Inside many men is the call for adventure. My guest today is one of those men and listening to that call has led him to pursue a lifetime of amazing expeditions around the globe, all while balancing a demanding career as an airline pilot and family responsibilities. His name is Laval St. Germain and today he shares when he first heard the call for adventure on his grandparent’s farm in western Canada and how he started taking action on it.
We then go through some of the adventures he’s been on, including being the first Canadian to summit Mt. Everest without oxygen, dodging landmines while climbing the highest mountain in Iraq, and rowing across the Atlantic Ocean by himself.
Laval then shares how he tragically lost his son in a canoeing accident and how the habit of making checklists that he developed as a pilot helped him lead his family through the grieving process. We dig deeper into how Laval uses checklists as a pilot, adventurer, and family man. And we end our conversation talking about how regular joes can go on the kinds of adventures Laval regularly undertakes without breaking the bank and while still attending to their families and careers.
- Laval’s background and how he created a life of adventure
- How Laval decided he’d be an adventurer
- His resume of adventures, including extreme feats of mountaineering, climbing, skiing, and rowing
- How and why Laval lost three fingers while climbing Everest without oxygen
- The combo of fitness and genetics that allows Laval to accomplish these feats
- The harrowing tale of Laval climbing the highest mountain in Iraq
- Why Laval stepped out of his comfort zone to row across the Atlantic
- How the loss of Laval’s 21-year-old son affected him, and why it didn’t stop him from adventuring
- Finding joy and wonder after the loss of a loved one
- How checklists — yes, checklists — helped Laval know what to do after his son’s death
- The role that checklists play in Laval’s expeditions
- Why Laval thinks everyone should utilize the power of checklists
- How to build more adventure into your life
- “Step out and shove off!”
- How to balance fatherhood, family, a career, and adventuring
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My podcast with Ken Royce (catch the last 15 minutes or so for his thoughts on why every man should get his pilot’s license)
- National Geographic
- AoM series on Free Range Parenting
- Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- My 8-Week Microadventure Challenge
- My podcast with adventurer Alastair Humphreys
- 50 Best Books for Boys (Laval read many of these as a boy)
- 50 Non-Fiction Adventure Books
- Carstensz Pyramid
- How to Grieve for a Loved One
- Loss, Grief, and Manliness
- 10 Ways to Help a Grieving Friend
- The Power of Checklists & The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
- Podcast: How to Have a Good Day, Every Day
- Make Every Day a Good Day With This Morning Routine
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Inside many men is the call for adventure. My guest today is one of those men and listening to that call led him to pursue a lifetime of amazing expeditions around the globe all while balancing a demanding career as an airline pilot and family responsibilities. His name is Laval St. Germain and today he shares when he first heard the call for adventure on his grandparent’s farm in Western Canada and how he started taking action on it. We go through some of the adventures he’s been on including being the first Canadian to summit Mt. Everest without oxygen, dodging landmines while climbing Mt. Damavand in Iraq and rowing across the Atlantic Ocean by himself. Laval then shares how he tragically lost his son in a canoeing accident and how the habit of making checklists that he developed as a pilot helped lead his family through this very tragic time in the grieving process. We then dig deeper into how Laval uses checklists as a pilot, adventurer and family life to improve his life. We end our conversation talking about how regular Joe’s can go on the kind of adventures Laval regularly undertakes without breaking the bank and while still attending to their families and careers.
After the show is over, make sure you check out the show notes at AOM.is/Laval where you can find a list of resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Laval St. Germain, welcome to the show.
Laval St. Germain: Thanks, Brett. I’m really happy to be on.
Brett McKay: So, you reached out to me last week, actually, and I’m glad you did because you are a contender for the real life most interesting man in the world.
Laval St. Germain: I don’t drink Dos Equis, though.
Brett McKay: You don’t drink Dos Equis. I hear it’s not that great of a beer, anyways. So, can you tell us about your background, because, OK, you’re a pilot, but besides the pilot thing, which is pretty manly as it is, you’ve also created this life of yourself of adventure. So, tell us just about what you do and kind of your mission in life.
Laval St. Germain: Sure, sure, like you said, I’m an airline pilot, but let’s work backwards to my background. So, if you’re American listeners can’t tell, I’m a Canadian by my accent, but I’m from a small, rural community in Western Canada in the Canadian province of Alberta, a small town of about 2,000 people surrounded by farm land and the community I grew up with was largely a French-Canadian community surrounded by a lot of German farmers around it. So, my dad is French-Canadian, sort of a town boy from the town, my mom is a German farm girl from outside of that small town where I grew up. My parents had a real love of the outdoors.
Where we lived there were no mountains, it’s prairie area, so it’s farming country, but my dad was a big outdoorsman. He was a hunter, a fisherman, a canoeist, and my mom was an athlete. She played volleyball, she played basketball. I remember going to her games when I was a small child. So, I always had a love for the outdoors and it was something that was quite normal for me and also my dad had his private pilot’s license. We always had a small Cessna type aircraft, kicking around, a four seater, a three seater, or a two seater aircraft depending. We’ve had several different airplanes, so I was always exposed to aviation, so these are normal things to me, the outdoors and flying. One of the sort of seminal points in my development I believe was the summers and the Christmas holidays that I spent on my grandparent’s farm where my mom grew up.
