Interview: Oli France

Interview: Oli France

We caught up with Intrepid explorer Oli France, about the next stage in his ‘Ultimate Seven’ adventure challenge to navigate from the lowest to highest geographical points on all 7 continents.

Having already completed a gruelling 1,600 mile cycle ride from Djibouti to Tanzania and climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, he’s now embarking on part two of this multi-stage challenge in North America. Oli will be starting off in the sweltering Death Valley in Southern California, and cycling 3,500 miles to Alaska before summiting Denali (the highest mountain in North America standing at 6,194m). This leg will take Oli 2 months to complete. Oli has lead groups around the world into some of the most demanding terrains and dangerous places, so is not stranger to harsh conditions or high risk situations.

Let’s dive in and find out more about what possesses someone to take on such challenges.

Firstly, how did you get to where you are?  It seems like it’s perhaps not a traditional pathway.  A lot of people come from special forces having put themselves into extreme situations that way and themselves back in the real world.  But am I right in saying that you’ve not had any military experience?

“I never went into the military.  It was something which was on my mind when I was in my late teens, but ultimately wanted to really follow my own path and have freedom to do exactly what I wanted to do.  At the age of 18, I studied outdoor leadership.  Right after that I just played football and rugby at school.  We had an amazing rugby league team here in Wigan in Northern England. “

“But it was at the age of 17.  I got into rock climbing for the first time, just had this adrenaline rush, signed up to this university degree course and then for the next three years spent my time surrounded by incredible instructors, like-minded people.  I was being encouraged to go off and travel in the summer so I made full use of that.  I worked in the US, I worked in Uganda, I went off and trekked through the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and I’d learned some Arabic.  so I went off to Beirut at the age of 20 on my own in the Middle East, in Lebanon.  And all of those experiences and each year that went by I was kind of pushing things a little more.  taking more risks, learning more, going to more wild places.  And it just became my addiction.  And so every year that went by, I was looking forward to the next big trip.  And so those were my early foundations, really.”

%TNT Magazine% Oli France Workout 6

So what then turned it from being a passion of exploration into something more than that as far as leading expeditions and taking it into a point where you’re not just responsible for your own welfare, but then looking after other people and making sure that they’re safe?

“As I was going through the process of education and spending time on expeditions, I started to hear about this role of being an expedition leader.  And for me, nothing sounded more exciting than the opportunity to go and lead teams in some of the world’s wildest places.  So it was in the back of my mind, but I knew that I really needed to build my own skills and experience before I could do that.  And so, After university I spent a year travelling all around Australia, New Zealand, Asia and got back, fell into a corporate job in the UK for a couple of years, absolutely hated it!”

“That was kind of my catalyst to get back to doing what I loved and really make a big go of it.  In 2015, I quit my job.  Terrible timing, I had an upcoming wedding, major house renovation underway You know, no prospects for future work because I’ve basically been a complete failure in my job.  I had no passion for it.  I felt I had nothing to lose other than to go off on the biggest adventure I could conceive at the time to try and rebuild this career.  And what I did, I travelled from Hong Kong to Istanbul by any means on my own in the middle of winter.  So the full length of Asia and climbing mountains in every country.  So that was really the most transformative journey which I took on.  So that was early 2016 and along the way I was interrogated in four different countries.  I was detained in Uzbekistan for five days and held on the Afghan border.  I was lost in a landmine jungle in Laos on one occasion.  I was stuck in an avalanche in Kazakhstan.  Extreme dehydration in the mountains of Tibet.  And there were all of these crazy scenarios which happened along the way.  I was bold, I was in a part of my life where I wanted to take risks and I was taking big risks.  But I came back after four months of that as a transformed person and just thought, now I’m ready, now I understand the world, I’m ready to lead.”

Do you find that your lack of military indoctrination helps you as a leader?  I mean, I know a lot of people with that military training, you know, it’s very much the military way of running expeditions and a lot of civilians find that quite a culture shock.  Do you find that people like your approach. Did you find that a helpful asset to you as a leader?

“I think without in any way criticising military people, but my approach probably is a bit different.  Having been out in the world completely on my own has I suppose given me this enormous self-sufficiency in that I never had orders, I never had rules, I never had people on the other side giving me advice and so it was a steep learning curve and I had to figure everything out.  The result I think has defined my personality.  When I’m on expedition as an expedition leader I’m generally extremely calm, extremely relaxed.  I try to bring people into the fold of that sort of calmness and especially in those more tense situations where people are genuinely scared.  I think if you can put across that you are relaxed, you’ve done this a thousand times before, it’s nothing to worry about, that really transcends through the team.”

“I think the other thing is just a deep empathy really and a deep drive to understand human motivations and essentially not just see my teammates as cogs in a machine to go and achieve a goal,  but to actually really tap into who they are as a person, what’s driving them to be there, how can I understand them, how can I get the best out of them, how can I lean on their skills, allowing people to be vulnerable, to open up, to build a high trust environment.  So I’m sure there are parallels with the military there in terms of team building, but maybe that empathy point is not something you would necessarily associate with the military in general.  But that I feel has worked for me, that has allowed me to galvanise teams and to build long-term relationships where people come on expedition with me numerous times and become close friends as well.”

%TNT Magazine% Oli France Workout 10

And obviously you’ve done lots of solo expeditions in the past, but Also from my preparations, you’ve got a young family as well, so that sort of trucks the position of conflict, I guess, with being at home with the kids and being away and having solitude of your own creation.  I mean, how do you balance those two worlds?  Do they coexist harmoniously or is it a challenge?

“Yeah, so it is two completely different lives in some sense, you know, expedition life and then home life.  And for me, Expeditions is what, you know, that’s what drives me.  That is my absolute passion, you know, for some people that’s playing an instrument, for some people that is running.  For me, it is going on expeditions to wild places.  That is the thing that excites me the most.  And whenever I’ve had time away from that, I’ve just not felt myself, you know, you’ve stripped everyone’s passion away from them and they’re not themselves ultimately. “

“I feel I need that in my life.  but equally one thing that I have found with my relationships with my wife and friends and my time with my children is that when you are back at home having been away, those moments that you are at home, you take nothing for granted.  You just appreciate the small list of things.  Those little mundane moments or that time together is all the more precious.  And I feel that because I’m getting my fix of adventure, when I am home, I can really try and be present.  And also I think these experiences have really helped to shape me as who I am.  And certainly in the long term, I see embarking on expeditions like this as something which can provide some inspiration to my own children and hopefully allow me to be a good role model for them.”

Your trips seem to be quite multidisciplined. Is there a discipline that you strive towards more or do you just like getting involved in all of it?

“I think I’m always attracted to the mountains and so I think that’s where I probably feel most at home is when I am in the mountains.  Whether that is on foot or more recently on bike where I’ve been doing a bit more on bike.  But yeah, being in the mountains is, for me, there’s nothing more magical than being in that mountain environment with rugged peaks and glaciers and snow and ice.”

“I just find that world really attractive.  And so whenever I’m training, I’m seeking out, even if it’s smaller hills, I love just going up and down hills.  But yeah, I think one thing which has been useful for me over the years is just building a fairly wide-ranging skill set from that, you know, cycling, bikepacking, to ultra running, to mountain climbing, rock climbing, ice climbing, you know, kayaking, canoeing, all of those things.  And what I really love is, as I’m doing with this upcoming challenge, I suppose, is tying all of those together in really interesting, human-powered adventures that essentially require a diverse skill set and experience to go and undertake and be proficient in.”


Just to touch on micro adventures as well, obviously going on huge multi-day, multi-week, multi-month trips is out of the contention for most normal people that have the means to take that much time away from their work or home life.  What would you say about micro adventures?  Do you do micro adventures yourself?  Do you do that as part of your training and preparation when you’re not going on expeditions?

