Charles Rigby of World Challenge Expeditions says he is living proof that the not-so-intrepid can gain from outdoor adventure, writes Janet Wolf.
IN ONE of those curious little ironies that life occasionally throws up, the man who leads World Challenge Expeditions - which specialises in youth development through adventure - admits to being "massively scared" of both heights and of being cold.
Not only that, but on his days off Charles Rigby eschews hearty pastimes, like Munro-bagging or ice-climbing, for the domestic demands of his country house, a young family and an extended menagerie of ducks, cats, chickens and a Shetland pony.
But before you say "big girl's blouse", it is worth bearing in mind that World Challenge had risen to 25th place in last year's Independent Top 100 of UK businesses. It now works in partnership with 15 of the Government's education action zones, to provide training for young people in teamwork, leadership and personal development.
The anomaly is compounded by the man himself. Preternaturally youthful for his 39 years, he has carved out a career based on adventure and teamwork, but plays down a propensity for either. "I'm not a team player," he says. "And I was very bad at sports." In spite of this he went to Sandhurst immediately after university and joined a cavalry regiment, which saw him posted to Germany and Belize.
He recalls: "I was such a pain to the regiment that they sent me off to the Himalayas, on the basis that if I got lost there was some chance I wouldn't come back." Ever mindful of the implications of such an admission he hurriedly says: "That's not the basis on which we send people away.
"We went off to northern India, found some pack horses and some guides and walked for six weeks and climbed 11 high passes. We didn't have a clue what we were doing or where we were going. We just went wandering off and that obviously changes you for life."
It is the transformational nature of such experiences which has gone on to shape the ethos of World Challenge. It takes young people from the age of 14 up to 25 and offers a variety of expedition options, from a week for 14-year olds, to six months for gap-year students. And for those who think they can't do it, Rigby points to his own experience in India as proof that they can.
"Anything is possible but definitely not by following the conventional route. On an expedition you don't just want your Outward-Bound types - you do want those - but you want people with a sense of humour, you want linguists, you want cooks, you want all sorts."
World Challenge has been operating for 12 years. It was formed over a drink in the pub between Rigby and a friend of his father's, Colonel Tony Streather. A "remarkable man", he recalls, "who has climbed the world's three highest mountains (K2, Kangchenjunga and Everest) but he's never had a paper qualification of any sort. We both have in common the attitude 'anyone can do this'."
World Challenge offers a complete package of support,from the point of contact (a school invites the organisation in to present to pupils), to shaping the expedition itinerary, money-planning and project management, to in-country leadership.
"When we realised that we were in a serious business where a matter of life and death is not a rarity, we had to build in a safety net. It's a massive safety net, really tightly woven, but it still allows some distance between the student and the net."
This will no doubt reassure the parents of some of the 15,000 teenagers (from all types of schools) each year who embark on World Challenge expeditions, some of whom will never have been away from home before. But their children will also be allowed to make mistakes and learn the hard way.
"A very important part of cavalry philosophy has always been to lead from within by allowing people to go forward unsupervised. And children respond to that very well. They become very highly motivated. If you say to a child 'follow me and you'll be safe', they'll switch off straight away and fall off the edge of a cliff. If you say to a child 'you are responsible for your own destiny' they will learn to look after themselves. What is life about after school, if it's not looking after yourself?"
He recalls an episode in Central America where a group went to wait for a bus that their leader knew was not going to arrive. "They sat there for two days waiting for it. But not one of those children will ever miss a bus again. They had gone to the wrong place and just sat there. This happens all over the world. If they don't get things right, life will not be good to them and I think that's very important."
This philosophy is particularly suited for use in some of the tough inner-city areas where World Challenge is engaged in youth development training, as part of the action zone initiative. Getting things right and challenging yourself to do more than you thought you could has proved to be unexpectedly successful.
"In Grimsby, GCSE results have gone up by 3 per cent. I think we are the only zone business partner that can prove that what we're doing is having a direct effect on outcomes."
The programme involves running activities within local schools to improve communication and leadership skills, self-esteem and personal effectiveness. It costs World Challenge around pound;50,000 per action zone but the commitment is not merely altruistic. Rigby believes that his investment will be eventually repaid in repeat business.
And here's the really curious thing about Rigby: it's not that he discovered an adventurous soul by accident, it's that his heart beats purely for profit. "The crucial aspect of this organisation is that it is unashamedly and determinedly a business," he says with feeling.
"We have got a clear, commercial blueprint. Profit is a by-product of success." With annual growth running at around 30 per cent, and a business innovation award from Cranfield University, he must be feeling contented with his serendipitous career.