The northern lights flashed across the sky as a heavily wrapped-up figure brought her dog sled to a halt. Beneath the down layers was a Hollywood actress and singer who has been famous for more than a decade. Her A-lister life was filled with couture clothing and private-jet travel, but over time the constant scrutiny had demolished her sense of self-worth; she was suffering panic attacks and had been in and out of rehab for alcohol and sleeping pill abuse. Yet here in the Arctic, knackered, wearing no make-up and stinking of dog, she felt strangely free.
This feeling of escape was not a coincidence. It was the meticulously planned aim of an expedition devised by the Extraordinary Adventure Club (EAC), a secretive society that organises tailor-made, life-changing expeditions for its members to remote parts of the world. It is not for everyone. The minimum commitment is six months and the minimum spend is £200,000, but the cost swiftly rises according to the frequency and nature of the expeditions, such as living with a remote Amazonian tribe or camel-trekking with nomads across Sudan while navigating by the stars. The trips are just a part of the deal. For the duration of the membership, a bespoke team of specialists works with each client. There are psychologists, mentors and experts in meditation, addiction and mediation (wealth and family disagreements go hand in hand). The goal? To give each client a “reset button” for their life.
“Dislocating people from their usual environments and bringing them into nature can be a powerful psychological tool, triggering openness and change,” says Dr Vanessa Ruspoli, a psychologist with a practice on Harley Street. “Also, persisting through a challenge, such as an Arctic blizzard, can prompt people to re-evaluate their capabilities. It can bolster self-esteem.”
The actress’s agent arranged for her to sit next to the EAC founder, Calum Morrison, at a fundraising event in New York, so he could meet her by apparent coincidence. Liking what she heard, the star (who cannot be named) signed up — first for a retreat, a four-day physical and psychological assessment in Iceland, and then for a full expedition. EAC clients know nothing about an expedition beforehand. They are just given a kit list and told when to turn up at the airport. “We flew her to the north of Greenland, and told her she was going to meet her team,” Morrison says. “When she saw they were six huskies, she was thrilled. Within an hour of landing she was with the dogs, learning the ropes, preparing to mush 400 miles across a plateau.”
For the next two weeks, the actress spent seven hours a day guiding her sled in the tracks of a champion Norwegian musher, in temperatures dropping to -30C. “She showed grit and determination, and was justly proud of herself.”
Members of the EAC have included Kristen, 46, who runs a European fund that has been in her family for generations. She felt exhausted by the burden of tending her legacy. “I’m so focused on not letting the family down. I feel guilty taking the time away from the business to talk to you,” she told Morrison at her initial consultation. And there was Yuri, the 17-year-old heir to an oil fortune, whose parents were panicking: he had been expelled from three schools, his drug use was prompting psychotic episodes and some days he simply didn’t get out of bed.
The initial retreat, with the various assessments, is generally held in the Scottish Highlands. Clients must come alone. “They leave London and come up overnight on the shaky sleeper train, which is already a disconcerting experience when they might have flown in from Texas on a private jet,” Morrison says. They are then taken to a small cottage, deep in 36,000 acres of land owned by a Danish billionaire, to meet their EAC team. Each retreat is tailored to the individual client.
For Yuri, it was particularly physical. “He grew up with no boundaries,” Morrison says. “He really responded to being worked hard, being pushed to the edge; he wanted to feel.” Yuri, who fancied himself as handy in a fight, had some time in the ring with a local boxer, a former Scottish welterweight champion. “He met this guy in his mid-fifties, who could still knock his block off. He needed to recognise he wasn’t as hard as he thought he was.” When his body was exhausted he started to open up, to talk about his values and who he wanted to be.
Pushing clients to their limits is a key part of the process. “Sometimes we have to pause and explain what we are doing, and why,” Morrison says. “We take people into difficult situations to engage with them. We are not buggering them around for our own entertainment, but to provide a lever for change. Many tribes have an initiation process where the young must prove themselves to earn their place — the expeditions draw on that idea.”
