving the outdoors and helping other people explore Armenia. Bingo.
Now for a story that neatly illustrated the serendipitous nature of an idea whose time has come. Because I am hopelessly idealistic and really just want peace on Earth and goodwill to all people, I didn’t envisage this trail ending at the Armenian borders. No; I thought it would be completely awesome if it continued up into Georgia and down into Iran.
I had visions of one day being able to make a journey from the Caspian Sea coast, where the Lesser Caucasus morphs into the Alborz, all the way through north-west Iran and Armenia, into Georgia and across the land bridge to the Greater Caucasus, ending up in Russia, beyond Sochi, not too far from Crimea, where the mountains once again tailed off.
Now that would be an epic route to hike.
And its name – obviously – would be the ‘Transcaucasian Trail’.
I went online to register transcaucasiantrail.com.
And discovered that – just three months earlier – someone had already registered it.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Paul Stephens and Jeff Haack of the newly formed Transcaucasian Trail Association!
It quickly transpired that Paul and Jeff had had precisely the same idea, and had come up with precisely the same name. A few weeks ago, Alessandro and I went to meet the two former Peace Corps volunteers in Tbilisi, Georgia, and one thing became immediately obvious: each pair of us contained one floppy-haired writer and one bald-headed computer geek. We should obviously be working together.
What fitted even more snugly than Jeff and Alessandro’s matching woollen hats was the fact that their efforts were focused largely on Georgia and an east-to-west route across the Greater Caucasus, while my ideal route had steered north-to-south through the Lesser Caucasus. Thus a division of labour emerged naturally, and the Transcaucasian Trail idea morphed into a small network; two distinct trails, each roughly 1,500km in length, spanning the entire Caucasus region, with a linking trail to join them.
More links began to form. Paul and Jeff had fortuitously stumbled upon Marta, a development professional with close ties to Georgia and Armenia who had taken the project to heart and was driving for the participation of local hiking groups and villagers in the project, as well as the national governments of the two main countries the route would pass through.
They’d also met James, who ran an award-winning conservation-focused tour operator and was pushing strongly for the inclusion of the 20 or so Georgian and Armenian national parks within the route as a means of drawing attention to the embattled conservation efforts underway in an ecologically important but notoriously troubled region.
And they put us in touch with Vahagn, a native Armenian who was already deeply embedded with the local conservation efforts and a major driving force for ecotourism and sustainable transport in Armenia.
There are many more – local and national hiking groups and experts, people and organisations with similar interests, and volunteers who have kindly offered to donate their time and energy to making these trails a reality.
And I mention all of the people because you’re going to be seeing a lot more of them over the coming months.
All this hole-digging hasn’t just unearthed a good wedding’s worth of contacts and collaborators in the Caucasus.
We also now have a Plan.
The plan is actually quite simple, of course.
It is to build the Transcaucasian Trail.
It only starts getting complicated when we subdivide it into its component parts.
The first axis of subdivision is time. Luckily, the Earth’s orbit around the Sun does this for us by creating years, and with them, seasons. Our work this year, then, will consist of whatever we can fit in between May and October when the climate is more or less favourable to being outdoors – a nice six-month chunk of time in which to aim to achieve something.
What is that something going to be? That’s where the next subdivision comes in: work. And it helps to to begin with the end in mind. What will the finished trail look like?
A hiking route is nothing if there are no hikers on it. How do we get hikers to hike it? By telling them about it, which means having a plan for how to publicise its existence. What will hikers need to hike it successfully? Information. What kind of information? Visible trails, waymarks, paper maps, written guides, digital navigation aids. How do we get hold that information? Gather it!
And how do we do that, while at the same time making people aware of the developing trail?
Go out, explore, and tell the story.
Ah… now we’re getting somewhere. This is what I’ve spent the last decade or so getting comfortable with: going on adventures and sharing them.
All of a sudden, I found myself planning a Transcaucasian Expedition!
So what will this expedition look like?
Well, at 30km/day, with a few rest days, 1,500km of trail would take a competent hiker about two months to cover.
But the trail doesn’t exist. We don’t yet know what the best route will be. We don’t know what existing trails there are. We haven’t consulted the professional local guides. We haven’t asked any villagers or shepherds or hunters for their suggestions. We haven’t zoomed in on Google Earth and started tracing lines. We haven’t been there ourselves.
Let’s assume that we need to cover at least three times the finished trail’s length – 4,500km – to find our prototype trail route.
At a slower pace of 25km/day – leaving time for the digital mapping work we’ll have to do in the absence of reliable, up-to-date maps, and the photography and video we’ll need to do to communicate effectively – we’re looking at more like six months of exploring.
Well, hey, if it doesn’t sound like we’ll need the whole of 2016 just to figure out the route! (This is a long-distance hiking trail, after all.)
So doesn’t it sound like an obvious goal for the Transcaucasian Expedition to design and map the prototype route for the north-south corridor of the trail?
Many considerations sprang forth as I continued to subdivide. We’ll need to break up the route into manageable sections. We’ll need to find local experts and learn enough of the language to communicate with them. We’ll need some sort of basecamp to do the work of turning our explorations into useful data and ultimately into resources to hike the trail. We’ll need our own transport – not just to get from basecamp to the trailheads, but to cart around the equipment to do the surveying, to bring passengers along with us, and to live out in the wilderness while we’re doing the work.
These questions and a million others are the reason I’ve been digging this hole.
But hey, it’s shaping up to be a pretty neat hole, and there are some cool people in here with me. And I get the funny feeling that I’m about to break through into some kind of new and unexplored place. That’s pretty exciting.
I can now confirm that the day we’ll be starting our fieldwork in earnest is Tuesday April 26th.
On that day, a few rather exciting announcements are going to surface. To help drum up interest in the project, we’ll be making a big fiasco of departing from London and heading for the Caucasus, before we get down to the nitty-gritty of mapping and designing 1,500km of brand new hiking trail for the following six months.
The story will be shared live on Instagram and Twitter, as well as my personal Facebook page and the Transcaucasian Trail community page. Do head over and follow these channels if you’re interested to see what’s coming. Someday soon, this trail is going to need hikers!
If you’re in London on the 26th, a few of us are going to be giving a presentation at Stanfords travel bookstore in Covent Garden at 6:30pm. James and Marta will explain all about the Transcaucasian Trail project, Alessandro and I will outline our expedition plans, and there’ll be Georgian and Armenian wine on tap!
Check out the Eventbrite listing to reserve your ticket. There’s only space for 50, so please RSVP without delay if you’d like to be there.
In the meantime, of course, I will continue to wonder: is all this planning is just another set-up for an unexpected outcome?
Only one way to find out…