This was only about eight kilometers or about four miles from where we lived in this small town, and my dad and I used to walk to the farm along the railway tracks that went to this farm. Back then, of course, there were no plastic bottles, we didn’t have any Nalgene or that type of thing, so we’d fill up a 7-up bottle, in Canada, we call a pop bottle, a glass bottle with water, we’d put it in a little back pack and we’d walk down these tracks, and I would ask my dad about things that I had read in National Geographic or things I had read in an encyclopedia. This is of course before the time of the Internet, and he would tell me stories about places all over the world, these places that were so far away and so removed from where I was that I always had this real fascination for them, and that fascination started to really evolve when we got National Geographic as a kid.
Back to going to the farm. The lessons that I learned on that farm were really being a free range kid. We had unsupervised, unstructured play, my cousins and I and my sister who is a year older, and we simply roamed around on this farm. We were involved in slaughtering the chickens, milking the cows, we were involved in baling, we were involved in constructing things, and as long as we were back on time for lunch, when my grandma made lunch, or back in time for dinner, and back when the lights, or when the sun went down in the evening, which is quite late this far north, everything was fine.
So, it was this free range lifestyle that I think is so remote from what we have nowadays and even more so, we were allowed to drive tractors, trucks, combines as young kids, and I’m talking about below the age of 10 I was driving a standard. So, I have this real comfort with machinery and the outdoors, so for somebody who has evolved into the type of activities that I have evolved into is a real natural setting to develop my love of the outdoors and confidence as well.
Brett McKay: I was goin go to say … So, you spent time outdoors on the farm, and that’s … You’re doing now some crazy stuff. We’ll talk about some of these adventures you’ve gone on. So, like at what moment in your life did you decide, I’m going to, for example, we’ll talk about your solo North Atlantic Ocean rowing trip, at what moment did you decide? Like, I’m going to be an adventurer like these guys I read about in National Geographic?
Laval St. Germain: It was right then, one story to sort of illustrate it was when I read Tarzan as a young boy, I don’t know, I was probably nine years old, I spent that summer not wearing shoes. As soon as the snow melted I didn’t wear shoes until the snow fell again, literally running through the trees, toughening my feet, trying to toughen my feet the way I read that Tarzan did in the book. So, I decided that I wanted to be like Tarzan. I read Jack London books, obviously about the Yukon and the Gold Rush, and Farley Mowat who is a Canadian writer and Ernest Hemingway and for some reason, maybe it was the confidence my parents instilled in us, but I never had any doubt that I could go out and do these things, I just had to figure out how to get them done. So, right at an early age is when I decided I wanted to this stuff. I mean, I have been really fortunate that I’ve been able to live this sort of ultimate boys’ life, you know, being an airline pilot and being an adventurer and go to the jungles and the deserts and the mountains all over the world. That started as a child and I think it had something to do with the confidence my parents gave me to do whatever I wanted. It sounds cliché, but I really think it had a large part to do with it.
Brett McKay: Those stories of kids reading National Geographic, I don’t think that really happens anymore, because I don’t think people subscribe to National Geographic the magazine. I wonder what’s going to inspire adventurers in the future, I don’t know, just a thought. So, can you talk about some of the adventures you’ve been on, because this isn’t just like little micro-adventures, these are actual feats of endurance that you’ve been on. So, can you kind of take us through the resume of adventures you’ve been on?
Laval St. Germain: Yeah, sure. I don’t know if they’re going to be in order, because there’s been a few, but I’ve climbed … I guess I’ll go from sort of smallest to largest, not that there really is a scale, but I sort of started my ski mountaineering life in the Cascades, in the northwestern US. I was a young airline pilot based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I would drive down to as far as Northern California, and climb and ski, rock climb, ice climb, and ski these big volcanoes around the Pacific Northwest. Then, as an airline pilot, one of the greatest benefits of it and one of the reasons I did it other than the love of flying is that you get travel benefits in airlines all over the world. I was able to very inexpensively fly anywhere I wanted for next to nothing, for less than what a dinner would cost. So, I went to Scuba diving in Honduras, even though I didn’t know how to Scuba dive, flew down to Bolivia, and climb the highest mountain in Bolivia, which almost killed me from high altitude cerebral edema, but even though that happened, I seemed to have a propensity for suffering. I loved it and I was hooked.
Then, I went down to Argentina, climbed the highest mountain in South America, called Aconcagua, I did that on my own. I climbed the highest mountain in Mexico. Went to Denali, climbed the highest mountain in your country, and the highest mountain in North American, Denali. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus, and then suddenly I realize that gees, I’m ticking off some of these continental high points, Elbrus being the highest mountain in Europe, which is in Russia, near the Chechen border, an that started to really wet my appetite for more mountaineering, but not just the seven summits.
I like going to unusual places, places that I either read about or were intrigued by because they were in the news. I went to Iran by myself and I climbed the highest mountain in Iran and skied down it, a mountain called Damavand. I became an adventure racer, so I started doing these eco-challenge type races, some mountain biking, there’s a paddling part of it, trail running, navigation, that type of thing. Mountain bike racing, ice climbing, and eventually decided that hey, I was going to do Everest. What’s really interesting about my Everest expedition is I did that in 2010, about December 2010, I decided that I had to ask/tell my wife, Janet, that I was going to climb Everest.
So, we sat down at our kitchen counter, and I poured her a glass of, I can still remember, it was an Argentine red, called Luigi Bosca and I poured her a glass of red wine and I was trying to get my courage up, and poured her another glass of red wine, she probably thought I had ulterior motives. Then I said, “Babe, I think I’m going to go climb Everest this spring, and I’m going to do it without oxygen.” She took a sip of her wine, didn’t even pause, looked up and said, “It’s about time, you’re not getting any younger.” That’s the type of woman that i was fortunate enough to marry. There was no questioning of it, she never had any doubt that I could do it, she basically just said, Go get it done.
