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Home / Latest News / ‘I’m not comfortable with heights,’ says the action man who’s scaled peaks and rowed the Atlantic

‘I’m not comfortable with heights,’ says the action man who’s scaled peaks and rowed the Atlantic

Adventurer Niall McCann is constantly on the lookout for new challenges and places to explore.

The Cardiff-based action man and biologist says it’s in his blood to push the limits.

His grandfather was Pat Baird, an explorer who led the first expedition to the Cumberland Peninsular on Baffin Island, having the Baird Peninsular named after him.

“He set the bar high then my father worked for the British Antarctic Survey and my mother travelled to out of the way places so from a very young age me and my brothers were  doing active stuff,” says Niall.

On one memorable trip with his father, Niall’s hungry 16-year-old brother was reduced to eating road kill in Greenland, but the hardships set them up well for the future, he laughs.

When Niall turned 18 the would-be explorer  opted to cycle across Asia rather than join his friends in Majorca’s party capital Magaluf.

He knew then that he wanted to spend his life experiencing the most out of the way places on the planet.

“I cycled through Western China and Pakistan which gave me a taste for adventure.

“It was the thrill of the physical challenge that got me. I knew I was never going to be a top athlete but I can grit my teeth and put up with pain.

“Adventuring is the thrill of the long plod, of seeing sites no one else sees and having wonderful social experiences.”


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During that first adventure Niall, his father Seamus and a friend cycled from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, over the Khunjerab Pass between China and Pakistan and down the Karakoram Highway covering 1,500 miles to cross the highest paved pass in the world.

The trip gave Niall itchy feet and while studying at Bristol University he worked on a conservation projects around the globe before embarking on a voyage to row the Atlantic in 2007.

“My friend James Burge emailed me suggesting ‘we should do something stupid like this’ so we did,” he explains.

A year later they were setting off on the 3,000 mile voyage from the  Canary Islands to Antigua in a £25,000 rowing boat.

Before leaving the  pair trained so hard they broke the world record for rowing one million metres on an indoor rowing machine in 67 hours, 24 minutes and 14 seconds.

The real trip was very different. Swamped by 30ft waves the friends lost all communication with the outside world for the last two weeks of the journey, leading their families to fear the worst.

“When we lost contact  we knew we were fine but the difficult thing was  knowing our families didn’t know were OK,” remembers Niall, now aged 31.

After 63 days at sea they were finally reunited with their jubilant parents as they arrived in Antigua, but Niall’s family knew he’d soon be off again.

The next year he headed to the colder climes of Greenland with friend Murray Smith to man haul across the Greenland Icecap from East to West.

During the 23 day trip the pair survived temperatures as low as -42C, snow blindness and equipment breakages.

“Someone died doing the same trip this year. You have to have your head on when you do it,” cautions Niall.

“At one point we were 2,500m up in gale force winds of 45mph in  -17C temperatures. “We had to get the tent up or we’d have been dead. You just concentrate and communicate. “We skied right next to each other constantly talking.

“But it’s fascinating monitoring your psychological state. that’s one of the reasons it’s interesting.

“It’s interesting if you’re on a cliff to stop for a moment and think ‘ how nervous do I feel?”

In Niall’s case, he might feel very nervous. The explorer may have canoed down the Yukon River, braved 30ft waves, sub zero temperatures and venomous snakes but he admits he doesn’t like heights.

“I’m not naturally comfortable at height. But I  also have a real drive to want to see things from high up and experience the emotions you feel at height,” he explains.

“Really scaring yourself is a good way to experience visceral emotion. Humans evolved having scary experiences and we seek them out.”

Well, maybe some of us more than others?

 

Niall believes everyone has an urge to explore but it’s not encouraged enough and opportunities must be grabbed.

Climbing in the Alps, Spain and the USA he  gritted his teeth determined  to overcome vertigo.

“When I’m climbing I rarely take my concentration off the two metres around me. You will be scared on the cliff face but just have to enjoy the pleasure.”

It’s these unique experiences, sites and encounters that keeps him constantly thinking of where to go next.

Completing his Ph.D. at Cardiff University Niall is studying Baird’s tapir, one of the most threatened species in the Americas and planning his next trip – climbing Mount Everest.

As a member of Cardiff University’s High Performance Programme he joins national and international athletes getting free access to the gym to prepare for the climb.

“I came to Cardiff University to study with Professor Mike Bruford who is the world leader on conservation genetics and the university has been really good to me,” he says.

Niall’s work as a biologist fits neatly with his adventuring and he’s worked on conservation projects in the UK, Italy, Mauritius, Bolivia, Namibia, Guyana and Honduras.

He is involved in projects in Nepal and Guyana, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

 

Niall’’s enthusiasm and achievements have been spotted by film makers and the adventurer made his television debut in 2011 with the PBS documentary Lost in the Amazon: the enigma of Col Fawcett, which aired on the History Channel.

All this doesn’t leave much time for anything else but Niall has got engaged to his girlfriend of eight years, who prefers to remain anonymous but works as a clinical scientist in Cardiff.

“She is very understanding,” he says.

“We go on micro adventures and did the Paris Marathon together.”

And when he goes away he never asks her to help him pack. After years of going to the remotest parts of the globe Niall says he has packing down to a fine art and never forgets a thing.

“I don’t take luxuries because adventures are about putting yourself in hardship,” he adds.

“The three things I always take are a GPS, because if you know where you are you are pretty much all right, a Leatherman multi-purpose knife and a camera.”

But he admits he misses Marmite, sweets and Pringle crisps.

“When I skied across Greenland I decided my present to myself when I got back was  got  a whole tub of Pringles and a bag of Tangtastics all to myself.”

However much he liked the treats nothing beats the thrill of adrenaline though.

“There are so many things still to do,” Niall says.

“So many un-climbed mountains, there are still unexplored places on earth and I want to see them.”

Niall McCann will be talking about his adventures with Cardiff Explorers at the Terra Nova Bar, Cardiff Bay on July 25 at 7pm. Admission is £3

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