What is your ultimate goal in life? For Turkish-American adventurer Erden Eruç, it’s to go around the world using only human power—that is, on foot, thru biking, and rowing.
Born in Nicosia, Cyprus in 1961 and raised in Turkey, Eruç grew up to be the outdoorsy type. He was 11 when his father took him on a climb to Mount Erciyes in south central Turkey. But he only started to set his eyes on traveling the world in 1997, while he was working in the field of information technology
“I read books about [these kinds of adventure] and one of the books that I’ve read was about Swedish adventurer Göran Kropp titled ‘Ultimate High’,” he tells ANCX. Kropp bicycled from Sweden to Nepal in 1996. Eruç met him in person in 2001 when the latter came to Seattle for an event. That’s when he told Kropp—who’s climbed Mount Everest by his lonesome, the first Swede to climb K2, the world's second-highest peak—about his “big idea” to circumnavigate the world.
Eruç and Kropp had a chance to climb together for the first time in September of 2002. But Kropp met an accident during the climb—he fell to his death while ascending the Air Guitar route at Frenchman Coulee near Vantage, Washington. He was 35. “At that point, I realized that life is short,” Eruç recalls.
While on a plane going back home from Kropp’s funeral in Stockholm, Eruç drew a roadmap on a piece of paper and made it a goal to reach the highest summits on six different continents by human power, in honor of his friend and fellow adventurer. He eventually called this the Six Summits Project.
With the IT market collapsing in Seattle in 2000, the hiring freezes that followed the September 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and the death of Kropp, Eruç was gradually steered toward a different path, closer to his commitment of embarking on a world expedition.
The first summit he climbed was Mount McKinley in Alaska in May 2003; he was 42. “I bicycled up there, passed the icy roads. It was quite the adventure.”
In 2006, Eruç rowed across the Atlantic Ocean from Canary Islands to Guadeloupe, and that’s when he felt he was ready to circumnavigate the world. “In 2007, I started my circumnavigation across the Pacific toward Papua New Guinea then Australia. I climbed Kosciuszko in Australia in 2010. Then in 2011, I climbed Kilimanjaro in Africa after crossing the Indian Ocean. And I returned home to finish the circumnavigation in 2012. It took me five years 11 days to complete the circumnavigation,” he says.
So far, there are 15 Guinness World Records under Eruç’s name, including 1) First to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world by human power; 2) First to row the three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian; and 3) First to row across an ocean from southern hemisphere to northern. (More about this on his website)
He’s so far reached three out of the six summits on his list—Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) in North America, Kosciuszko in Australia, and Kilimanjaro in Africa. His latest journey brought him to Legazpi City, Albay. “I launched by rowboat from Crescent City in California on 22 June 2021. Then 80 days later I reached Hawaii, 129 days later I reached Guam, and another 30 days later (24 March 2022), I came to Legazpi,” he says.
This was the first time on record that anyone crossed the Pacific Ocean by human power from North America to Asia. Eruç’s journey will resume this February across the South China Sea toward Vietnam. “I came to Legazpi City by rowboat. Then I’m riding my bicycle to Currimao, Ilocos Norte and then launch from there to Da Nang in Vietnam. Then from Vietnam, I’ll bike to Portugal. I’ll ship my boat in a container to Portugal, and then I will launch [my boat] from there for British Guiana [on the north coast of South America].”
His original goal was to reach the summit of Everest (at the border between China and Nepal), Elbrus (in Russia), and Aconcagua (in Argentina). However, due to funding limitations, he may have to skip Everest, and since Russia is still at war, it also won’t be safe to go to Elbrus so he’ll have to miss that too.
Ain’t no mountain high
Circumnavigating the world and then summiting the world’s highest peaks may seem to many near impossible. The reason Eruç is able to fulfill these goals is because he does the necessary preparations. “I need to be reasonably fit before I start [my journey], that's a given,” he says. He also needs to have a bike suitable for the task, a rowboat ready, and all sorts of electronic equipment that work.
The Turkish-American has to consider the weather archives as well, study the currents, swells, and trade winds, and understand the patterns so he can work with what the ocean provides. “All these preparations have to be completed ahead of departure because once I launch, I’m on my own,” says the athlete who earned a master’s degree in Engineering Mechanics at the Ohio State University and an MBA degree later at George Mason University.
But what if weather conditions suddenly change and original plans don’t pan out? He’s encountered this on his first circumnavigation. He was in the Pacific Ocean in May 2008 when Typhoon Ramasun became a super typhoon. “That early in the season, it should have run towards Mindanao, but it decided to run towards Japan, and became a category 5 typhoon, which was very unusual. So that changed the wind. I ended up dropping south toward Papua New Guinea,” he recalls. “But I couldn't bring the boat to shore.”
