In what many would describe as the trip of a lifetime, a Slippery Rock University alumnus was able to go on an expedition to the Arctic in June.
Jason Hallmark, a class of 2014 graduate who double-majored in sustainable management and business management, was one of 86 people from 27 different countries to be chosen to participate in the “Leadership on the Edge” program, which lasted 12 days.
Hallmark was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2018, but he wasn’t terribly surprised. He had experienced a spell two years earlier, with his left hand becoming numb and the sensation eventually moving to his legs. He began having tests done, but was laid off from his job and lost health insurance. Nevertheless, the symptoms subsided and later returned.
As he was being treated for three days after being diagnosed, he impulsively purchased a plane ticket to Colorado to go hiking in the Rocky Mountains, which he did last August.
Hallmark would later learn about the Leadership on the Edge program while laying in his bed at UPMC Mercy when he decided to re-listen to an episode of Global GoalsCast, a podcast about the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. He decided to apply.
“The number one thing that ran through my head was that I don’t have time to waste,” Hallmark said of his initial thoughts.
Applying online, he would go through an interview process with Jeff Bonaldi, the founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, the company that would help facilitate the expedition. Hallmark was accepted, saying that it didn’t feel like it was real.
For four days before the group boarded the ship, they stayed in Oslo, Norway. It was there where Hallmark began bonding with the other individuals chosen to go on the voyage, including one woman whose family member was killed in a terrorist attack in London and a pair of girls from Singapore who were filming a documentary.
Hallmark also made friends with Andy Ridley, an Australian who co-founded Earth Hour, an event in which millions of people worldwide switch off their lights and turn off electrical appliances to recognize sustainability. Ridley also serves as CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, an organization that protects the beautiful habitat, and by the end of the week, Hallmark was invited to visit and dive.
The National Geographic Ship’s leader was renown environmentalist Sir Robert Swan, the first person to set foot on both the North and South Poles and the founder of 2041, an organization trying to help preserve Antarctica.
“I made connections that will definitely last a lifetime,” Hallmark said. “I still talk to some of the people I met on the ship every day. It was a really crazy experience getting to know some of the people and the caliber of people that participated in the expedition itself.”
The participants woke up each day at 7:15 a.m. for breakfast and were at lectures by 7:45 a.m. Presentations regarding responses to climate change were given by David Hone, Shell’s Chief Climate Change Advisor.
MS affects Hallmark on a daily basis. He usually awakens with numbness in his hands and feet, and everyday things such as going to the gym have become difficult for him. He can no longer run and he deals with headaches frequently. Though, despite difficulties, especially walking long distances, Hallmark joined excursions, going to shore, hiking, and kayaking past icebergs.
The ship enjoyed the midnight sun, a natural phenomenon that happens in the summer months in the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. He saw wildlife such as walruses and polar bears. He said the coolest animal he saw was a Bowhead Whale, which one naturalist told him that a colleague hadn’t yet seen in two decades on the job.
A memorable experience, Hallmark said, was being able to have his photo taken in front of a glacier. Another naturalist accompanying the participants told them that the only reason they were able to take such a cool picture was because the ice sheets in front of the glaciers, which would have previously prevented anyone from getting up close, were quickly melting.
Hallmark said he was surprised by the temperature on one hike, where he became warm and had to roll up his shirt sleeves. The group even cleaned up a bunch of plastics at one point.
“It was very humbling to see the [negative] impact that we are causing in one of the most remote places on Earth,” Hallmark said. “It was really scary to see all this plastic in a place where no one lives and no one can get to.”
Hallmark plans on taking two trips in 2020, one to Mt. Kilimanjaro in February and another to Antarctica in November.
Before the former, he may fly in early to meet a friend in Cairo and see the pyramids before going to Tanzania. There, he will meet back up with ClimateForce, the group he went with this summer, and plant trees at the base of the of the tallest mountain in Africa with Jane Goodall’s organization, Roots and Shoots. After climbing, he might go on a safari of the Serengeti with a friend he knows from Tanzania.
Hallmark was personally invited by Swan to accompany him to the South Pole on the November outing. He looks most forward to seeing penguins, which don’t reside on the opposite pole.
“I couldn’t say no,” Hallmark said. “I couldn’t turn it down if Rob himself was inviting me.”
Hallmark also had advice for current Slippery Rock environmental students.
“If it’s what you want to do, related to the environment, pursue it,” he said. “Don’t let things like money get in the way of what you want to do. Even the small things you do yourself everyday make an impact. You don’t have to wait for trauma or something to impact you to chase what you want to do.”