Day 6 | 20/02/2016 | Drake Passage, Antarctica
Icy winds and significantly wilder seas than yesterday. Foggy. We will reach the first icebergs tonight. Still none of us seasick. Andy has been transmitting for hours at the stern of the ship.
Equipment is ready for Antarctica, induction into the strict conservation rules for that continent that has been touch so little by mankind. Making sure that our clothing is free of traces of organic matter such as plant seeds, thistle burrs and dirt, picking everything out meticulously and signing off the standards. A day shaped by organisational things as well, but not solely that.
My dream tonight. It has got me thinking. I saw a fleet of silver-grey warships crossing by the Antarctic icebergs. Silent. Threatening. I felt alarmed and aware - in the dream. As if I would had come across something that has always been there, that I would have discovered it, and would finally see it.
Perhaps the dream came about because I far am enough away from our madness of our selfish, unspiritual society, the pathologically greedy economy, from the otherwise so very present wars in Syria, Ukraine and where else that we hear about every day, the wholeheartedly inhuman attacks and contempt for life, from the European refugee crisis. Far enough away from our policy of callous stupidity. Far enough away from motorways, pollution, skyscrapers, national insurance contributions, cash register legislation and Hitradio Ö3. Far enough away from the madness of our ill society.
Perhaps since my brain, my heart and soul have been carried nearer to the Antarctic Circle and the incredibly wild seas that I am finally far enough away to see how sick we humans are. As we have become used to seeing war, the images of suffering, bombings, fences and upper migration limits day in and day out, we have accepted them as human solutions. We have unlearnt our humanity. What this trip has already opened my eyes to is humility. Everything about me here is powerful, strong and courageous. And I as a human have only a chance to survive: Not to take myself too seriously, to adapt. To comprehend the size and strength of our earth...
The sea now presents itself like boiling water, bubbling, foaming, and swaying menacingly. We will arrive very soon. First whales sighted. Icy cold slaps us in the face.
Today I am less in the writing mood than usual. Quieter and more thoughtful, a bit sad and - just humble. The earth is shaking.
In an hour we disembark - the eternal ice is not far away anymore...
Day 7 | 21/02/2016 | Antarctic
Everyone healthy. Good food. Nice weather.
Day 8 | 22/02/2016 | This is Antarctica
"Everyone healthy. Good food. Nice weather."
That was my Facebook post for yesterday, day 7. Plus the photo of the roped-ski tour. When, as a child, I didn’t want to reveal to my parents how I was doing on a ski course or, even worse, at the parish summer camp, I wrote these words on one of those glossy postcards. "Everyone healthy. Good food. Nice weather." That was by no means a lie. Maybe not the whole truth, but an essential part of it. And anyway, for my concerned parents it was “good news, reassuring news." That's what we were doing as children, yes: always making our parents perfectly happy, being well-behaved so that we were punished with as fewer slaps as possible, no curfew and without losing out on pocket money...
It’s pointless therefore to leave our loved ones feeling scared and worried. When we were back from the glacier tour in the Zodiac inflatable boat, Frank asked me in his distinctively unique, gentle nature: "What text are you writing today?" - Frank is one of the few people I know who can say everything to me with just a few words, or even no words at all. His "Everything - good" has become the slogan of our trip.
And now once again from the start: "First trips - ski tours in Antarctica" - we booked. By ship, the Ortelius, to Antarctica to go on a ski tour organised, approved and secured along the route of the ship, arranged by the organiser. The ship: our floating hotel - and once or twice a day we head to specific locations on the coast in the Zodiac. A little worn, very useless - and therefore just right for us. "From all these so meaningful, well-intentioned, reasonable and more than anything serious acts, the world has become a worse place rather than a better one. Now I'll do something completely pointless, expensive and selfish. "
My new hypothesis: the more I work myself up, the more I enhance my own joy and the more curious I am, the less damage I do to this world. That's why I'm here.
Our mountain guide ties us up in a six rope formation to this small island that is covered by huge masses of glacial ice straight after the crossing. He is leading the way, Andy six metres behind, me another six metres behind him, then Frank, then Roger and the last after another 50 metres of rope, Anda. After a few tying issues, we head off with our cross-country skis uphill past the penguins and seals, the air filled with the stench of bird shit, the snow coloured red and green from the excrement of the wildlife. The scene to me was, said gently, a little bit strange. The first of our ten planned trips has finally begun. Everyone healthy. Good food. Nice weather.
Our journey uphill is going well, this is what we've been looking forward for so long. I keep getting a little dizzy when I look up to the right. Up to this giant wall of ice, interspersed with cracks and full of bright blue ice, just as I recognise it from those sweet and sour glacier mints as a child. That’s what Antarctica is like. We cross over snow-filled crevasses - so the mountain guide tells us. Always with a taut rope. Man to man to man perfectly secure. Even if one of us would fall - the ropes would hold us. I orient myself in a way that I can focus on Andy. We let each other know what we’re thinking now and again. And yes, I was scared. That feeling when you inevitably squeeze your butt cheeks together when you can only hope and believe, that whatever is under your feet keeps what its promise.
"Only the fearless will fall", says Andy. The sentence I know well, hearing it from him for the first time during our climb back in the East Tyrolean Dolomites. Keeping wide awake is the answer. Being mindful and fully aware at any one time. Fear warns us. Fear is not a stop sign.
Summit in sight. A broad white edge at the end of the snow field marks the summit and our victory. The mountain guide will get there first. "Follow me. Here's a good viewpoint. We will come this far but no further, otherwise it will be too dangerous", he calls to us. Andy follows, puts himself on the right-hand side of him with a slack rope, then I'll follow too, and put myself next to Andy.