So, yeah, the end of March of 2010, I flew to Nepal and we drove into Tibet and two months later I was standing on Everest becoming the first Canadian to climb it without oxygen. Not without mishap, we had some tragedy on that trip. We lost one of our expedition members to high altitude cerebral edema, just at the summit, he died, a 27-year old from the UK. I, on the climb to the summit froze three fingers on my right hand, and then about a month and a half later, after returning to Canada I had them amputated. So, I did pay a price, but I think it’s a very minor price compared to what Peter Kinlock, the guy who died on our expedition paid.
Brett McKay: Did you do any special training for this, for the Everest summit?
Laval St. Germain: Well, you can tell by my resume that I’m active. I work out every day both using weights, body weight especially, and endurance, so a lot of cycling and a lot of running. Ultra running was a big help, however, once you get sort of above the death zone, so above 26,000 feet, until you’ve been up there, you don’t really know if you’ve got the genetics to do it, and that is just simply a crap shoot. It’s either you’ve won the genetic lottery or you haven’t, because at those altitudes there’s only, I think the number is about two to 4% of the population can function at these altitudes. Your brain starts to swell, you start to develop fluid in your lungs called pulmonary edema, cerebral edema is obviously the fluid in your brain, and there is speculation that genetics is one of the reasons that some of us can maneuver up there. It’s an interesting question, because I think I had such good fitness going into Everest, and as we ascended across the Tibetan plateau at every place we stopped for the night, I’d be the guy that would be out running or climbing the nearest peak or the highest peak I could see in the region.
I was always pushing myself to adapt quickly to the thinner air at altitude. Even at base camp, I’d be off in the distance doing pushups, I’d be doing crunches, and I’d be running in the hills as soon as I was able to run at that altitude and climbing all the mountains around base camp on the north side of Everest. So, using an aviation analogy, and sort of to explain this aviation analogy, I spoke to a U2 spy plane pilot once in Denver, Colorado, and he told us about flying at such high altitudes that the Russian interceptors could get to them, but once they got to them, they couldn’t maneuver, so they’d simply fly by in a parabolic arc and dive out of the way. Sometimes, it would be so close that they’d actually give him the finger from the cockpit, just letting them know that the Russians had them in site. But, they couldn’t maneuver, they couldn’t do anything to sort of harass him.
I think that my fitness was like the afterburners on those Russian fighters. It would push me up to altitude, but luckily I had the genetics or we’ll call it the wing if we want to use an aviation analogy that allowed me to maneuver up there, allowed me to function, and allowed me to get back down there alive. So, my fitness pushed me up there, my genetics are the ones that allowed me to survive up there and get me back down without oxygen, even though I did lose three fingers from frostbite.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so losing three fingers from frostbite, that happened on the way up you said, right?
Laval St. Germain: Yeah, it was a 17 and a half hour day, 17 hours and 35 minutes is what it took me to go from high camp to the summit and back to high camp, and about two and a half, three hours out of high camp I froze the three fingers on my right hand. But, having said that, it’s not because it was cold, it was obviously cold, but I’m a Canadian, I’ve done expeditions all over the world including the Canadian arctic and it wasn’t really that cold. It was probably minus 25 to minus 35, which it’s all relative, but for me, that’s not that cold. I’ve got the equipment, I’ve got the experience.
This is stuff that I’d walk to school in as a child, these types of temperatures, but I made a mistake, I had the wrong equipment. So, the jumar or the device that attaches to the rope, that you slide up the rope as you climb was not designed for these heavy duty, really puffy Himalayan sized mitts. So, when you put your hand into there it compressed the down, which of course reduced the insulation around my fingers and caused me to lose my fingers. That is just an example of taking responsibility for a mistake and learning from your mistakes. So, I don’t whine, I don’t winge, I don’t moan about how cold it was in Everest, sure it was cold, but the only reason I lost those fingers is because of my mistake, and that’s something I’ve learned from aviation, that 99%, probably of all airline accidents are due to human error, what we call pilot error. If you dig down into, in your country what they call the NTSB reports, here we call them the TSB reports, when they study an airline accident you’ll see that it’s human error and I just made a mistake. I wasn’t prepared because of the wrong jumar I used, I took a shortcut and I paid for it by losing my fingers.
Brett McKay: How quickly did you get back to adventuring after you had your fingers amputated?
Laval St. Germain: Let’s see, I was at the gym the day after I had my fingers amputated. I was running that day and on my bike, just being a little bit ginger with my right hand, but I was right back into it. My son at the time who is now 15 was eight and I had my fingers amputated and about a week later we were riding our bicycles from the city where I live, which is Calgary to another town called Drumheller, so we did about a 100 mile bike ride right after that. So, a few fingers lost is not that big of a deal, it doesn’t really impede you that much other than maybe with typing, and I’ll never be a hand model.
Brett McKay: Right. What did your wife think? Was she just like, “you idiot,” when you got back or was she pretty devastated or was she like “OK”?
Laval St. Germain: She realized that if you’re going to do this type of stuff, every once in a while something is going to happen, right. You’re going to suffer injuries, and I’ve been very fortunate considering what I do that I’ve had some fairly minor injuries and I would consider that a minor injury. I would consider that a failure. It eats at me and it bothers me, but you know, she was there when they amputated them. It was just local anesthetics. She didn’t find that too impressive watching that, but it’s just, I think it’s just the scars and the stories that you accumulate through the act of life and that’s one of the things that I’ll always have is the three stumps.
