I first heard about ExplorersWeb during my first 8,000m peak expedition to Pakistan in 2009. It didn’t occur to me that the media might be reporting on my movements, but that was essentially what was happening.
I and about 50 other people were climbing Gasherbrum II, and a few of them were live-blogging their expedition dispatches. Reporters from ExplorersWeb were reading the dispatches and posting news about our expeditions on their website.
I try to avoid internet connections when I’m holiday in the mountains, and I would not have known that total strangers were following my movements, but for a strange circumstance. Our expedition leader Phil Crampton was receiving emails from his wife Trish, who was checking ExplorersWeb for news and sending him news reports.
And that, essentially, is how we knew what was going on around base camp. Of course, we talked to other climbers too – base camps are always a hive of gossip, not all of it reliable – but ExplorersWeb was undoubtedly an important source of news.
Which meant, of course, that people sitting in offices and living rooms across the other side of the world knew more about what was happening a few tents down the glacier than we did.
ExplorersWeb has been one of the leading sources of news about adventurous expeditions for many years now. But as they say in the pub trade, it’s now under new management. This means that some important changes are taking place. There is a new team of editors and a new design, but this is just the start.
To find out more about what these changes mean, I spoke to the new owner of ExplorersWeb, Rowan White. Here’s what he said.
(Editor’s note: From time to time, I’ve published the odd spoof interview on this blog, such as this one and this one. For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to stress that this is a serious interview.)
MH: Tell us a little about the history of ExplorersWeb. How did it come into existence and what community did it serve?
RW: ExplorersWeb – or ExWeb as it is known – was launched over 15 years ago by Tina and Tom Sjögren, the first couple to complete the ‘Three Poles Challenge’ by climbing Mount Everest and skiing to both the North and South Poles. Talking with climbers at Everest base camp and explorers around the world, Tina and Tom were frustrated with the bias in the media coverage of exploration, which they saw as focusing on well-funded Anglo-Saxon expeditions and ignoring the achievements of others.
Tina puts it this way: “We started ExWeb because back then it was hard for independent explorers/climbers who wanted to do Everest, the poles, etc., to find resources and information. And we also wanted to give a stage to the folks who did things the hard way. Mainstream media tends to promote locals and/or rich guys buying ads in their magazines. ExWeb makes sure credit is given where credit is due.”
MH: Were the main audiences the adventurers (and the adventure community) themselves, their sponsors, or simply armchair enthusiasts?
RW: Given its beginning, the audience was very much the climbers, explorers and adventurers Tina and Tom had met and come to know, but as the site grew in popularity and reputation, it began to attract the attention of a wider audience, including journalists for Outside, National Geographic and other major publications, who used it as a resource for adventure story leads. Now the audience is a mix of adventurers and enthusiasts. However, a survey of our community last year found that nearly 60% had been on an expedition, defined as lasting 30 days or more, which indicates a strong core of genuine adventurers.
MH: Are Tina and Tom still involved, or have they now moved on to other things?
RW: Tina and Tom put ExWeb up for sale late last year as they were no longer able to give the site the attention it requires because of their newest project: A mission to Mars, alpine style. As such, they are no longer involved in any formal role, although they do kindly check in with me from time-to-time to see how I am doing and offer advice and support.
MH: What’s your background and how did you come to be involved with ExplorersWeb?
RW: I was raised in the UK and moved to Japan in my early 20s, where I have lived for the last 16 years except for a 2-year stint in New Zealand with my partner and our son. Since I was young, I have always played in the outdoors – camping, mountain-biking, swimming in rivers and the like – but this really turned into a passion when I discovered the fun that could be had in the ‘Northern Alps’ of Japan, which is a Mecca for snow sports. At the same time, I have become increasingly interested in physical training and sporting performance over the past 10 years.
My professional background is in Japanese to English translation. It’s a good job; it allows me to work from home and pays reasonably well. But I wanted to integrate my passion for outdoor play and physical improvement into my work while remaining location-free. It was at this time when I first heard of ExWeb and that it was up for sale. It seemed to tick all the boxes, so I reached out to Tina and Tom, and after a one-month ‘intern’ period where they taught me the basics of reporting on expeditions and running the site, we agreed that I would take over.
