The Spirit of Adventure

In my opinion, Indiana Jones and The Temple Doom is not a movie for six and seven year old children.  That said, it was Dad’s turn to watch the kids, Dad wanted to see the movie, and my six year old sister and I weren’t complaining. For children, everything is an adventure.  The simple pleasures in life that adults tend to forget––tying your shoes, going up an elevator, using the public bathroom––all still adventures in their own right. So one might imagine, for young impressionable children, a simple trip to the movies might resemble boarding a space vehicle bound for another planet.  And so it was for my sister, Lexie and I, in the summer of 1984.

Check out my giant head, and that weird levitating hand.

 Lexie and I pushed together against the heavy door, excited to enter the theater. Once inside, we were hit by the chill of well conditioned air, always a reprieve from the sweltering humidity of a Florida summer. The fresh popcorn caught our noses and we instantly yearned for the sweet fizzle of soda pop––Nectar of the Gods.  In the background, muffled sounds of laughter, cheers, and explosions filled us with a sense of eagerness, to get our seats and see what everyone was oohing and awing about. But first we would need to stare longingly through the glass cabinet at the over priced candy. Dad never got us any but we begged like dogs anyway.

  We entered the theater itself, which was larger than life, and took our seats as the lights dimmed. Indiana Jones, the savvy treasure hunter, appeared on seen.  About five minutes into the movie I realized what I wanted to be in life. That, of course, was Indiana Jones. As the movie continued, however, I started to change my mind.  They had to eat disgusting things like monkey brains and slithering unborn snakes. There were insects all over them, big, hairy ones; crawling in their cloths and squirming in their hair.  After a series of narrow escapes that left me trembling, they came to an overlook that allowed them to secretly witness a gruesome sacrifice. A satanic priest chanted excitedly to his entranced followers, “Gali ma, Gali ma, shuk dee day!” 

Lexie and I started to get scared. We could see for ourselves that the devil, was in fact, REAL. Then unexpectedly, the evil priest drives his hand into a man’s chest and rips out his beating heart. That sent Lexie and I over the edge and we both began whining.  Unbelievably, the man with no heart is still alive. And he’s being lowered into a pit of lava! As the man burns alive his still beating heart bursts into flames in the evil priests hands. This sent our whining up to a new level. Dad, who was really enjoying this part of the movie tried his best to ignore us but our whines soon turned into cries and then wails.  Dad could not ignore us now and I’m sure he was given some bad looks from audience members. Much to my father’s dismay, he had to take his two crying children out of the theater, where he explained what we saw wasn’t real (yea right Dad) and he was forced to take us home. 

  Back then, after every movie I saw, I tried to relive it in my backyard, me as the hero. The backyard of 3121 Hillside Lane was my personal jungle, the deck under the house my secret cave. Karate Kid was especially hard on Lexie and she soon stopped being my playmate but that didn’t dissuade me. I had a hearty imagination and would spend hours a day, by myself, pretending to be Indiana Jones deep in my cave under the porch.  I so badly wanted to have those kinds of adventures which I assumed only happened in the movies.

Fortunately, I was wrong.

  I am now 42 years old and I can tell you this- I STILL want to be Indian Jones.  Now I would never go so far as saying that I’m some elite adventurer and I would never compare myself to my childhood hero––Dr. Jones.  But I’ve had adventures and they’ve taught me this––adventuring isn’t easy. In fact, the life of an adventurer is actually quite hard. The ‘perils of the unknown’ right?  Where am I going to sleep for the night?  Where is my next grubstake going to come from?  How am I going to dodge this giant bowling ball?  The true adventurer will find out very quickly that his or her exploits are very rarely enjoyable experiences.  At least at the time. It’s not till the adventure is over and one is well fed, with a roof over head, do you come to appreciate the experience for itself.  In fact, over time, the bad experiences will very nearly be forgotten––the wet socks, hordes of mosquitoes, the heart-sinking realization of impending doom––all this will fade. 

  What I’m saying is that with all the hardship that adventures bring, they are worth it. I’m saying that I BELIEVE in adventure. This isn’t some religious innuendo, I’m saying adventure is a good thing.  It’s kept me young at heart, open minded, healthy. Adventures are about learning something about yourself and for god sakes enjoying life, right?

  I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many adventures, some fun, some not so fun.  I’ve traveled to exotic places and met some amazing people. But one of the most important things I’ve learned in life was at that tender age of seven, watching Indiana Jones with my Dad at the movies––you’ve got to put yourself out there, show some gumption, be willing to sacrifice. And the hardest part of any adventure is that first step into the unknown, beyond the comfortable, beyond the secure, just one scary step, beyond the backyard.