Brett McKay: The three stumps, I like that. So, you’re the first Canadian to summit Mt. Everest without oxygen. What else have you done, because I think you said they get bigger and bigger, so you’ve done some other stuff as well after that.
Laval St. Germain: Yeah, and I got back from there and I went down to climb the highest mount in Australasia, so we as mountaineers have taken all of southern Asia, meaning Australia, New Zealand, even though Australia is a continent, because the highest mountain in Australia, Mt. Kosciuszko is small, we decided to take the highest mountain in sort of the archipelago of Indonesia, the Philippines including Australia and New Zealand, and there’s a mountain in the jungle in Indonesia, Papua province, called Carstensz Pyramid. I did this really incredibly tough, rewarding trek through the jungle, just this classic mountain trek through the jungle with local porters that were going on strike. We were held up at log bridges with porters with bows and arrows and spears demanding money. We had porter rebellion. It was just a really incredibly good trip and we went into the deep, dark jungles of Indonesia. We climbed the highest mountain down there called Carstensz, so that’s one thing I did, loved it. Another different trip for me, because I’m not a real jungle guy, but I have done some stuff in South America, but this was really an incredible trip, sort of the classic jungle expedition.
Then, after that, I came back and I went and climbed the highest mountain in Iraq, which was really unusual. It was before the rise of ISIS, so 2013. I traveled into the border region, by myself, between Iran and Iraq. I had hired a fixer, a local guy in Erbil, in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, which is sort of the least violent area of Iraq. I’s a semi autonomous region run by the Kurds, and I found a guy who spoke Kurdish and Arabic, got a vehicle, and I said, “Here’s where I want you to drop me off and I want you to pick me up here a week later.” He said, “You won’t get there because of the military checkpoints.” So, we traveled through the military checkpoints and every one, we somehow sweet talked our way through. At the last one that was nearest the border with Iran, he asked what the westerner was doing in the car, and my fixer said that “he was just going to look at the mountains for the day,” even though I had about a 60 pound backpack with an ice ax and skis and ski posts in the back seat of this Toyota. He dropped me off and I wandered off into the mountains of Iraq along the Iranian border in an area that was just littered with landmines, so this added a whole different challenge to back country skiing when I had to tiptoe through landmine fields going rock to rock, so I wouldn’t step on any earth that could have been dug up and set off a landmine. After a few days I got near the top of the highest mountain in Iraq and summited and then telemark skied down. Telemark skiing is that skiing where your heels are free. I telemark skied down and then to make a long story short, I made it back down to where my fixer was picking me up and on the way down there I saw some unusual tracks in the mud, they looked like military boot tracks and sure enough the Iraqi security forces had been hunting me up there. I don’t think they were hunting me to do me any harm but to keep me away from the Iranian border because this area is very famous for … It’s a region where in 2009, I believe it was, three Americans were kidnapped and held for I think up to two years by the Iranians and had to pay a massive ransom and I was, they suspected that I had been kidnapped by Iranians and they were going to think they were coming up to save me. In fact, on that trip by myself one night in the tent, I heard somebody cough outside my tent early in the morning and as I looked under the fly of my tent I could see a guy in khaki pants standing there, the bottom of his legs holding a gun, the butt of the gun was on the ground by his feet so I thought, this is it, the jig is up, I’m about to be kidnapped like those Americans. But, it turns out it was a local Kurdish hunter hunting Ibex, and we had some chocolate and tea and spoke in sign language, and off he went. I got down to the bottom of the mountain, the first security checkpoint I went to, just a few kilometers after getting in the car, I was picked up by the Iraqi security forces and was interrogated for about four hours in various buildings. Funny enough that one of the buildings they interrogated me was called the CIA and after four hours of interrogation they couldn’t really prove that I had been into Iran even though I had crossed the border, because the summit of the mountain is right on the border, and in fact it’s about 80 meters into Iran. They let me go, so, that added a little bit of excitement to the trip. I became the first person to ever climb and ski that mountain in Iraq. It will probably never be done again because it’s such a dangerous area for landmines.
Brett McKay: That’s great. How long ago was this, again?
Laval St. Germain: That was 2013.
Brett McKay: Wow.
Laval St. Germain: That same year, I came back and did a trip in Canada’s high arctic, another ski mountaineering trip to a pretty iconic mountain up there. On that trip, instead of landmines, we had a sawed off 12 gauge shotgun and always patrolling for polar bears that were in danger of hunting us down, but luckily we didn’t see any. So, some pretty unusual challenges, something more Canadian like avoiding polar bears and something definitely more Middle Eastern like avoiding landmines. So, I’ve done some unusual stuff. Then, the latest thing was really outside my comfort zone. I can’t even describe how far out the comfort zone it was for me, but I decided to take a solo ocean rowing boat, a 20 foot long, one person boat, about four feet across and 20 feet long. I row it from mainland of North America to the mainland of Europe. I rowed from Halifax, Canada to Brest, France, 3,100 miles across the North Atlantic by myself and that was a real step outside my comfort zone and outside of my wheelhouse for sure.
Brett McKay: First off, how long did it take for you to go from Halifax to France?
Laval St. Germain: Fifty-three days. I planned for 100 days. That route had only been done once before in history, from mainland Canada to mainland Europe, and it took that Canadian female 129 days and she had to be rescued mid-ocean and resupplied by a cruise ship, but I was bound and determined to do it under 129 days without any aid whatsoever and I did in 53 days. I came into Brest, France on a very foggy day, August of 2016 with my wife standing on the docks, so it was quite an expedition.
