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Life And Death In Antarctica
Those Who Follow All The Rules All
The Time Miss Out On All The Fun

By Frosty Wooldridge
"If you are alive, you have to flap your wings; squawk a little and make some noise. Let people know you are here. Let them know you're alive. You see-life is the very opposite of death. Get out there and live it."-- Mel Brooks 1980
With silver hair, aqua blue eyes, handsome face and a lean frame, in his early sixties, Charlie was a soft-spoken polar adventurer in Antarctica. He'd snuck into a few illegal escapades at McMurdo, but none were the wiser because he never allowed himself to be caught.
As I spoke with him this night before Christmas at the Coffee House, we discussed the three skydivers who had died jumping over the South Pole two weeks before. He too had made more than one thousand jumps.
"They couldn't tell the ground was coming up because everything was white," he said. "They were probably stunned at breathing -60 degree air and from the lack of oxygen at that altitude."
"There are a bunch of extremists doing crazy things around the globe," I said. "I was reading in Sara Wheeler's book (Terra Incognito about Antarctica) that someone on this base had climbed Mount Erebus, alone. He could have died at 13,400 feet in a snowstorm and no one would have ever found him.
At that moment, his eyes lit up and he smiled a smile that I'd only seen when someone I knew had gotten away with something.  Looking further into his mischievous face, it dawned on me that I was looking into the eyes of a legend. Was I mistaken? I didn't think so.
"It was you, wasn't it?" I said.
"Let's just say Kathryn Hepburn said it best," he said.
"What's that?"
"She who follows all the rules all the time misses out on all the fun," Charley said.
"You could have died," I said.
"So what."
He told me how he had commandeered a snowmobile on a Saturday night and drove it up to 8,000 feet above sea level to a glacier coming off 13,400-foot Mount Erebus. That smoking volcano's name means, "The Gates of Hell." He slung a survival pack over his shoulders and headed up the mountain. It took him six hours until he could no longer carry the pack. He ditched it and spent two more hours climbing with only his ice ax. Once at the top, he took pictures and sat on the edge--looking down at the smoking caldron below. It took him an hour to get back to his pack and six hours to get down to the snowmobile. He drove back to the base and hit the sack 32 hours after he had begun and reported for work the next day. I sat on the barstool with my tongue hanging out like a starving dog eyeing a pork chop.
Before the evening had finished, he invited me to ski out to Castle Rock, a four hour round trip, on the following Sunday. While walking away from the Coffee House that night, it did not dawn on me what I was getting myself into.
A day before New Year's, I checked out cross-country ski gear on Saturday, but they didn't have my size 11 shoe, so I had to settle for a well broken-in size 10 oxford that would give no support. I barely squeezed my feet into the boots. The skis were old, waxless, metal edged Karhus with three pins and no cables. I was not a happy man who walked out of the recreation gear room.
Antarctica's weather, although rarely nice, could sneak up on a person like a cat on a mouse. It was once recorded that temperatures dropped 65 degrees in 12 minutes. I knew the 'Ice Continent' could be merciless. When I arrived in October, it had been 90 degrees F BELOW zero a few days after I got off the plane.
As to experience, I had climbed thirty 14,000 foot Colorado peaks and had enjoyed much winter mountaineering skiing from hut to hut for years back home. Those experiences prepared me for the coming trek. I gathered my 50 block sunscreen, glasses, film, cameras, extra cold weather gear, ice ax, rope, first aid kid, survival gear, food and water.
After a quick breakfast, Charley met me at Derelict Junction in the middle of town. He carried a pack, Snow Pine boots and Tua Wilderness skis with cables. I slung my skis over my shoulders and walked up the volcanic black, rocky road out of town.
"Shouldn't we check in and grab a radio?" I said.
"Nope," he said, stone-faced. "We don't want those 'safety' folks to get in a tizzy if we don't get back at our estimated time. By not checking in, we won't have to worry about it."
"Won't we get in trouble?" I said.
"It's Sunday and nobody gives a damn," Charlie said.
As we climbed higher, we saw 'Mac Towns' metal roofed buildings. It resembled a dreary mining town more than ever. A battleship gray sky promised to break up as the day wore on. I made a note that it had been 'day' for three months. Since it was January 1st, we wouldn't see a sunset for another eight weeks.
Like a snake, the road curled around a large hill that led toward distant snowfields. With each step, our elevation carried us higher above McMurdo Sound. To the north, glistening glaciers poured their ancient ice into the frozen ice pack and Mount Discovery jutted into a silver/blue sky. Once into the snowfields, we continued packing our skis until we saw a line of flags up ahead.
Red and orange storm flags were placed every twenty feet to mark the trail. In a raging polar storm with 125 mile per hour winds, a person would be lucky to see 20 feet. The rules read to stay on that trail at all times-not only for safety, but the Search and Rescue teams hated breaking away from their beer parties to find frozen bodies in snowbanks. Black flags meant imminent danger of crevasses swallowing a skier.
From where we snapped on our bindings, a long line of flags led up the mountain and over a ridge.
"I've heard people have died on Castle Rock," I said.
"Sure have," he said.
"How long will it take us on skis?" I asked.
"It's about two hours away," Charley said.
"Let's get going," I said, adjusting my pack. "These shoes are a bit tight so I had to use thin socks to put them on."
"Hope the weather holds," he said. "Looks like it's going to be a nice
"Looks like it'll be fine to me, too."
The temp hit ­5 F on that 'summer' day with no wind. We skied along the flags until we passed a round red hut known as an 'apple' (also tomato). It was a survival hut for anyone hiking out to Castle Rock who got caught in bad weather.
After an hour and a half, we crested a ridge. All around us, aspirin-white snowfields spread for as far as we could see. There was a saying in Antarctica, "One inch of powder, two miles of base." In some places, the ice was three miles thick!
Up ahead, out of nowhere loomed a huge black mass of rock. I headed
toward it following the flags. Several skiers were ahead of us. As I headed up the trail, Charlie cut left and headed off toward the Sound's pack ice about a mile away. The snowfield dropped and he was already 'tele' turning graceful carves.
"Follow me," he yelled back.
At that moment, a gut feeling wrenched up in my stomach telling me I was doing something regrettable. I could lose my job, get thrown off the continent, lose my work bonus and maybe, lose my life. Getting killed would really upset my mother. Gazing skyward, I watched for telltale signs of any storms. Luckily, the cirrus clouds streaked the cobalt sky with not a storm front in sight for a hundred miles to the horizon. Charlie's body grew smaller in the distance.
That's when I thought about 'victim 1' and 'victim 2' stuck in that crevasse until they died from freezing to death. The SAR team tried to 'pulley' them out to no avail. Their screams died in the night with their passing. I stood there for a moment. It was one of those times where you make a decision from your gut and not from your mind. You're pulled onward toward life by life. Even if life could get you killed, you.
"Gees," I sighed. "Wonder what Kathryn Hepburn would say to this deal?"
I took a deep breath. "I know what she would do," I muttered to myself.
Looking back behind me, no one was following. Up ahead in the ski tracks along the flags-no one. Another deep breath. Quick as a cat burglar, I cut left off the trail and dug my poles into the hardpack. I felt like Jesse James when he robbed his first train-queasy, heart pounding, that ill gut sensation knowing I was about to do something wrong. Please Saint Mother Theresa, forgive me.
Soon, I caught up with him as we crossed over a volcanic rock strewn field that seemed like we were skiing over the speckled coats of 101 Dalmatians. We dodged through the rocks until we reached a chute.
"Be careful on the way down," Charlie said. "It tightens up at the end where it meets the sea ice."
The chute snaked downward between large volcanic rock piles erupting through the snow like the stone sentinels on Eastern Island. Below, the river of snow worked its way toward a small opening into McMurdo Sound. Charley patiently waited for me at the shoreline. I fell twice before making it down and my feet were feeling the pressure of the boots.
"Looks like we're in for a good daymust be near 10 degrees," he said when I skied up. "Sure gives us a nice view."
Across the sound, the Royal Society Range jutted into an azure sky. They resembled the mountains in Banff National Park, Canada-except for being pure white and not a tree in sight-for that matter not a tree on the entire continent of 5,400,000 square miles. Off to our north, Mount Erebus broke though the clouds and a witch's brew steamed skyward from the caldron deep inside. It was Yellowstone all over again. To add to the drama of the sleeping giant, huge glaciers thrust their long, icy bodies down the slopes-frozen rivers encased in frigid cold where the bolt goes into the bottom of the globe.
In front of us, speckled clouds gave a salt and pepper effect to the sea ice.
"You can't be too careful on this ice," Charlie warned as he probed the crystal cement, checking on its viability.
"I'm sticking like glue right behind you," I said.
A thick layer of snow covered the ice, which was cracked at angles and featured patterns resembling a spider web. In places, for us, it was as deadly-as if we were unsuspecting flies. Charlie pulled a 20-foot nylon rope from his pack.
"Just in case," he said. "We'll rope up if we come up on some wide cracks in the ice."
From there, we skied around a point (the land was to our right) with a large snow cornice, more than 120 feet high, hanging over the ice. It hovered over us-ominous and beautiful at the same time. As we turned the corner past the point, a New World opened before our eyes.
A 150-foot high snow/ice cliff, tinged with indigo blue that would be the envy of Revlon's finest eye shadow color, and more than a mile in the distance-had formed along the shoreline. The snow swept out over the cliff as if it were a gargantuan wave breaking on the beach-but in this scene, the wave broke toward the ocean and away from the land. The wave, frozen still, hovered 90 feet above the ground. Beneath the crest, facing the sun, thousands of ice icicles dripped into the snow. Ice stalactites grew upwards and in many places they met to form diamond columns with water streaming down their sides. The melting was caused by the sun's radiation and not the freezing temperatures. As we skied past, crystal columns from the ice icicles sparkled in red, blue, yellow and lavender. Every few seconds, layers of snow dropped down from under the wave crest like Frisbees falling from the sky.
"You better snap a few pictures," Charlie said. "It doesn't get much better than this."
After shooting a roll, I reloaded and we skied over a build-up of snow that led around another point. Right in front of our path, four Weddell seals snoozed near a crack in the ice. We skied along the crack until a seal resting in the water startled me. He looked at me--then dove under the ice.
The four seals ahead of us perked their bodies and looked at us with their heads sideways, upside down and right side up. They sported blunt faces, long whiskers, golf ball-sized deep black eyes and tannish brown fur that was mottled with white streaks on their bellies. They lay on their sides with one flipper hidden and the other skyward. Their two back feet looked more like a Scuba diver's fins.
"What do you think they weigh?" I asked Charlie.
"They go three to four hundred pounds," he said.
At that point, one of them decided he wanted to move further onto the ice. He rolled over to his stomach and started undulating like an earth worm in the direction he wanted to go, but looked more like a slug shaped waterbed splashing forward. Funniest thing I ever saw. Once he found the right spot, he rolled over on his side. He looked back at us and started chirping like a chickadee or canary-short little chirps. Seconds later, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Not finding them any more interesting than forest slugs, we headed north along the ice cliffs. After a mile, we found ourselves facing a large three-foot crack in the ice. We followed it for awhile until it narrowed.
"Let's cross here," Charlie said.  "We'd better rope up to be on the safe side.
"How are we gonna get back to the snowfield?" I asked. "Those cliffs are too vertical for us to climb."
"That ice wall will drop around that point ahead," he said, pointing a few miles away.
Charlie tied the rope around his wrist and I did the same. He stepped across with one ski and leaped to the other side. Just as I was crossing the crack, an Adelie penguin shot out of the water ten feet away from me. It surprised the daylights out of us. His buddy, like a piece of toast, popped up after him. As if we weren't there, both penguins kept moving along the ice either by waddling or dropping down on their bellies and pushing with their webbed feet. It looked like they were miniature black and white Mississippi River paddlewheel boats like Mark Twain used to captain.
"Where do you suppose they're going?" I asked.
"They've got full bellies and time on their hands," Charlie said. "They 're probably out for a Sunday stroll just like us."
It reminded me of what John Muir wrote once, "How many hearts with warm red blood in them are beating under cover of the wilderness, and how many teeth and eyes are shining?! A multitude of animal people, intimately related to us, but about whose lives we know almost nothing are as busy about their own affairs as we are about ours."
We roped up three more times as we skied along the cliffs. Each section featured its own haunting beauty. Out there, two colors dominated: sky blew and aspirin-white snow. At times, indigo flavored the glacial ice and created delicate textures against the snows and the icicles glistened as clear uncut diamonds. There were no smells, sounds, trees, telephone poles, roads, lights, billboards, buildings or human references for thousands of miles in all directions. For the first time in my life, a mosquito or fly wasn't buzzing me. I was standing on ice that had known 150 mile per hour winds and minus 120-degree temperatures. At that frigid point, a glass of water thrown into the air, freezes before it hits the ground.
Antarctica was the last untamed, untouched place on earth. Yes, we had "Plymouth Rock' at McMurdo Station, but humanity cannot and was not meant to live in that brutal place. Its vast whiteness and eternal cold swallowed a man's imagination-like trying to figure out where the universe ends. At that moment, we were in the middle of it, and like the penguins-we were living and doing our thing with no thoughts other than what our vision provided .gave us.
The afternoon wore on as we skied further and further away from 'Mac Town'. Between the cliffs and sea ice, a three-foot swath of water opened where the tide broke the ice free from the warmer summer temperatures. In front, a Skua bird ( a brown scavenger gull and the only one to fly that far south) glided along the crack on his dinner patrol.
When we arrived around the point where we should have been able to cross onto the snowfield, the cliffs had avalanched into the ice-buckling it. Broken snows formed cones, tubes, pyramids, blocks and flat chards poking in all directions. It looked like a scene from a six year olds playroom with tinker toys, erector sets, alphabet blocks, and Lego's scattered carelessly on the floor.
"That WAS our staircase off the ice," Charlie lamented.
"So what are we gonna do?"
"Let's keep moving until the snowfield levels itself to the ice," he said.
"And if it doesn't?"
"We'll be forced to back track and I don't like to do that," he said.
"I'm with you."
We continued over the sea ice. In places, the snow was blown clean and we had to pole hard to make any speed. By that time, the small boots I was wearing crushed my feet and my elbows, not having skied for four weeks because of bitter temperatures, ached from the constant work. Around the next point, we spied a passage to the snowfields, but it was three miles away and looked like thirty.
We dug our poles into the pack ice and labored toward an almost visually mystic destination in the distance. The sky blended white with blue-which blended into the ancient glacial snows. Ahead of us, a mosaic of drifting snows in the form of grandma's paisley curtains covered the glassy ice rink surface. It was there in front of us, but I wouldn't bet my paycheck that it was real.
When we arrived hours later, the snow had swept down the mountain like a plush carpet spilling onto the ice-our ticket to the snowfields. We skied into some deep powder until we came to a gaping stop sign in the snow: a bottomless crevasse. We skied along it until we found a spot where we could safely cross. After ten minutes, we found a cornice that had swept over the crevasse, but there was a five foot gap we had to leap. We took our skis off and threw them to the other side of the crevasse. Charlie cut a step into the cornice with his ice ax. The tongue of the snow hung over the crevasse providing a dangerous diving board with no spring. I peered into the deep blue recess that quickly turned to black nothingness.
"Jesus Christ!" I said. "That's a long way down. I can't even tell where it ends."
"Could go five hundred feet and more," Charlie said. "We don't want to fall into it. No doubt, it would be our last fall into eternity."
"No shit," I said, almost breathless thinking of the possibilities.
At that moment, it dawned on me why the rules, flags and protocol were so strictly enforced. What we were doing was about as close to the edge of living and dying as two men could get. Victim #1 and victim #2 popped back into my thoughts. Those guys died ignoring the rules. My mind almost dove into a pool of fear without me being able to stop it. I pulled my fear back as best I could.
"That looks none too stable," I said.
Charlie cut a step into the cornice on our side of the gapping crack. It would be his launch point.
"We better rope up," Charlie said. "I'm lighter so I'll go first."
He tied the rope to his wrist and I wrapped it around my waist and sat back on my heels. I wasn't too keen on hauling a 160-pound man out of a deadly crevasse.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Whenever you are."
In the blink of an eye, he stepped into the notch he had cut and kicked his body into the air. For a split second, I watched a man suspended over certain death, but with his momentum he made it to the other side and sprawled across the snow.
"GREAT!" I yelled, just about passing out with joy that he had made it.
"Let me dig my ax in and secure this line," Charlie said, stabbing his ax into the snow and tying the rope to it. "I'll need more help with your weight and you being downhill from me."
I threw my pack to the other side. Looking into that deep crevasse, a funny acid taste, (like the taste of bile after I've vomited), crept up my throat and bathed my tongue. I swallowed. My heart beat faster and a tinge of fear swept over my skin. Was this my punishment for breaking all the rules? Good grief Kathryn Hepburnwhat happens when you're in the middle of breaking all the rules and having all this fun and you could die doing it? You got some answers here, lady?
"Don't think about it," Charlie said. "JUMP!"
With no more thinking needed as I was on the verge of being terrified out of my wits, I stepped into the notch with my right foot and kicked for all I was worth with my left foot-propelling me into space over the bottomless crevasse. For that instant, my body ceased to feel that it was gliding over certain death. It moved quietly through the air. Below me, blue/black empty air like the throat of the devil waiting to swallow me.
I hit the other side with a "Whompsh!"
I hugged the safety of the snowpack beneath me. Terra firma. Still breathing. Blood was pumping. Yes, I was alive.
"Just a bit exciting," Charlie said.
"No shit!" I said in relief to be on the other side.
While sitting up to catch my breath and let my body calm down, I looked into the awesome flank of Mount Erebus with its glacier strewn valleys and its fearsome smoking top hat. Across McMurdo Sound, mountains swept along the skyline and there we were: two tiny human beings out in the middle of nowhere, breaking all the rules so we wouldn't miss out on all the fun. I had to hand it to Kate Hepburn and Charlie. They knew how to live because they weren't afraid to die.
There I sat on a glacier. But this one was at the bottom of the globe. It had been there for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. It cared little that I was scurrying across it for but a blink of time. Muir wrote of these ice giants, "Glaciers, back in their cold solitudes, work apart from men, exerting their tremendous energies in silence and darkness. Outspread, spirit-like, they brood above the predestined landscapes, work on unwearied through immeasurable ages, until, in the fullness of time, the mountains and valleys are brought forth, these gentle crystal giants channel into basins and finally they drop into the deep arms of the sea where they shrink and vanish like summer clouds."
We snapped back into our skis and headed home. The hardpack swept upward a thousand feet to a ridge. The wind blew and my feet turned numb which helped me with the pain. My elbows and shoulders hurt from the constant poling, but there was no 911-phone box to rescue me in that neck of the ice. I could have had a broken leg and frostbite eating me alive and I would be responsible for getting myself back to camp. Although the sky was still silver blue, a storm front could be moving across the other side of the ridge and we'd never make it back. Antarctica was brutal, unforgiving, and above all, benign. It didn't care whether we lived or died.
When E.G. Oates, a member of Robert Scott's polar team that raced to the South Pole in 1912, stepped outside for the last time, he said to his mates, "Don't worry about meI'll be gone for quite some time." His frost bitten feet were rigid and his fingers swollen. Life drained from his body as ice crystallized his flesh. Like the noble man he was, he faced his death with dignity along with a sense of resignation, yet with a power known only to great spirits.
Not wanting to die like that, I followed Charlie up that ridge. We pushed against stiffening winds and dropping temperatures. At the top, the wind blew harder, but the view stretched forever. To the south, we looked over the vast Ross Ice Shelf of glaciers hundreds of miles long. We stopped for pictures, a drink of water and the last of our food.
"How about another PB and J?" I asked.
"That'll do for me," Charlie said.
"For good measure I grabbed two chocolate chip cookies from the galley," I said.
"Nothing like a cookie to make the trip complete," he said, grinning.
"How far from home?" I asked.
"Maybe three hours."
"Let's get moving before I turn into an ice sculpture," I said.
We put on extra layers and headed toward Castle Rock. A cloud shrouded it from our view. Although I hurt and my toes were frozen, I felt a sense of accomplishment. With Charlie leading the way, I imagined him as Robert Scott or Earnest Shackleton. Then I realized that I, too, in my own way was a Shackleton. I put myself at risk to realize a quest on the mighty crystal continent of Antarctica.
As my skis slid across the powdered sugar snows, I looked back at Mount Erebus and my tracks. Those tracks would soon vanish under the ceaseless blowing wind and no one would know I had been there.
For Charlie and me, we knew and we would remember.
Excerpt from: An Extreme Encounter: Antarctica. Copies available 1 888 280 7715.
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