Erden Eruç has more time at sea in a rowboat than anyone alive, nearly three years all told, including 312-days alone on the Pacific. The 59-year-old Seattleite was the first person to circumnavigate the globe alone and under his own power, crossing the world’s three great oceans—Pacific, Indian and Atlantic—in an expedition that took five years and consumed his life savings.
By the time Eruç finished that 41,196-mile lap around the planet in 2012, he’d also cycled across Australia, Africa and most of the United States, hiked the breadth of New Guinea, and climbed the highest peaks on three continents. But he also skipped three summits, which explains why he’s starting another self-propelled global circuit this month. He has unfinished business, namely Aconcagua, Elbrus and Everest. A second circumnavigation (or close to it) just comes with the territory, along with an unprecedented ocean row from California to Hong Kong, or maybe Vietnam. Ocean rowboats don’t always go where you point them.
The project started as an office-cubicle dream, and later became a tribute to Swedish adventurer Göran Kropp, who famously cycled from his home in Stockholm to Everest, dragging more than 230 pounds of gear and supplies, then summiting without supplemental oxygen. Eruç’s round-the-world fantasy seemed to channel the spirit of Kropp’s adventures, and when the two met at a book-signing the Swede encouraged him to pursue it. The second time they met, Kropp asked why he hadn’t started. The third time, they went rock climbing, and Kropp fell to his death. Eruç was at the other end of the rope.
“On the way back from Göran’s funeral, I drew the world map on a piece of paper, the proverbial napkin, and marked the highest summit on each continent except Antarctica,” Eruç told Adventure Journal. “No more excuses. Cash out the retirement funds and get on the road.”
Adventure Journal: How did you meet Göran Kropp?
Erden Eruç: He came to Seattle for a presentation in the summer of 2001. I was one of the officers of the Cascade section of the American Alpine Club and before the crowds arrived we had a chance to chat a little bit. When I told him about what I was going to do he said, ‘When are you starting?’ Of course I had no answer.
That was 2001, and we ran into each other in February of 2002 in Ouray, Colorado during the ice climbing festival. He asked me, ‘Haven’t you started yet?’ and I gave more excuses. I hadn’t committed yet, so he was calling me out on it.
We just had these fleeting crossings of our paths, but in Ouray he told me he was going to move near Seattle and we should go climbing together. He went to Everest one more time, climbed it with [his fiancée] Renata, and then in September of 2002 I got this email out of the blue saying, ‘I’m around, let’s go climbing.’ And there was excitement, naturally. There was a lot of anticipation of possibilities and friendships to come, and that was a tragedy of it all because during that climb, we had the accident.
We went to Frenchman Coulee on the Columbia River Gorge. These are half-rope-length climbs on basalt columns, with cracks and corners and arêtes galore. We were climbing one crack after the other, inside corner, outside arête, bolted, not bolted. And then, the last climb of the day, the accident.
We were a party of four. Two other friends were on a parallel crack a bit farther away, maybe a hundred yards away from us. And he was above me climbing. He got very close to the chains, and then I heard the clatter right above me. It’s a vertical 90-degree vertical climb. So I heard the clatter and glanced up. I barely saw him falling. I pulled out as much rope as I could, dropped on my knee to take any slack in the system. The first pro that he hit broke a carabiner. It was an open-gate failure. The carabiner nudged against the rock and opened the gate. And so with that he picked up more speed and then the next piece pulled out of the rock with the force generated. Of course it was a short climb. There was no holding him after that.
As I dropped on my left knee the rope just slithered down and then went tight. As it did, it wrapped around my arm so my left triceps got bashed in the process. The Army dust-off helicopter came and picked us up. We landed, he went to the morgue and I went to the emergency room. That was the last I saw him.
It’s natural to think about the what-ifs, to ask yourself what you could have done differently. Is that something you dealt with after the accident?
The writing of the accident report was cathartic for me. Friends picked me up from the emergency room, brought me home. It was like 2:00 in the morning and the accident report had to be written because everybody was going to ask what happened. And clearly, I question what happened.
It affected me more in how I live my life, rather than what I could have done differently. I had done everything that I could. His pro [protection] failed. My conscience was clear, but it certainly gave me the reason, the swift kick in my rear to get going because I had put my dream on hold for the longest time, making up excuses. This meant that there were going to be no more excuses.
Göran was already an iconic figure when you met, and you were basically a guy with a crazy dream. What did it mean that he took an interest in you?
Clearly, he made me feel special but I am certain he was like that with everyone he met. That was his personality. I was just another guy with a dream, yet he didn’t put it down. Until then the reaction that I got from people was typically, ‘Have you done anything like that before?’ I don’t know what it is in our culture. Everybody is wired to ask that question. Immediately they start sizing you up. They do not ask, ‘What are you doing in preparation?’ or ‘What do you foresee as your challenges?’ There are a million other questions one can ask, but the standard comeback is always ‘Have you done anything like that before?’
But Göran’s reaction was to encourage you.
