Monday, July 02, 2001

The Last Place on Earth

If, like me, you like to travel, you're likely to be envious of those who journey to far away places you haven't visited. And yet, with availability of planes, trains and automobiles, fewer and fewer places are truly out of reach, given time and money. But there are still a couple. And so it was with great interest that I listened and gaped open mouthed as I heard the stories of Juan del Azar, Helen Doyle and Mike Pura of their journey south... so far south, in fact, that the next step would be to start heading north. Selected to be a part of Mission Antarctica's latest trek, they signed on partly for the experience and for the adventure, but also because they fell under the spell of Robert Swan.

Swan is a Brit who was the first man to walk unsupported to both Poles. Stemming from a childhood fascination with the great polar explorers, he and 2 mates trekked 883 miles through the cold in 1986 to reach the bottom of the world. Struck by the spectacular grandeur of the place, he was also disturbed by the refuse left there by those who had tried to develop it, particularly at the Russian base at Bellingshausen. It seems that the extreme cold and lack of humidity impedes any decaying process, resulting in the perfect preservation of scrap metal and garbage. He became determined to help clean it up and preserve it for future generations, seeing as it was one of the last places on the planet not claimed by anyone else.

To accomplish this, Swan founded Mission Antarctica. This organization seeks support and donations to clean up the refuse, as well as create awareness of this magnificent and critical natural resource, one that contains 70% of the world's fresh water supply. As part of that campaign, he solicits corporate sponsorship, which includes sending ordinary employees and citizens into one of the harshest environments on earth to see it all for themselves, and then come back to spread the gospel. And that's where Juan, Helen and Mike came in.

Sponsored by their employer, they met up with 6 other non-coms in Ushuaia, Argentina, to crew a 67-foot yacht under the tutelage of 3 professional sailors. Their 2-week odyssey began by heading through the Drake Passage, the roughest water on the planet. Roughly akin to learning how to climb by summitting Everest, or learning how to drive by steering a Formula One racer at Le Mans, they endured the 650 mile, 4-day transit in pounding seas, freezing temperatures, constant wind and incessant churning. Sick to a man, they finally emerged to towering icebergs and some of the most dramatic scenery in the world at King George Island and the Russian base.

A collection of prefab trailers and piles of rusting metal, Juan describes it best as "a real dump." Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, polar exploration and development has taken a very back seat, resulting in under funding and low morale. But the small crew stationed there for months at a time shoulders on, cutting old pipes and structures into manageable pieces, and creating an ever growing heap of orange steel that Swan hopes to begin removing next year on a future mission.

After meeting and touring the Russian base, the crew pushed on. A day of sailing brought them to Deception Island, a cratered active volcano. The "coast" of Deception is all lava, with hot springs and puddles sprinkled in the interior. Watch on the boat consisted of monitoring not just the wind and the tides, but the water temperature as well, looking for the telltale rising temperatures that might signal a new eruption.

Then another rush through 33 degree seas to Enterprise Island, close in to the Antarctic mainland. Mooring near a sunken, rusting whaling ship, they were struck by just how remote they were: the crew of that vessel didn't swim home or get picked up by the Coast Guard. They were truly in the middle of nowhere.

The crew split into two shifts for the 20-minute trip to the ice pack itself. While only Helen's group actually got to stand on solid ground (Mike and Juan's expedition got turned back by a blizzard), they all experienced gliding past breaching whales and paddling seals, any of which could upset their small inflatable Zodiac and send them plunging into the ice-strewn waters. They all use the same adjectives to describe it: cold, scared, humbled.

The next day the blizzard blew out and they journeyed to Paradise Bay and Port Lockeroy. Under crystal blue skies and in utter silence, they skirted mammoth ice shelves and towering mountains. The nearly 1500 images they and their fellow travelers brought back reveal monumental vistas, so clear and crisp they take your breath away. And once you realize that the photos probably don't do the scenes justice, you can only imagine what it's like to be there in person.

A visit to a penguin rookery, a glide along the coast, another harrowing passage back through the Drake, a stop at the landmark Cape of Good Hope, and they were back on terra firma. The organization's web site ( contains many more details and pictures, all of which add up to an amazing journey, as far removed from a Disney cruise as possible, and with sights and observations that cause you to shake your head in amazement.

In spite of the obvious description, Mike refuses to describe the trip as a "once-in-a-lifetime" sojourn. That's because once brought under the spell, it's hard to imagine never seeing it again. Sure, it's not your typical lie on the beach, walk through an art museum, see a show type of vacation. But once you see and hear what the end of the earth looks like and the awesome beauty of utter virgin territory, you start to truly believe that less is more, and that silence is golden.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would like to put more "been there" pins in his personal map. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

No comments: