Ben Shillington is standing in the semi-finished basement of the home he designed and helped build in Beachburg, on the Ottawa River, about an hour from where he grew up in Barry’s Bay, Ontario. He’s in the space that he promised his wife, Robyn, would become a second bathroom. Currently, the lavatory plans are on hold.
Instead, sleeping bags for different seasons hang neatly from the rafters, and satellite phones, solar panels, chargers and batteries, stoves, pot sets, water purification supplies, compasses, GPS and PLB (personal locator beacon) units are organized into snap-lid boxes. There are tents, backpacks, and layer upon layer of clothing. There are paddling dry suits, paddles, dry bags, waterproof Pelican cases, climbing ropes and boots, ice screws and axes, carabiners, rescue equipment, crampons, Nordic and alpine skis, and bicycle frame bags (to go with a complete bike maintenance and repair setup, full-suspension and hard-tail mountain bikes, two fat bikes and a road/cyclocross bike in the room next door). There are the currencies to get him into every continent, enough freeze-dried food to feed a small expedition for a month, enough first aid supplies to stock a field hospital. The would-be bathroom is his own personal version of the Batcave: a storeroom where Shillington, one of the world’s elite expedition guides, equips himself to answer the call of any conceivable mission. To anywhere.
Few men could squeeze so much gear into a bathroom-sized space. But then logistics, to say nothing of preparedness, are part of Shillington’s specific skill set — in 48 hours or less, he can be on the move. There might be 100 others like him in the world, probably fewer. Professionals in the narrow field, whose expertise is relied upon by filmmakers, developers, and masochistic tourists to get into — and out of — the world’s most dangerous places, judge each other by the balls-out expeditions they’ve accomplished and by who else will vouch for, and seek out, their talents. Shillington ranks among the rarest: he’s in demand full-time, booked up to 18 months out, for the toughest projects in the most extreme conditions. As for references: they’re guys like rock star mountaineer Héctor Ponce de León, Order of Canada-winning polar explorer Richard Weber, and international expedition filmmaker Ben Webster.
“With very serious projects, where there’s huge risk or commercial interest at play, he’s the first person I’d call,” says Webster, who produced the first live North American broadband television broadcast from Mt. Everest. Beyond a Zen-like demeanour in the inevitable emergencies and a host of specialized technical skills, Shillington exhibits Olympic-level strength, endurance, and fitness. He’s the secret ingredient to a successful adventure, the leader in front of the leader, who never gets the spotlight, because that — well, that isn’t part of his job. His job is keeping people moving, and keeping them alive.
For instance: Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2011. Shillington was the “sweep,” the man bringing up the rear of the expedition, nudging clients forward through the darkness, specifically positioned to help the weaker climbers. As the group is nearing the crater rim, he runs to the front of the line to help coordinate the final summit push when a climber trekking past collapses. Altitude sickness, a swelling of the brain. The only solution is to get him down fast. Descend or die. Shillington, already depleted from his sprint to the front of the crew, slings the ailing man over his shoulders and takes off down 3,118 feet to the medi-tent at Kibo Hut base camp. After stabilizing the patient, he sprints again to catch up to clients who’d reached Uhuru Peak, effectively traversing the mountain twice, at double the usual speed and with half the body’s usual oxygenation. Not to summit it, per se, but to share with his climbers the greatest sunrise of their lives.
Ben Shillington can’t help being a guide. Right now, he’s leading me through his past, how a kid from a small town in Ontario — a province lacking anything that could realistically be called a mountain — learned his extreme trade. A short drive on a sunny summer morning takes us to an abandoned train bridge over Broom’s Creek. It’s where Shillington taught himself to rappel. You hang a line at the midpoint and, after a 100-foot drop to the creek bed, pull yourself up to the bridge using fixed-line ropes. Close by, there are also steep sand pits, perfect to simulate soft-snow ascents, and a tangle of old rail lines groomed as SkiDoo trails in winter.
Shillington has been bootstrapping training routines like these along the back roads and trails of the Ottawa Valley since he was 13, when he first decided he would tame mountains for a living. “Growing up, there wasn’t the Internet in town yet or any formal training available,” he says, “so it was just about picking up any skills that might lend to becoming a professional, way before I really knew what that meant.”
