On Top of the World
Knocking off adventure firsts is nothing to scoff at. But David de Rothschild plans to use his far-flung expeditions for something else entirely.
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DAVID DE ROTHSCHILD could easily afford to spend the rest of his life idly lounging on a beautiful island—the 27-year-old Brit is an heir to one of the most famous fortunes in banking. He’s also been blessed with charm and good looks. (In 2003 he was second on Tatler magazine’s list of the hottest bachelors in the United Kingdom, beating out both Prince Harry and Hugh Grant.) Hell, he’s even six-four. But checking out would be way too self-indulgent for the hyperactive de Rothschild, who completed a trek across Antarctica via the South Pole in January 2005, and five months later set a speed record for crossing the Greenland ice cap. Instead of getting fitted for a smoking jacket, the London-based de Rothschild has launched himself on a series of grand expeditions to the corners of the earth. His aim: to use the romance of adventure, and the power of the Internet, to unite the world’s schoolchildren in the fight against global warming and environmental degradation. “My brother wonders why I can’t just throw an egg at the prime minister,” says de Rothschild, “but we live in a world obsessed by events, and we have to create events to make people sit up and notice.”
That’s the sort of thinking that inspired de Rothschild and three others to set off in early March in an attempt to make the first British crossing of the Arctic Ocean, from Russia to Canada via the North Pole. De Rothschild calls this Mission 1 for Adventure Ecology, the brand name he’s given his environmental crusade. He is accompanied by 50-year-old veteran Canadian polar guide Paul Landry, who’s been to each of the poles a record three times; Landry’s daughter, Sarah, 20, who skied to the South Pole in 2005 and could become the youngest person to tag both poles; 38-year-old British photojournalist Martin Hartley; and 16 raucous sled dogs.
“Hello, I am on top of the world, floating around on a big chunk of ice,” de Rothschild deadpans during a sat-phone call from the 83rd parallel in early March. His fingers have been cracking from the cold—he’s been using hockey tape to repair them—and he reports that hungry polar bears have been fearless in their pursuit of the Mission 1 team. De Rothschild has been understanding, even after one tried to eat a flare shot its way, noting that there are “four steaks on legs and 16 cocktail sausages” trespassing on their turf. He hopes he doesn’t have to shoot one. “That wouldn’t be very environmental, would it?” he says.
No one in de Rothschild’s family is surprised that he’s off in the Arctic wilderness. He grew up in London but escaped to the family’s countryside estate as often as he could. There, he learned to ride horses (becoming a junior Olympian) and disappeared on adventures so often that his family had its own version of “Where’s Waldo?” called “Where’s Dave?” “Never one to turn a challenge down, whether it be skydiving, bungee jumping, paragliding, you could always count on Dave to be the first to put his hand up to do the craziest, most dangerous thing possible,” says his 29-year-old brother, Anthony, a London-based music publisher.
Eventually, the childhood forays morphed into triathlon competitions. (He won his age group in San Francisco’s 2002 Escape from the Rock.) After de Rothschild graduated from London’s College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2003, he shipped out to New Zealand’s South Island, where he bought an 1,100-acre farm he used to develop self-sufficient organic-farming techniques.
It was during his 58-day slog across Antarctica that de Rothschild had the epiphany that led to Adventure Ecology. “Adventure is quite a selfish pursuit sometimes, because it’s about you and your goals,” de Rothschild says. “I decided I’d like to make education the vein that runs through everything.”
De Rothschild’s Mission 1 has a well-presented, standard expedition Web site, but he’s also launched a site called Mission Control, and it’s here that his Internet strategy gets more energetic. (Both can be accessed at www.adventureecology.com.) It’s a gateway for kids (the target age range is nine to 12) to learn about global environmental problems and the issues surrounding the fragile terrain de Rothschild is exploring. Mission Control also provides a place to blog, chat with other Adventure Ecology Club members around the globe, or play a few enviro-branded video games, like racing alternative-fuel snowmobiles across the tundra while dodging polar bears.
“His name conjures up the wrong preconceptions in people’s minds,” says London-based polar explorer Ben Saunders, 29, who met de Rothschild last October at the Pop!Tech ideas symposium in Camden, Maine. “But they’re blown away when they meet him. I admire his goal of getting kids enthusiastic about adventure and the wider world out there.”
Even as de Rothschild trudges across the ice, he’s already planning Mission 2, which will launch late this year or early in 2007 and will take him either to the Amazon region or on a trek from the world’s deepest freshwater lake, Siberia’s Lake Baikal, to the arid vastness of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Other expeditions—to places like East Africa, the coral reefs of the Pacific, and the Andes—will follow. De Rothschild knows there will be people inclined to dismiss him as a rich dilettante cloaking boyish adventures in high-minded principles. But he’s confident he has the marketing skills to make Adventure Ecology work, and he’s not ashamed to use his name to crack open doors and raise sponsorship funds. (Mission 1 is sponsored by Nikon, Fujifilm, UK gear company Lifeventure, and Sky TV, among others.) “Some people will always make the assumption ‘There’s a rich guy, a Rothschild; he paid a guide, the world’s fucked, and who cares?’ ” he says. “But I could sit there and do nothing or use my name and do something.”
At press time, Mission 1 had reached 86 degrees north latitude (280 miles from the Pole) and was averaging 12 nautical miles a day (they’d been slowed by an unusual number of open-water cracks in the ice). For the latest on the expedition, go to www.adventureecology.com/mission1.