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Heaven Is Made of Ice

Tribute and terror on skis in Antarctica

Text by Ben Shook | Photographs by Gabe Rogel

My muscles clench as I stare 1,000 feet down the nameless 55-degree couloir we've just climbed. I'm on a narrow platform of hard snow that took me 15 minutes to chisel with my ice tool. Above our small party is a massive cornice; below, walls of granite plunge to form an hourglass with a waist 12 feet wide. The couloir funnels onto a large island of rock, making our planned ski descent a no-fall proposition. Five hundred feet beneath the rock, the chute spits over a bergschrund and then opens onto a glacier and sweeps down to the Errera Channel—full of icebergs and brash. Our waiting ship is just out of sight behind an icy headland to the south.

I nervously rehearse, acting out dropping through the couloir on my skis. My friend Gabe Rogel carefully steps off his platform, testing the three or four inches of Styrofoam snow over boilerplate ice. He initiates his descent with a jump turn, sending streamers of hardpack cascading down the chute. They disappear through the bellows and tinkle ominously against the rock island.

Gabe initiates his descent with a jump turn, sending streamers of hardpack cascading down the chute.

Gabe drops fast, linking his turns. I'm momentarily distracted from my anxiety. I can see that in the years since high school, Gabe has become an artist. And then he's standing safely under the granite. My anxiety returns—not just for myself, but for the two others with us, because Gabe has made it look easy. He and I were the ones who drove the bargain with our Kiwi guide, Sean, to climb and ski this couloir. And though Ted (our fourth) seemed keen to do it, I'm feeling a tickle of doubt. I am also truly aware for the first time—now many hours away from our ship's opiate of comfort—that we are in Antarctica.

 

Gabe and I have traveled to the bottom of the globe with One Ocean Expeditions, which has chartered the Akademik Ioffe. Russian-owned, with a crew of 43, it is an incredibly stout, ice-reinforced, 360-foot, six-deck, 13-million-pound steel fortress. Designed as a scientific research vessel, the Ioffe is transporting marine scientists, ornithologists, penguin researchers, mountain guides, photographers, an Antarctic historian, a physician, and a contingent of just-curious adventurers across the Drake Passage from South America to the polar continent. Gabe and I have come to take part in One Ocean's ski-touring program and, as long as we're here, to test kitesurfing in Antarctic waters.

Gabe and I became friends 20 years ago in high school, when we started climbing with the Spokane Mountaineers. On our own we explored the North Cascades, the Canadian Rockies, and British Columbia's Bugaboos. And though our deep fraternity was built through the church of climbing, it became stronger still one early-summer night on our way to an end-of-the-school-year party.

I was stoned and drunk, cruising in a passenger van through the rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington; the kegger was way out of town. Halfway to our destination, police cruiser lights illuminated the van. Our friend Jordan snapped to attention and ordered the stowage of half-drunk beers and paraphernalia. But the cops ripped past us. We shrieked for joy, relieved that we weren't headed to juvie and still thinking that we were on our way to a party. Ten minutes ahead, however, things froze into a nightmare when we saw a familiar baby blue Travelall on its side, off the road. One of our buddies, Jon Sanders, had tumbled out the open back window, and the truck had rolled over him.

Within our small group of young climbers, Jon was unique. He had a dignity and gentlemanliness out of keeping not just with his age but also with the era. His death checked our sense of invincibility and made us more aware of the shadows lying just beyond our climbing risks.


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