He began self-propelling, using only his strength and wits to bike, ski, run, paddle, and swim ever-greater distances through increasingly complicated weather. He bivouacked in his parents’ backyard one Christmas Eve, then made it an annual tradition. He learned to Nordic ski by signing up for his very first skate-ski race. And after reading The Climb, Anatoli Boukreev’s account of the 1996 tragedy on Everest that claimed eight lives, he was spurred on even more.
There was some formal education, of course. In 2002, Shillington graduated in the first-ever class of Algonquin College’s outdoor guiding certificate program, unique in North America. (Today, he teaches and designs courses for the program, ranging from winter expedition travel, to ice climbing and slope rescue, to menu and nutrition planning.) Following graduation, he guided locally and then mountain-biked from Barry’s Bay to Vancouver Island, a fast 27-day crossing, solo, uphill, into a continuous headwind. It was his calling card. “I was establishing myself any way I could,” he recalls, “proving that I had the motivation and fitness to pull off something big.” He was scheming his next adventure when a buddy with connections to Ben Webster called, wanting to know if Shillington would join Webster’s upcoming expedition to Everest. At 21, he was about to take on the expedition of his life.
Shillington’s learning curve was no less steep than the world’s highest mountain. At any time near what’s called the Khumbu Icefall, on Mt. Everest, avalanches can rain down Jeep-sized ice and debris, or the ice underfoot can crack open, swallowing climbers. Most people try to get the hell away from there, fast. Not Shillington. For much of his first Everest expedition, he stayed at the Khumbu Icefall, swinging a camera to film B-roll. Over and over, he lowered himself into jagged crevasses to film climbers’ footsteps overhead as they completed incredibly risky ladder crossings.
He also made multiple ascents of the Lhotse Face, a rock-and-ice slab that’s another focal point of the Everest massif, strewn with frozen bodies from failed past climbs. And at the end of two months in Nepal, he bagged Labouche East, at 20,161 feet, virtually the same elevation as Denali, North America’s highest peak. By then he’d earned the rarefied air of the elites.
A century ago, there were two kinds of adventurers: the explorers motivated by curiosity to know what lies beyond and the skilled locals they depended on for the journey. But who have the explorers become in a time when all major mountains have been climbed, all oceans crossed? Now, when every spot on the globe has been mapped, documented, and posted about on social media, adventure is less about discovering the world and more about discovering one’s hidden capabilities. Shillington has the old-world know-how and grit to survive the harshest environments — like adventurers in antiquity — all to help the modern man, coddled but ambitious, who wants the kind of adventure he’s seen in nature documentaries.
Shillington’s clients are thrill-seekers and dreamers — the kind of people whose rewards are experiences, the more singular, extreme, and demanding, the better. The physically and technically gruelling expeditions he guides and designs represent a steady opportunity within the bigger business of adventure travel that’s worth at least US$263 billion just in the US and Europe, growing at 65 to 70 per cent year-on-year since 2009, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association. Shillington is a living archetype of the kind of preparedness and, sure, masculinity that hardly exists anymore, mostly because there isn’t the need. He allows people the opportunity to experience firsthand what that existence is like. He doesn’t make it easy, but he makes it possible.
Cold provides the best proving ground. It just hurts more. “You learn how deep your reserves are; how far you can take your body with your mind,” says Shillington. “You apply this knowledge so you’re always guiding from your comfort zone.”
I first met Shillington last February during a fat-bike training camp on Lake Winnipeg he’d organized to simulate conditions of what would have been his greatest guiding challenge yet: the first fat-bike expedition to the South Pole for adventure tourists.
The trip, which was planned by Toronto-based operator TDA Global Cycling to run from the 89th Parallel to the South Pole in nine or 10 days, didn’t materialize. But even the training camp — a few days of riding for eight hours, driving tent spikes into ice, boiling snow, and hunkering down for overnight lows of -32°C — made it clear that any amateur, if reasonably fit and skilfully led, could tackle the world’s most extreme sub-zero vacations. Shillington can open up whole continents to those of us who could never have been explorers until we were able to channel his skill set. Whole continents inside ourselves, too.
