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15 years ago, I was on the most remote place in the world

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storm on Peter I island

I have done plenty of crazy stuff in my life, but a few adventures stand out.

Exactly 15 years ago, I was on what is called “the most remote place in the world”, an Antarctic island called “Peter I”. It was remote, even to Antarctic standards: three days sailing from the nearest South Pole base and 1,000 miles away from the nearest hospital. 1,000 miles of frozen sea and drifting ice bergs.

Antarctica with Peter I Island

It took our expedition team 6 days to get there, departing with an ice breaker from the Falklands – by itself not known to be the most frequented tourist destination.

When we landed on Peter I, we were only the third team to ever put foot on the island. Imagine that: there had been more people and more landings on the moon than on that island.

15 years ago, to the date according to my diary, we had the roughest storm ever. I described it in this short story.

Peter on Peter I

This was crazy stuff. The mere size and financial risk of the expedition, the logistical challenges, the nightmares in battling the snow blizzards hoping nobody would get hurt, and that (please God!) the tents would hold up…

But the real nutty stuff was that we had no clue how were were going to get back to the civilized world. A one way ticket to the most remote place on the planet, it seemed…

We had chartered a Russian research vessel to pick us up (see this short story), but they would only go as far as King George island, in the North of the Antarctic.

How we were going to get out of King George, was still a logistics puzzle we had not resolved when we landed on Peter I.

Desperate situations required drastic measures, so while still on the island, we chartered a C130 plane from the Uruguayan air force, through a company in Punta Arenas (Chili).
Over short wave radio, we made deals with the charter company to put day-trip tourists on the plane, splitting the charter fee with us. To cover the remaining costs, we had to sell all our tents and survival gear on King George island before the plane flew us to Southern Chili.

Honey, I chartered a plane... Our C130 on King George island

That was 15 years ago. Two months after I (eventually) got back to Belgium, I did my first mission as a humanitarian aid worker. And another series of crazy adventures started.

My three expeditions to the Antarctic and the Pacific are recorded in this eBook. It’s in Dutch, but try the translate widget in the side bar. Enjoy!

Written by Peter

February 7th, 2009 at 2:28 pm

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Shit No Go, We No Go!

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Our camp on Peter IIt has been three days now. For three days we are huddled with seven people in the last of two tents we still have up. Two of us sleep on the kitchen table, the rest of either in a chair or on pieces of luggage which we stacked in the corner of what once was our kitchen tent. The other tent is full with our personal gear. All the rest of our equipment is crated and lined up near the helicopter landing site.

When the Akademik Fedorov, our Russian pick-up vessel (the largest in the Antarctic by the way!) arrived at the island three days ago, the sky was covered. After they landed their big Mil-8 helicopter near our expedition camp, we loaded it up as much as we could, but the mist came in from above the sea and in minutes. The visibility turned real bad. So bad that the pilot had to fly on radar trying to find the ship back. The evacuation was aborted then. Three days we are now waiting to get off the Antarctic. On the ship, a few miles off shore, hot showers and proper meals are waiting for us. But it could just as well have been thousands of miles away, so un-obtainable it seems to us.

Sleeping crampled in the kitchen tent. Ralph found the best spot: the kitchen table!And each day we wake up, we hope for the fog to clear up, but it does not. Luckily it does not storm anymore. For weeks on end, we have been fighting against the storm, the snow, the cold, and now, everything seems quiet outside. Dead quiet. Since we landed here, the only sign of life we have seen is a few birds which seem to nest at the bottom of the glacier, hundreds of meters below our camp. The only connection to the ‘other side’ of the world, the ship, we have, is our radio.

