Tribute and terror on skis in Antarctica
Text by Ben Shook | Photographs by Gabe Rogel
Ted's free fall is under way for several seconds before he comes into view, tumbling head over heels and traveling so fast that each time he leaves the earth, he drops another 25 feet down the couloir, scalloping the snow. As he tomahawks past me, my only thought is of the granite island in the plumb line of his descent. Each time he strikes the slope, his body releases an involuntary hybrid of groan and scream. I guess that he's traveling at around 60 or 70 miles per hour. He flies out of view behind the rock and continues down the second half of the couloir until I can only hear him falling.
Then, silence. I scream his name. Nothing. Gabe stops me from descending and insists on going first. During my metered turns down after that—not knowing whether I am skiing to retrieve a body—I again remember where we are and that no Argentine first-response helicopter is likely to fly 800 miles across the Drake Passage for anybody.
When I reach the two of them, Ted is sitting up, blinking like a penguin. I ask him the basic concussion questions and about his neck. Then I perform a general body scan. There is something wrong with his ankle, and his face and head look like he has just come from a pub brawl. The fall has stripped him of his skis, gloves, poles, helmet cam (which is still filming), and backpack—even his jacket. Gabe and I look up at the divots where Ted hit the slope and see that he missed the granite island by inches. Not only is Ted not dead; he also appears to have escaped serious injury. I hug him, holding back tears.
We were not just here—which would have been enough—we were skiing here. Maybe this is heaven? I wondered.
Back at the ship, Gabe and I find Ted in his cabin with his broken ankle suspended in a jerry-rigged harness-and-webbing invention affixed to the little bookcase over his bed. He is in amazingly good spirits that only improve after a couple of beers. With rapt attention we watch the helmet-cam footage of the fall. We talk about what happened and all agree that we made a collective mistake by suppressing our anxiety up there.
The next day, the Ioffe leaves the mainland peninsula, which gives me my only chance to kitesurf. I have a good 30 minutes before my drysuit blows a gasket, filling with 32-degree water. Soon after I take a hot shower, we make our last landing, on one of the South Shetland Islands, where I sit and observe. I find a quiet, though windy, place in a large chinstrap colony. After an hour of watching the penguins' comic behavior as they build their nests and prepare for the coming eggs, I become overwhelmed by a sense of fortune.
Years ago, when I lived in Paris, I would go to St. Eustache church every Sunday afternoon for the free organ concert. At the time, the organist didn't really play church music, but rather Bach fugues, Chopin etudes, Beethoven sonatas. They sounded unreal on that organ, one of the largest in the world. Beethoven's galloping, pounding bass octaves push you around. They require huge compression bellows, huge wind. One afternoon when I was there, I noticed a woman crying uncontrollably, her body contorting in paroxysms of sorrow. I basically knew what had happened to her. The only time in my life I have cried like that—one time—was at Jon Sanders's funeral.
With that memory of the weeping woman and the organ pipes framed by the penguins' affirmation of life, I recall a moment a few days earlier when we followed Sean up that minor peak. He was at the top, under the ridge cornice, chiseling out an attic door of sorts in the snow overhanging the slope we planned to ski. By the time Gabe and I arrived, Sean had fashioned a portal through the cornice. We climbed up, and it was as if we had taken an elevator through the ceiling of the world, with another dizzying view of that immense, clean, quiet museum. And we were not just here—which would have been enough—we were skiing here.
Maybe this is heaven? I wondered. Gabe and I looked at each other, and I thought, Perhaps this is the best way to love those who have gone before us: Go into the wild. It's the only place that could hold people like Doug Coombs and Jon Sanders, and that has wind enough to power the largest organ on Earth, blowing a song for your friend.
Jon and Doug are not dead. They are here. I know that if Jon would permit himself to dwell somewhere, anywhere, it would be right here. And we get to be here with him, with each other, for just a minute.
Then we do what the living do: Go back down.
Ben Shook lives in Portland, Oregon.