Brett McKay: You said this was completely out of your wheelhouse, what inspired you to do this adventure?
Laval St. Germain: Brett, that’s a tough one. I think I aim for blank spaces on the map. I think there must have been something that I read as a child or that I had followed either as an adult, and this chunk of ocean is blue expanse between Canada and France for some reason really pulled at me. I’m of a mixture, but I’m French-Canadian and German, and I really thought to do a trip the way my ancestors came to North America, although backwards, would be pretty unique. To row a boat, versus sailing in a boat, but to row a boat, human powered across the North Atlantic, it seemed like a challenge that was going to stretch me to my limits. Then, coupled with that, two years previous to that, we tragically lost our son Richard.
Our 21-year old just got hired as a young bush pilot, so a pilot flying in the north and Arctic Canada, he was canoeing on McKenzie River, which is the second longest river in North America after the Mississippi and he was with a pretty girl that he was starting to date from the town that he was in, it was 9:15 at night an in the summer time in northern Canada, it doesn’t get dark, so 24 hour daylight, so bright sunny day, and the canoe flipped, and he stayed with the canoe, and she swam for shore, and we found his body eight days later and that tragedy was such an existential hit to us as a family and for some reason I decided to bury myself out at sea alone on the water.
I think in some ways it was cathartic and therapeutic, and allowed me to somehow get maybe a little closer to Richard by doing that. That’s why I chose, one of the reasons I chose the ocean and it was especially difficult. I celebrated the second, I shouldn’t say celebrated, I marked the second anniversary of Richard’s death in the middle of the North Atlantic on a sunny day with a pod of dolphins keeping me company, so it was quite something.
Brett McKay: I’m really, really sorry about your loss. But, I mean, that’s, for me, I think it’s crazy that you would just go right back to it. I think for a lot of people to have a tragedy happen like that, to a close family member, to a son, they would be like, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that again.
Laval St. Germain: It’s really hard to explain. I think I believe I’ve heard that you’re a parent, now, Brett, and there is nothing like losing a child. It really is the worst nightmare and what it does is there’s nothing good that comes out of it. Let me preface that by saying the loss of a child or the loss of a close family member, there’s this permanent injection of sadness that is now injected into your life at all times. I want to be clear that doesn’t mean that this injection of sadness means that you’re inoculated against ever being happy again. You can still be just as happy as you ever were. You can still experience joy and you can still experience wonder, and you can still laugh. For moments of your life it’s not hanging over you, but at the same time, it’s always in your system, so multiple times a day you will miss him, you will be reminded by him, you will see his younger move like him, or talk like him, or say something that he would have said, or you find yourself wearing his t-shirt or his jeans or his boots. What it does, it just gives you as a person and especially as a couple and as a family, this new relationship with death.
Death is part of life that … What I’m trying to say is that it gives you this newfound wisdom maybe on how tenuous life can be and how one little error from an experienced canoeist on a summer night can end in a 21 year old at the height of his powers drowning. I think you come out … We were bound and determined not to come out with PTSD, and I think we tried to change it into PTG or post-traumatic growth. We did everything possible to come out of this healthy as a couple and as a family. That meant grief counseling, that meant talking about it openly, revisiting our memories of Richard on a daily basis, pictures of him all over the house, and that occurred from the moment that I got that call at 2:30 in the morning from the RCMP or what we call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police here in Canada. When you get that call at 2:30 and he says “This is Constable of the Norman Wells RCMP, are you the father of Richard St. Germain,” and when he gives you the news, I went right back to my aviation background, and I sat down on the bed for 15 minutes, I was sleeping in my youngest son’s room that night because he was in our bed.
I just sat there and I started to go through a checklist, a checklist of what I needed to do now as a man and as a father to handle the death of child. I followed that, got my wife, brought her into the room, quietly told her. You can imagine, but she’s an extremely tough lady and she was devastated, but by staying busy, by following this checklist we were able to fight our way through this and hopefully did get some of that PTG at the end, that growth that comes out of a horrible loss.
Brett McKay: What was on that checklist? Was it honoring his memory every day, what you were talking about earlier?
Laval St. Germain: The immediate checklist was what do I have to do now, so at the moment, who do I have to tell, how am I going to tell them, how am I going to handle this? I had to recruit my brother in, he had to tell my mom before this got out on social media. We had to tell our daughter who is, she’s a ski coach and she was doing training that day. We had to tell Janet’s mom. We had to make sure that people that were immediate family found out from us. So, we actually made a plan, not to the minute, but to the half an hour of how we were going to get to all of these people and tell them.
Then, we started to work through the process of what we were going to do. I wanted to go up to the river, I wanted to thank the people who were trying to find him and to try and rescue him. At that point there was still a recovery mission going on, but when you’re sitting on a river that’s five kilometers across, and somebody goes missing, you unfortunately know what the consequences are. So, we flew up there, 48 hours after it happened and talked to the rescuers and thanked them and we just stayed on that checklist. That’s what I’ve used for everything in my life is, especially in expeditioning, is this aviation discipline of risk management, double checking things, redundancy, making sure I have the stuff I need. I literally, for example, if we want to get away from the tragedy part of my life, even on the boat, I had a abandon ship checklist, and I structured it just like I would an emergency checklist on the Boeing 737 that I fly. I would review it in storms, I would have it out, and I’d be reading it, and getting ready, because the boat was getting crushed by waves, it had capsized, and this happened multiple times.
