by Robert Frohlich
[Aitcho Islands, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica 62.22′ degrees
S/59.47′ degrees west]:
On a perfect day the cold atmosphere is clearer than glass and the distant vistas lie within a lively imagination’s immediate grasp. From the bridge looking north to northwest the glaciers fed into Aitcho Bay, turning bluish sea into milky turquoise with meltwater. Above them, inviting snowfields reached up and blended into the sky and lead upward into the sky towards untracked interiors never touched by humans and only roughly mapped by birdlife.
It was our last day of our Antarctic adventure. With an afternoon departure time for our voyage back across the Drake Passage there was still time for a morning foray for final ski turns.
Throughout our journey, Antarctica and its outlying islands had proved to be a mountaineer’s paradise. Tantalized by the loveliest mountains and untouched summits, teams led by accomplished guides had enjoyed cirques of powder and spiderweb lines threading down vertical couloirs and steep snow filled gullies. During the course of our travels, expeditions had summitted peaks and ridges above Cierva Cove on the actual Antarctic continent then climbed mountains that erupted like fangs out of the water at Wenke Island, Livingston Island, Discovery Bay, Greenwich Island, King George Island and finally the Aitcho Archepelago.
Our Ice Axe guides certainly were a notable lot. Eighteen in all, their experience and keen leadership had made the difference ascending numerous ascents and safe returns. There was John Griber, fresh off of Everest for the second time; Squaw Valley’s Glen Poulsen who had recently summitted Denali; Points North Heli-Ski Guides Tal Fletcher, John Mletschnig, Jason Mack, C.J.Warre, Tucker Patten, Ming Poon and Tom Waclo; IFMG guides Ben Mitchell and Jorge Kajoli: Jackson ski patrolmen Dan Starr and Doug Workman; Alaskan heli-ski pilot Christian Cabinella; Dave Marchi from Mount Shasta; Switzerland’s Hans Salzman and, of course, the Director of Guides Points North Heli-Ski founder Kevin Quinn. Throw in overall expedition leader and Polar High Priest Doug Stoup and this was quite a group, pretty much unequaled and all with numerous claims to fame.
Mountaineering in Antarctica isn’t quite the same as bagging Tahoe’s Tallac, Jake’s or Rubicon Peak. Dangers include crevasses, steep ice, long traverses, grippy snow and the proverbial avalanche danger. Pretty much the standard infirmities of the backcountry, but with a twist: This stuff had never been set foot upon there were a lot of variables, no fall zones, sickening serac towers and critical decision making.
Then there was the crippling weight of heavy packs. Most team members carried safety helmets, shovel, probe, transceiver, crampons, ice axe, ice screws, slings, stoppers, belay devices, skins, food and extra clothing. Exposures were such that ropes were typically needed, often with anchored belays. Throw on your back a pair of skis and climbing ropes and it can get a bit weighty. And that’s nothing compared to the photographers like Keoki Flagg or filmmakers like Tom Day who have to lug even more weight with all their camera gear.
But the rewards are beyond tired legs and backs. Amidst sparkling and wondrous surroundings, the scrunch of skis in katabatic breeze, the squeaky whine of planted ice axes and surreal columns of light join to become quite mystical. Close to the ridge you stop and look behind and Antarctica casts its beam and you realize what a spiritual precious milestone all these efforts are for. Fair weather cumulus clouds are the only things in movement otherwise the whole earth has stopped moving. There is not a sign of human existence anywhere except for our tracks in vanguards of snow.
It’s a big high during the last descent from ridge to shore. The moisture of air freezing, floating and sparkling in the sun’s rays chills lips and face. Weaving in and out below ice cliffs and seracs our turns connect onto the lower part of the slope until we finally stop feet from the water. Several chinstrap penguins amble nearby and Mariano, our Zodiac driver, cheery chatter warms us all. There is good spirit in our party. Back on board we prepare for our departure. Outside the wind begins to whirl like ratchets.
TAKING FLIGHT WITH J-MACK:
Ice Axe guideJason Mack has stuck a lot of huge landings in his notable skiing career, but nothing compared to landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise a year ago this past December. The Points North Heli-Guide took a three-day excursion aboard the famous navy vessel, voyaging from Jacksonville, Florida to its station in Norfolk, Virginia.
“The brother of my wife Mora is a Lieutenant deployed on the ship,” says Jason who traveled with his father in law and Mora’s other brother, another naval officer. “Each year on what they call the ‘Tiger Cruise’ sailors on board are allowed to invite friends and relatives for a three day cruise.”
The USS Enterprise is the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier. At 1,123 feet she is the longest naval vessel in the world. The battleship displaces 93, 500 tons and has a ship’s company of 5,000 men. Propelled by eight nuclear reactors her speed exceeds 30 knots. Nicknamed the “Big E” she can carry 90 aircraft.
