Mawlers’ Big Adventure ’06:

The Mawlers Go Bi-polar

Yalour Islands Around-the-World Shot

Fast and Fit

So that leaves us here on the ship before arriving at Port Lockroy, a place that has been hyped up quite a bit for us, since it has a real honest-to-goodness post office.

Don, our expedition leader, calls a meeting of climbers and lays out our options. It seems we cannot do everything, since the laws of thermodynamics still apply. In point of fact, climbers who really want to climb cannot go to Port Lockroy, since this will be the day of the first climb.

Importantly, deciding whether to go to Port Lockroy or to go on the first climb leads to a whole series of decisions. Don writes it up on the board in great detail. The gist of it was this:

Port Lockroy
Jougla Point
OR Doumer Island
with two climbing groups:
  • Fast and Fit
  • Cruisers

The implication being that those with experience and stamina would go in one group, while those who wanted to enjoy a good strenuous hike could go in the other. Those in the "Fast and Fit" category would have an opportunity for a later, much more technical climb.

From this division followed one critical conclusion: If you wanted to go on the later, more technical climb, you needed to go on the first climb, so the guides could have a sense of your abilities. Seems sensible enough.

Perhaps it should have bothered us there there was only one actual climbing guide on this trip, not including Don, our well-qualified expedition leader.

Compare, if you will, the number of qualified climbing guides to the number of people in the climbing group, which was about 30. Okay, 2, divided by 30, is, uh... nevermind. Suffice it to say that this is not a good ratio. For what it is worth, we had another person on staff who, no doubt, has climbing experience, but whose main qualification derives from his study of penguins. Hardly a hard-core climbing guide.

Not to worry, though. We will be dividing into groups based on abilities and experience. After all, this is "NOT INTENDED TO BE AN INSTRUCTIONAL CLIMBING CLASS", so those with experience can move faster and more freely, right?

First, though, we had to have the inevitable discussion. You know what is coming next right?

"I'm fit, but not necessarily fast. Do I go in the first group or the second?"

Yup. We proceeded to spend the next 15 or 20 minutes discussing what Don meant by "Fast and Fit". Then, having tenuously established some definitions, there was the other "logical" question...

"If I go climbing, can I go to Port Lockroy?"

We leave it to you to determine the answer to this riddle.

Stuart, naturally, opted for climbing on Doumer Island, while Lea Ann decided that snow conditions were rotten, so communing with the penguins and sending the rare Antarctic postcard seemed like a better idea.

The morning dawned bright and clear, sending the climbers off in good spirits. However, things seemed amiss early in the excursion. The main problem was that people were not separated into teams based on experience. The information provided on the CV did not seem to factor into any sort of decision whatsoever.

In fact, the major element involved in selecting a rope team is probably the same element involved in selecting a checkout line at the grocery store. In the Mawlerverse, any line selected is the long line. We can opt for the line with only one person, who is holding a single avocado and still end up standing in line for a half an hour. Inevitably, the check out person has never heard of an avocado, the customer wants to pay with a personal check drawn in Thai Baht on an Icelandic bank, and the manager needs to be called from his/her smoke break at the neighboring Starbucks to put that little key in the machine and hit one button... You get the idea.

True to form, Stuart selected a rope team with not one, but two cruisers. Some of you are probably indignant at this point. Perhaps some of you were even on the trip and considered yourself cruisers and are thinking, "just who are these self-important yutzes writing this tripe!?". First off, the proper way refer to us is "the self-important yutzes in cabin 408, starboard side, across from the doctor's office". More importantly, we need to assure you that we have nothing against cruisers. That there were people on the climb who were cruisers is not the problem. Some of our best friends and family members are cruisers. Then again, some are destroyers. We don't seem to know many air craft carriers, but we digress.

The problem is that, despite our lengthy pre-climb discussion, no effort was made to separate the climbers by ability, experience, or any other category, making the whole excursion less successful for all categories of climber. The less able and experienced were pushed too hard, while the more experienced were not challenged enough.

Just how broad was the spectrum of climbing experience? Good question. While we did not have access to the CVs, we did a fair amount of talking with folks and found the following scale:

Absolutely No Experience

No knowledge of belay techniques
No rock climbing experience
Never used an ice axe
Never used crampons
Thoroughly Experienced

Ice Climbing Experience
Knows how to tie Prusik loops
Knows how to self-arrest

So, put another way, we had 30 people across the entire breadth of possible experience who wanted to climb in Antarctica. Strangely, those who brought their own equipment were not focused on either end of the spectrum. There were folks with zero experience who came fully equipped and those with significant experience who came with almost no gear. This seemed particularly odd, since mountaineering gear is notoriously expensive. We have the receipts to prove it.

In fairness, it is officially Disclosure Time. Since Lea Ann opted to forego climbing, let's focus on Stuart. What exactly is the experience of this over-inflated gas bag? Can he walk-the-walk, as well as talk-the-talk? In short...


While Stuart has not reached the top of any of the Seven Summits, he had the following experience prior to setting foot in Antarctica:

  • Successful summit attempts on several mountains in excess of 14,000 ft / 4200 m
  • Two successful summit attempts on snow pack and/or glaciers
  • Significant rock climbing experience, including
    setting top-rope protection
    tying a whole host of arcane knots
    rappelling / abseiling (including rappelling in crampons)
  • Some leading experience in sport climbing
  • Glacier travel in rope teams of three to five members, in crampons
  • Point position on rope team on descent from 14,000 ft / 4200 m
  • Some ice climbing at about 12,000 ft / 3600 m
  • Descent across hard ice on fixed ropes (much harder than you think)
  • Crevasse rescue training & experience
  • Self-arrest training & experience
This hardly makes Stuart an elite alpinist, but you might say he knows what he is doing.

In case you were wondering, the Seven Summits are the tallest peaks on all seven continents. You can read a bit more about the Seven Summits here.

Net result? We have about thirty people roped into four teams, carrying dangerous pointy objects (ice axes), wearing dangerous pointy shoes (crampons), and having almost no idea how to use these things. Just because you hand someone an ice axe does not mean they are any safer. In fact, climbing with an ice axe without any knowledge of how to use it is probably worse than climbing without one -- those things are dangerous.

So, was it a good climb?

Well... Some of the views were pretty good (as you will soon see). But we took way too long to reach the false summit, forcing us to retreat in deteriorating conditions. On the way back, the snow conditions were as bad as Lea Ann had predicted and the team essentially wallowed back to shore. We had some taste of what it feels like to be a penguin, crossing human tracks around their colonies. We certainly do not expect our expedition leaders to control either the weather or the snow conditions, but the summit may have been attainable for a faster, more experienced team, which could have run ahead of the clouds.

Fortunately, we still had one technical climb scheduled. However, without giving up too much of the ending, this would turn out to be the most extensive mountaineering excursion of the trip.

The previous installment:
A Climbing We Will Go!

The next installment:
Doumer Island Pictures

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All materials © 2006 Lea Ann Mawler & Stuart Mawler