SOMETIMES, you meet people who simply seem to "get" life better than the rest of us, who act as a reminder that being alive is more than simply continuing to breathe.
• Mark Beaumont
They negotiate it like skilful acrobats on a high wire, exhilarated yet instinctively balanced, undaunted by the inevitable wobbles, and the remarkable thing is that their innate confidence is usually its own sure-footed reward.
They are often achievers, yet somehow achievement is only a by-product of the way they live. It's their dreams that single them out. They scale the mountain of those dreams, reaching distant pinnacles, while the rest us stand muttering in the foothills that it's all right for them but we have responsibilities and proper jobs to get on with.
Mark Beaumont is 27. Already he has set the record for cycling round the world (knocking 81 days off the previous time) and has just returned from a nine-month cycle across the Americas, from Alaska in the north to Argentina in the south. His route took him 13,000 miles through the Rockies and the Andes, stopping off to climb the two highest mountain peaks: Mount McKinley in the north and Aconcagua in the south. He also made a BBC documentary of his journey, the camera becoming his confidante during periods of intense isolation on remote roads and among Spanish-speaking communities.
Beaumont is the first man to undertake such an expedition, an incredible physical feat for any athlete, but even more striking because of his lack of mountaineering experience. Although not regarded as technically the most difficult climbs in the world, McKinley and Aconcagua are very high altitude and pose some of the most challenging conditions; they are true tests of physical endurance. Mount McKinley records temperatures as low as minus 60 and the summit is constantly lashed by ferocious winds. Only around 50 per cent of climbers who tackle each peak reach the summit and Aconcagua has the highest mortality rate of any South American mountain. To summit both in one season is remarkable.
• The End, Ushuaia, Argentina
Back in Scotland, Beaumont is sitting in his mother's cottage, nestled in the snow-swept landscape of rural Fife. A log fire crackles and spits and maps lining the sitting room seem to subconsciously draw Beaumont's intensely blue eyes repeatedly to the walls as he talks of the epic journey. Outside, the remnants of an austerely cold Scottish winter seem suddenly benign as it emerges that Beaumont watched two climbers fall to their deaths on Mount McKinley, nicknamed "Denali" or "the Great One" locally. There is a reticence about his description, as if it is almost beyond words. You get the impression Beaumont talks least about the things that have affected him most.
"I was returning to 14 thousand camp," he says. "There's a big headwall (steep cliff] above 14,000 feet up to a 16,000 feet ridge. It's quite exposed, with big drops and I heard what I thought was rockfall. I looked across and saw two climbers falling down the Messner, which was another route. There were only two or three of us on the mountain who witnessed it." The two men, American surgeons, were picked up by rangers but were already dead.
"It really did shake me up. It upset me a lot. There was a real quiet that night about camp. Their tent was still in camp, empty. I still had well over a week on the mountain to go and Denali is tough living. You're roped up all the time, and you can't move out of your small tented area because of crevasse risk, and it's incredibly cold, so you had three big men sleeping in a tiny tent at high altitude and it's very claustrophobic." But you have to keep going, he says. "There was nothing we could do to help so the next day we were moving up the mountain. But when I was back off the mountain and on the bike, it was something I spent a lot of time thinking about." Did it make him question what he was doing? "No, it didn't," he says quietly.
For Beaumont, danger on his journeys has not been confined to the vagaries of the weather on distant peaks but to wild animals, poisonous snakes and spiders, and human error on the South American roads where lorries tailgate to save fuel. "As the lead lorry moves out to overtake you, the second one can't see and ploughs right on," explains Beaumont. "It came very close a few times."
• Meeting the locals in Quillagua, Chile
The line between acceptable risk and recklessness is a thin, highwire division. A war correspondent once told me that to survive, you could be neither foolhardy nor timorous, but had to combine an awareness of threat with an almost subconscious belief that it wouldn't happen to you. But to see death up close makes it difficult to feel invincible. Does Beaumont confront danger or bury it? "When you witness something like that, you really have to face up to it. You've got to think it through in all its detail. It's quite a graphic thing to see, and quite a dramatic thing to see, and you have to acknowledge the risks you are facing – if not to anyone else, to yourself."
Dreams and danger. Sometimes they are intertwined. But Beaumont says he will never be known as a daredevil. It's not what excites or motivates him. "No mountain is worth losing a finger or toe to, let alone a life." There's something far more interesting to him than physical limits. "Physical ability is almost nothing to do with it. Almost anyone could do it. It's the endurance of the trips, the way you compute it." He excels in those tough situations that would have others giving in. Cycling 100 miles a day, day after day for months. Being ill and vomiting into the bushes one minute and getting back on his bike the next. Having open, weeping saddle sores but being so "in the zone" he continued sitting on his bike for ten-hour days.