MH: My own impression of ExplorersWeb has been that it’s a news site for adventurous activities – not just mountaineering, but polar journeys, sailing and even some space exploration. Is this a fair assessment, or is ExplorersWeb more than that?
RW: I’d say that was a fair assessment right now. In its current form, ExWeb reports primarily on high-altitude climbing, as well as polar, river and ocean travel, and even some more peripheral stuff like caving, paragliding, mountain-biking and even wing-suit flying. However, we are also very much a community. In addition to our mailing list, about 1,800 people have created profiles on ExWeb and are able to report directly on their expeditions and the like.
In the past, ExWeb also functioned as a curator of adventure records through the sister site, www.adventurestats.com. This was an important service for the adventure community as a whole, but is incredibly work intensive. We may pick this up again in the future.
MH: What changes have you made so far, and what are your medium and long-term plans for ExplorersWeb? Are you looking to introduce any new types of content?
RW: We relaunched the site in April this year and did a lot of backend stuff, such as migrating the archives of thousands of previous articles from three servers to a single one. This made the site faster and gave it a more modern look, however, it was just the first step. Before I came on, Tina and Tom were in the process of developing ExWeb into a more ‘social’ structure, to facilitate functionality such as a marketplace, expedition partner search/matchmaking, and expedition sponsorship pitching. I also believe in the value of these functions, so rather than introducing new types of content, I think we will be looking to introduce new types of function in the future.
MH: If you don’t mind me asking, how is ExplorersWeb funded – is it a business for you, or is it just something you like to do in your spare time?
RW: Ha, the elephant in the room! Right now, ExWeb is entirely funded by my day job. This, by definition, makes it a hobby, and is not sustainable. As a bare minimum, the site must be self-supporting, but I hope it will provide me with an income in future, which would in turn enable me to spend more time on its development.
The key question is who to choose as the customers of ExWeb – the readers/community or, say, another company such as an outdoor gear manufacturer. This will define the value proposition and the business model. ExWeb has remained fiercely independent over its long history, so I am very wary about bringing in other companies, who may have their own agendas, and how the community will react. But at the same time, advertising is a very attractive option in the short-term, at least.
MH: One of my favourite writers on ExplorersWeb was Raheel Adnan, who covered all the 8,000m peak expeditions in Pakistan and now runs the excellent Altitude Pakistan blog. Who are your writers now and what are their areas of interest/expertise?
RW: Raheel was an excellent writer. He had deep knowledge of the 8,000ers and was able to lay out the context of what was happening very clearly for the reader. Unfortunately, I think he is now busy with family commitments and the demands of his work, as his blog has not been updated since the kick-off of the Himalaya season this year.
In addition to myself and our programmer, we are currently a team of eight. Jerry Kobalenko, our editor, is an accomplished high-arctic traveller and published author. Ash Routen works as a postdoctoral exercise scientist and covers our high-altitude climbing articles. The rest of the team have a broad background and/or interest in long-distance travel, kayaking and other activities.
MH: And finally, what are your aims in reaching out to the Footsteps in the Mountain blog – is there anything my readers can do to help you?
RW: My aim in reaching out to you was to make a connection and hopefully run an interview on ExWeb to let you and your audience know what we are doing. Thank you very much for being so accommodating, Mark 🙂
As for what your readers can do to help? Gosh, where to start?! Of course, I would like them to visit www.explorersweb.com and have a look around. If they have any suggestions or comments about the site or our content, I would love to hear from them – my contact details can be found on the site. We are always keen to hear about any interesting expeditions that deserve coverage.
In particular, I would really like to hear from anyone interested in collaborating with ExWeb. So, if you are involved in a company, project, expedition or the like with aspects in common with ExWeb, definitely drop me a line.
MH: Thanks for you time, Rowan. Good luck with it, and long may ExplorersWeb serve the adventure community for many years to come.