Posted on: March 1, 2007
The good ship Northanger at 73 degrees N, West Greenland, en route to a 800-meter wall on Sanderson's Hope in 2001. A steel hull, retractable keel, wide beam and open cockpit make Northanger a highly effective approach vehicle for objectives at either end of the globe. Her owners, Greg Landreth and Keri Pashuk, are among the best high-latitude sailors in the world. [Photo] Jia Condon
I knew what they were going to ask when we got home—if we got home. "What grade was it?" Dumb thoughts like that tend to pollute your mind when you least need them. Christ! As if you can put a mere number on an experience like this, a life like this, and have it mean anything.
It was close on dark; the tip of my hat fluttered as the wind ripped just overhead. I perched in the lee of a steep spine and watched a spindrift plume rise from the summit, the sign of a full-on Antarctic gale. For a moment, I clung to the last vestige of solidity, Pitch 18 on Pt. 1050m, in the Wall Range, where the loose granite narrowed into fragile snow mushrooms.
The same wind was churning the Neumayer Channel, 2,000 feet below, into a froth. My wife, Keri, must have been fighting to keep our sixteen-meter steel ketch, Northanger, secure. The penguins that encircled the boat would be dozing, tailfeathers to the wind, oblivious to her nervous movements. If a bowline chafed through now, the wind would drive Northanger onto the rocks.
"Get on with it, Greg!" Jia Condon's words rose up amid the gale. "We're not in a good place here!"
A pitch below, Jia and Rich Prohaska cowered, heads down, beneath my frantic choppings into rime. Half the cornice had fallen away already; there was no protection between me and our marginal anchor.
"All right for him," I thought. One cramponned boot banged about for any sort of purchase. "Probably spent a hundred days last year climbing, while I was chipping the rust out of the bilges." But I'd lost the toss on this one, and it wasn't a climber's pitch anyway, the snow as foamlike as the crest of a wave. I swam upward like a drowning man. An image flashed into my head of the last time I'd seen Rick Thomas, the climber/sailor who'd led me into this existence: his lifeless body anchored to a mountainside, far above a different sea.
Suddenly my tools bit into the wind-packed surface of the summit plateau, and I dragged myself over the cornice lip. It was as though I were exiting Northanger's deck hatch into an all-out storm. As I fought to bring up Jia and Rich, the clouds cleared for an instant, and I looked back to catch a glimpse of Northanger, miles away in Port Lockroy, heeling from side to side in the gusts. She'd burrowed into a tiny niche among the rocks and was straining hard against her mooring lines. Everything was in motion, nothing fixed. This was true Northanger country—all we had was on the line. So much depended upon Keri's struggles to safeguard our floating base camp.
For the center must hold. There was no ticket home from here. We were home.
Thirty percent of our planet is land; the rest is water. Embedded at the edges, where the oceanic and alpine realms intersect, exist numerous peaks, thinly explored, barely described. There must be thousands of alpinists in the world, and God knows how many sailors, but only a vanishingly small number of people attempt to combine the two lifestyles in order to reach these last secret mountains.
In the early 1980s Northanger was being built in Faversham, England, for two Brits, Rick Thomas and Mike Sharp, who had worked for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Keri was a waitress in a Greek restaurant in Ontario, trying to make enough money to buy her first pair of skis. I was at Canterbury University in New Zealand, a mechanical engineer, fiddling with climbing, kayaking, hang gliding, when the two hard-bitten Englishmen sailed into Auckland, fresh from a successful mission to Mt. St. Elias. They put up a handwritten note on the bulletin board of the local climbing store, entreating people to join them on "a sailing trip to Antarctica for the purpose of mountaineering." A scruffy-looking photograph of a shiny red yacht in front of an ice cliff was tacked to the note, along with a scribbled phone number.
Thinking I might escape into the great elsewhere for a year or so before I subsided into professional life, I picked up the phone.
"Well, I've heard from a few people that want to go, but you sound like you'll do all right," Rick said, as if he were organizing a day trip to the beach. "Have you ever sailed before?"
"Well, no," I said.
"Never mind. I'm hoping to do a day sail or two around Auckland Harbor to sort out the crew before we go. More important that you can find your way about the mountains."
And so we went: Rick, I and four others. We never did get to do those practice sails.
By 1985, when Rick led us on that first voyage, seaborne exploration had become accessible for the first time to individuals with small, light boats. Among these new explorers was Himalayan alpinist Major Harold William "H.W." Tilman, who realized he could use the sea to access mountain ranges still labeled "terra incognita." At the age of fifty-five, he set off from England in his forty-five-foot pilot cutter Mischief on a series of remote alpine explorations. In 1966 he and his crew of hastily chosen misfits found themselves sloshing around the Antarctic Peninsula. After months of sailing—including a mutiny sparked by the loss of a crewmember—he finally sighted Smith Island. "Vaguely, through the murk, not much more than a mile away, we saw a white blur with a dense black rock to one side of it," he commented in Mischief Goes South. Much later, this "white blur," Mt. Foster, would become one of the major unclimbed objectives in Antarctic mountaineering.