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An Entrepreneur’s Journey to Antarctica

The Explorer's Passage, an adventure-based travel company, focuses on social and environmental impact of tourism

by Genevieve Kim

January 15, 2019


90’ South is the last latitudinal line on Earth, with one of the most extreme conditions on the planet. In the largest, windiest, coldest and driest desert in the world, South Pole temperatures average -72’ F with an altitude of 8,900 feet, making it the most uninhabitable and lifeless place on the planet.

Each year, sunlight plays a hide-and-seek with the Earth’s tilted axis, leaving time for only one sunrise and sunset a year. These extreme conditions means less than 100 people travel there each year. In January 2020, one of those people will be Jeff Bonaldi, an adventure explorer and member of The Assemblage. Bonaldi will traverse this tempestuous terrain with a small group on a mission to show the world that extraordinary setbacks in life can be overcome.

I sit with Bonaldi to get the background of his odyssey, which led him to this wildly rare opportunity. Travel through our conversation as Bonaldi lays the land on adventure travel, impact-driven tourism and a belief in conquering the impossible.

Genevieve Kim: So, who is Jeff Bonaldi?

Jeff Bonaldi: Jeff Bonaldi is this man who loves adventure, history and story. When it comes to adventure, it’s mountain climbing or diving into the ocean or sailing, and I want to help people. I have a company called The Explorer’s Passage where I am able to bridge these things.

GK: What is The Explorer’s Passage (TEP)?

JB: The famous Northwest Passage is a sea route that explorers tried to cross for centuries but failed. Many thought a direct sea passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific was impossible or did not exist, but eventually Roald Amundsen discovered it. In the spirit of the Northwest Passage and the explorer, it felt appropriate to name the company “The Explorer’s Passage.”

It’s the idea that if you get through the impossible, then anything is possible.

We started with historical-based adventures. We’ve traveled to Nepal following the path of an old Buddhist legend, highlighting the beauty, culture and history of that part of the world. We still do that, but now we’re shifting to more social-based adventures, creating experiences and adventures where we can bring people together to help with major social issues in the world.

GK: What are some of those social missions?

JB: Number one is climate change and the environment. Second is helping to empower young people to explore the world. And the last is shifting the negativity in the world right now–politics, for example–to show how differences that bring us apart can bring us together.

GK: Why is adventure such an important element of these journeys?

JB: Adventure has the power to get people out of their comfort zones and out of their everyday life. Travel frees them.

When you bring people together from around the world and get them to do something difficult in magnificent places in nature, like the Inca Trail or Kilimanjaro, it connects them in a way not many other things can.

GK: It’s a reminder that no man is an island. You’ve created a powerful collective, immersive experience.

JB: Hardship, too.

It’s awesome to see the bonds created between participants in past trips. There are so much communication amongst our groups post our adventures, and they visit each other around the world. When I returned from Antartica last March, I missed having an immediate community of 95 amazing people.

But I found out about The Assemblage, and have since found a place where I deeply connect with others, like I have on my trips.

GK: What were you doing prior to The Explorer’s Passage?

JB: Up until 12 months ago, I was in banking for 15 years. In the eyes of the world I was ‘successful,’ but I felt like something was missing. During the financial crisis, I watched everyone around me get laid off. Shortly after I went through a divorce and decided to rebuild my life. So I asked myself: what do I love? Nature is very healing to me. Adventure. History. Hearing great stories around the world of people doing impossible things.

That’s when I began working on the company during the nights and weekends while still working at Citibank full-time.

GK: How did this hardships get you to where you are now?

JB: Eight years ago, I was at a work event where Robert Swan, one of the world’s most respected conservationists and polar explorers, was speaking. His story was about using adventure as a tool to fight climate change. I saw the passion in which the way he lived his life. He had meaning and purpose. I wanted to live that way too!

We met briefly that day. But it wasn’t until five years later that we reconnected. He was looking for an expedition partner to help run his sea voyages to Antarctica. I jumped at the opportunity and we have since forged a strong partnership and have taken hundreds of people to Antarctica together.

GK: Travel is a competitive industry. Did this worry you?

JB: No, because I built a company around my passions. No one was doing it the way I envisioned, and I knew no one else could. I carved out my own niche. Sales were tough initially, but it wasn’t because of a crowded market. I needed to change and evolve as a person to make it work.

GK: Did you ever have moments when you thought your business would be impossible?

JB: The first two years I had zero clients. I almost gave up. I asked Why is this happening? At the time I blamed a lot of outside factors in my life. “Oh it’s the market. People don’t understand what I’m doing. It’s everybody else’s fault.” But at some point, I took a hard look at myself and asked, “What do I need to change about myself to make this work?”

So when I needed to get better with negotiating, I found a negotiation coach. When I saw fear of power and success getting in my way, I worked with my shaman and meditation teacher.

I think that the success of a business is a reflection of who you are, how you look at yourself, and where you are spiritually. The more I opened myself up, the more my business thrived.

GK: What was the most challenging trip you’ve made?

JB: I got altitude sickness a few years ago in the Andes in Peru. It was scary and painful as my symptoms got worse by the hour. I went into my tent and began to meditate to calm myself down. The symptoms subsided over the next 60 minutes, and my strength recovered to continue the journey. I still wonder how much of the altitude sickness that night was mental rather than physical.

GK: And what was the most profound moment you’ve experienced on one of your trips?

JB: When I took 95 people from 20+ countries to Antarctica last March with Robert Swan. I remember being on the ship and looking out into the ocean. This was all a dream seven years before, and I had actually done it. I learned that it’s all about your mindset. What you think is impossible is in your head, whether it’s business goals or trekking through Antartica. I can’t believe where I am today with The Explorer’s Passage. And there’s so much more to come, but I just can’t tell you yet…