Checklists I think are really important in life. It gives you a structure. It gives you a way to cover, prevent errors. You’re never going to prevent them, but mitigate errors or reduce them, and I think it really helped in my case with the ultimate disaster of losing Richard. I was able to bury myself in this checklist in quotation marks and get the family through it, not on my own, we did it as a team. I even used a checklist analogy to waking up in the morning. You know what makes a good day for yourself, Brett, you know that if a good day to you means you’re going to spend some time with your children, you’re going to have a good breakfast, you’re going to make yourself a good breakfast, you’re going to have an excellent workout, you’re going to do a good podcast interview, you’re going to write a blog, whatever, I’m using you as an example.
You know that already, so, when you wake up in the morning, you can jot that down, what’s going to make a perfect day for Brett McKay, and you write that down, you just do it. So, by the end of the day, if you haven’t done it all, you haven’t completed the checklist, but at least we all know what makes a good day. There’s no reason that we have to wake up and just take the day as it occurs or just take life as it occurs. We know the secret, but, for some reason we let it sort of roll over us like a wave versus getting involved and manipulate life the way we want to.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love this idea of checklists. So, you know how you’ve mentioned how you’ve written out these checklists for specific emergency situations and you had this checklist you created on the fly when your son tragically died, I’m curious, and it sounds like you do a checklist for your day, but like do you have other checklists for other situations, like very specific situations? I know for a pilot there’s a checklist for pre-takeoff and a checklist for takeoff, and there’s a checklist … Do you get that specific with your life?
Laval St. Germain: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, for anything you do in life you can use those checklists. Like you alluded to, with aviation, we have these macro events or these flight segments, or what we call phases of flight, the real critical ones are obviously takeoff, approach and landing. Those are the critical parts of flying. You want to make sure the flaps are set and the trim is set and the landing gear is down, all this stuff, because if that stuff is not done, you’re going to die, it will kill you. So, we use those checklists, but each one of those macro events, meaning those flight segments are broken down into smaller segments. Here’s an example: rowing the ocean, there is no checklist for rowing an ocean. If I wanted to become a pilot I could follow the procedures to become a pilot. I get my student pilot license, I get my recreational pilot license, or I think in the states, you call it a sport pilot license, I get my private pilot license, I follow these items. But, when you do something like climb a big mountain or row an ocean you have to write down what you think you’re going to require to come back alive. I literally sat down and jotted down a checklist. What kind of education did I need? This is a prairie boy from a farming town originally, in Northern Alberta, Canada, I don’t have any ocean experience so I had to do my Yacht Master training. First, before that I had to do my Day Skipper training. A lot of the navigation and meteorology stuff is similar to aviation, but I had to know how to read tide charts, I had to get my marine radio operator’s license. I wrote all of this stuff down, but it was like you’re going blind in a way, but with my experience as an expeditionist, I was able to make a checklist that covered all of the bases, and I actually did go out and do it successfully and the fastest crossing ever and come back alive. So, somehow, and I really attribute this to my aviation background. I made the checklist that got me back alive. So, super important but you can use it in less critical situations on a daily basis. Like I said, you know what makes a good day, write it down and do it.
Brett McKay: Do it. Yeah, there’s a great book, we’ve written about it, I think it’s the Checklist Manifesto is what it’s called?
Laval St. Germain: Atul Gawande, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah, check that out, it’s fantastic.
Laval St. Germain: Yeah, and it’s, you know, as an airline pilot, we use checklists all the time. You do not fly an airplane without a checklist. I flew this morning, and I can’t even count how many checklists and switches I had to do, but all operated via checklist, even though I’ve done it thousands and thousands of time, it’s the only way to go in a lot of situations in life.
Brett McKay: Right, because it reduces that human error.
Laval St. Germain: It helps reduce human error and when you’re doing something that you do over and over and over again, you think that you’re an expert, and you think that it can’t happen to you, like all of us think that. But, these checklists force you to follow procedure. Checklists are what we say are written in blood. The reason that there are checklists is because other pilots have killed themselves because they forgot that switch. All of these standard operating procedures and checklists are written in blood. That goes for mountaineering, that goes for aviation, that goes for sailing or ocean rowing. You learn from the mistakes of others.
Brett McKay: So, I’m sure there’s a lot of men listening to you tell about your adventures you’ve been on, and they’re thinking, this sounds great, I’d love to do it, but I’m not a pilot, I can’t get the fliers discount, that sounds really expensive to get equipped for a trek up Mount Everest. What’s your advice to these guys who want to go on the adventures like this, but they don’t think it’s in their wheelhouse or in the realm of possibility?
Laval St. Germain: I guess it’s like anything, if you prioritize … Here’s an example. If you’re a young married couple and all of a sudden you have a child that you weren’t planning on and you weren’t expecting, the reason expecting, literally, but if you beforehand had decided not to have a child because you couldn’t afford it, when that child comes along, you all of a sudden figure out a way to give that child what it needs in life and you pay for it, literally. You fund that child’s life. You can do that with any type of goal, if you really want to do it. It’s amazing how when you get focused on something and maybe this is something that is peculiar to people like myself that do these expeditions and have these sort of lofty goals, I guess, is that once I get focused on something, it’s amazing how things start to fall into place and how you find the money to do that, how you find the time to do that, how you negotiated this or arrange that. If you really want to do it, I mean, it sounds cliché, but if you really want something, you really have to do what it takes. Now, what I also like to say is you just don’t want something, you don’t say, “I want to be an airline pilot.” You say, “What do I need to do to become an airline pilot? What do I need to do to become a solo ocean rower? I don’t want to row the North Atlantic, what do I need to do, to do that, and you figure it out. You sit down, you’ve got the benefit of Google, you’ve got the benefit of things like podcasts, believe it or not where there are so many tidbits that you can pick up to get these things done and if you really want it you’re going to be able to get to that goal, or at least to the starting line of that goal. Then, once you get there, you’re the one who’s got to unzip that tent and step out of the door at high camp on Everest or shove off the dock into the North Atlantic by yourself, but you have the means of getting to that point before you step out or shove off. I think that’s really something that people have to be aware of is they can make these things happen. If you are going to do something, prepare for it, though, please do the hard work. None of this stuff comes easy. It’s years and years of training, it’s sitting at night in front of a computer doing a course on ocean navigation, it’s researching Google map images and Google Earth, it’s learning the local language so you can ask, “Are there landmines here,” you can ask “How do I get there, where do I buy fuel, help me, where is water,” that type of stuff. There’s a very famous saying that I’ve fallen back on. It’s a Greek philosopher named Archilochus. He said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations,” and I like to add dreams and hopes, “but, we fall to the level of our training.” So, no matter what you hope for and no matter what you prepare for, unless you’re prepared for that when the shit hits the fan so to speak, it’s your training that’s going to get you out of these situations, or, successfully to these situations or into them.
Brett McKay: You mentioned, you said, pick up or was it step off … Step out and shove out-
Laval St. Germain: Yes.
Brett McKay: It’s sort of become your motto, right?
Laval St. Germain: It has, it really has. To grab a tent zipper at high camp on Everest at 11:00 at night, unzip that without oxygen and realize that you’re out for the physically and maybe not psychologically, but the toughest day of your life. It takes a little bit of, well, it takes a lot of commitment, it takes a lot of preparation, and it takes a lot of confidence, and I think that’s a positive feedback that comes from preparation and there’s nothing like it. You could make up a lot of excuses. You could say I’ve got altitude sickness, that I’m sick, you could say that I’m too cold, you could say that I’ve got frostbite, you could make a ton of excuses to not step out of that tent, just like when I shoved off the dock into the North Atlantic. Stepping out and shoving off is very tough.
The only one that has really made me pause for a second was shoving into the North Atlantic, because that was a whole different world. I literally had no ocean experience at all. Just like that checklist I guess, proceeding through a checklist, I just sort of went step-by-step, wave by wave and made it across. What’s really interesting on the subject of ocean rowing is that it’s the only mode of travel I know that you’re facing where you just came from. You’re never looking at where you’re going.
It’s really strange because where you’re going is always in your imagination. It’s a compass heading that you can see by your feet, there’s a compass between my feet on the boat, but you’re only using your imagination to get to where you’re going versus canoeing down a river, seeing the next bend, or going around that rock or climbing a ridge and going to that rock, or you’re going to turn up that crevasse or I’m going to get to that peak and follow that, or I’m going to ride my bike up that hill and by that road I’m going to turn right. It’s a strange bit of a psychological test when you’re rowing a boat for these distances. First of all, there’s no markers out there and you’re only using your imagination to get to where you want to be, which I think there’s something there and I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
Brett McKay: Not only were you doing these great adventures and being a pilot, but you’re also balancing fatherhood as well. How do you incorporate that element, because I’m sure there’s a lot … I know when a lot of men get married and they have kids, they think, “Well, my days of adventures are over. I had my twenties for that, I can’t do that anymore.” How do you balance adventure, and family, and career?
Laval St. Germain: Yeah, so luckily for me, I had the kids when I was in my twenties. Other than Eric, I was in, I guess early thirties when I had Eric. But, I just brought them along. I had the chariot I pulled behind my bicycle and I’d go on long training rides in the mountains with a little, tiny kid behind me and a backpack. As soon as they were literally old enough to start riding a bike, they’d be on trips. When Richard was 13 and Andrea was 11, that’s our daughter, we rode our bikes 800 kilometers in the Canadian Arctic off a gravel highway. They’re the youngest people ever to have done that, and kids don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t know what they can or can’t do, and that’s what I love about them.
They’re this blank slate and they pulled off this 800 kilometer remote Arctic Canada ride on their bikes and it was just another bike trip. You just include them. We got them into skiing. We got them into ski racing. They became ski coaches all three of them. Eric is a ski coach now at age 15. We were in Japan a year ago, a year and a half ago. Janet toured around Tokyo and the kids and I climbed, skied up Mt. Fuji and skied down it. We took a couple of days and did that. On Eric’s thirteenth birthday I took him to the most active volcano in Europe, which is on the Aeolian Islands, it’s called Stromboli and we sat on the rim and watched it erupt. These things kids can do without any issues and it’s just bring them along. It doesn’t really slow you down that much, but it does give you a new level of awareness of your responsibility to come back alive.
You may be getting tired of airplane analogies or aviation analogies, but when there is an aviation safety report like I alluded to earlier, an accident, there’s always a cause, and it’s usually the pilot. I never want my kids to see that I took a shortcut, that I didn’t follow my procedures, that I didn’t have my safety harness on, that I didn’t check my knot and that’s what killed me, or that I didn’t have, I wasn’t tied in when I fell into that crevasse and because that will be my epitaph on my tombstone for them, figuratively speaking and I don’t want that, so I’m really cautious about never taking shortcuts, even though I do some, you know, what I think some people think are very dangerous things, I do it in a very measured way and I’m extremely cautious. I didn’t make one mistake on Everest other than freezing my hand, but I didn’t do any shortcuts. I didn’t shortcut my preparation, I didn’t take any shortcuts literally on the mountain.
