Tribute and terror on skis in Antarctica
Text by Ben Shook | Photographs by Gabe Rogel
In the years since, Gabe has become a soft-spoken expert in the mountains. He has guided all over the globe with the American Alpine Institute, burnishing his craft in the Himalayas, Andes, Chugach, Tetons, and Alps. He now works as an action photographer, documenting extreme sports worldwide. Though we have gone in separate directions, Gabe and I manage to make some sort of mountain pilgrimage every year.
The Antarctica trip began with us skinning up a peak just outside Ushuaia, Argentina, above the Martial Glacier, working off a hangover. Because we'd agreed that I'd porter all the kite gear, Gabe had brought skis for both of us. As we climbed, I asked him about the older Black Diamond boards I was on. Gabe said that they'd belonged to the late Doug Coombs. I'd known that Gabe had skied with Doug, whose story gave me goose bumps.
Doug Coombs was a professional skier, self-effacing, high-energy, and famous for pioneering the sport of extreme skiing. In the spring of 2006, Gabe had taken a trip with him to Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. As they passed an area called the Meadows, Doug remembered that he'd stashed a pair of skis there earlier in the season. They spent almost an hour looking for them, to no avail, with Doug laughing the whole time.
Doug died not long after on a trip in the French Alps. He was with three friends, skiing a big line with several dog-leg traverses that open up over immense cliffs, when one of his crew fell off the edge. As Doug approached the edge to look for him, he slipped on the icy rock and fell to his death.
Each time Ted strikes the slope, his body releases an involuntary hybrid of groan and scream.
Ten days later, Gabe was back in Grand Teton National Park again. There was much less snow, so he went looking for Doug's skis. And he found them. "Those are the skis you're on," he told me.
In the couloir, the job of Doug's skis is to keep me alive. With each jump turn, I fall 15 feet and set my hip into the slope to check my speed. I'm not skiing as cleanly as Gabe, and a waterfall of hard snow plummets underneath me. I have the unmistakable feeling of engagement. I drop through the waist of the couloir and stop directly above Gabe, right at the granite tooth. I tap poles with my high school buddy, shaky and smiling. I turn to watch Sean maneuver through the chute, which now has less snow on it. He comes to a stop just above me, and I pat the back of his calf. He is also trembling, wearing a knowing grin.
Ted is still up on his platform. I have several half-formed thoughts: First, Ted is the only one of us on free-heel, or telemark, skis. Second, we have now scraped a lot of snow out of this couloir. And third, my and Gabe's eagerness to ski here has possibly eclipsed a critical question: Has Ted ever skied anything like this?
I cannot see Ted initiate his descent, but I know what is happening by watching Gabe's face. He is craning to look up the slope, and I see his expression transform to one of horror.
A week of dreamlike skiing did not prepare us for Ted's fall. Three days ago, we were dropped on a rocky beach on the south side of Spigot Peak, in the middle of a large chinstrap penguin colony of maybe 2,000 birds. As we schlepped our gear from the Zodiac, we were accompanied by a pod of crabeater seals, their thick shiny heads rooting about the boat. Surveying the jagged mountains, I thought, This is a crazy place to strap skis to your feet.
Six of us skinned up the low-angle glacier rising out of the Gerlache Strait, pushing toward a saddle that forks between several peaks. The weather cleared as we ascended, revealing sheer granite walls and falling glaciers, civilizations of ice and snow. It was an unbounded, insane environment, a kaleidoscope of repeating blue crevasses too lethal to stop to comprehend.
So we kept walking. We threaded a simple configuration of filled-in crevasses, snow-bridge keystones spanning fathoms of blue light. Sometimes we stole a glance into the darkly evolving luminescence. The ice reminded me of skin, sometimes cracked and old, sometimes buttery smooth. I saw animal shapes in it, faces, a storm trooper's helmet, my dad pruning an apple tree, an automobile.
We made the ridge by noon. The view opened up over another huge bay as well as onto the interior of the peninsula, where stacked ice floes and glaciers seemed to topple upward, stepping up to an ice plateau several thousand feet thick.
The place seemed invented, as strange as fiction. Then our group separated, some returning to the shore and the penguin colony. Gabe and I showed Sean a minor peak we wanted to ski on the way down. He pulled ahead of us, and then several yards up he removed his skis and started kicking steps up the slope. Meanwhile, Gabe and I kept disagreeing about the degree of exquisite, surreal beauty here. In the midst of what I can only call bliss, I sensed the presence of my dead friend Jon, and likewise felt the ghost of the man who had ridden the skis beneath my feet.
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