Saturday, June 9, 2018
Saturday, January 15, 2011
It had been Lin picking me up at the airport at the end of my prior climbs. We were always reunited with her dressed up in some costume which spoke to where I had been. Lin met me at SeaTac wearing a Leopard costume when I returned from Africa. After Russia she wore the garb of a Babushka to the Bellingham Airport. Lin wore a very sultry, bright red flamenco dancer's dress when I came home from Argentina. She threw off her trench coat and struck a dramatic pose, rose clenched in her teeth, next to the baggage carousel. I had thought a lot about this and decided since I was picking her up at the airport this time it should be I who dressed up for Lin.
Nothing symbolizes Antarctica better than a penguin. So this seemed like the clear choice for my costume. As penguin paraphernalia is abundant in Punta Arenas, I had thought obtaining such a costume would present no particular problem. Yet none could be found. I turned to the internet. Several costume purveyors offered Penguin costumes for sale, but the $900 price tag threatened to break through the thin ice my finances were already treading upon. I found a number of costume rental companies around Phoenix, but there seemed to be little interest in dressing as a penguin in the desert. Then my luck turned for the better. I found a shop that could rent me a penguin costume. The downside was that it had been made of a rug-thick material guaranteed to cook the occupant when worn anywhere warmer than Antarctica. I took it.
I pulled up to the Mesa airport ten minutes late and in a panic. The whole effect would be lost if Lin walked off the plane and I was not there to greet her as she had me. I hurriedly threw on the heavy costume and headed for the terminal. The realistic design of the garment pinched my legs close together at the ankles, making anything better than a fast waddle impossible. I was breathing hard inside the headpiece. Sweat ran freely down my face. My penguin feet were slapping hard on the pavement. I could see passengers pouring into the baggage claim area. With both flippers waving madly, I bum rushed the lot of them. Unfortunately, these people were exiting the flight from Great Falls and I only succeeded in fostering a festive sort of confusion. Lin's flight from Bellingham was running an hour late.
Families with children assumed I had been hired by the airport to bring a little holiday cheer to the otherwise mundane experience of waiting for relatives to arrive. I found myself posing for photos and allowing kids to touch my beak. Several people asked why I was dressed as a penguin, and, having time on my hands, I shared the story of my trip to Antarctica and the many themed reunions Lin and I have enjoyed. The story spread.
I noticed something strange going on as passengers from Bellingham filed out. The party meeting them would linger instead of proceeding to the baggage carousel. Most of the passengers had deplaned and become part of the large crowd around me by the time Lin walked out. She was dressed as a snowflake. There was glitter on her face, and she wore a homemade headdress of cutout paper snowflakes. Her blouse and pants were a flawless white. Her finger and toenails were painted red with tiny white snowflakes attached. Her blond hair was braided back with all the delicate intricacy of fine lace.
It is perhaps a testament to how specifically her eyes searched for me that Lin did not notice the six foot tall penguin standing among the crowd now watching in silence. She walked past me. But, as she did, I honked at her. She stopped and looked back at me. I honked again. A brilliant smile came to Lin's face as she rushed into my open flippers while cheers and applause erupted around us.
|A penguin's passion unleashed!|
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Two Australian brothers own and operate ALE. Both were present that evening. One brother is lively and humorous. The hands-on manager of their Antarctic Operations, he is also the visionary of ALE with serious intentions to launch a space tourism operation. I attended a spontaneous post-climb celebration hosted by this brother shortly after returning to Union Glacier. The absence of darkness may have had something to do with the party going until 5 a.m. It was really fun and I was really woozy the next day.
The other brother was rumored to be caustic, prone to angry outbursts and generally bad for business. I was surprised then when he visited our table a second time, pulling up a chair and socializing over a glass of wine. He would ask a question then ignore the answer. It was kind of clumsy, but not awful. At one point he steered himself to the topic of the IL-76, commenting that it flies military missions in Afghanistan during the off-season.
Following my blog entry entitled "Half the Fun," I received a Reader comment expressing what appeared to be an informed critical view of the group ALE subcontracts out to for the IL-76 services. I invited AC and ALE to respond. ALE declined, and AC answered a different question than the one raised by the Reader.
"I wonder how many questions you ask the people running the IL-76," I asked the brother seated at our table. An immediate tenseness washed over everyone's face as he bristled at this.
"Yeah, I've been told there's some Lawyer sniffin' around about that, asking questions and that. Name of Maura or something," the brother said peevishly.
"Yeah, that's me. Only I'm not a Lawyer, I'm a Writer. And it's not me asking, it's one of my Readers," I said.
We were probably done eating anyway. At this point everyone except me and the brother got up and left the restaurant. They waited for me outside ...a block away. To my surprise, the brother did not explode, though he certainly looked as if he would. However, he also did not answer the question as to whether any improprieties had been committed on the part of the IL-76 subcontractors. His basic position was that ALE is only concerned about the services they hire for. In all fairness, these services had been performed remarkably well in the course of my experience. The aircraft seemed to be in top condition. The crew delivered two of the smoothest landings I have ever known in the course of much global travel. As well, it is doubtful their are many, if any, substitute providers available. So ALE sticks to their knitting.
Phil, Steve and I spent the next day shopping for Christmas gifts and eating like Kings. All of us had left weight on Antarctica, in my own case 12 pounds. Not a remarkable sum. The human body burns massive calories when trying to stay warm. They are the coal thrown into the boiler. As well, a person's heart rate increases meaningfully at altitudes above 10,000 feet as the air thins. With less oxygen available the body in a sense tries to make it up in volume, pumping the blood much faster. This in turn burns still more calories. All of this occurs independant of the obvious caloric burn attendant to mountain climbing. A Feb 2010 article in "Wired Science" (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/02/high-altitude-weight-loss/) makes several interesting points regarding the effects of weight loss in higher altitude. "Overweight, sedentary people who spent a week at an elevation of 8,700 feet lost weight while eating as much as they wanted and doing no exercise. A month after they came back down, they had kept two-thirds of those pounds off," the article reported. It goes without saying this effect is amplified at still higher elevations. Did I mention that Vinson is 16,048 feet tall? Just checking.
The following day we took an excursion to the Isle of Marta to see the penguin colony. "OK, I'm done, " Steve commented after ten minutes. Their were hundreds of penguin, maybe thousands. They looked at us. We looked at them. Some peered out from their burrows. Others tettered casually down the roped path set aside for humans. "Hey fellas, where ya goin' all spiffed up like that," I questioned. A few penguin made their burrow right in the path itself. It was a casual scene, and one could not help but feel the life a penguin is a pretty good gig.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
As we loaded our gear into the shuttle bays Phil and Steve were reunited with their long lost bags. The airline had seen to it that the bags would merge up as our incoming things were transferred from the IL-76. In the end, Phil and Steve's untested kits performed relatively well. This, no doubt, was a result of having purchased tested brands. North Face, Outdoor Research, Marmot, Mountain Hardware, Sportiva, and Gore-tex figured keenly in that selection process. Phil, being tall, was unable to find a long enough sleeping bag on short notice. He improvised by using his down parka and over-pants to keep his shoulders covered. Steve ended up with an inferior set of crampons that spontaneously jetison a critical metal screw as he prepared to mount the final pitch. Incredibly, he and Mitchell were able to find it in the snow amidst raking winds. The unfamiliar climbing boots lent to Phil and Steve by ALE left their feet badly blistered. "I'm not complaining," Steve declared, glad the expedition moved forward and resolute, as always, to handle whatever came his way. When Phil and Steve flew home a few days later they were required to pay excess baggage to the same airline that lost there bags in order to get these items home along with the additional kit each had been forced to purchase. Nice.
Mitchell and Guy flew home immediately. Doug left the next day. Phil, Steve and I all decided to stay with our original itineraries and leave three days hence, as rebooking to an earlier departure would have incurred fees totaling the cost of all new tickets.
I have heard people use the term "re-entry" in describing the process of returning from Antarctica. The context this appears in suggests some similarity to the experience of returning Astronauts. Such a notion might not be as romanticized as one would think. Indeed, NASA has used Antarctica for components of Astronaut training and popular conspiracy theories suggest it to have been the location of the faked moon landings. In the course of our time in Antarctica there was no darkness. There was no color. There was no smell of any sort. Aside from the wind, there was no sound. For two weeks we existed together in a state of profound sensory deprivation. Upon re-entry to civilization I found myself quickly over-stimulated by the signs, lights, noises and activity around me. I wanted to hide out in my hotel room. Eventually I wandered out and hunkered down in the tiny computer room adjacent to the hotel lobby. I spent most of that first day posting blog entries I had written in Antarctica and eating chocolate. I kept my world very small.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Doug addressed us the next morning at breakfast. There would be ample room on the flight out. We were going home. We broke camp and stacked our gear on the ice. It was a sunny day with little wind at Union Glacier, so the temperature was a comfortable 25 f. As the ETA drew near Climbers were joined by ALE staff, also anxious to witness the return of their lifeline to the outside world. "There it is," an excited voice announced. A small shiny figure, a few hundred feet above the glacier, eased gracefully up the far side of the valley, setting down some eight kilometers away.
The shuttles began ferrying Climbers and gear over to the airstrip while ALE staff readied for the incoming group, Marathon Runners who had come to participate in the planet's most extreme version of their sport. A course had been laid out by a snow cat fitted with an ultrasound apparatus to detect subsurface crevasses. Three laps around the course would add up to a Marathon. Most of these runners were holed up in the warming hut when our shuttle arrived at the airstrip. In stark contrast to base camp, high winds clawed at the ice here. The temperature was easily below zero f, and reliable footing was hard to come by. I studied the faces of the new arrivals as we waited for the instruction to board the outbound jet. They were wide-eyed and silent. Some added layers of clothing. Others fidgeted with their goggles. Almost all wore an expression that asked "what have I gotten myself into?!" A Spanish film crew was scurrying about with lipstick cameras mounted on poles. They weaved through the tight confines of the hut shooting the perspective from above. If I had to guess I would say frostbite became a central theme in their storyline.
My seventeen year old son, Chase, tries to teach me the expressions used by Rappers. This comes in handy when I find myself Improvising the part of a Rapper on stage. Being as middle-aged and white bread as a person can get, such words strike comedic contrast when they come out of my mouth. It's a real crowd pleaser. Money. It was Chase's voice that came to me as the IL-76 lifted off. We were all dressed in heavy down, packed together like chicks in a nest. A soothing darkness beat back the dim lights of the navigator's instruments. I could feel myself drifting off as the jet raced down the ice, that early dream-state when voices come to you. The nose of the aircraft lifted and the landing gear went silent. In that moment I heard Chase declare "we out this bitch!"
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Phil and I stood for a moment, looking out across the glacier that second evening at Low Camp. It was midnight, and though the long daylight hours of this strange season still illuminated our white world fully, the low angle of the sun cast definition to the wind-scalloped snow before us. A lone figure was approachng as we spoke about the motivations of Climbers. It was a patient and introspective discussion that was handed back and forth like a Rubix Cube. Then Phil said something that clicked all colors to solid on the cube´s six sides.
¨Look at this bloak cómin´ down the mountain. There´s no celebration, no people cheerin´, and that´s not what he wants either. This man has been at war, really, with himself.´´
Jakob Dylan speaks of this notion in his song Valley of the low sun, a lyric depiction of WWII that could easily apply to an Antarctic expedition.
The Earth´s still climbing as it keeps on grinding it´s way up around the sun.
As cool water crashes down to the masses, boot legged and bottled like rum.
My dreams are humble, lean as arrows and streetwise, ready and fair.
As we bum-rush the ages tied to the rails of high seas not fit to be sailed.
Whatever we´ve taken does feel like heaven, but baby we just look like hell.
Now act like you mean it, where paradise was in the valley of low low sun.
Act like you mean it, where paradise was in the valley of low low sun.
In as much as this analogy may hold true, I ate breakfast this morning among the walking wounded. By the time a Climber takes on Vinson Massif he has served numerous tours of duty on high altitude battle fields. Some are missing fingers. Others bare the tattoos of frostbite. Many have no visible scars and choose to speak of days spent surviving at 30 below as though it were an afternoon at the zoo, stoicism and denial being their standard issue carbine.
Most of the people at my table this morning were part of a team stormed in at High Camp for six days under truly horrific conditions. I have heard Guides question why this team did not retreat to a lower camp and conserve their strength while waiting out the weather. I tried to engage them by asking what, 10 years from now, they thought they would most remember about this trip. All were silent until the woman next to me said ¨I just want to get out of here.´´ Too soon for war stories.