"I have never met anyone tougher than Mark," says David Peat, film director and now friend who worked on Beaumont's documentaries and taught him to use a camera. "He has extraordinary mental strength."
It's the most fascinating thing about him. It's also what drew him to the Yukon, the wild, sparsely populated, sub-Arctic corner of Canada. These were his kind of people. "I absolutely loved the music and banter in the wilds of the north. In the US and UK people try to stereotype and pigeonhole you. Who are you? What are you doing? Until they can put you in a box, they are not quite comfortable with you. Whereas in the Yukon, which is truly wild – and Alaska is the same – every man's dream is quite sacred because that's the way they live. They didn't have experience of what I did but they had absolute respect for it. They would respect that dream because they were all off on their gold quest or their fur hunting or whatever they did. And with that, comes the heart of living."
You can ask why. And then ask it again on a deeper level. Sometimes it's an unanswerable question. In Beaumont's case, it's not about competition. "If it was, I'd be doing competitive sports. Racing the next man has never interested me." If someone breaks the world record he set last year, he will have no interest in going back to do it again. The best way he can answer 'why?' is to say simply that he has a "fire in his belly" to explore the world. "I think he wants to be first," says Peat. "He wants to test himself."
It makes more sense when you understand one of the key relationships of his life: with his mother Una. Una, a horse masseuse, is a capable, quietly spoken woman who runs his base camp in Scotland and coordinates all elements of his trips, from seeking police escorts in dangerous territories to checking routes and dealing with practical problems like stolen bank cards. "She is forensically single-minded when it comes to Mark and has a frighteningly efficient organisational eye," laughs Peat.
Mark and his two sisters grew up on a farm in Perthshire and the freedom he associates with childhood, the outdoor adventures the three siblings had, were encouraged by Una. Crucially, she decided she would home school her children for their primary years. "I didn't quite go along with the 'stop daydreaming and get your homework done' idea. At the age of five, I just think, not daydreaming but dreaming, is too valuable. You can't repeat it."
She adhered to the Montessori philosophy of education which encourages adults not interfere in the key stages of child development. Mark's first "expedition" as an 11-year-old, was cycling across Scotland. It had been sparked by reading about someone cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats, and four years later he would undertake that journey, with his parents doing the road trip by car.
His parents divorced when he was 17. Did that contribute to his independence and emotional resilience? "Maybe," he says. "I don't think it ever hit me to the same degree it hit my sisters." His father didn't quite understand his dream to the extent his mother did but, of course, is now delighted it has been a success, says Mark.
Una doesn't struggle to juggle the emotional roles of mother with the practical role of coordinator. "It's not even in my consciousness. If you worry, you can't think straight and be practical and proactive. If he phones and says, 'I've been in an accident' or, 'I've had my cards stolen' you jump into action. Are you badly hurt? How are you coping? I'll do this, this and this. Then he tells me what he will do at his end and we just deal with it. It's a privilege to work so closely with your family that they trust you to be there. And I don't worry about what's down the road because what's down the road looks fantastic. I am excited for him."
"When you listen to Mark and Una, their conversation is all positive," says Peat. "You're doing brilliantly. I believe. Yes, you can. They don't think in negatives."
Una says she would happily stand down if Mark wanted her to but they work so well together. "At two o'clock in the morning, when you are tired and ill and exhausted, who else knows you so well?" Mark says. "Who else can be relied on to make things work?"
When he finished the journey through the Americas and stood on a deserted Argentinian beach, it was Una he called to share it with. "He was very emotional, which is unlike Mark," she recalls. He couldn't speak for a few moments he was so overjoyed. I was with the BBC team and just chatted away for a few moments. Then he was able to say, 'I'm fine. It was the perfect place to finish on the beach and the view was wonderful and it couldn't be better.'"
In some ways, it was fitting that he ended the journey alone. The trip was different from his world cycle because this time he wasn't racing and he wanted to take in more of his surroundings and develop his film-making skills (he has a very good visual eye, says Peat). But while he was aware of the community of people following his journey – there were 870,000 visits to the website – part of the challenge was coping with isolation.
"You can't escape yourself, for sure," he admits. What did he think about for such long spells? "It's never quite as conscious as that. Your mind wanders a lot. It's always geared into capturing the story, looking for the shot, but it does wander. It also remembers a lot, stuff you thought you'd forgotten years ago. It's interesting but almost impossible to articulate how it works."
