Is he nuts? The extreme adventures of Mark Squirrell

Mark Squirrell has always pushed his stamina to the limit. In grade 5, he entered the Whittlesea Show fun run and, not having prepared properly for the 11.3-kilometre race, nearly collapsed. When he woke the next day, his legs were so fatigued he had to crawl everywhere.

This early resolve to push himself to the brink was a sign of things to come for the self-styled “extreme performance guru”. He has packed into his 40 years everything from working as a commando with the Australian Special Forces and as a security officer for the United Nations World Food Program to climbing Mount Everest.

Having resettled a stone’s throw from his childhood home in Arthurs Creek, Squirrell (or Squiz, as he’s known) is now knee deep in his next challenge: organising the Global Frontline Challenge, an adventure race through Kinglake West designed to give participants a taste of the hostile environments he’s faced.

To appreciate what has driven Squirrell to lead such a daring life, you need only look at his upbringing. His father, Maurice, was in the Australian Army Reserve and Squirrell was determined to  follow in his footsteps, joining the cadet unit at Ivanhoe Grammar. 

“That’s when I started really developing as a person and realising where my strengths were,” he says. “Under difficult circumstances, I not only enjoyed it but also did very well at it, both physically and mentally.” 

This encouraged Squirrell to join the army and from there, he says, it “just snowballed”. He was promoted to lieutenant, then worked his way to joining the Australian Special Forces. It was through this work that he met, and became intrigued by, overseas aid workers.

“I’ve got to admit, underneath I was never really driven to go overseas and primarily help others,” Squirrell says. “It was out of curiosity to see what it was like in this world, which was for me the ultimate challenge – can I survive in a war zone? Can I operate effectively among that difficulty?”

In 1999, he travelled to East Timor to answer these questions and gradually realised he was better placed in a more humanitarian, rather than combatant, role. “I did have a lot of passion for helping others, which I suppose comes through empathy,” he says. “My mother [Jane] is extremely empathetic, constantly thinking of the other person. That characteristic probably comes through [me] as well.”

Who knows whether the larrikin in him is genetic, too, but Squirrell is not averse to attention-grabbing antics. A decade ago, he ran the Melbourne marathon with a VB carton on his back and a beer can in his hand (part joke, part acknowledgment of his five dry months spent in Afghanistan), then competed in the Athens marathon wearing a burqa. That attempt to raise awareness for the plight of Afghanistan women failed miserably – he received no media attention and found the entire experience claustrophobic and isolating. 

Next year’s project is similarly aimed to test people’s comfort level. Scheduled for May 2013, the scenario-based Global Frontline Challenge is a spin-off from team-strengthening workshops Squirrell runs for corporate groups, based on military, humanitarian aid or mountaineering themes. 

Wannabe Bear Grylls types will enter in teams of four, representing their “family”, and will play members of a persecuted ethnic group. ‘‘Their objective is to flee from the capital city, across the border, into the neighbouring country,” Squirrell explains. “The only way they can get there is by following the track that’s been laid by fellow clansmen. Along the way they’ll encounter a series of confronting challenges such as water obstacles, fences and checkpoints.”

Squirrell has roped in his military mates to play intimidating characters in the overnight adventure.

The event will appeal to endurance athletes who like to push themselves and test their mental resilience, he says. But as challenging as the experience will be, the Kinglake Ranges Wilderness Camp is still a far cry from the perilous places Squirrell has lived and worked. 

In Albania, police mistook him for a drug dealer and pulled over his vehicle at gunpoint and handcuffed him, while in Jerusalem his car was firebombed outside his home by locals who assumed that he and his blonde girlfriend had an affinity with Israelis. 

Two years ago, Squirrell documented these experiences in a book, From Arafat to Everest. As the title suggests, it tells of his 2003 meeting with the then Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, while working with the World Food Program, and reaching the summit of Mount Everest in 2006. Not surprisingly, this feat sits atop his list of proudest moments. 

“There’s an enormous sense of achievement in conquering Everest,” he says, before adding: “However, I can’t say that gave me the personal gratification that I received from knowing I’ve managed to negotiate to get a convoy of food through the West Bank or through a checkpoint in the hills of Nepal. For me, the greatest reward is the knowledge that I’ve helped sustain life.” 

Squirrell says every milestone has been a building block to greater things. “After being awarded my Green Beret (in his commando role with the special forces), I thought that was the biggest milestone I’d ever achieve,” Squirrell says. “But that was just the platform that allowed me to get a job overseas as an aid worker. And working in that capacity was what gave me the confidence to think, ‘Well, if I’ve survived war zones, surely I can survive a natural war zone – Mount Everest’. So I did that with an enormous amount of confidence.”

Squirrell says raising his two sons, Oscar, 5, and Digby, 3, is as challenging as anything he has faced overseas. He met his wife, fellow adventurer Ingrid, at high school and they were reacquainted in 2005 while living in Nepal (the couple moved to Arthur’s Creek in 2007).

He laughs when asked whether his risk-taking has mellowed since having kids. “Totally. That’s been very positive for me,” he says. “But as they now move into the school years and become less dependent on my presence, I’m freeing myself up a little bit and slowly stepping back into the zone where I’m starting to look for a little more risk-taking.” 

Would he support them if they followed a similar career path? “I’m very much encouraging them to get outside and involved in various activities,” he says. Last month he built a flying fox in the backyard for Oscar’s birthday party. “Some of my mates do look at me and think, ‘You’re pushing the boundaries too much’.  Maybe that’s why Digby has already lost two teeth.”

Squirrell is looking forward to the day when they climb a mountain or embark on a trek together. “But I will be very concerned about the dangers they’ll be facing, because I know it’s a thin line and if you’re not very careful, you can step over that line into the danger zone.”

Life has also taught him how lucky his family is to live in Australia. “We are just so fortunate with the lack of corruption, and a society that allows us to walk freely, without persecution and the threat of weapons being used sporadically,” he says. “Regardless of how difficult my life might be, my children and family will be able to have education and good health. They’re the two things we very much take

for granted.” ■

The Global Frontline Challenge is May 11-12 at the Kinglake Ranges Wilderness Camp. Details: visit globalfrontlinechallenge.com.

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