Willy’s voice comes crackling through the speaker. “Peter I, this is Fedorov, over”. Ralph takes the microphone, and answers the call. “Sorry, still no chance for helicopter flights”, says Willy.. Martin and him are the only two from our crew of nine who got onto the one and only flight we Two remaining sheltershad to the ship. Three days ago. Three days. We are bored. After the excitement of landing on the island, building up the camp, setting up the radio stations, and in two weeks, breaking the world record – we made 62,000 radio contacts from this island, 10,000 more than the previous record- and the excitement of the first sight of the Fedorov, our pickup vessel, we have nothing to do anymore, but to wait. Wait for the weather to clear up. Reading a bit, making coffee, eating some of our survival rations, sleeping, reading, eating,… We can not do much else. But to look at the grey sky of course.

The Mil-8 helicopter from the Akademik Federov is landing. See the orange smoke?In the afternoon, as by miracle, we start to see a faint sun through the clouds. The cloud cover becomes patchy. Would there be a chance? Willy calls us on the radio saying they will give it a go. As if we were bitten by a snake, everyone jumps up, and gets dressed. Indeed the clouds are breaking up. At times we can even see the sea. Somewhere the ship is there.
Half an hour later, we hear the roaring noise from the big helicopter. We fire up a smoke signal, and turning the low hanging clouds into orange. The pilot spots the signal and very slowly descends, touching down onto the snow. As by magic, the clouds disappear. While the pilot keeps the turbine generators running, the back doors open up, and the heli crew jumps out. They make signs we have to hurry. We drag boxes, crates, bags towards the helicopter, and stuff as much gear as we can into the haul. Half an hour later, they lift off.

We take a break, hoping the weather stays clear. And it does. In no time, the gray-orange helicopter hovers above our camp again, approaching our landing site. Again we drag all we can, The Mil-8. But you also see how foggy it is!as fast as we can to the helicopter. Some stuff is too heavy to carry, so we drag it over the snow, pushing and pulling with all the weight we have, with all the force we can handle. If we don’t make use of this break in the weather, god knows when the next opening would come.

Digging out cratesAnd we have plenty of gear. Tons of it. Masts, tents, antennas, boxes of radio equipment, personal stuff, left-over food rations, heaters, fuel barrels, gas bottles, generators, tools. All of it is carried, dragged, to the helicopter.
Three hours and several flights later, there is nothing left, but two tents and a survival kit. Now is the critical moment. If we take down our last two tents, we have no more shelter. If a storm comes up, we will have real difficulties to set it up in the wind. Would almost be impossible to put Loading up the cargo haul of the helicopterthe huge heavy-insulated covers over the metal frames. Ralph, our expedition leader, looks at the sky. “Let’s do it. Let’s break it up”, he shouts. Like animals we ‘attack’ the shelters. In no time, the covers, frames, wooden floors are all dismantled and stacked up, bagged and tied.

The last helicopter flight comes in. We stack all material in it. The last things to go are the white trash bags, with our human waste. We promised the Norwegian authorities who gave us the landing permit for this isolated island, we would take everything off. And everything has to go. Even the human waste. The pilot looks at the bags we carry. He opens one of them and looks inside.. With a disgusted face, he says “Njet”, making signs as if we are crazy. We start a discussion. In the end, I shout, trying to lift my voice above the noise of the engine turbines, in my most simple English: “Shit no go, we no go!”.. The pilot smiles, and gives in. We dump the bags of frozen waste into the helicopter, and get on board. The engines rev up and the huge propellers start turning, chopping into the air. With a deafening sound, the huge thing lifts up, and before we know it, we hover several meters above the ground.

Through the small windows, we gaze at our camp site below. There is nothing left to witness our presence on the island. Nothing but our footprints and two square imprints of where our last two shelters stood, soon to be wiped away with the fresh snow. Soon our presence will be covered, erased from this island’s memory.

Is this symbolic to our presence in the world? Is all of it just temporarily setting our footprints on the earth’s surface, and the moment we go, the moment we leave this existence, those prints are wiped away, to be forgotten? We come, think we can conquer it all, but still, all is temporarily… As I look at the pensive faces of my companions, I smile… At least on this ride, we also took our shit with us! Hopefully they will not ask that from us when we go to heaven. And if so, would St.Peter at heaven’s gate have the same look on his face as the pilot? And would we answer the same to him too: “Shit no go, we no go?”