With Ben Webster’s Canadian Adventure Productions, Shillington has signed on to more than a dozen expeditions in the Himalayas and Africa. Some were organized as company retreats for top executives, others as corporate-sponsored charitable climbs, often filmed as documentaries aired on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, CBC, National Geographic. It’s a fraction of the work that has taken him to 30 countries so far.
“I want to prove to myself that I’m still a soldier,” David Quick, lieutenant colonel (retired) of the Royal Canadian Regiment, says in one of the first frames of March to the Pole, a Ben Webster documentary that Shillington helped organize in 2014. Quick, one of Canada’s most decorated veterans of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, was left permanently brain-injured by an IED blast. He, along with 11 other vets — some physically maimed, all suffering from PTSD — geared up in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, and joined camera crews, executives of sponsoring organizations like the True Patriot Love Foundation and Scotiabank, and assorted denizens of corporate Canada such as Paul Desmarais Jr. of Power Corp. and François Olivier of Transcontinental Inc. Together they flew 400 kilometres north for a 125-kilometre, five-day trek through snow-packed sea ice to the ever-shifting magnetic North Pole.
The expedition leader was Richard Weber, Canada’s first man at the North Pole, the only person ever to ski there and back unassisted in a single season. Weber, who’s been to the Pole seven times in over 60 Arctic sorties, had asked for Shillington to co-lead. “This was my first polar expedition,” Shillington says. “It was like a Hollywood A-list actor calling up an unknown, saying, ‘Hey, maybe you want to star in this film with me?’”
Midway through a 30-kilometre push on day two, Bruno Guévremont, ex-leading seaman and bomb tech, vents his frustration watching able-bodied expedition mates push past recovering soldiers, who struggle to keep pace. “I thought the whole point was getting to the end together,” he says, ramming a ski pole into the polar desert. Quick, leader of the soldier contingent, puts a hand on his friend’s shoulder, and the burly guy melts. “Dave comes over, says a few words and you know you’re not alone. And the next day it’ll be me doing it for him. That’s the beauty of it, right?” says Bruno, now in tears.
What we don’t see is Shillington, the sweep, off-camera and observing nearby.
In the late-afternoon sun, we slip into sea kayaks and paddle the Ottawa River to the Quebec side. Shillington has been teaching and guiding with Wilderness Tours, managing its bike shop, and working on the second edition of his book Winter Backpacking: Your Guide to Safe and Warm Winter Camping and Day Trips.
Lately, for training, he’s dipping into “winter ultra-marathons”: a dozen or so multi-day events in polar conditions. His best performance was two years ago, when he became the only skier to complete the coldest Arrowhead 135 on record. In temperatures that bottomed out at -55°C, it was too cold to create friction on his skis — they just wouldn’t slide on the snow — meaning each step forward, pulling a sled with food and survival gear across northern Minnesota, set him further behind the race pace. Through the final night, he was hallucinating badly, but he’d planned for that. He still finished in 54 hours and six minutes. It was the hardest he’s ever pushed himself.
This winter, he’ll tackle Finland’s solo 300-kilometre Rovaniemi 300 Arctic Winter Ultra. And in the spring, as a substitute challenge for the Antarctica trip that got away, he’ll cross Greenland on skis, traversing 550 kilometres over 15 days. For an expedition like that, most people attach kites to their sleds, hoping the wind will help them beat the extreme weather that would normally lock travellers down. Shillington will do it by himself, propelled only by his legs, stamina, and training.
At Grand Calumet Island, we pause to survey the windswept expanse. I think of fields of soy and corn, and boreal forests that we passed on the way to the river reminded of how Ben Webster described his protégé’s get-on-with-it attitude. “Look around: he’s Shield, man.” Not merely from this place, but of it.
The Ottawa Valley and Pontiac-Gatineau offer open, exposed rivers and lakes and guaranteed weeks of -30°C winter weather with deep snowdrifts and ice. “Everything you could possibly want is here,” he says. He knows this land so well and still finds pockets to discover, goals to achieve and challenges to overcome. This, it seems, is what makes him the best in the world. “The notion of adventure is constantly being recreated. It’s the spirit of whatever’s inside you to accomplish, and there’s still a lot to do.”