'There is no problem that can't be solved by a walk in the woods': Local adventurer builds career and life around global wilderness
PRESCOTT - If ever you encounter a pesky hippopotamus, follow Roy H. Smith's advice: pelt it with rocks. If you are kayaking in the Gulf on the Baja coast, and come upon a whirlpool, follow Roy's advice: stay to the middle and keep on paddling. Pay no attention to the sharks in the waves cresting above your head.
If you are whining about the weather, think of Smith: he led a National Geographic expedition team of sled-pulling skiers across the Arctic Circle at temperatures between 45 and 75 degrees below zero.
Indeed, the 75-year-old native of northern England is the "MacGyver" of adventure, surviving a number of death-defying feats he admits rattled him but never enough to deter him from plotting his next daring expedition.
Smith initiated Prescott College's still-existing outdoor adventure education program back in the early 1970s.
"We almost died," said Smith with no exaggeration as he talked of his 600-mile, National Geographic-funded rafting expedition in 1985 on the Omo River in Ethiopia, one of the least accessible regions of Africa.
In a storytelling style that mesmerizes his listeners, Smith recalled a herd of hippopotamuses that tried to "torpedo" his raft and those of his eight other crew members. Their only weapons against them were rocks collected from shore or their oars. Smith was forced to thrust his oar down the throat of one particularly aggressive hippopotamus to prevent him from tipping over his raft.
"It was survival," Smith said of his defense tactics that not only required warding off hippos but also crocodiles and a spitting cobra he speared with a long stick he found on the riverbank.
On that same trip, Smith and his crew encountered some tribal natives that at first seemed hospitable, but after three days of captivity Smith organized a team escape by cutting a hole in the back of their hut. They hiked from the mountain to a desert lake filled with crocodiles. To get back to the river 40 miles away, Smith and the crew engineered a makeshift sailboat to transport them.
"No one knew where we were," said Smith, who on that expedition contracted two serious diseases that left him barely able to walk. "That was scary."
In 1966, almost two decades before the river expedition, Smith tested his physical and mental mettle with a British mountaineering exhibition 20,000 feet up the last unclimbed mountain in the Andes, with a first ascent on the north ridge of Mount Alpamayo.
Smith is not one to ever turn away from a challenge, but climbing a snow-covered sheer rock face to the summit of that mountain tapped his fear factor.
"It was the closest I ever came to dying," Smith noted.
Smith recalled his back-up plan for the treacherous climb was to "jump off" if his climbing partner faltered.
"You always have to have a backup plan, whether it's on a first date or on a mountainside," Smith said.
In the years since that adventure, and there have been a multitude across every continent, Smith emerged as a two-decade corporate leadership development consultant who connects wilderness experiences to company success. Beyond consulting work, his resume also includes stints as a mountain hiking guide, Third World travel expedition leader, food critic and professional snow shoveler.
Smith is the former director of Quest and the Corporate Institute at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. He has lectured for universities and museums across the country as well as for major companies, including defense contractors, around the globe.
"It's all about attitude," Smith said of his philosophy. "Attitude is a choice you make. Your attitude will determine how successful you are in navigating through life. Your attitude can determine the success and behavior of others."
Friend and fellow adventurer Bob Miller said Smith's effervescent personality, mixed with his still thick Lancashire accent, is infectious. He can be counted on to inject his special brand of encouragement to traveling companions when confronted with the rigors of rock climbing, biking or kayaking. Another of his pastimes is memorizing poetry, reciting passages in such places as a ghost town church in Montana, Miller said.
"We were all just spellbound," Miller recalled of that biking trip about five years ago.
Smith's mantra is teamwork.
"We're greater when we work together," said Smith, who lives in Prescott with his wife, Brenda, and has two adult sons, Jed, 37, and Bridgers, 35, and three grandchildren.
Smith's family has joined him on a number of adventures, including a trek across the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean and a sail with one of his sons around Cape Horn.
In 2000, Smith and his wife biked for a month between Canada and Mexico, and in February they will bike 900 miles across Cuba.
For Smith, the power of teamwork was never more evident than on his 1976 National Geographic expedition across the 450-mile Alaska Brooks Range. They endured unimaginable cold and a limited food supply that left them all emaciated at journey's end.
Smith remembers one silent, freezing night when "the wolves just looked at us."
"If I'd have been alone I might not have gone on," Smith said.
From humble beginnings, Smith never graduated high school as he was needed to work the family sheep farm. At 18, he enlisted in the British Army where over the course of nine years he proved himself an athletic and eager leader willing to travel and accept any assignment. He spent a considerable amount of time in both Libya and East Africa.
"The answer is always, yes," Smith admits.
In 1967, Smith moved to the United States after answering an advertisement to work for the Colorado Outward Bound School, one he then expanded into higher education.
He then came to Prescott College to launch their outdoors experiential (involving or based on experience and observation) education program and earned his bachelor's degree in education.
At age 40, Smith earned a degree in human ecology from Yale University.
Asked why he dares danger, Smith said he doesn't take needless risk but savors the chance to experience a world that has so much to offer. From his travels, Smith has learned to embrace life, he said.
Prescott College Professor Walt Anderson, a fellow adventurer, travel guide and naturalist, said he is captivated by Smith's explorer spirit.
Smith is able to translate his globe-trotting expeditions into corporate and personal success, Anderson said.
"Roy's a great guy," said Anderson who serves with Smith on the Granite Dells Preservation Foundation.
Citing Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Smith declared, "There is no problem that can't be solved by a walk in the woods."
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041 or 928-642-6809.