Dispatches, February 1998
'There's no rhyme or reason for doing something like this," Ray Miller, a 43-year-old Ohio marketing entrepreneur, said last October of his upcoming attempt to skydive over the South Pole. "You either understand it or you don't." This gap in comprehension is yawning wider these days, in the aftermath of the December 6 deaths of Miller and colleagues Steve Mulholland, 36, and Hans Rezac, 49, all of whom had hoped to be among the first to parachute to the Pole. The three died on impact less than 60 seconds after jumping from their plane.
The mission apparently began exactly as planned. Following a six-hour flight from Antarctica's Patriot Hills field site, the team's chartered Twin Otter touched down at 7 a.m. near the Amundsen-Scott Station, where they posed for obligatory thumbs-up snapshots and took off again. The weather was clear and a relatively balmy minus-22 degrees. As the plane climbed to 8,000 feet (actually 17,450 feet above sea level, since the Pole sits on a 9,450-foot-high plateau), Miller, the trip's coordinator along with jumpmaster Mulholland, reviewed the plans one last time with the paying customers, each of whom had shelled out $22,000 for the privilege: Rezac; 39-year-old Michael Kearns; and Norwegians Trond Jacobsen, 32, and Morten Halvorsen, 37, who were embarking on the Pole's first tandem jump. The Americans and the Austrian Rezac, intending to hook up in a "four-way" formation during the 25-second free fall, jumped first. The Norwegians followed.
Things quickly went awry. The foursome hoped to link in formation, track away from each other, and open their chutes by 3,500 feet. After several failed attempts to hook up, Kearns realized they'd already dropped below 2,000 feet, so he tracked away and reached for his rip cord. As he did, his automatic activation device (AAD), an altitude sensor that triggers the reserve canopy at 750 feet, deployed the chute. It apparently saved his life.
Within three minutes, both Kearns and the Norwegians had touched down safely. Miller, Mulholland, and Rezac were not so lucky; Mulholland's partially opened canopy hadn't had time to inflate, and Miller and Rezac never even pulled their rip cords. The trio penetrated three feet deep into the Pole's hard-packed crust.
"They didn't do anything really stupid," contends Bill Booth, a Florida skydiving outfitter who'd previously jumped with Miller. "It was probably a combination of little errors." Indeed, all three men had considerable expertise: Miller had jumped some 500 times in the last 15 years, and was part of a record-setting 83-diver expedition to the North Pole in 1994; Mulholland was an accomplished BASE jumper who had leaped from Seattle's Space Needle in 1996; and Rezac had completed a North Pole jump last April.
But this high-altitude attempt posed several hazards, which may not have been dealt with properly. The free-fall velocity of approximately 150 miles per hour in the thin air (as compared to 120 at lower elevations) can throw off jumpers' timing. Hypoxia can affect judgment and vision. And the featureless Antarctic snowscape wreaks havoc on one's depth perception. It was the group's desire to execute a four-way formation, however, that perhaps clinched the outcome. The oxygen-draining effort required for the formation may have accelerated the onset of hypoxia, and the maneuver may also have "sucked them down," a phenomenon in which jumpers focusing on a formation lose track of altitude. "It's like dancing on the deck of the Titanic instead of getting in the lifeboat," says Booth, "because you think you have more time." Finally, those who died reportedly wore neither AADs (which are required only for students and tandems) nor Dytters, warning devices that beep at a preset minimum altitude. "This accident," argues Bob Christ, a respected diver who coordinated Miller's 1994 North Pole jump, "was 100 percent preventable."
The tragedy promises to foster plenty of second-guessing about future expeditions. Says U. S. Parachute Association spokeswoman Dany Brooks: "Mass fatalities just don't happen in this sport." Now that one has, Bob Christ anticipates another aftereffect. "This," he says, without a hint of irony, "may well end all skydiving in Antarctica."
Photograph by David E. Martin