“BERG HEIL" I say, and after the “L” has hardly had time to leave my lips, a firecracker, a glacial blue-white circle flares up on the ground around where the mountain guide is standing - and "crash bang whallop" collapses in on itself. Andy could sense that I saw it. I grab Andy’s upper body and we throw ourselves backwards. The rope is running away from us, the spans of rope between us are suddenly huge and Andy is the first to begin the six metre drop with his harness, with his clenched legs only 20cm from the cracked hole in the snow floor. It only took a millisecond for Andy and I to realise what’s happening. Frank, Roger and Anda realised a few seconds later what is going on.
It took us an hour to retrieve him. With dislocated shoulders, he was finally able to be brought back up after several attempts thanks to Anda and Andy’s mountain know-how and our cohesion as a team.
This one hour. I won’t describe here any details that relate to the others; too intimate, borderline and trustful was this shared experience. What we experienced a few days ago at the bus stop in Buenos Aires, when I wrote that, we gained this team experience in the safe city rather than in the dangerous Antarctica - all that really happened. Each in its greatest power. Each one in the present. All of us courageous and focused. All five of us fulfilled our responsibilities. Consciously.
There was this one moment when I made the sign of the cross. When I ended up with my mittens to my heart, down to the base of my ribcage, left to breast and reached right to the other side. Without thinking, without knowing what I was doing. I made the sign of the cross.
The guide contacted Tanja, the ship’s doctor, who has everything available here on the ship. Today, on the 8th day, he was back on his feet. Our accident and emergency report is with the captain.
For us, it now means schedule changes and some tough negotiations with the expedition leader - without a mountain guide there is a legal issue with letting us go ashore and on the glaciers...
In the evening, Andy radioed a couple of short waves out into the world to relax, I drank three cans of beer, the other a few colas. We talked a lot about it. That’s what team building looks like when there are no flipcharts and climbing frames.
I am sitting now, on the afternoon of day 8, alone on deck of the Ortelius, around me the sea and around a 500 metre radius pure white icebergs and mountains. The other four have set out on a tour, I wanted some peace. Although we all have seen the images of Antarctica, it's like a dream here. A continent of primal power. The extent to which has just struck me now
Everyone healthy. Good food. Nice weather.
Day 9 | 23/02/2016 | Antarctica
A barbecue. On the Helipad. Two smoking grills. Free beer. Mulled wine. 500 Watt sound system. Beer tables on deck. Sun is perfect for the zero degrees - even too warm for the Antarctic summer. Paradise Harbour. Panoramic, eternal ice. The ship’s diesel engines hum. A Spanish tourist, who has probably never seen an iceberg in her life, dances with a Canadian to "One Night sleeping in Antarctic Camper" and other mainstream songs. The newlywed newlyweds from the US drink champagne, she wanted to propose where the monogamous penguins live. A white, backless dress, an Iridium satellite phone for the direct line to the Pastor, a cameraman also there – their wedding night amid the camper group.
Russian divers celebrate loudly, the Philippine kitchen crew are finally allowed out into fresh air and serve the barbecue. Roger is the first to leave and just wants some peace. The ship chugs along idly in a circle. The sun beats down, cascading ice cracks, a sea lion huffs past, making noise. If I weren’t not sure if this were real, it would look like a very bad or an extremely good film. It’s all a matter of perspective. Is that all? In Antarctica, something like ketchup and jelly babies going well together. From bad to worse: "Modern Talking. Cheri Cheri Lady". It falls under serious injury. The already slightly tipsy lady from Spain joins us: "why don’t you dance?"
I would so like to keep it a secret. To only tell you about untouched crevasses, the savage Drake Passage, the elemental force of unspoiled nature, whales, walruses, seals and millions of happy penguins. To tell you about an adventure between life and death, the discovery of the essence of things, here at the southernmost tip of the earth. That is also true. Also. But not only that...
If a hundred passengers pay good money for them to discover Antarctica - then there are 100 different stories and topics here. To bring this all under one umbrella is difficult, but not impossible. The organizer is a hardened man. It's a good business to bring people safely over here. Everything is paid here in a mixed currency of curiosity, vanity, joy of life, self-search, futility, and pride.
What I, however, would not recommend to a shipping company is: mixing ‘Entertain me, I have paid a lot of money paid for that’ tourists together on the same ship expedition with ‘Take me safely to the Antarctic, the rest I will take care of once I get there’ athletes and explorers. And then to have them lumped together. The pushiness of the Australian expedition leader trying to incessantly force this “Club Med atmosphere” on the five of us wound us all up, which is painful on the surface of it, pressing on us his activity plans and unfortunately not managing a single sentence without joking about Penguin poop. Whereby "banter" is greatly exaggerated. Had he even some basic individual service and crisis management skills, he would have certainly been the last to become our best friend after the accident and failure of our (single) ski tour guide. The opposite is the case. We help ourselves out, and a feeling left in the lurch.
The fact that we are growing from the unexpected difficulties and certainly having the most fun of all here on the ship, we owe it to our basic attitude: we establish our home. Improvise well. We keep looking forward and only briefly back. We know our limits. We communicate well together. We say what we think and stick together. We have now become five true buddies...
All is good.
Stay tuned for our next episode or catch up on part one of this series. In the meantime you can visit Thomas Andreas Beck's blog or follow him on Facebook. Learn more about Andy' Holzer and his projects on his website.