Group picture from the 1994 Peter I expedition. All a memory now.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

November 4th, 2007 at 11:33 am

Once Upon a Fine Antarctic Morning…

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nice dark sunset peter I

I kind of wake up. I don’t really want to wake up. I just want to sleep. My body and mind are tired. Tired of days on end working, battling against the snow, wind, cold. Fresh snow slips through the small opening I make in my sleeping bag, trying to take a peek at the inside of the tent. I see the dim light through the tent cover, but that is no indication of time. It is always light this time of the year on the Antarctic. My watch tells me it is 5 o’clock. I have to think a while if that would be 5 AM or 5 PM.. Hmmm, AM it is. Soon my shift will start. I have to get up, but my body refuses. I stare at the side of the tent.

The sleeping tentThe storm started yesterday evening, and is still blowing in full force. It pushes and pulls violently on the sides of our Weatherhaven tents as if it is trying to get rid of it. The thick nylon cargo lashes we pulled over the tents vibrate in the wind as if they were huge strings. The storm howls and roars as if it were nature’s way to say “you guys don’t belong here”. It is true, we don’t belong here. It has only been 60 years since the first people set foot on this godforsaken island near the Southpole. There have been more people on the moon than here, on Peter I island. People should not be here. Living creatures don’t belong here. This is a land of ice, an Antarctic desert.

I pull one hand out of the sleeping bag and brush off the fresh layer of snow which was blown into the tent. No matter how much we tightened the tent cover, the snow always finds a way in. The two meter high half-cylindrical frames move with each new violent pull from the storm. Most of our clothing hangs lined up on cloth hangers. They swing slowly on the frames. It looks Getting dressed in the morning: Strip one layer and put 5 other layers on...like a line-up at the dry cleaners… We are far away from the nearest dry cleaner. Apart from our group of nine expeditioners, we are more than one thousand miles away from other human beings… I pull myself up, and sit on my cod. It is freezing. Must be minus five or ten degrees Centrigrade inside the tent. We don’t dare to light the heater anymore, after the small fire we had a few nights ago. Shivering, I unzip my thick thermal underwear, and put on several layers of polar fleeces, thermal longjohns, and then the Goretex outerwear, thick socks and my leather boots, a cap and a hat, ski goggles and two layers of gloves. There is no part of my body uncovered. With the wind blowing that hard, the windchill drops the temperature down to minus 80 Centigrade outside. Any uncovered piece of skin freezes in no time. A few days ago, we had problems with one of the radio antenna masts. Trying to fix some bolts, I was stupied enough to pull off my gloves so I could fit the nuts onto the bolts. I grabbed hold of the mast with my bare hand and instantly, my skin frooze to the mast. It took three of us breathing onto my hand to melt it off the damned metal.

Willy gets dressed too. Our shift is about to start. A new day is born. The morning shift goes to work. Well almost, as the outer zipper from our tent cover is froozen. I can’t use my lighter as it would melt the plastic. Willy pulls some bags of active carbon from his pocket, shakes it to get it heated up, and holds it against the zipper to warm it up. It takes at least half an hour to move the zipper half a meter. As by miracle, all of a sudden, with a firm pull, the damned cover unzips, and a wall of snow falls into the tent. We are too tired to curse. We know this can happen. Our life here consists mostly of battling against the wind and the snow. The only thing we can see through the half-open tent cover, is a wall of snow. It must be at least three meters high. Trying Picture taken the morning afternot to spill too much of it into the tent, we delve into it, trying to get out. The snow is soft and provides no grip. We have to firm it up by kicking it with our boots. We can only “feel” we are out, but can not “see” anything to confirm it. The wind bites us in the face. Everything is dim grey-whitish in the faint light. Visibility is nil. Totally nil. Ziltch. The snow beneath us, the snow blown up by the howling wind, the sky, all white.