His first question was, ‘When are you starting?’ and I had no answer for that. It had been since ’97 after I traced my finger across the world map sitting in an IT lab. I had come up with this idea that I would take my journey over the Bering Strait to Turkey where I was from, and I even gave it a name, Journey Home. And then I started asking what-if and each what-if question was a problem to be solved. I’m an engineer; I’m wired that way. And so it became this quiet obsession. I quickly learned that not everybody needed to know. I had to protect that dream while it took root.
Was that because your motivation was to be the first to circle the globe under human power, and you didn’t want to give away the plot?
It was just the idea. You can go from Point A to Point B and if nobody has done that before, fine—call it a first. But later it evolved into ‘Can I bring it back to where I started?’ And the more I looked at who was doing similar things, I came across Jason Lewis, who had started a journey from Greenwich in London, and he was doing a proper circumnavigation and he worked hard with the Guinness Book of World Records and other authorities to establish the rules for a circumnavigation by human power. So I established contact with him.
Circumnavigation is a journey that starts and ends at the same place, travels generally in the same direction around the world, and goes through at least one pair of antipodes along the way. Jason Lewis became the first person eventually to be awarded the first circumnavigation by human power, but he had partners on his ocean crossings and a pedal driven vessel. I was alone on a rowboat on the ocean crossings, so I got the first solo circumnavigation by human power. That’s what Guinness calls it. I like to call it self-propelled because I was not necessarily alone, especially on the land phases.
So that’s the circumnavigation. What about the summits along the way—the ‘Around-n-Over’ mission?
The name Around-n-Over actually rolled off my tongue when I was tracing my finger across that map in the office. I would bicycle from the east, traverse Everest then bicycle on west around the northern hemisphere and over the top of Everest. It became this mantra that I repeated to myself as I was doing that daydreaming, and then eventually found a place when we established the nonprofit. On the way back from Göran’s funeral in November 2002 in Stockholm, I drew the world map on a piece of paper, the proverbial napkin, and marked the highest summit on each continent except Antarctica. I said I’m going to do the circumnavigation and along the way I’m going to tag the summits on each continent. And with that thought, the Six Summits project was born.
The accident happened in September. I decided to do it in November, and on February 1st 2003 I left Seattle, bicycling north on icy roads of British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska, using studded tires on my bicycle and towing my climbing gear like Göran had to Everest. It was funny, people were asking me, ‘Have you bicycled that far before?’ but I knew if I covered 50 miles a day I would get there by mid-April. I got to Anchorage April 11th. Two friends met me south of the mountain and we walked the length of the Kahiltna Glacier. It took us two weeks to cover that distance. Two other friends flew in bringing additional supplies and we summited on the 29th of May.
That was the first summit, and during my circumnavigation, I walked up Kosciuszko [the highest point in Australia] with my wife Nancy in April 2010. And then after I rowed across the Indian Ocean, I climbed Kilimanjaro with Nancy and my father and a dozen friends, raising funds to build a classroom for children of the porters that helped us. That climb happened in June of 2011.
Then I hurried to finish the circumnavigation because I was getting no coverage, no sponsors, and we were amassing huge budget deficits. The financial crisis really messed up all available sponsorships, and what I had was weakening. So When I left Australia, I made a decision to bypass Everest and Elbrus. Then when I got to Africa, Nancy was getting impatient. ‘Where’s the joy?’ she was saying, and I said I need to finish or nothing is going to happen. I need a feather on my cap. So basically, I ran for the finish line and bypassed Aconcagua as well.
So now it’s nine years later, and you’ve got unfinished business?
Everest, Elbrus, and Aconcagua remain on my to do list. So next is Everest for me. For that I am planning to launch on the Pacific Ocean in mid-June from Crescent City, California and row non-stop preferably to Hong Kong. That’s a difficult target given the currents between the Philippines and Hong Kong or mainland China, so if I can’t line it up I will continue on to Vietnam and then figure out how to get to the foothills of Everest from there.
Let me take you back to something you said a moment ago. Your wife asked you where’s the joy. Did you find it?
The joy was everywhere. If I chose to find it, the journey provided. Everybody that I needed to move the journey showed up on my path, and it never failed. I always found answers to my questions, and if I needed help people showed up. It’s like Joseph Campbell saying if you follow your bliss, invisible hands will open doors that you didn’t know existed along your path. So that promise was fulfilled for me, and that is the reward. That is the joy when you realize that, yes, this is the path I was supposed to be on, and I don’t know the future, but I know it’s going to be okay.
That faith in pushing forward is what keeps the journey going. There’s also the promise. I said to myself, I am going to reach these six summits in Göran’s memory. I have another 10 years in me and I have not given up on that.
There’s a long list of records on your website, but the one that stuck with me is for the longest time alone at sea in a rowboat. Three hundred and twelve days.
That got broken actually in the 2018/2019 season by Jacob Adoram. I still have the cumulative totals in days at sea as a solo rower and distances covered solo and overall, including two-person rows. Depending on who’s counting, I either have 928 or 934 cumulative days at sea. That’s a record right now for a rower that is alive. The real record belongs to Peter Bird of 937 days. He was lost at sea trying to row from Vladivostok to California.
The week after I launch from Crescent City, I will take over his record, will have matched his level of commitment, let’s say. And every morning after that is a new record.
