Outside Magazine, November 1994
Everything about the expedition had been carried out according to a precise timetable. A Russian icebreaker had delivered Bob Schmieder, a 53-year-old nuclear physicist from the San Francisco area and a certifiable ham-radio nut, and eight crew members to the coast of Peter I Island, a ten-mile-long speck of windswept rock off Antarctica. A helicopter had then taxied the team and several tons of gear from the ship onto the desolate island.
All that was left was to make camp as fast as possible, start up the gas-powered generators, and click on the ham radios. They could hardly wait. Fingers trembled; stomachs fluttered. They'd go down in history as the first team since 1990 to field a ham radio call on Peter I Island. This was big. Who among them hadn't fantasized about the first voice squirting through the static: "India Kilo 4?"
"India Kilo 4, go ahead," one of them would respond, his voice cracking with emotion. And then the magic words: "Peter I is on the air."
All nine would leap into the air, applauding through their Gore-Tex mittens. Toasts would be made.
In reality, though, Schmieder and the team couldn't find the nails they'd packed. And without nails, they couldn't set up shelters and get the generators humming. It was panic city. For 30 minutes they ripped into boxes and duffel bags until someone finally yelled, "I found them--they're here!" Shelters went up, generators sputtered, and...that first call came in just as they'd imagined.
Contact. It's what the little-known, extremely idiosyncratic sport of DXing-- using a ham radio to reach practically every nook and cranny on the globe--is all about, that golden moment when the electromagnetic floodgates open and voices come charging in to the most remote parts of the planet. The sole purpose of DXpeditions like the Peter I journey--"DX" is ham jargon for "distance unknown"--is to set up transceivers so that geographic lonely hearts have someplace new to contact. And as DXpeditions go, Peter I was the ultimate, the measure by which another DX explorer, Al Hernandez, will be judged next month as he and two other men head off to Antarctica's South Georgia Island for a rendezvous with radio's most fervent buffs. Once in place, Hernandez, like Schmieder before him, will field calls around the clock from any ham wanting to check off another offbeat locale.
With such great hardship and expense--Schmieder's ex-pedition cost $250,000, and Hernandez figures to spend $50,000--one has to wonder why DXpeditioners do it. They get no big-time endorsements or talk-show appearances. About all they do get is royal treatment at ham radio conventions. "DXing is the lunatic fringe of amateur radio," says Chod Harris, editor of The DX Magazine. "And the DXpeditioners are the lunatic fringe of the lunatic fringe. Go to a ham fest and you'll see the operators looking up to these guys."
Of course, DXpeditioners and the 22,000 or so homebound hams who ring them up (some repeatedly) are aware that their pastime seems frivolous to outsiders. In response, they point out that the world's peaks and canyons and poles are swamped with expeditions, some of which are equally frivolous. DXers and DXpeditioners, they argue, are just a bit more passionate about their sport.
"They were ravenous for Peter I," says Schmieder, fondly recalling the 70,000 contacts that his team made over a three-week period. "They would get divorced for Peter I."
DXing dates back to the thirties. In those years many far-flung U.S. servicemen and amateur explorers started toting ham radios for emergencies, and people back home found that they could contact the bush from their living rooms. By 1937 the American Radio Relay League had come up with the DX Century Club for operators who had made contact with at least 100 countries. As homegrown radio operators flourished, checking off recognized political entities started seeming too easy. The Newington, Connecticut-based League soon began drafting its own list of "countries." On that list, some are political entities, some are territories within countries, and some are just rocks in the surf. The difficulty of reaching some of these sites is what can make a legend out of a DXpeditioner.
Schmieder is a near-legend. When Hernandez, 47, of Melbourne, Florida, and two teammates--Jan Heise and Vince Thompson--stride ashore on South Georgia Island, they'll be vying for their own little piece of history. If all goes well in the 15 to 18 days they spend there, they'll chew the fat with some 50,000 callers, though no session will last longer than 20 seconds--too many people out there waiting.
"I get a lot of satisfaction when someone can cross a hard-to-get place off his list," says Hernandez. "It's sort of a rush, I guess."
Adds Schmieder, explaining in the most serious of tones his desire to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a planned 1996 trip to Heard Island in the South Indian Ocean: "You're after immortality."