- "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
- "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
- "It was you, wasn't it?" I said.
- "Let's just say Kathryn Hepburn said it best,"
- "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
- 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?"
- "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
- "Won't we get in trouble?" I said.
- "It's Sunday and nobody gives a damn,"
- 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
- 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?"
- "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
- "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,
- "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
- "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,"
- 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
- 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
- "They go three to four hundred pounds,"
- 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?"
- "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
- 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,"
- "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
- 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.
- 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.