The same with the boat, I was always tied onto my safety line when I went onto the deck. Never, ever did I risk it, no matter how calm the water was, because I could have been knocked off by a rogue wave, I could have had a whale hit the boat, which I did have, any situation, and I could have just simply disappeared and it would have been my mistake. It makes you hyper-aware of risk mitigation.
Brett McKay: Definitely. I guess another aspect of being able to balance family and doing this adventure stuff is also marrying someone who is onboard with your adventure lifestyle.
Laval St. Germain: Absolutely, that’s such a critical, I mean, I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who if the wife was told that the husband was going to climb Everest without oxygen, and she just says, “Well, get on with it,” sort of basically what she said is “you’re not getting younger.” That’s the exact quote. So, yeah, it’s fantastic. She’s got this level of confidence in me that sometimes is a little disturbing. She always thinks I’m guaranteed to come back, although the ocean was especially difficult.
I remember we had a dinner before I left, just her and I on the way back … I took the whole family, actually, to Europe, to see the boat when it was being built. I wanted them to see what an ocean rowing boat was and how safe it was, and I actually went out and rowed the boat with Eric. So, we actually tested it and let him row it and let him sort of get used to the systems on it. He was sort of my touch point with Janet and Andrea and he could explain the systems to them, and this thing is literally almost like a space capsule. It’s that tough and it almost looks like a space capsule from the Apollo days inside. It’s got this tiny little cockpit with this door that seals. It’s quite robust.
I took them there, then on the way back we stopped in Reykjavik, Iceland and Janet and I went for dinner, and we were both in tears. She was sort of in desperation saying to me, “Why do you do this stuff, what drives you to do this, why on earth would you want to row across the North Atlantic Ocean, what is wrong with you?” You can’t respond. It’s very difficult, and the biggest negative aspect of this type of life is the worry, and the, I guess the suffering you can put your loved ones through. Luckily for me, even though I think I’ve really tried to make my own luck, I’ve always come back alive, minus a few digits.
Brett McKay: Right, minus a few digits. I guess you were doing this adventuring stuff before you married her, so, she knew what she was getting into.
Laval St. Germain: I think just four or five days after I met her I took off to Kilimanjaro, so she’s never known anything different.
Brett McKay: I think it would be hard if you marry someone and then you’re like five years later, “Hey, honey, I’m going to become an adventurer.”
Laval St. Germain: You know what would really scare her is if I said, “Hey, honey, I’m going to take up golfing.” She would absolutely panic.
Brett McKay: What’s wrong, something is wrong. Laval, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about your work and the other adventures you plan on going on here in the future? Oh, that’s a question, do you have any adventures planned?
Laval St. Germain: I was scared you would ask me that. I’ve always got many being planned. I’ve got one of the seven summits left. It’s the highest peak in Antarctica, called Vinson. I’m just sort of, it’s not a very difficult peak, it’s only 16,000 feet high. It’s basically just a flight in there and you spend 10 days ski mountaineering to the top. I would like to combine it with something else though, so maybe a South Pole expedition, so that’s on my mind and usually when these things are on my mind they start to fester and they turn into something, and I also want to do a desert crossing. A big desert crossing, something that’s never been done. That one is a little bit confidential, so I’m working on doing a desert crossing. Of course, all of my trips are human powered. It’s not going to be on a motorcycle or in a Jeep or anything like that, so I’m working on those two.
Plus, all of the time I’m doing stuff. We just got back from Central Europe, Janet and I. She’s a big wine expert, so we toured all over central Europe, and while she was doing wine tours, I was running up the highest mountain in Hungary, the highest mountain in Poland, the highest mountain in the Czech Republic, so wherever we go, I try and stay active, get a run in and bag a peak or two, so it’s a real passion. There’s always something going on.
Brett McKay: Is there someplace people can go to follow you on these adventures?
Laval St. Germain: Sure, so, you can go to my Twitter account, it’s probably the best. I’m pretty active on Twitter and on Instagram. It’s just @LavalStGermain, so that’s L-a-v-a-l-S-t-G-e-r-m-a-i-n, and my website is my name.com. No period after the T in the website. It’s Lavalstgermain.com. There’s a contact form in there. You can reach out there. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and obviously Facebook as well. I’m on Facebook, I’m sort of new to that, but really active on Twitter and Instagram, and I’m also a public speaker, so I get hired to talk about these things, whish I absolutely love sharing these stories. I call it Lessons Learned from Beyond the Waves and Above the Clouds, and that’s really what it is, because I think as men, especially, we love these tales of adventure, where the climber, you’re watching them from the bottom of the mountain and they disappear above the mists, into the cloud, and you wonder what’s going on up there, or a boat that disappears over the ocean horizon. I’ve always wanted to know what happened out of sight and I’ve been doing it, so, I really love sharing my stories.
Brett McKay: Well, Laval St. Germain, thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Laval St. Germain: Thanks a lot, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Laval St. Germain. He’s an adventurer, airline pilot, and family man. You can find more information about his adventures and follow him on his adventures by going to lavalstgermain.com, all one word, no period in between the St. and Germain. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/Laval where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. Do you enjoy the show? Have you got something out of it since you’ve been listening to it, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.