Do you want the longest alone record back?
No, he can keep that one. I’m just saying that my row to preferably Hong Kong is going to be just about 10 months.
And then there’s the little matter of climbing Everest.
First I have to get there! I would like to climb it from the Tibetan side. So right now, one huge problem I have is that China is closed to foreigners due to the pandemic. They’re not issuing visas. I have my vaccinations. I pleaded with them saying I will have been at sea alone for 10 plus months and that’s enforced quarantine. They said there will be no exceptions.
That means if I can’t line up Hong Kong, I will have to bypass the entire Chinese mainland and carry on to Vietnam. I can’t land on mainland China at this point. I will have a high frequency hydrophone on board, recording ambient sounds for beaked whale research. I will have a terminal for high-bandwidth communications, GPS galore, cameras—I mean I can be accused of being a spy.
Has anyone yet gone mainland to mainland across the Pacific from North America to Asia?
No, it’ll be a historic first. People haven’t done this because the risk is high. One has to really mind the storm risk, so it’s not going to be trivial and I will need some luck. If I make the distance between Hawaii and Guam or the Marianas safely, then I should be okay. That’s the risky episode in this whole crossing, where in late September through mid-November, I might get a big storm. There will be storms, but hopefully they will not be typhoons.
So you land somewhere in Asia but not China, and then bike to Everest?
Yes. I will bicycle from my point of landfall in July and August to the foothills of Everest—assuming China is open to foreigners by then. I don’t know how else I am going to get to Everest because the alternative would be to bicycle through Myanmar and they’re having a civil war right now. That would be a different level of madness.
You’re going to follow your bliss and the doors are going to open.
After I get off Everest, assuming I am successful, that winter I would bicycle through Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia, to the border of Georgia, where Elbrus is, and climb that in March 2023. Then I would pass through Turkey and bicycle to the southwest corner of Portugal. And then in probably late October or early November 2023 I would launch from there toward French or British Guyana for a landfall in South America, and then find my way south to Aconcagua. That’s as far as I’ve penciled it.
By that point you’ll almost have another circumnavigation. You could just bike home to Seattle.
Yes, except for the Darién Gap. I’d have to do that on foot.
One question is in the back of my mind, and I hesitate to ask because you just called people out for always asking this question. In ocean rowing you’ve shown your experience and bona fides, but have you ever climbed an 8000-meter peak like Everest?
The highest I have gone is Mount McKinley.
That’s a big step up. Will you go with a guiding company to mitigate the risk?
No, it’s going to be a small party. I do not want to be part of a big group on Everest. As much as I respect Göran, it’s not feasible for me to bring all my climbing equipment and food all the way from Seattle across the ocean, that would be an impossible task at this point.
Hornbein Couloir has been in my mind for the longest time ever since I read about it in National Geographic when I was in middle school. I read that issue cover to cover, talking about the first ascent of Americans on Everest. Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld did the West Ridge over the top and met the team on the South Col route.
The Traverse. You don’t set small goals do you?
I will not do the traverse. Hornbein Couloir has a special meaning for me as an ideal that needs to be met. So my eyes are on that one. That would keep me away from the crowds as well. It would be a challenging route option, but it would keep me alone and true on the mountain. You can have faith that I will give it my best.
Do you feel as if you’re carrying Göran’s legacy?
Not his legacy, but the spirit of how he carried on his journey is certainly with me. He basically set a new standard.
Do you have sponsors lined up? Obviously the physical act of doing this is very, very difficult. But in the world we live you also have to pay for it.
World Clinic is going to give me remote medical services, and Ocean Recovery Alliance will be taking on the educational aspects. We’re talking to a couple other organizations but otherwise it’s been donations and our own money. I do not have a title sponsor for this journey. I have the rowboat. It’s the same one I used in the circumnavigation. I bought it used after it had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice.
I gave Nancy three promises before starting the circumnavigation 2007. I said, ‘I’m not going to die, we’re not going to go bankrupt and I’m not going to lose you.’ So if faced with any of these dilemmas, I will stop. So far, she’s with me and we haven’t gone bankrupt, though we have spent my entire retirement savings on this. I have proven to the world that I put my money where my mouth is.
I have also proven that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything that you have historic firsts or break records. The sponsors have to choose you. I just have to keep doing what I do, and perhaps they will eventually choose me. If not, I need to carry on.
Does that bother you?
I’m not beating myself up about that anymore. It really dragged me down during the circumnavigation. I had expectations of media coverage, which would give me visibility, which would drive donations, which would get our non-profit to do its thing. And I had all these expectations and I felt like I was getting no traction and I felt like an imposter, basically. I stopped standing in front of children as a mission of our non-profit and telling them that if you are the best in what you do, society will reward you. I can’t say that to children with a straight face anymore.
You’re just starting again. Have you let yourself think about finishing?
I have a piece of rock that I picked up from where Göran last laid, and that is going to be planted on top of Everest when I get there. That will be where I may finally say this dedication is done, though I will still have Elbrus and Aconcagua to go to, I will probably leave it there and say the rest is for me.