“I love this idea of micro adventures and generally just making use of local areas and getting out, having good adventurous experiences.  So for me, you know, I do a lot of that in my own training, my own preparation and actually I get almost as much joy from these micro adventures as I can on big expeditions.   I think we shouldn’t obsess over really taking things to extremes, particularly if we’re starting out just.  I think so often we skip over those foundational skills and that foundational experience, which is so critically important.  And a lot of that can be developed for micro adventures.  It is going out, bivvying on a mountain in the Lake District.  It is walking along a remote river in the UK.  It’s going wild camping.  It’s all of these things.  That’s what really builds good skills which can then be brought and applied to other areas.  and you know and it’s fun and it’s accessible and it’s cheap.  and so what’s not to love?”

“I think more generally, we just spend way too much time in indoor artificial environments.  So much so that I think as a society we’re losing, in the UK, we’re losing touch with who we are.  And yet as human beings, you know, we need to be outside.  It is part for thousands of years, that’s all we’ve done.  And now we spend maybe only a few minutes a day outside.  So I think it’s essential for our mental health, for our well-being, for developing skills.  And I love to see the fact that even doctors now are prescribing the outdoors to people as an important remedy to mental health because it is that critical.”

%TNT Magazine% Oli France 43

And how much preparation do you do?  Obviously, when you’re doing an expedition with other people, there’s a lot of planning and itineraries and time points and all the rest of it you have to consider.  I guess when you’re self-supported, is there a little bit less rigidity or are you quite detail driven with your planning and preparation?

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a mixture, I suppose.  There’s definitely a lot more flexibility when it comes to solo expeditions.  What I would generally have is a fairly well-planned route, but what I wouldn’t do necessarily is break it down into separate days because I’ve found out that there’s so many things that can change along the way.  So have an idea in your mind, have backup plans, have sort of different route options, plan B’s, escape routes if you need to get off the mountain ridge or something like that.  To be too stringent in the planning I think can be detrimental because if you go out there with one completely fixed plan and something goes wrong or you need to detour or you run out of time, then you’re going to be screwed.”

“My planning is I go really deep.  I like to tap into local networks of people, of experts who can give me good advice.  I like to really think about all of the potential risks that could be involved, all potential hazards and what I’m going to do to mitigate them.  And that is kind of detailed planning, but also visualisation and just actually thinking about what I will do in a certain situation.  I will have detailed communications plans.  How am I going to communicate with the outside world if something goes wrong?  I will have emergency contacts, I will know who to call in the eventuality that something goes wrong.  I’ll make sure that I’ve got all of the kit I need and that any of that kit has been tested generally and that I’ve got backups where I need backups.  So it is quite deep and I think a lot of that has come from the occasional failures over the years, the occasional times that things have gone wrong, those learning experiences where it’s just eliminating those possible points where things could go wrong.”

You touched briefly on equipment there.  Are you completely unsupported?  Are you carrying everything?

“Yeah, so it’s sort of a multi-stage journey.  I’ve got the ride, which is the first six weeks of the overall expedition.  For the ride, I will be completely on my own.  I won’t have any support vehicles.  I won’t have any, you know, kit drops as it were.  So essentially for the whole ride, I’m fully self-sufficient with all of my gear on the bike in pannier bags.  I will be of course stopping to get food and water and other supplies like camping gas and that sort of thing along the way. “

“Generally speaking I’m just going to be self-sufficient with all my own things.  Once I reach the mountain in Alaska I will be meeting with my four-man mountain team and they are bringing in my mountain kit from the UK.  That is Sitting right in front of me actually, already packed and ready to go.”

You’ve literally got a few days before you set off

“Yeah, I’m going on Friday.  They will bring out the mountain kit and once we’re on the mountain as a four-man team, we are a completely self-sufficient.  We won’t have any local guides or anything like that.  We’ll be setting off from the end of my ride, basically continuing on ski, way up to the Denali base camp, which most people fly into. So it takes about a week of backcountry skiing, crossing glaciers, crossing glacial rivers to reach the base camp, hauling all of our gear in sleds and on our backs.  We will then have a food drop, an extra food drop at base camp to save a bit of weight on that approach.  Once replenishing the food, we’ll continue up the mountain to the summit again, fully self-sufficient with our own kit.”

%TNT Magazine% Oli France 11

I can’t talk to people like yourself without exploring into some of the grittier stories that have happened over your time.  I mean, are there any particularly poignant episodes?