On our belly, we pull ourselves up, and slide down the snowpile which has formed around our tent. When I stand up, I sink up to my waist into the snow. It is light. The snow below is almost as air, so thin, so… well air-y. Walking is almost impossible. We wade through the snow. With some efforts, but at the same time, everything around us is almost psychedelic, making us numb of any physical feeling. This is what they call a white-out. The snow below, the snow blow up by the storm, the air, the ground. Everything has the same shade of white. I tumble over my own feet, and fall. But it is even hard to tell that I fell. There almost no difference in the density of the snow in the air and the snow on the ground. I fall like onto an airy cushion of white. My goggles get covered up, and my own breath sets moister onto it. Makes it even more difficult to see anything. I am floating. A light gaiety wraps around me, I laugh. I am floating. Unaware if I am laying down or standing up. Am I feeling the resistance of the snow on the ground, or the resistance of the wind pushing onto my body? The layer upon layer of special clothing keeps my body warm, makes a protective shell around me, making me even less aware of my surroundings. I float. I laugh. I am flying. Gliding through the whiteness. I could be meters up in the sky, or just wading through snow, I do not know. I.. I just float. Without knowing, I become desorientated. There is no trace of any of the crates we have stacked around our tents, nor of the cables. I see no tents, not even shades of them. Through the howling of the wind, I still hear the faint noise of the generators, and turn my head trying to find a bearing, purely on the noise, but the wind disperses even that. Even the noise comes from everywhere. This is surreel. A dream.

I start walking, wading through the snow to what I think is the direction of the kitchen tent. A dozen yards further, someone pulls me from the back. Willy. He pulls my head close to his mouth, and shouts ‘Are you nuts? Where are you going to?’. I can hardly hear his voice through the storm. I stretch my arm to give an indication of where I am going, but Willy waves his hand. ‘No! It is that way, come’. By myself, I had wondered a hundred meters from the camp, straight into the area we know is full of crevasses. If Willy had not stopped me, I might have disappeared. Nobody would have found me in time. And I would not have been able to get out by myself, tumbling down ten, maybe a hundred meters down the ice caves of the glacier we put our camp on.

Hand in hand, Willy and I make our way to one of the generators. In our efforts to keep them ice and snow free, we tried everything. Our latest experiment was to build a wall of crates around them, but still the snow getss into the sheltered hole. Luckily as we keep the engines running, their heat melts off anything. The disadvantage is that the heat also has the generators dig One of the generators. This one actually stalled and froze up in half an hourthemselves into the snow. The glacier is hundreds of meters thick here, so they still have some way before they literally hit rock bottom. The disadvantage though is that it makes a hell of a challenge trying to service them, or fill them up with gas. I crawl over the wall of crates and jump into the hole. Willy hands me the jerry cans, and I flip the lid open, put the funnel into the generator’s gas tank and pour the gas in it. The wind sprays the fuel all over my legs, and hands. I can smell the fumes. I have to be careful as the generator is hot. If I spill too much, the whole thing will go off in flames. Willy crawls into the hole and makes a joint between the jerry can’s lid and the gas tank. “Pour!”, he shouts, trying to lift his voice above the wind and the deafening noise of the generator. And I pour. Thinking how much I hate this ‘morning duty’ to refill the gensets. And this is only one. We have four of them. But still, I love it. I love this challenge. I love to find my own limitations, I love to face my own fear and laugh at it, in the face. I love doing this, this expedition, that people said to be impossible. I love to laugh in their face. Even as a new blow of wind sprays fuel all over me.

One of the working tents, after we cleared the snowAn hour later, we unzip the opening of the working tent. In the small space of 2.5 by 2.5 meters, three guys are sitting, working on the radio. They have the gas heater on, and are sweating in their Tshirt. They are concentrated trying to decypher the radio messages, and only look up at the distraction of two people crawling into their oasis of heat. Willy and I look alike. All covered up with patches of froozen snow, mucus dangling off our nose, damped ski goggles and smelling like we fell in a petrol pump. We pull off our caps and goggles, and smile at our team mates. “Goooooood moooooooooooorninggggg Vietnaaaaaaaaaaaaam!”, we laugh… A new day is born on Peter I. The most isolated island in the world. How we love this life.