It's hard to notice incremental change in yourself. "But you do see the world differently." In the world trip, for example, travelling through India and Pakistan gave him a new understanding of poverty. "What you forget about poverty is the smell of it," he says. "The animals and the children and the people. It troubled me quite deeply." In fact, for the first time it made him question the purpose of self-indulgent dreams. Maybe on this latest trip, he got an answer to that dilemma when he ended up in Pisco, a Peruvian town destroyed by earthquake three years ago.
At first, he had the same sense of impotent despair he'd experienced in India. "I think this affected me even more. I stayed in the shanty towns built from cardboard and plywood and whatever they could throw together. I was just deeply saddened. I could see the absolute desperation. They had all been forgotten about by the government that promised aid. If you ask people in Lima, 200 miles away, they think it's all fixed and sorted but it's forgotten about."
Beaumont's Spanish was very basic, yet he could feel how much people wanted to communicate with him. "These people are desperate to tell their story. They are desperate for anyone to remember them. I found that really tough."
He realised he had one ally in this situation: his camera. The thought of filming the forgotten people, shining a spotlight on their predicament, excited him, gave him purpose. "I filmed what they call the walls of shame. In the town centre, where the blocks were flattened by the earthquake, the government instructed them to build these walls all down the front. They have doorways and windows all ready … and then you put your head behind the walls and people are living in makeshift whatever." Afterwards, he pedalled away on his bicycle. He didn't leave it behind.
Tucked away inside himself, as he left Pisco, was the memory of a woman. A woman with nothing; who, in addition to feeding her family, insisted on feeding this visitor with a little bit of chicken. "It was incredibly small and basic by almost anyone's terms. I assumed theirs was coming and tried to share what they gave me but they wouldn't accept. An hour later I watched them eat dry white rolls. It really hits you."
As Peat notes, Beaumont is quite a shy person. But beneath that is an affinity with people, an instinctive understanding. People in interviews often get testy when they wrongly assume questions reveal the standpoint of the interviewer. Interestingly, Beaumont very rapidly assimilates nuances. At one point, he says thoughtfully: "Funnily enough, I don't think that's your personal standpoint …" (he's spot on). Similarly, he gives the impression of having absorbed key lessons about human nature. And maybe that's the best, the most uplifting bit of our whole conversation. Mark Beaumont has been run over, mugged, threatened and cheated in various corners of the world. Yet when you ask if the generosity of that woman in Pisco more fully represents the human spirit, he says immediately: "It does. It really does. The more you travel, the more you trust people – for sure."
Are dreams a distraction from life? Or are they what life is really about? Beaumont started his expeditions after university. He has a degree in politics and economics but can't imagine being an economist in an office now. How could he? His job has involved sleeping on the floor of the Atacama desert in northern Chile, the driest place on earth, before pedalling across its arid expanse. It has involved filming Howler monkeys as they swung affectionately from his neck in the Panamanian rainforest, and expeditions in the pitch black to find tarantulas the size of dinner plates.
His friends might be higher on the career or property ladder. Does he care? "The bottom line is I'm exactly where I want to be. These are my ideas and my dreams and I have the opportunity to go out and do them. There's a real buzz from that. There's not a single part of me that wishes I was somewhere else. Not at all."
What about relationships, though? He says he's closer than ever to family because of what he does. But his long-term relationship from university crumbled quickly when he said his life wasn't going to follow the rat race pattern. In his book about travelling the world, he tells the story of meeting a girl called Sarah in Australia. It's clear that he really liked her. But when she texts to offer to take a road trip for a week, meeting up with him each day when he stops cycling, he says no. Does anything better illustrate the ruthlessness of his focus? He laughs. "Being a guy, you're taking that decision at the time thinking, what am I doing? Crazy! But as soon as I was on the next leg I thought, you totally made the right choice. There's no way I would have made the same miles. And who knows … I might never have left Australia."
Before he left for the Americas last June, he had established a relationship at home with an art teacher. Did that partnership survive the trip? Yes, he says. They're still together. He has other plans for expeditions but prefers not to talk about them in case someone gets in first. He has always said he wouldn't do these trips if he had children but right now, he's young enough not to worry. And when you follow opportunities, more opportunities present themselves. He has made a living out of writing his book, making documentaries, and is now embarking on a national speaking tour. By the time he stops exploring, he is confident something different will have developed. There will always be new aspirations. In the meantime, what made the difference that enabled his current relationship to work despite separation? "Sharing the dream," he says. "If you don't share the dream, you can't see your way through."
The Man Who Cycled the Americas will be shown in three, one-hour episodes, at 10.35pm on BBC1 on 23 March, 30 March, and 26 April. The day after each episode, Radio Scotland will broadcast Mark's diary at 11.05am. The new paperback edition of the Man Who Cycled The World is published by Corgi this month
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, March 14, 2010