When Eliott Schonfeld first heard of a man named Reinhold Messner, he was sitting in a secluded hut in Alaska, eating ravioli from a can. He flipped through old National Geographic magazines that were on the table and read an article about the famous mountaineer. He remembers exactly.
At that time, the then 24-year-old had already crossed part of the Gobi Desert himself – like Messner about ten years before him. Nevertheless, he was not inspired by the most well-known adventurer of his time: "I was much more interested in food than the outdoor magazines from the 1970s," says Schonfeld, who comes from Paris and laughs.
He spotted the abandoned cabin by chance after walking alone through the wilds of Alaska for twelve days without seeing another human being. In a forest he had come across the camp. "When I went in it was like a paradise – there were so many canned food," he says. "I stayed there for several days and just ate."
Schonfeld describes himself as an adventurer and explorer. On his expeditions to some of the remotest regions in the world, the now 27-year-old tries to disconnect as much as possible from civilization and to cope with as little equipment as possible. "I'm a minimalist," he says. "I go into the wilderness on foot, by canoe, with dog sled or on a horse for several months and try to survive only what nature gives me."
On one of his most recent expeditions Schonfeld crossed the Himalayas from north to south, about 2000 kilometers on foot. His film will be shown on the current "European Outdoor Film Tour" (E.O.F.T.).
Again, the idea reminds me of Messner, who was mainly in the seventies and eighties in the Himalayas on the way and had climbed several eight-thousanders there. But in contrast to the South Tyrol, Schonfeld was not about the summit, but about survival in an extreme environment – alone. And to get rid of all unnecessary things.
At the beginning of the four-month hike, Schonfeld has his horse Robert with him loaded with his luggage. But in the course of the tour, he replaces the things of the modern world, as he calls them, with things from nature: Instead of a lighter, he uses a stick and a stone to make a fire. His tent gives way to a self-made shed of branches and leaves, and instead of his down jacket, he finally pulls over goat skins – which stink horribly, but keep warm.
With nothing through the Himalayas
After all, he even leaves Robert with a heavy heart, his faithful horse, because he wants to cross a glaciated pass, which is too demanding for the animal. "On the other hand, many military posts on the border with Tibet are waiting for me," he says. "Trying it with Robert would be reckless and selfish, I do not want to do that to him." He sells the animal.
It feels like being alone in the world that motivates him on his expeditions, says Schonfeld. "Between the huge mountains of the Himalayas, I feel like a needle in a haystack, untraceable, protected – a human in the middle of the largest and highest mountain range in the world."
The first time he felt that way when he traveled to Australia at the age of 19. He wanted to make a trip to the rainforest of Fraser Island there, "tourist stuff," he says. But he obviously misunderstood the description in the guidebook: "It was said that there was a camp there, so I thought I would go there and then there would be a campsite like in France, with a kiosk, hot showers and lots of people", he says.
"But I arrived, and there was nothing, no kiosk, no shower, and of course no people." He decided to stay anyway. Equipped with a packet of bread, some jam and a packet of pasta, he spent eight days alone on the island.
Dogs guard at minus 38 degrees
"I was so hungry," he says. "And at the same time I did not care, because I discovered something that changed my life: I discovered loneliness, I discovered silence, I discovered what it is like to live with animals, and that I can handle alone – that gave me a feeling of Freedom." For the first time in his life he felt independent.
"The experience was so impressive and beautiful that I decided to become an explorer," he says. This was followed by trips to Canada, where he worked for a while as a dog handler in a small village near Quebec – sometimes at temperatures of minus 38 degrees Celsius. "There I learned to adapt to tough conditions." Then a north-south crossing Iceland.
His first real adventure is his three-month journey through Mongolia. He walked 700 kilometers on foot through the Gobi desert. In 2016 he spent three months in Alaska, where he briefly thought about giving up for the first time. He finances his travels through short films and photos. He does not want to be sponsored.
Schonfeld belongs to a generation of adventurers whose goal is no longer to discover unknown places or cultures. Because the time of the great explorers like James Cook or Christopher Columbus, who discovered unknown countries or continents, is over. Even remote corners of the world are explored.
He is also not one of the adventurers who wanted to discover where the limits of the physically possible lie: Can a person survive without oxygen at more than 8000 meters, asked Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler – and climbed in 1978 Mount Everest (Read here an interview with Peter Habeler). If a man can land on the moon, the US and the Soviet Union wondered in the 1950s – in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin proved it could work.
Self-proclaimed explorers like Schonfeld want something different: He wants to try out, for example, whether Westerners are still capable of surviving without modern aids in nature: without smartphones, without food variety or hot showers, without down sleeping bag and tent.
Such a self-experiment could be rewarding – if you look at many a high-tech-equipped tourist who relies more on his Goretex jacket and smartphone than his instincts.
This year's E.O.F.T. shows ten outdoor short films. Until early February, the film festival can be seen in many German cities. Tickets can be purchased here.