There is a 12 inch mirror that hangs near the coffee station. I wonder to myself if it is an instrument of humility, a means by which an unruly Climber may be checked. Examining my reflection for the first time in two weeks, I am surprised by how little I resemble myself. My lips are swollen, cracked and peeling from the effects of sun and cold. My facial hair has grown out. It is two-toned, with dark cheeks and a grey stripe running from my mouth down my neck as though I choked while eating a bowl of indiffernce. The end of my nose is chaffed and red, my hair matted and greasy. Suddenly I am aware of my many minor hurts; the blisters on my feet, the numbness of my finger tips, the tingling in my toes and a deep ache in my shoulders. By comparison with those seated at my table Vinson treated me fairly kind. But there is no denying it also kicked my ass. There were times I could not get warm or struggled with breaking camp in windy conditions. I looked to the reason for coming on this climb but, as there was no clear rationale, found myself just coping. ´´I´m not having fun,´´ I thought again and again, flirting with the notion this might be my last mountain. That thing that had driven me through the first four of the seven summits seemed to be quieting. Vinson had not beaten me. I stood on it´s summit. Yet, more than ever, I felt ready to declare peace.
There was good news, though. We would be leaving most of the group gear at High Camp for the next Adventure Consultants group to use, thus sparing them the work of packing it uphill and likewise sparing us the burden of taking it down. We kidded Mark that it seemed too coincidental AC had steared this strong group of Climbers into an early season expedition to act as pack mules. We would similarly be leaving group gear packed into Low Camp. Just before leaving High Camp I walked out to the edge of our perch. With the whole of Antarctica spread out before me in shades of white, I opened a plastic bag and released a small quantity of my brother´s ashes into the breeze.
While descending the fixed lines my Thermarest mattress role came loose and shot down the ice face. Considering it´s light weight, the mattress moved incredibly fast, skidding out across glacier at the base of the hill. The sight of this served as a sober reminder. Once at the bottom of the lines Mark and I roped up to retrieve the mattress settled some two hundred yards out on the glacier.
The Team loaded the sleds left at Low Camp and continued down to Vinson Base Camp. There Mark cooked up some pasta and poured red wine from a box. We delayed building camp as there was some chance the Otter would make a flight, extracting us from this shaded place that held the cold air miserably. During our first two days at Vinson Base Camp several of us had agreed that this was the coldest we had ever been. This included experiences on Denali and Everest. The Otter arrived a few hours later. One Team was ahead of us in priority, but that left 4 seats open. Phil immediately volunteered to stay behind.
Meeting Phil has been one of the true treasures of this experience for me. He is kind and affable, quick to laugh, and brings a liteness of spirit wherever he may be. Phil shared many quirky stories about the Isle of Man and his work their as a Police Officer. He had me laughing so hard a couple of times it hurt to gasp in the cold air. It goes without saying that Phil is an extremely gifted Mountain Climber, but what´s more he is a Rare Dude.
Phil and Mark stayed behind at Vinson Base Camp. We left them our final stores of wine and Glen Livet with which to be better received at dinner in the heated staff hut that evening. Guy, Steve, Tony, and I climbed into the Twin Otter and, forty minutes later, stepped out at Union Glacier Base. We were greeted by a lively man in an Adventure Consultants jacket, the owner of Adventure Consultants, Guy Cotter. Readers of Into Thin Air will recall numerous mentions of Guy and his brave efforts to help the stranded on that day when everything went wrong. He is a larger than life character with flashing smile and energetic demeanor. Guy helped us set up our tents, then took us into the large dinning tent for dinner and a beer. He had just finished guiding a private party that skied the last degree to the south pole. A brown tiger stripe on one cheek told of the extreme cold that had sponsored this minor frostbite. Guy readily answered questions about the events that took so many lives on Everest in May of 1996. Acknowledging mistakes made by various parties, he likewise detailed what had been learned by them and the steps taken to improve Climber safety in the future. I could not help but think this sort of discussion is as tiresome as it is painful for Guy, but if either is the case he did not show it.
I settled into my sleeping bag and listened to Christmas music on my I-pod. I had brought along a small set of battery operated Christmas lights which were rendered useless by the 24 hour daylight. But they now shined brilliantly inside my sleeping bag. I thought of family two continents away and the coming holiday.