An initiation process, then, for the super-rich. How hard can it be for a workaday hack, I wonder, as I board the sleeper train to the Highlands for stage one of the EAC experience. Morrison collects me from a platform in the middle of nowhere. We drive through forests of spruce and pine to the Danish billionaire’s cottage, where I meet some of my support team.
The retreat starts with Morrison leading me for an introductory walk into the glen. The Monros are purple with withered heather; three Highland ponies graze. The scene becomes less filmic, however, as he wades knee-deep into a stream, and asks me to follow. “It is deliberately dislocating; it is a good, cold shock that grounds you here. There’s often some squealing, but everyone does it,” he tells me.
Afterwards, at my fitness assessment, I meet another former marine — 6ft, a man of solid muscle — who has me heaving a medicine ball and doing interval sprints. “Embarrass me by being so fast I can’t catch you,” he calls, springing easily behind me as I labour up a hill. As we warm down, the EAC’s therapist appears. Malcolm Williams, a wise, father-figure type, has trained in a variety of therapies, including hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and is acclaimed for his work with veterans suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Later, I curl up on a sofa with a tartan rug, opposite a crackling fire and we talk. Here, in this bubble so far from the rest of my life, anxieties I’d never consciously named come pouring forth. I mention one unhappy school memory and Williams asks me to place it in an imagined picture frame and watch it get smaller, then vanish. The exercise is astonishingly effective; the pain of the memory dissipates.
The details of our conversation are passed to the EAC coach and mentor, Hamish Mackay-Lewis, a Count Vronsky type with a glint in his eye. We walk up a hill together. “It is common that clients don’t feel good enough,” he says. “Often, the thought goes: I am not good enough, rich enough, sexy enough … and so I will not be loved.” He has me repeat my own fears, the nagging voices he calls “saboteurs”, in a comic French accent. “The saboteurs hate accents, it draws their power,” he says.
This sense of needing to be good enough ran strong in Omar Lababidi, the scion of an industrialist Nigerian family with sizeable wealth. Despite degrees from Columbia and Harvard, Lababidi came to the EAC plagued by saboteurs. “I’ve grown up into a privilege my family has earned,” he tells me over the phone from Lagos. “I work in the family business, I am the first son. In my mind is the question, ‘Am I worthy?’
“The first trip was an adventure. I had no idea what the hell was happening,” he recalls. “Calum Morrison handed me a ticket, and we flew from Heathrow to Seoul, and on to Ulan Batar, Mongolia. All economy.” He pauses for emphasis.
In the freezing car park at Ulan Batar he was told to strip, and to hand over his phone, his watch and his clothes. Wearing expedition attire, he was then driven to a wadi where he and Morrison pulled the tarpaulin off two road bikes and cycled out into the desert. “On the fourth day, we reached this mountain covered in yellow flowers, and behind it was the setting sun. It was what it must be like to be on LSD, where you don’t really know who you are or where you are; everything merges, you can feel your mind changing.” He casts his mind back to that day. “Life is beautiful and short,” he adds. “You can’t run away from things. The point is to engage.”
The next day I am up before dawn and in running gear for my own physical test. As I jog into the mist I am flanked by Mackay-Lewis and Morrison. The run reaches an icy river, a deep one this time, and I am expected to swim. “Go slowly,” Morrison explains from behind. I don’t. I jump in, eager to do it properly, and rear up for breath, an iron bar of cold across my chest. It is horrible. But afterwards I feel vividly, tremendously alive.
One EAC member, a Singapore hedge-fund owner, joined the club when his mother told him she didn’t think he’d live until Christmas. He was worth a vast amount of money, but drinking a bottle of whisky a day. “I’ve outsourced my life, my marriage, my kids, everything,” he told Morrison at his initial consultation. “Each time I feel something is missing, I buy something — some wine, or a bigger boat.” He was about to sell his latest fund and come into even more money, but the prospect held zero pleasure. “It doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would.”
However, he took a childish delight in camping in Scotland during his retreat, and the EAC then upped the ante with an expedition to the Ecuadorian Amazon. To begin with, so used to giving the orders himself, he didn’t listen to instructions. He left his trousers on the ground and didn’t shake them out. “He had his bollocks bitten by the ants,” Morrison says. They ate the fabric of the seat, so he ended up effectively wearing chaps.
Over time, however, he learnt to pay attention. After a week, the team thought him ready to spend a night on a small island with a hammock and a machete. By himself. “He was thrilled with his achievement, and physically grew several inches in stature as he held himself upright,” Morrison says. Five years on, he is still a signed-up member of the EAC, and has applied the ebullience generated by the simple pleasures felt during the trips to other aspects of his life. His wife isn’t entirely pleased: they’ve swapped their luxurious holidays for backpacking.
During my retreat, I learn survival skills based on Special Forces training: how to suture wounds with superglue and stay alive if your plane crashes. I investigate fears that have been weighing me down, and I begin to offload them. On the last day of my retreat I go back to the river, getting in slowly this time, and I feel like my negativity is being washed downstream.
Back in London, I now have tools to quieten the critical saboteurs. The various coaching exercises I did gave me fresh priorities. In particular, one of the tasks, which involved me writing my imagined obituary, revealed a gap between how I want to look back on my life, and how I currently spend my time. Essentially, I have been putting far greater value on work than on my role as a mother and I want to change that. In the wake of the retreat, I feel energised, with a great sense of renewed direction. If I had hundreds of thousands down the back of the sofa, I’d definitely sign up for an expedition.
Many clients end up working with the EAC for years; over time their experience will evolve, with a wide range of life lessons being taught. Between expeditions there are also reminders of lessons learnt: a masseur will appear for a workaholic client; a pot of camel’s milk might arrive on the desk of a client who had an emotional breakthrough under the desert stars. Of course, the expeditions don’t always work. Yuri sat his exams and got into university, “but I don’t think he continued”, Morrison says. “The parents need to be onside, take the credit cards and withdraw support; we can only do so much.”
Many will gain a new perspective, as the Hollywood actress did when the real world ram-raided her Arctic expedition bubble. The satellite phone rang — an old boyfriend had sold a kiss-and-tell to the papers. “She was in tears, angry and betrayed,” Morrison recalls. “The guide started to ask her, in broken English, if there had been a serious accident.” She tried to explain, in simple words the musher might understand but, in the context of the vast landscape, suddenly the apparent catastrophe barely felt relevant. “I suppose, no one has died,” she shrugged.
Renewed by a sense of freedom and self-reliance, she has been working with the EAC for two years and is planning further expeditions. “I was suffering from crippling anxiety because I was overwhelmed with the expectation I was putting on myself,” she said. “I had lost who I was and what my desires were. My journey is one of regaining my inner strength, physical and mental.” Her time with the EAC had brought her a “sense of solitude and peace” she had never experienced before.
Yuri and Kristen are aliases, with some details changed to protect their identities
How to change your life (without spending £200,000)
In the morning
■ Start with a cold shower. Breathe through the cold and control your reaction to the water. Both the breathing and the taking control will set you up to feel empowered for the day.
■ Take a few minutes to run through the broad outline of things you plan to do later in the day. Imagine that each of them has gone as well as possible. This gives your unconscious mind a broad map of what you want to happen and enables it to start working positively on your behalf.
■ Speak to your unconscious, and ask for its help: “I command my unconscious mind to guide me to … be calm and focused / be confident in this meeting / let go of anxieties that do not serve me…”
■ Give thanks for anything and anyone that enriches your life: friends, family, health, sunshine, food and so on.
At any time
■ Write your obituary, with details of the things you’d like to have done with your life. Are you on the road to achieving them?
■ Alternatively, try writing a letter to yourself from your three-years-in-the-future self. Describe your life and what you are doing. This will help to clarify your goals and help you reach them. It will also help you to notice limiting beliefs or critical internal voices.
■ Learn to recognise your inner critics, your “saboteurs”. Give them silly accents to remove their power. Over time, we start to believe what we say to ourselves, so make sure to say positive things.
■ Have the courage to do less, and balance the “doing” with just “being”. Take time to breathe and to sit with your thoughts.
From the EAC’s school of thought, as set out by coach Hamish Mackay-Lewis and therapist Malcolm Williams
Original article published in Sunday Times Magazine, in October, 2018