“There have been many, I’ll give you a quick rundown.  I’ve spent a lot of time guiding people in remote and hostile places like Iraq and Syria and Yemen, Congo, Somalia, destinations like that.  So, you know, as soon as you’re out there, you’re as much planning as you do, you know, crazy things are going to happen.  It’s just a fact.  Um, and it’s often the things you could never anticipate.  I was detained for five days in Uzbekistan, where they suspected I was a drug trafficker after finding co-codamol in my rucksack.  I was then spied upon across the country by a police following me around the country.  I’ve been interrogated in around 10 different countries now.  on all kinds of things.  They’ve thought I’m a spy, they’ve thought I’m a terrorist, they’ve thought I’m travelling on fake documents.  Yeah, all kinds of crazy accusations.  I’ve had a gun pulled on me in Iraq.  That was quite a frightening one!  I’ve had my bus full of travellers surrounded by an armed mob in Ethiopia.  I’ve been caught in a seven magnitude earthquake in Indonesia on a very tiny island.  500 people were actually killed in that incident.  Crazy experience!”

“One of the scariest moments was in Somalia, when I had just got home actually, but I picked up meningitis in Somalia.  So I spent a week in hospital, I was seriously ill, very very ill with meningitis and in isolation in a hospital bed just three months away from what was a huge expedition in Siberia.  Lots more, basically, all my fitness, lots of body weight, and then have to just rebuild, ready for the next expedition.  There’s been lots of crazy moments over the years.”

On to the imminent trip. What’s your anticipated highlight and lowlight of the expedition at this point?

“Definitely one thing I’m looking forward to is just having the chance to go and cycle through Alaska and northern Canada where you’ve got mountains and glaciers, lakes and forests and wildlife, you know, to actually go and cycle up in that landscape is, you know, that’s the stuff of dreams really in terms of adventures.  So I’m very excited about that.  Definitely when it comes to know, what am I nervous about?  It would be a grizzly bear.”

Do you take protection with you for those sorts of situations?

“Yeah, so that’s going to be my primary thing, I will be taking bear spray.  What I’m going to do in the next few days actually is consult with a bear expert who I’ve been linked up with and just get some final tips of what I can do in any encounters.  So again, this comes down to the planning and tapping into expert knowledge.  I’m going to be doing that and seeing if he has any any further tips.  but I will definitely have bear spray.”

“Another thing on my mind is being up in that on Denali which is famed as a fearsome very stormy, extremely cold mountain, way up in Alaska over 6,000 meters where there can be two week storms.  There are crevasses which could swallow a skyscraper.  There are avalanche risks.  There is freezing cold as low as -30 to -40.  So it will be just being up in that environment.  But in terms of my preparation for that, that’s where I’ve assembled a really, really strong team. I do feel confident about staying safe and achieving the goal.”

What about the rest of the challenges?

“Well, the ultimate seven is in itself is a multi-year project, which will be seven separate expeditions. I’m one down now, I’ve done the Africa leg.  North America is only the second leg, so I will still have five huge expeditions to go.  Each of those will be very challenging physically, logistically to succeed in.  That includes of course the Asia leg which will be Dead Sea to Everest which is four and a half thousand mile journey across eight or nine different countries. “

“The Antarctica leg which will be a completely pioneering world’s first.  The Oceania leg, which will possibly be the most logistically challenging as it will involve a boat as well as a bike and on foot.  So yeah, my main focus is on the Ultimate 7. In all likelihood it’s going to be somewhere between three to five years to actually complete this challenge.  So yeah, I’ve not got room in my brain to think further than that.”

How can people follow your expedition?

“I will be posting live or regular updates on Instagram primarily. I’ll be doing regular updates. On the mountain that will be a little bit more difficult, but I’ll be documenting as much as possible.  I’ll be filming it and doing longer form videos and hopefully a documentary about the expedition too.”

%TNT Magazine% PDF 1
%TNT Magazine% oli france workout 1

You can find out more about Oli’s expedition on his website –

Check out his instagram to keep up-to-date on his progress –