Fortunately, the Filipino fishermen of Frabelle Fishing Corporation were in the waters north of Papua New Guinea at that time. They brought Eruç and his boat to General Santos City, where he would eventually spend Christmas. They helped him sail back again towards Papua New Guinea waters on January 15, 2009.
Was there ever a time when he thought of quitting? “I would like to say that quitting wasn't an option, but that's such a cliché,” he says, smiling. “Of course there were times when I said, ‘What am I doing here? This is ridiculous.’ They were difficult moments.”
To illustrate: In Africa, he experienced getting stuck on a 40-kilometer stretch of muddy road. “It was the rainy season and there was a slurry of mud up to my knees. And I was trying to push a bicycle in that mud. And that was an episode when I said I need to quit, I need to get on a vehicle and get out of here,” he recalls laughing.
But Eruç chose to stay on track. “Another few kilometers of battle later, I was actually able to get on the paved section that was close to traffic. I was the only vehicle on that road with my bicycle. So there were puddles of water, clean water on pristine asphalt. And I was able to wash my muddy socks and shoes, refresh, and keep going the rest of the way. So by not quitting early, I was able to carry on.”
Fulfilling his dream requires strong physical and mental stamina to overcome challenges, and making sacrifices as well as big choices. “You have to choose everything—from spending time away from home to spending your retirement funds. These choices don't come easy for everyone,” he says. “Having the mental fortitude to be able to spend time alone and to be away from home, from loved ones is a prerequisite. If you cannot handle that, then you will find yourself challenged and at some point you might want to quit and go home. One has to be ready to take on the physical duress and also the mental stress and solitude. If you like your own company, then even better.”
What keeps him going?
Eruç admits his dream to travel the world by human power was initially just one of those ‘what ifs.’ He kept wondering if he could do it, and then he just took a chance. But as he went along with the journey, the pursuit began to have a deeper sense of purpose.
For instance, he’s been working with Ocean Recovery Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on raising awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean. “We use my journey as an attraction to engage the youth,” he says. The NGO works with the educational group Exploring by the Seat of your Pants in producing educational content for students so they can learn more about keeping oceans clean.
“My goal is to inform people about this problem and promote the idea that we should use less plastic,” says Eruç. All stakeholders should have a participation in this—not just the consumers, but also the manufacturers, governments. Reuse it, recycle it, recover it from our streams, lakes and oceans, and do a better job of reducing our plastic consumption by using substitutes.”
Through an NGO he set up in 2003 called Around-n-Over, the athlete has also taken on the role of educating and inspiring children by sharing stories of his journeys. His group has also raised $100,000 to help build classrooms and provide school needs of students in rural schools in Tanzania and Turkey.
While in Legazpi, Eruç is now working with the Albay Yacht Club to offer a sailing program to the youth in the community. “We have a fundraising dinner on February 3 to help these sailors,” he says.
Among the biggest rewards of his journeys are the people he meets along the way. “Everybody that I need show up on my path. That’s the gift of the journey. If I arrive in a yacht, I will just be another tourist. But since I come with a rowboat or on a bicycle or on foot, people understand the sweat equity. Then they become part of the journey, they want to know more.”
He says Filipinos are very accommodating, kind, generous, friendly. “I have been treated well by all the fishermen on the Frabelle vessels and then on land as well,” he says. “Year 2009 until March of 2021, I had been away from the Philippines and I came back as if we had never departed. We carried on from where we left off. Different faces, same attitude, same culture, same warmth. It’s a blessing. It's wonderful to be in the Philippines.”
Keeping the faith
At 61, Eruç says he still has the same passion to continue on with his dream. But he does things within the realm of reason. “[Do I feel] invincible? I don't feel that way at all,” he says, smiling. “I'm not getting younger, I'm not as strong. My endurance has gone down and my patience is waning. With experience, skill, preparation I can stretch my boundaries farther than others. But still, I need be conscious to not overstretch [myself] and still have a good probability of success when I embark on these journeys.”
Since China is still closed to travel and Myanmar has not given him the approval to arrive at and cross their country by bicycle, he’s keeping his options open. “The pandemic has really made everybody uncooperative. And if I cannot resolve the issue with Myanmar or China, then I have a dead end: I may just say that’s it, I’m sending the boat home, but I'm not there yet,” he says.
Whatever the case may be, he’s positive that after this latest voyage, people can expect two more Guinness world records from him.
Photos courtesy of Erden Eruç