by Robert Frohlich
“The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
[Cerva Harbor – Antarctic Peninsula]
The walls are singing. Small twangs and moans interrupt the early afternoon light and pulse up from the brash ice and bergy bits of Cerva Harbor to the rimrock of sharp peaks above. The sculpted mountain architecture bursts upon the landscape with startling suddenness. New snow glistening into the vast reaches form a visual quilt that sparkles and gives life to Spartan winter scenery.
My heart swells like a giant diamond in a field of coal.
I’ve just skied on the Antarctic continent.
That early morning I’d watched landfall from the ship’s bridge as we made way against a freshening 30-knot wind and rising sea. Crossing the Drake Channel hadn’t been the drastic Cape Horn donnybrook expected, but it had still felt at times like a roller coaster into darkness and a kind of stagecoach ride over rough road. People were ready to disembark and get off this tug. Now, ice rimmed coastline consumed the horizon – smiling, silent, grand, mean, insipid and savage – all with an air of whispering: Come and find out.
Eventually, the beating wind would make our expedition change course: from a planned early morning tour and ski in Nicholson Bay on Trinity Island to Cerva Harbor south and onto the actual Antarctic continent.
It wasn’t until midday that the Clipper Adventurer anchored and sent head guide Kevin Quinn and Ice Axe leader Doug Stoup on a scouting mission ashore. They returned 30 minutes later to say,” It looks insane.”
The sun was fierce. The land glistened and dripped with white. The day billowed serene and exquisite in an immensity of unstained life. It was too cool. It was a kingdom of cool. It was better than first chair on KT. People on deck looked in awe and murmured “yes.” It was so otherworldly it was as if our ship had wandered through a window into a prehistoric earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet
Indeed, it was astonishing. Skiers and boarders, all 60 of them divided into small ski groups commanded by a guide, were taxied in by Zodiac craft. Once ashore the landscape took on greater significance, not one of hesitation but of pause. It was a reminder of what Ansel Adams said, during the 1930s, with his young bride Virginia Best, after visiting snowbound Glacier Point that it was,” a world of surpassing beauty, so perfect and intense that we cannot imagine the return to modern life and the fading crystalline splendor encompassing our gaze.”
Hours later, high above the bay, after a good bit of skinning directly up to ridgelines that seemed to touch the cobalt sky, Ice Axe team members smiled and danced while clicking into their Randonee bindings for the downhill run.
And there, harvesting this mad capped scene, on the edge of this colossal escapade, was Ice Axe commander-in-chief Doug Stoup. Many critics never thought he could do it, bring to the end of the world this collection of significant personalities and notable skiers past and present, each who have fostered a characteristic tone and expression in their adventures: yet here they all were.
Forget Antarctica for a second: if anyone’s gravitational movement downhill pressured obstructions and changed the landscape it’s Stoup – much more than any ice sheet. He stood silently upon the ridge like a stone lion on the steps of some huge campus library taking it all in. Call it passionate persistence, talk about big dreams and big mountains on the loneliest margins of the world, but Stoup had pulled it off. Later on at dinner, after everybody had gotten their fresh turns and returned safely to the ship he was overheard at his table chuckling to surrounding friends,” Not bad, not bad at all.”
THE ICE AXE S.A.T: Q. What are the heights of the seven continents’ tallest peaks? A. Everest (Asia) – 29,035 feet; Aconcagua (South America) – 22,834; Mount McKinley (North America) – 20,321; Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa) – 19,563; Mount Elbrus (Europe) – 18,481; Carstensz Pyramid (Australsia/Oceania) – 16,502; Vinson Massif (Antarctica) – 16,066 feet.
IF YOU THOUGHT SQUAW VALLEY’S MOUNTAIN RUN GETS CROWDED:
Starting next year, the National Park Service will cap the number of climbers allowed on Alaska’s Mount McKinley at 1,500 a year. Since 1903, 30,049 climbers have attempted McKinley, known also as Denali, or “high one,” Just over half have reached the summit. Ninety-five have died trying, including a record 11 in 1992. Climbers spend typically 14 to 18 days on the mountain during a brief two-month period in May and June. “It’s amazing how the mountain has gotten busier,” says park ranger and former Squaw Valley resident Daryl Miller. “It’s gotten so bad we might have to start hauling off human waste that’s beginning to overflow the pit toilet on Kahilna Glacier.” Ice Axe guides Kip Garr and Glen Poulsen, who summited the peak this past spring, reported that during the course of their ascent nothing was wasted.
UP ON THE ROOF
Five Questions With Dave Marchi
Although there are 69 mountains over the 14,000-foot mark in the United States, Mt. Shasta is the most massive of all the mountains boasting 100 cubic miles of mass. Various routes on the Shasta-Trinity Forest Wilderness peak can hold carveable snow well into summer. The conventional route – up Avalanche Gulch – typically is skiable into June; the northern routes can be skied into July. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Mt. Shasta received the most snowfall ever in a single snowstorm: 189 inches from February 13 to 19, 1959. The youngest person to successfully climb the dormant volcano was a 5-year-old girl in the 1960s.
For Ice Axe guide Dave Marchi, Mount Shasta has not just been a beacon and testing ground, it’s also been his home.
Marchi, 33, was born in Shasta. A veteran mountaineer and backcountry skier, Marchi has climbed the Northern California dormant volcano over 200 times. Its training terrain has lead him to successfully topping out on Nepal’s Ama Dablam, Denali, Aconcaqua (twice in one year), and opening up a ski area in Kasmir, India.
ON THE LINE THAT GOT AWAY
I’ve really wanted to climb and ski the Garwhal Wall in western India. I thought I had it dialed, but then the permits were tripled in cost. I just didn’t have the money as I’m funded only by myself. It’s in a remote area and would be one of the greatest places to ski.
ON HIS FAVORITE LINE ON SHASTA
It has to be the Hotlum Wintun Ridge. It’s one of the longest ski descents in California, over 7,000 feet, and, since it’s east facing, holds good snow.
ON HIS FAVORITE BEATLES SONG
I love the Beatles like everyone else, but I like to listen to Martin Sexton, John Butler and Alison Krauss. I try to bring their kind of energy to my skiing.
ON HIS FAVORITE MOMENTS
It’s the individual moments that I try to recall – like first light on Shasta. I’m really close to that mountain. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed in my life.
ON THE NATURE OF GUIDING
I like to quote this one passage from “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It’s about how the sides of a mountain are what sustain life, not the top. I really try to focus on people enjoying their ascent, of having them enjoy their experience to the top.