A childhood spent growing up in the wilderness paved the way for a lifetime of travel and adventure for Mark Hannaford.
The Plymouth-born founder of Across the Divide Expeditions and World Extreme Medicine developed a love of being in the great outdoors from early childhood, which was spent growing up in Tavistock, Devon, and exploring Dartmoor.
He said: “Being close to Dartmoor was quite an important part developing my love of the great outdoors, and the fact that it was on the doorstep was quite significant.
“I think because Dartmoor isn’t the kind of place you can necessarily wander around unprepared, that kind of naturally led on to doing things like Ten Tors (a challenge for young people to hike over the rugged terrain of Dartmoor for up to 55 miles over a single weekend) and to doing expeditions – and then making a living out of expeditions.”
| Part of the attraction for a young child collecting stamps was the different countries that were on those stamps and then looking them up on a map
A nautical connection also inspired him. Mark said: “All my family are typically Westcountry and either farmers or sailors – and on my side particularly they all went to sea, so there’s always been a sort of wanderlust in the family tree.
“My father was a captain at sea and as a result we lived in both the West Indies and the Middle East.”
Mark’s first significant trip was at the age of eight or nine when his family moved to Antigua in the West Indies, but prior to this his imagination was captured by stamps. He said: “Part of the attraction for a young child collecting stamps was the different countries that were on those stamps and then looking them up on a map – and then imagining travelling to them.”
All Grown Up
Mark’s early curiosity has now been supplanted by a passion for being outdoors, being in remote locations and going on expeditions.
He said: “I don’t do well working in an office or within a rigid framework, but being outdoors – I know it sounds trite – gives you that oneness with being with nature. It’s almost meditative – things are definitely meditative in terms of being able to switch your mind off to the problems of everyday life, and just being busy, I suppose.”
But indulging his sense of adventure was never going to come without inviting – and planning for – the possibility of dangerous accidents occurring.
Resisting the office saw Mark initially leading expeditions for other companies and being selected for the Special Forces before setting up his own business, Across the Divide Expeditions (ATD), out of which grew World Extreme Medicine (WEM), initially called ‘Expedition & Wilderness Medicine’.
Down to Business
ATD was established in 1997 in response to a growing need for professionally organised charity treks and corporate challenges. Over 20 years it has operated on most of the world’s continents, working with organisations both large and small to raise more than £98m.
Partnered with its sister company WEM, it’s helped Ben Fogle and James Cracknell ride from Edinburgh to London, Helen Skelton and Blue Peter kayak down the Amazon, the BBC Children in Need Rickshaw Challenge team to raise more than £16.4m over the past six years, provided medical support for CBS’s Survivor Series and most recently organised the Sport Relief ‘Mother of all Challenges’ for the One Show raising £790,000.
| I once led a trip to Kilimanjaro. We were given a doctor – but the doctor was actually a psychiatrist
Honing the direction ATD and WEM took as businesses was an organic and pragmatic process.
Mark said: “When we were working for other companies we realised the medical side was often neglected, last minute, or inappropriate.
“I once led a trip to Kilimanjaro. We were given a doctor – but the doctor was actually a psychiatrist.”
When he set up ATD a key priority for Mark was to ensure the expeditions he led were safe.
He said: “At the time we were the first commercial organisation – certainly in Europe – perhaps even in the world, where for every single trip we did, regardless of where it was and what it was, we always took a salaried doctor equipped with a standardised medical kit and backed up by regular medical training.
“The difference was that the doctor was paid, so they weren’t there on holiday, and they weren’t able to say ‘No, I don’t want to treat that person because I’m here on holiday, and that’s not my responsibility’ – because actually it was their responsibility, and we were able to say that to clients.”
It was the doctors themselves who made it apparent that they needed more training.
“They were great hospital doctors,” Mark said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have been working for us. But working in a hospital was clearly very different to working on expeditions.”
After starting internal training courses for the doctors Mark realised he needed to set up something a bit more repeatable and more standardised.
