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Photograph by Alexandria Bombach, National Geographic
Published June 21, 2013
From the first moment he was forced to sit still and face a chalkboard, Gregg Treinish had a pathological aversion to traditional classrooms. Instead he found an alternative route to getting an education, and he's been breaking new trails ever since—both physically and figuratively.
He and partner Deia Schlosberg became the first to trek a 7,800-mile route across the entire Andes Mountain chain, for which National Geographic named them Adventurers of the Year in 2008. Two years ago he founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), which connects scientists with outdoor athletes who want to contribute to scientific knowledge.
Now 30 and a member of National Geographic's Emerging Explorer program, Treinish recently sat down with NGM editor Peter Gwin to explain how ASC works, his teenage fascination with Jane Goodall, and the principle of the bounce box.
I've heard Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation described as a "Match.com for researchers and adventure athletes." What does that even mean?
There are thousands of adventure athletes with different abilities and skill sets traveling all over the planet. They go to places where researchers would like to gather data but don't have the funding to mount an expedition, or don't possess the skills required to get there. Or maybe a scientist needs lots of data, and the more people who can help collect it the better. So I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to somehow harness some of the energy and expertise that goes into 'playing' in these landscapes and channel it toward helping advance science?" Everybody wins.
What's your average project like?
There really isn't an average project. So far we've worked with 110 scientists and more than a thousand adventure athletes. At one end of the spectrum, we've got people collecting snow samples in polar and high alpine regions to use in climate research. At the other end, we've got road bikers collecting photos of roadkill for the UC Davis Road Ecology Center and iNaturalist.org.
A cynic might say that it's a way to assuage some sort of modern guilt for buying an expensive road bike or taking an elaborate trip.
I don't think so. It's about people who care about an environment but don't know exactly what they can do to help preserve it. I wanted to provide anyone who loves the outdoors—a banker who goes out biking or a college kid who likes to hike or someone who is a serious climber—a way to contribute to preserving these landscapes. ASC is not about making you feel good. ASC is about empowering people to make a difference if they want to. If you feel good doing that, then so be it.
You've described your teenage years in Cleveland as "rough" and said that your stubbornness got you into trouble. Can you talk about that a little bit?
It wasn't like I was in gangs or anything like that. Starting in first or second grade, I got kicked out of every class, multiple times. I was labeled an at-risk youth, and my parents considered sending me to special schools. I ended up getting expelled from my high school when I was 16.
What was the problem you had with classrooms?
The best way I can describe it is that I couldn't do anything the way I was supposed to. I had to do it my own way. And I've been that way ever since. After I was expelled, I wrote the Ohio secretary of education and asked for permission to enroll in a local junior college. I got my high school degree [there] in addition to two years' worth of college course work. I enrolled at the University of Colorado as a junior, so it sort of worked out.
What changed your outlook?
The year I got kicked out of school I went on my first backpack trip with a program called Adventures Cross-Country, in British Columbia. I really found my niche in the outdoors. I was able help other kids by carrying extra weight in my pack, and I just sort of came into my own as a leader. I was reading maps and navigating. I loved it.
Our instructor on that trip had finished the Appalachian Trail. I'll never forget that guy, Guybe Slangen. After hearing him talk about it, I wanted to hike it too. In fact, it was while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail several years later that the idea for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation began germinating.
So who have been your biggest wilderness influences?
As a kid I was always fascinated by Jacques Cousteau, and for a long time wanted to be an oceanographer. But I also really liked Jane Goodall.
Really, Jane Goodall? She doesn't seem like the first person who might inspire a rambunctious teenage boy.
Jane Goodall was out there. She went and did what she loved. She never got a Ph.D., but she changed the way the world understood primates. She lived by her own rules, and I identify with her in that.
When I look back it occurs to me that the people I really admired all started out as "unlikely heroes," but also were uncompromising in their pursuit of greatness: Cousteau, Goodall, George Schaller, and Michael Jordan. I know Jordan's a whole different world. But one thing I loved about his story was that he got cut from his high school basketball team.
How did you get the idea to trek the entire length of the Andes?
When I first started researching it, I didn't know that no one had done it before. I knew that it was the longest continental mountain chain in the world, that it had more than 20 peaks taller than 20,000 feet and the world's highest volcanoes, as well as vast forests and deserts and scores of native cultures. All those pieces—and the epic scale of walking across the whole thing—seemed like an amazing adventure and a worthwhile goal.
At the time, I was working as a guide in wilderness therapy, which helps at-risk kids learn self-reliance in the mountains. And one day I told my fellow guides, "I'm going to the Andes. Who's coming?" Deia Schlosberg was the only one who raised her hand.
We set out from Papallacta, Ecuador, in 2006, expecting to do the trek in a year. Our plan was to use ancient trade routes, Inca roads, and animal trails, down the spine of South America to Cabo San Pio in Tierra del Fuego. It ended up taking two years—two years of hiking, camping, and living out of our packs and our bounce box.
What's a bounce box?
It was just a big cardboard box that held extra gear, a replacement stove, spare shoes and clothes, and a massive, classroom-size 1:1,000,000-scale map. We'd find a copier in whatever village we were in and Xerox the part of the map we needed for the next section of our trek. Then we'd pack the map and our extra gear into the bounce box and ship it by bus to a village 300 miles down the road. The bus company would hold it there for one month. So we'd have 30 days to walk that 300-mile stretch. If we didn't get there by then to claim our box, they'd ship it back to the town where it came from. It meant that we had to keep moving. The clock was always ticking.
Did you ever not make it?
There were times when we'd be close to missing our bounce box. We'd call ahead to the bus stop in the town and beg them to wait for us. I didn't speak any Spanish when we started, so there were times when we literally pulled people off the street to translate for us. And that's the way we traveled, following our bounce box in 300-mile stretches down the continent.
What's your next major expedition?
I leave for Iceland next week. It's my first vacation in ten years, but I'll also be collecting permafrost samples for a scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Ecological Observatory Network, as well as isotope samples from glacier meltwater.
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