Another Fine Antarctic Morning. At least on that one, we could SEE something!

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

Written by Peter

October 29th, 2007 at 10:49 am

On Earth As It Is In Heaven

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Peter I Island - Antarctica, view offshoreSaturday January 29, 1994.
Off the coast of Peter I island, Antarctica

For days now, we have been sailing in between icebergs. Each of them has its own micro-weather system. It looks as if each of them is a little island on its own, each with its own private cloud. The white from the ice, and the white from the clouds above them contrasting very little from the grey sea and the grey overcast clouds much further above it all. Everything is a shade of grey and white. No colours, just shades.
We are getting anxious. Today, after two years of preparation, after two years of logistical challenges, fierce discussions with the Russian Antarctic Division on the chartering of their boats and helicopters, we will arrive at our destination: Peter I Island in the Antarctic, appropriately called ‘the most isolated place on Earth’. There have been more people on the moon than on this island. We were to be the first crew ever to remain on the island without a support ship staying off shore. We almost cancelled the trip several times. Problems with funding, cargo shipments, and above all the endless problems with our transport. It looked hopeless just 14 days before we left, as the Russians wanted to cancel the pick up ship. I had to fly over to St.Petersburg and renegotiate the contract with them.
But now, this is all past. Now, we are standing on the bridge of the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker converted to a tourist cruise ship touring the Antarctic, looking at the scenery at the edge of the world. Our expedition crew of nine, is almost like one of the many attractions for the sixty tourist passengers on the boat. Over the past two weeks since we left Port Stanley in the Falklands, they have been asking us endless questions about our expedition. The Japanese took pictures of us like we were the 8th wonder of the world..

The weather closes in, a slight fog comes in. The sea closes in too, no more water, the surface is completely covered with ice. Slowly, the Kapitan Khlebnikov pulls itself onto the ice and breaks it apart. The cracking of the ice sounds like fierce artillery shelling as the shelves give in to the mere weight of the ship. Sounds echo bounce off the fog.

Very slowly, as we get out of the grey foggy sky, the grey ice covered sea, out of the grey void, specks of black appear. It takes endless minutes before we realize this is not a mirage in the ice desert, we are not imagining this.. We can clearly see pieces of black rock appearing. We have arrived. As by magic, all of sudden, the fog lifts. In one minute, the bright sun pops through and shows us the island in all its glory, 1,700m high. To the north of the island, a long and wide glacier, hundreds of meters high, spreads out and then breaks off with a straight vertical drop, into the sea. This glacier will be our home for the next weeks.

We are spread all over the ship, sweating in our Arctic weather gear, as we pull crates, drag bags of personal stuff and roll barrels of fuel into the helicopter hanger at the aft of the ship. With walkie-talkies, we coordinate the lifting of our cargo from the ship’s hold. There is nothing on the island, so we had to bring shelters, generators, fuel, cooking gear, food, emergency kits with us, in total about ten tons of supplies.

The two small Mil-2 helicopters are being prepared on the helicopter deck. For months now, we have been telling the ship’s crew they had to ensure the helicopters had a cargo hook system, as some of our crates are just too big to be put inside. The Russian pilots always said ‘No problaam’. They just took off the two side doors, put a huge rope through both and put a big knot in the middle. ‘No problaam’.. I hope not. As they hook on half a ton of cargo below, there is no way to release the cargo in case something goes wrong.

One Mil-2 starts its engine, idling the propellers. Bob and Terry, who have the most experience with glaciers, get in, and are ferried to the island. The lack of perspective, of references, in the panorama, has us underestimate the distance to the island and its height. We are alone in this icy world. Only us, and the island. And one helicopter with our two crew on board disappearing in the void. It takes thirty long minutes before we hear the crackling voice from Terry on the walkie-talkie ‘Khlebnikov, this is Peter I, we have landed’.. Ralph, our expedition leader, answers ‘Ok, we will get the second helicopter in the air. Let’s start to get this show on the road. Mark the landing area for the choppers as we agreed last night’.

