Adventure: To the Pole ... the One-Brick-Short-of-a-Load Way

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1997

Adventure: To the Pole ... the One-Brick-Short-of-a-Load Way

A group of fearless "expeditioners" rings in the new year with an aerial assault on Antarctica
By Susan Enfield

Next Time You Feel Like Whining on a Day Hike, Consider This

"The first time I climbed with Erik," says veteran Yosemite climber Hans Florine, "I watched his foot track to an inch-wide handhold, and I thought, 'The guy's lying. He really can see.'" Though the said guy, mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, gets a chuckle from the tale, he's wary of what he calls "super blind guy" lore — and for good reason. It seems that lately he's become a poster boy for vision-impaired athletes, appearing on everything from network morning shows to a feel-good TV special hosted by the Duchess of York. Nonetheless, Weihenmayer — who climbed Denali in 1995 and has since become the first blind climber to summit Yosemite's El Capitan and Kilimanjaro — is, er, staying focused on what will be his third of the Seven Summits, Chile's 22,834-foot Aconcagua. "I'm not the strongest guy on my team," says the 29-year-old Colorado native, who spent much of last summer picking his way across scree fields in preparation for this month's ascent. "But I'm a weight-pulling member of this expedition. I'm not just some blind guy getting dragged up the mountain."

Better Lucky Than Good

If things come off as planned for U.S. Ski Team directors the Gold Cup competition in Lake Placid on the 29th of this month — American skiing's first-ever winner-take-all Olympic trials of sorts — will tug at the heartstrings of sentimental TV viewers nationwide, with long-shot dreamers pulling off dramatic upset victories at every turn. "This is a fabulous opportunity for our athletes," gushes competition official Alan Ashley, pointing out that the winners in all seven events — super giant slalom, downhill, aerials, moguls, cross-country, ski jumping, and nordic combined — will be awarded wild-card spots on the 1998 Olympic team and $10,000 in cash. Not bad for a day's work, especially if you're a B-team scrub like Jason Rosener, a promising young downhiller from Breckenridge who finished in the top 20 at the World Alpine Championships last February. Or so you'd think. Instead, Rosener is less than thrilled at the prospect of sacrificing a slot that could potentially be earned through a season of good results to the Gold Cup's may-the-luckiest-go-to-Nagano format. "If a guy you've beaten your whole life wins on a fluke," he says ruefully, "well, that's not what I'd call fair."

Sure, there have been plenty of South Pole pioneers: Roald Amundsen and his epic 1911 dogsled journey, the 1958 Sno-Cat traverse by Sir Vivian Fuchs, B—rge Ousland's solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica last January. But on December 15, an international posse of dedicated thrill-seekers will visit the pole in an altogether more sensible way — one that dispenses with all those awful months of slogging in favor of one gloriously adrenaline-enhanced moment of instant gratification. Twenty-two intrepid souls, each paying upward of $22,000 for the privilege, will jump out of a Twin Otter, drop like gigantic ice cubes for 30 or 40 seconds, and then pull their rip cords, becoming the first group of civilians ever to skydive to the planet's southernmost spot.

Though it may sound like the softest of expeditions, this Antarctic foray is — at least according to 43-year-old Ray Miller, a volunteer trip organizer who first fell for skydiving while watching episodes of Ripcord as a child — the ultimate "abstract jump." Miller should know: He and most of his fellow South Pole parachutists, a self-styled "renegade bunch" of skydiving extremists, have already done the planet's flip side, setting what was then the North Pole skydiving record with an 83-person jump in 1994. "And if the North Pole was the moon," says the marketing entrepreneur from Toledo, Ohio, obviously at ease with the hyperbole of global exploratory parlance, "the South Pole is Mars."

Not that the former was all fun and games. For the North Pole jump, trip organizers had to negotiate with the Russian mafia to "borrow" a jet from an air base near Moscow. Miscommunication also forced the group to spend 36 parched hours in one of the world's most arid spots. And those were just the surprises: The part about jumping out of a jet doing 180 miles per hour, into minus-70-degree air, onto a treacherous landscape of shifting ice, was exactly what they'd bargained for.

Given experience with such watery perils, a nice solid landmass such as Antarctica should theoretically be a breeze. But the geographic South Pole actually sits atop a plateau at 9,800 feet and is buffeted by unpredictable winds that blow as hard as 100 miles per hour, with temperatures as low as 120 degrees below zero. Still, the trip's natural challenges may be nothing next to the frosty reception the party-hearty divers — who plan to celebrate by cracking a can of Coors Light and electing a Ms. Antarctica from among their number — are likely to get at ground zero from the notoriously tourist-shy microscope jockeys at the National Science Foundation's research base. "Although I want to believe they are supportive of the expedition, skydiving as a whole is shunned because people don't understand it," Miller says, a geez-Mr.-Grant tenor to his voice belying years of nobody-gets-me frustration. "We're seen as people with a death wish, when actually we have a life wish: We want to experience as much as we can."

Indeed, most members of the expedition contend that they have compelling reasons for their ultimate leap of faith. "Somehow you feel like your life's incomplete until you've done both of 'em," sighs Daniel Poynter, a Santa Barbara-based publisher who was part of the 1994 North Pole jump. "It's on my list of things to do before I die," adds John Lewis, a 29-year-old computer programmer from the Bay Area. But perhaps Ray Miller sums it up best. "Believe it or not, you can get so used to skydiving that you actually become bored with it," he says, altogether convincingly. "Then you go looking for the extremes."

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