While aboard, J-Mack bunked in the officer’s ward and was led on a grand tour that included being on deck for a up close view of jets landing only 60 feet away. He was also treated to a display of the ship’s weaponry
“My brother-in-law had a lot of bridge duty so I got to hang out with him. I even got to steer,” says Jason who was bummed he wasn’t allowed to shoot off a Zuni missile.
THE ICE AXE S.A.T
Q. This tiny Himalayan kingdom puts Donald Duck on its postage stamps, maintains the world’s only wildlife refuge for the abominable snowman, measures its worth in Gross National Happiness and has a king who regularly takes time out from the affairs of state to challenge his subjects to pickup basketball games. Name this kingdom.
WAY OF THE WHIT CLOUDS
5 Questions With John Griber
When man mixes with mountains interesting things happen and thoughts about nature, religion, and the human mind, body and spirit abound. George Mallory’s irritated snap “because it’s there” is the most often quoted and perhaps most vacuous reason for why the best and bravest climb mountain peaks. Climbers certainly recognize a wide range of motives. For Jackson Hole native John Griber, climbing has been much more than a sport, but a lifeblood, a fine balance that has enabled him to pursue his dreams. The internationally recognized climber and snowboarder has traveled around the world in search of adventure. For 13 years he has been an ambassador for the North Face. His expeditions have taken him multiple times to the Himalayas, South America, Greenland, Africa, India and Pakistan, and topped out on Everest twice. His climbing exploits have segued into a promising documentary film career working for filmmaking Mike Brown and participating behind the camera for two upcoming Eddie Bauer films including one on the life of Alex Lowe.
The Mountains look very similar to those in Nepal. In each case, it’s sometimes hard to tell the scale. However, all the animal life remains me a bit of Yellowstone. The wildlife doesn’t mind mixing with you at all. Overall, like most adventures, it’s the journey that is integral to this trip. I’ll remember the people and bits and pieces of travelling to this incredible continent.
ON THE WOOING OF EXTREMISM
If people are doing things cutting edge, to push their limits to balance their own life, I believe it to be a beautiful part of the human spirit and I heartily applaud. But to attempt these types of things because of other people’s expectations, strictly to get others wound up by doing crazy things, I think you’ve pretty much sucked the juice, the core element out of what’s in your heart and head. There’s the adage that the best judge of a person’s character is what they do when no one’s watching.
ON THE FEAR FACTOR
Fear is probably the alpinist’s greatest ally because it causes you to make important decisions. I call my fear factor “confident uncertainty.” I know it’s a contradiction of terms, but for me it is the perfect balance. One needs to be confident in any undertaking, but the fear of committing to something that might go south, even become a death situation, is what draws you. I like the situation uncertain enough to challenge and push me. I do not go climbing with the idea of a determined outcome. It¹s more to breathe deep and get moving.
ON HIS FAVORITE MUSIC
I listen to whatever fits my current mood. I enjoy Norah Jones and Ben Harper. Sometimes get a lyric and can¹t shake it like Cat Stevens “Miles From Nowhere,” or Ben Harper,” Don¹t need eyes to see.”
ON CLIMBING EVEREST
It’s incredibly hard work. It takes two months to climb it 70 days from home. One really has to lay it on the line, yet it’s the Sherpas who make it possible. Climbing Everest can be very emotional. It’s easy to be touched by its features. My first ascent was most memorable. It was crystal clear and blue. I called my 6-year-old son from the top at around 7 in the morning. Life made a lot of sense for attempting such a radical thing.
FACTS ABOUT EVEREST
Since 1953, more than 1,200 people have reached the summit of Everest. Here are a few other interesting facts about Earth’s sacred rooftop, known by Tibetans as “Goddess Mother” or “Chomolungma” and Nepalese as “Goddess of the Sky” or “Sagarmatha.”
– 10,000 people have attempted a summit climb in the last 50 years.
– 175 people have died on the mountain.
– 120 corpses still remain on Everest
– 1,700 summits have been made. James Whittaker was the first American on top in May of 1963.
– Of the 1,200 people to successfully climb Everest fewer than 100 have done so without supplemental oxygen.
– Reinhold Messner completed the first solo attempt in August of 1980.
– Yuichiro Miura of Japan, is the oldest person at age 70 to summit in May of 2003.
– Japan’s Junko Tabei, is the first woman to reach the summit.
– Temba Tseri Sherpa, 15, became the youngest in May of 2001.
– Everest is twice as tall as the Matterhorn
– Everest was named for Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India during the 1860s.
– It is estimated there is 10 tons of garbage left on Everest.
Over 24 teams attempted the summit this past spring with more than 137 reaching the summit.