For the next hours, the two choppers ferry our cargo and crew. I remain as the last one on board to ensure all the crates are lifted in the right sequence. Emergency survival kits first, in case the landing has to be aborted due to a change in the weather. Then a tent kit, a generator, food and cooking gear, followed by the personal stuff. I tag the crates on my list as they lift off.

The ship’s cook has put up a barbeque on the bow. The tourists took deck chairs to sit and watch all the activity as if it was a spectacle set up for them. A circus of helicopters and cranes, balancing crates and barrels . I guess we are an interesting sight.. After all, this is only the third time ever someone will land on this island… But the tourists are an interesting sight also. Almost surreal. A group of tourists from all over the world, sitting in deck chairs, eating barbequed sausages and lamb, in the middle of the absolutely ‘nowhere’.

After three hours, all of a sudden, there is no more cargo, and it is time for me to go. I wave at the tourists, shake hands with the ship’s captain and first mate, thanking them for a job well done, and get into the helicopter, in between bags of clothes and crates of food. We lift off and join the other chopper which has been circling the ship, waiting for us. It has a big cargo load swinging slowly in a net below. Together, we circle the ship for the last time as a sign of goodbye, and parallel to eachother, slowly fly towards the island.It is at this moment, the music which has been in my imagination for two years now, really comes blasting out. While watching the Khlebnikov shrinking and the island growing, towering almost above us, both helicopters are only two specs in the eternal emptiness of the Antarctic, the soundtrack of ‘The Mission’ plays in my head. ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’, the title track. You should try it… And close your eyes imagining what I see at that very moment, and feel what I feel. For this expedition, I quit my job and worked for a year. But despite all the preparation, the real work was only to start now. Here and now. We are here to set world records, to set examples on radio operations, to experiment with new technology. From this remote place in the world, we will talk to tens of thousands of people all over the world.

We touch down on Peter I, and I jump out. My boots sink in knee deep snow. The second chopper drops the net, just above the ground. While lifting off, the pilot blinks his landing lights, and rocks the chopper in a short left-right, as to say good bye.

And suddenly, suddenly, after all the hectic activity, the shouting trying to raise our voices above the screaming sounds of the helicopter engines, the frantic to and fro of shifting crates on the boat, suddenly… as the last chopper disappears, there is no sound anymore. Everyone realizes it at the same time. We stop doing whatever we are doing. Bob and Tony with hammers in their hands as they put the plywood for the tent together, Ralph with the craw bar opening the crates. Martin and Tony on their knees, setting up a generator. Suddenly everyone stands up, as if in a prayer. A prayer for the silence which surrounds us. For a moment, only the muffled sounds ‘zwomkrr, zwomkrr’, of our boots in the snow, but then it all stops. There is nothing. nothing. nothing… This is the void… We are standing with a big white mountain behind us, looking over a 250 degrees panorama of the white ice sea, with the Khlebnikov just a tiny speck deep and far away, and the helicopter disappearing towards it. The “voidness” of the panorama, even if it is dotted with huge icebergs, which are only small dots or snow flakes from where we are standing. The grey-white of it all. And the lack of sound as it is absorbed by the huge glacier, and disappears into the thin freezing cold air. This is truly the most isolated deserted place on Earth. There is nothing here. Just us, nine people and some thirty crates. Just us, alone in the world. Alone in the void, in the white grey. This moment, I know, will last in my memory for ever. Of this moment I will tell my grandchildren while holding them on my knee, forty or fifty years from now. This moment, I realize: if there is a heaven, this is how it must feel. This moment, we are in paradise. We all look at eachother. Tears roll over our cheeks. We know we are sharing a moment where it is ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’.

Continue reading The Road to the Horizon’s Ebook, jump to the Reader’s Digest of The Road.

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Written by Peter

January 11th, 2007 at 4:05 pm