He said: “The first was a medicine course in the Lake District and it attracted 60 doctors. We realised we were not only ideally placed to provide the training, but it also gave Across the Divide a source of really robust doctors who’d done this training and knew what they were doing.”
| Because they were on a trip and somebody spotted it, and a medic got there within minutes, their prognosis was much better – well, they survived
Doctors on ATD expeditions deal with all the run of the mill ailments like sore throats and blisters, but Mark’s team has also had to manage some more alarming situations – badly broken legs, or even a couple of major evacuations from central Asia and India.
One patient suffered a Mallory–Weiss, a tear to the oesophagus. Mark said: “If that particular patient had had that kind of injury in their home in the UK, the chances are that they wouldn’t have been able to make it to the telephone to call for help.
“They would’ve probably have been in a very bad way, but because they were on a trip and somebody spotted it, and a medic got there within minutes, their prognosis was much better – well, they survived. But at home there is a strong chance the outcome might not have been so favourable.”
Keys to Success
Leading people to and through places that may very well put them out of their comfort zones, where they might become tired, cranky or be injured, wouldn’t be the profession of choice for most people. But Mark’s skills and mind-set are unique.
| It grew really quickly and it gave me a lot of the stuff I was joining the regiment to get – but without having to shoot people in the process
He said: “I’m really good in the field and I’m empathetic, so I understand people, generally. When I’m putting teams together I can put people together that are quite disparate on paper, may not seem to naturally work together – but actually do the opposite and get on really well, and perform really highly because everyone recognises everyone else’s strengths.”
Mark said a team in the field needs to have a range of both technical skills and personality skills.
“From having pushed myself quite hard in solitary events and going off on a task, I understand my own mind better than perhaps some other people do. But it also means I can understand other people’s stresses.”
In the first year WEM did three trips, which grew to six trips the following year and to 12 in its third year.
Mark said: “It grew really quickly and it gave me a lot of the stuff I was joining the regiment to get – but without having to shoot people in the process… So that worked out quite well.”
More of a Mission than an Expedition
Leading a convoy of trucks across war-torn Syria to build a new hospital – Hope Hospital for Children – rates high on Mark’s list of triumphs.
This was the world’s first crowd-funded hospital, driven by British-Syrian doctor Rola Hallam. Having raised a staggering £246,505 in just 14 days, Rola approached Mark for logistical help with moving a convoy of loaded trucks from London to Syria.
This became known as 'The People’s Convoy’ and Mark took on the enormous and potentially very dangerous responsibility of helping with the logistics of this huge task.
He said: “It was one of the rare times where I was following somebody else’s vision rather than my own, so that was a really interesting experience. It was really positive.
“The timeline from when the idea appeared to when we made delivery was literally four weeks. It was an interesting process working to those very tight deadlines.”
Where to Next?
There’s certainly a driven element to Mark, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Adventure, fundraising, and keeping people safe while they’re doing it remain central driving forces.
He said: “This year, if it all goes to plan, Across The Divide will end 2018 having helped raise well over £100,000,000 (US$ 140M) – a truly amazing team effort and life journey for me personally, surrounded by incredibly inspiring people and life-long friends.”
| I’m fortunate to do for a living what I would otherwise do for passion
But does he ever want to slow down and put his feet up? Take a break or ‘staycation’?
“There are still loads of places that I want to go to, and want to go back to,” he said.
“What I’m driven by now is going to places where you can get outdoors properly – where it’s not raining a lot, and where it’s not freezing cold. I’m quite drawn to the desert and to mountain ranges and long treks.
“I’ve never been driven to do climbing stuff – like just get to the top of Everest. When you get to the top you’ve got nowhere to go except for down, whereas when you do journeys, for instance crossing the Sahara or walking along a mountain range, you’ve always got somewhere else to go to – it’s a never-ending journey.”
For Mark, holidays and work are virtually the same.
He said: “I’m fortunate enough to do for a living what I would otherwise do for passion, which I guess is what makes us so driven and able to achieve so much – because we’re doing something we truly believe in. It allows us to achieve more.”