Jaroslav Pavlíček : a lifetime devoted to survival

Jaroslav Pavlíček is a survival expert, author and head of the Eco Nelson Antarctic research station located on Nelson Island in the South Shetlands, about one-hundred kilometres from the Antarctic continent. Mr. Pavlíček was born in 1943, and studied Korean Studies before the Soviet invasion of 1968 resulted in him working in the High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia, thus beginning a lifetime devoted to survival. I began by asking how Pavlíček ended up in the field of Korean Studies and how from there he ended up in the Tatra Mountains.

Jaroslav Pavlíček, photo: Hana SoukupováJaroslav Pavlíček, photo: Hana Soukupová “This was something like a joke for me. I didn’t want to study the Korean language, but ethnography, which was nearer to the subject of survival. Unfortunately, the professor insisted I study this subject, which for me was very difficult.”

So it was regarded as a joke subject?

“It was just a subject that was not possible for me to study and really end up speaking Korean. Unfortunately, this was in the communist era, and the professor said ‘No, you must study Korean!’”

The Soviets invaded in 1968 and you ended up in the High Tatra mountains. What exactly led you there?

“At first I worked as a porter. Eventually, I became leader of a lodge, 2000 metres up in the mountains. It was necessary for all loads to be brought up there by porters.”

So you were carrying supplies. Was that for use by tourists and visitors?

“And there were a lot of rescue actions there too. Because the High Tatras were the only mountains that were open to people from four communist countries [Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and Hungary]. Only one very small area of mountains. Each year, there were fourteen million people visiting – and around twenty-five to thirty-five dead each year.”

And at this time, you hadn’t finished your studies.

“Yes, I had to cancel them and do what worked for me.”

In 1980, you ended up on Mount Everest.

“I was a member of an expedition that for the first time was traversing Everest during winter. But I wasn’t among those to go to the peak. Two people from our expedition endured two unsuccessful ascents, and the third one was a success. I was in the base camp, helping to support the twenty people who were part of the overall expedition.”

Mount Everest, photo: ilker ender, CC BY-SA 2.0Mount Everest, photo: ilker ender, CC BY-SA 2.0 How did this come about? How did you go from being on the Tatras to being on Everest?

“During the communist era, it was very difficult to travel. But in Poland, there was just a little freedom. They invited me to essentially be a correspondent for the Polish winter expedition to Everest. I was the only foreigner on this trip.”

Four years later, in 1984, you traversed Greenland. Tell me about that.

“We crossed Greenland as part of a survival experiment. There were three of us and one went without any tools. There was no radio, no dogs, nobody knew about us. And we crossed Greenland in forty-one days. For survival, the most important thing is hope, because many people end up dead because of fear in such situations.”

Was this with the same group of people with whom you went to Everest? Did you find this group when working in the Tatras?

“Yes.”

A few years later, you began your career as an author writing your first book on survival. So by that stage you had enough experiences to share with readers, right?

“The first edition was in 1987. Since that time, there have been many other editions [of Člověk v Drsné Přírodě]; I think now we are at the sixth or seventh edition in different languages, with about one-hundred thousand units sold.”

What is the book about?

“There are some recommendations about surviving under different conditions, from jungles, to deserts, to high altitudes, to glaciers. We undertook experiments in all parts of the world, and our stable long-term station for these tests is at Antarctica on Nelson Island.”

You first went towards that continent in 1988. How did you end up travelling to the south?

“We went together on a Polish icebreaker with a Polish crew. There was great cooperation with the Poles. We started from Gdynia on the Baltic Sea, towards South America, past Cape Horn, and down to Antarctica. There, we undertook so-called “independence activities” – two people looking for a good place for a research station.”

Antarctica, photo: NASAAntarctica, photo: NASA You already wanted to establish a station there.

“Yeah, I already had the idea, and we spent four months looking for a good spot. Finally, we discovered Nelson Island, where there was no station – nothing at all. The island is about twenty-two kilometres in length and fifteen kilometres wide. The nearest existing station was a Chinese station on King George Island, and there are also another eight stations on that island from places like Chile, Uruguay, Russia, Argentina and South Korea. The last of those is very important for me, as I can have some conversations with the Koreans. There are also stations around from Brazil and Poland.”

So a year later, you began the process of creating what is today known as Eco Nelson Station.

“That’s right. We have three main points to our programme. The first is local survival…”

Let me just interrupt you there so we can explain. So, the Eco Nelson station exists on Nelson Island and you bring students in from around the world, right?

“Yes, for our experiments, we need guinea pigs. All types of people of all ages; disabled people included. Because for the survival handbook, it is necessary to conduct practical experiments. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the founding of the station.”

And the station remains manned at all times, right? You have between one and nine people there.

“And different nations, not only Czech people. There are also people there from around the world.”

Do you do science there as well, or is it just survival training?

“No. The main focus is survival. The second is global surviving, and by that I mean ‘green home’, the idea of living without chemicals and surviving in a natural way. I am not a fanatic, but we try to see what is possible. The third focus is our impact programme, whereby we study the pollution that finds its way to the beaches and shores.”

How did things change for you after 1989 - after the revolution?

“From that time I had a second occupation working in high altitudes, for example on radio masts. Because I was a mountain climber and it provided a good income for me.”

Photo: Karmelitánské nakladatelstvíPhoto: Karmelitánské nakladatelství I have one of your more recent books here, an English-language 2008 translation called A Castaway in the Wilderness. It’s a pocket sized survival guide, right?

“Yes, for your pocket.”

Tell me about some of the basics that you’ve learned about surviving in difficult conditions.

“The number one issue in survival is to not lose your head. Second is safety. Warmth is important, and of course, water. And food, which isn’t as important. Some people think that it is terrible when you’re hungry. Yes, of course it’s terrible, but we know from Ireland, for example, where people were imprisoned for ninety days without food and survived [During the mid-19th century Irish famine. Many Republicans imprisoned by the British survived prolonged periods of starvation]. The food is not so important. Safety, cold or warmth – depending on whether you’re in the desert or a cold environment – water, and after that the rest.”

Have you yourself ever been in a survival situation where your life was in danger?

“Unfortunately, yes! Three years ago, I spent six days on a small island in Antarctica without a sleeping bag with only emergency rations. I describe this story in the new edition of my book, with a full chapter devoted to it.”

Was it cold?

“Not so cold. +1 to -2 Celsius. But these are terrible conditions, of course, because the wind blew at seventy to one-hundred kilometres an hour.”

And were you alone?

“I was alone. Nobody knew about me.”

You didn’t tell anyone? Doesn’t that break a key survival rule of telling someone where you are going?

“Yes. What did I feel? I felt cold, cold, cold. I was not hungry as water and food was no problem. In Antarctica there are lots of mussels to eat on the shore. But it was very cold.”

Could you make a fire, or was there no wood that far south?

“There was some wood, but there was not one small piece on this island by the time I was done.”

What are your future plans?

Every other year, I would like to visit Antarctica. And in the odd years between that, I would like to visit other parts of the world, for example last year I was in Antarctica, before that the Himalayas and the Negev Desert. This Christmas, I would like to visit Korea for the first time.”

Have you ever been to the South Pole?

“No, no. That is not my aim. For me, that place should be visited for science experiments, not as a tourist destination.”