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Solo Circumnavigator
Swedish mountaineer Renata Chlumska embarks on a 480-day expedition around the periphery of the United States, paying homage to Göran Kropp.

Where do you start a self-supported trip by kayak and bicycle around the periphery of the United States, a distance of more than 11,600 miles (18,668 kilometers)? Answer, if you're Swedish mountaineer Renata Chlumska: On your doorstep in the suburbs of Seattle. Unexpectedly denied a visa shortly before her planned starting time of July 2003, she hopes to gain permission to begin in 2004. If all goes according to plan, she'll return 480 days later.

The expedition was something Chlumska dreamed up with her fiancé, the late Göran Kropp, the man who famously pedaled a bike from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest, and—accompanied by Chlumska—pedaled back home. Together, the first couple of Scandinavian adventure climbed 26,248-foot (8,000-meter) Mount Shishapangma and Everest, started a guiding company, launched Arctic expeditions, and rock- and ice-climbed throughout much of the world.

Last year, Chlumska and Kropp moved to Seattle and began plotting the circumnavigation of their new country—it was an idea they'd already been kicking around for months. After Kropp's death in a rock-climbing accident southeast of Seattle, Chlumska returned to Sweden to visit family and friends. After much contemplation, Chlumska decided to move back to the United States and carry on the expedition solo.

When did you decide to go ahead with the plan to circumnavigate the U.S., even without fiancé Göran Kropp?

In the last seven months it's been easier to figure out what I don't want to do. I didn't want to stay in Sweden and continue the presentations and guiding I have done for six years. Göran and I had decided to move to America together; we were ready to move forward. I just feel that I have to keep moving forward on my own, and that's what Göran would have wanted me to do.

I also want to finish what Göran and I started and, in a way, start something myself. You kind of get a lot of existential thoughts when you've been in a situation like I've been in. I felt like I need time, I need a break. I need time to figure out what have I done, where am I, and what do I want to do with my life. This expedition will give me that time for reflection.

Has it been particularly difficult to be immersed in planning a trip that you were originally going to do with Kropp?

I'm living without Göran in anything and everything that I do all the time. We lived so close together and we ran a business together and did the expeditions together and shared every hour of every day together so…it doesn't strike me like it's extra for the expedition because this is what my normal life is—planning expeditions.

But of course, I feel alone and I feel like now I have to be even more cautious and careful and even better prepared. Being two is always a strength. You're able to help each other; if one gets sick or one has a problem, there's always the other one there. So I guess I may have been less nervous having Göran by my side. I feel confident, but with Göran I always felt even more confident.

You've had a number of visa problems, and you were even detained at an airport and sent back to Sweden after being assured by the consulate there that everything was OK. Then one application was denied outright, and you needed to begin the process all over again. Did all this just make you want to stay in Sweden?

No, no. That's just dealing with people. Now I'm told that I need a visa for sponsored athletes. This week they requested additional information about the kind of international competitions I've won. But I'm not competing in anything. They have strong examples of what I've done: climbing, bicycling from Nepal to Sweden. Now they're saying, "Well, she's going to paddle. What paddling has she done before?"

It's hard for them to see that there are adventure athletes today that one year ski to the North Pole, the next year climb Everest, the third year do something else. That's your profession, not that you specialize in one thing. I'm trying to make them understand: that I'm still an athlete, but just a different kind that doesn't have an organization or sponsor. I'm not letting this set me back. It's just another challenge.

This will be a self-supported or "fair means" expedition. What does that entail?

My idea is that what I need for equipment, I want to carry with me. If I need to buy something, I'm able to do that when it's available, so to speak. I'll be buying food along the way, though along some stretches I'll need to carry supplies for a week or so. Originally Göran and I were planning to have a tandem kayak that was foldable that we were going to carry when we couldn't paddle. But all my calculations and common sense has made it clear that I won't be able to carry a kayak myself and walk—that just will be too long of an expedition. So when I arrive in San Diego, I'm going to buy myself a bike and use a trailer to pull my sea kayak across the desert to El Paso, where Rio Grande starts. The kayak and my equipment will weigh about 80 kilos (176 pounds). Then I'll sell the bike or something like that.

What will the very first day be like, when you take the first step of an 11,600-mile (18,668-kilometer) journey?

I think I'm going to be so relieved to finally set off. Especially now, when I'm encountering all the planning difficulties. The time spent before any expedition, all the preparation and training, that's a fun part—I wouldn't want to be without it. You see all the preparation that you have done. It all comes together that final day, and you leave. It's a great feeling—and a bit nervous.

What part of the trip will be the toughest, and what are you looking forward to the most?

The beginning is going to be the toughest because it's first—and the Pacific is so exposed. I'm looking forward to the Rio Grande, which is 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers), because I'm going downstream. I know the East Coast will be very scenic because of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Are you going to be staying with any people at all, in addition to camping and occasionally sleeping in a hotel?

Well, if I get invited, then why not? I hope to meet a lot of interesting people—that's what I like to do, as well. It makes me think back to expeditions I did in Asia, both motorcycling and biking, when I encountered new people all the time, which makes it much more interesting. Maybe it makes it more difficult sometimes, or at least that was the case in Pakistan.

When the Pakistanis see Western people, they think you have all the Western attributes that they don't like. If you're a woman, yes, it makes it even worse, but still Göran had problems as well. People threw stones as he passed. So it goes for anyone who looks different than they do.

You anticipate that this next expedition will take roughly 16 months to complete—that's a long time to spend alone. Are you nervous about that aspect?

That's actually something I'm looking forward to. Göran always told me that going on the bicycle trip was the best thing he had done because it gave him so much time to just think through his life and to take time to figure out a lot of things. Especially nowadays, we have a tendency to move forward all the time and maybe stop asking important questions. I think it's going to allow me to do a lot of that—I look forward to it.

Do you plan to stay in the United States after your trip? Do you have a picture of what you'll be doing two to three years from now?

Well, not really right now. That's a picture that I hope will grow as I paddle. So far, I really like the States, or at least what I've seen of it so far.

Other than the immigration service, of course.

Yes, definitely! I was thrilled to move to Seattle. I really like it there—the nature, the environment, and the training possibilities. You have so many things to choose from and to do. In a range of two hours in any direction you have so much variation. I like the mentality of the American people. Who knows? I'll definitely want to give it a try and after paddling, it will probably be nice to be in one place for awhile.

Portrait courtesy John Beatty

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More Q&As


Related Web Sites

The World According to Kropp

The Official Homepage of Göran Kropp and Renata Chlumska

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August 2003

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