The Poisonous Plants of Puerto Rico

Carrasco in Foreground

It takes thousands of years for a rainforest to grow a proper canopy. A canopy with leaves so thick, not a single ray of light can penetrate to the forest floor. There is very little bushwacking when walking through primary rainforest, as there is not enough light to support vegetative growth below. 

One mile an hour. That’s how fast a person can travel through primary jungle with a healthy canopy. That may sound slow but it’s actually quite fast. Most hikers would have a hard time traveling at two mph on a maintained trail in Colorado. 

Puerto Rico’s rainforest got annihilated during Hurricane Maria and the leaves from the jungle canopy were ripped away by winds exceeding 150mph. Suddenly, the understory was exposed to sunlight for the first time in possibly hundreds of years. The foliage underneath began to grow in unison, exponentially, each species competing with another, growing taller, faster, taking up every available inch of real estate. Suddenly, walking through the jungle became a very real challenge. You’d better have a machete and you’d better know your plants––because some of them are quite sinister. 

When I first started jungle-bashing (primarily looking for caves) I thought it might be a good idea to see if there was poison ivy in Puerto Rico as I am highly allergic to it. A quick internet search simply produced a ‘No.’ But I wasn’t asking the right questions, you see. I should have asked: What plants in Puerto Rico are worse than poison ivy? Well, I found out the hard way. Here is a list of the worst.

Carrasco (Guao)– This is the worst poisonous plant you will find in Puerto Rico. Its related to poison sumac but its effects are much worse to those who are affected. If you have had reactions to poison ivy or its relatives, beware of this plant! The leaves look like holly– albeit, less festive.

Carrasco. New Growth
Mature Carrasco

The oil on the leaf is powerful and will react to the skin causing large blisters after 2-3 days of exposure. It can resemble a chemical burn and is extremely itchy.

Blisters from Carrasco Exposure

Making this plant especially nasty are the barbs on the leaf, which can pierce through clothing and inject the skin. If exposed to this plant, be sure to wash thoroughly with soap and water. I have been told that applying rubbing alcohol to the affected areas will neutralize the urushiol in the plant’s sap, although this has not seemed to help me.

Carrasco ‘trees’

Extremely hot showers will intensify the itching but provide some relief once the affected areas are scalded. An over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl or Claritin can help reduce the reaction. A steroid shot (like Solu-Medrol) is a last resort although extremely effective. Most doctors on the island will have no knowledge of Carrasco. Apparently jungle-bashing isn’t a popular pastime here. Your best defense against this plant are long sleeves and pants, gloves, thick socks or gaiters. I double layer––which is almost unbearable in the heat––but preferable to three weeks of itching.

Chicharrón (Christmas-Bush, Cocks Spur, Poison Ash)

Chicharrón

Often confused with Carrasco, Chicharrón is another poisonous plant similar in appearance to Carrasco, although the leaves are smaller, cupped, and often reddish in color.

The word chicharrón is used for a type of Puerto Rican street food of deep fried pork skin which resembles the wound this plant can inflict. It grows well in dry areas and is common in Guanica State Forest.

Treatment is the same as Carrasco.

Stinging Nettles (Ortiga Brava)

This native plant can grow to 15-feet tall but rarely grows higher than 4-feet. Its broad, green leaves are serrated and warty. Yes, warty. Anything with warts should be avoided––let this be a life lesson. The stinging hairs can be observed on the underside of the leaf. Once they are touched, the pain feels like fire-ant bites. The sting is immediate but doesn’t last more then a few hours. Fortunately, this plant is easily identified and avoided––especially after touching it for the first time.

Sawgrass (Twig-sedge)

Sawgrass

This isn’t a poisonous plant but it will kick the crap out of anyone who walks through it. I thought it appropriate to add to the list. As the name implies, it looks like grass yet can be 10-feet tall and is common along river banks. Its leaves are serrated and sharp as a razor. As a kid in Florida, my friend and I were playing in sawgrass of the same species and he cut his leg so badly I could see the subcutaneous fat beneath. Stitches were required.

Pica Pica (Cowhage, Oyo de Venado, Devil Bean)

Pica Pica

The Spanish word ‘picar’ or ‘pica’ roughly translates to the word ‘itch’. During the winter months this hearty vine produces seed pods, or beans, which grow a coat of fine, velvet-like hairs. Should you be unfortunate enough to get these hairs on your skin, or are downwind of the plant when it is shedding, the all encompassing ‘itch itch’ will commence. It would be the equivalent of getting fiberglass insulation on your skin. The itching won’t stop until the hairs are removed. This can be down with soap and water. Remember to wash your clothes too.

O’Brady’s “Impossible First”

Free Solo Across Antarctica. I noticed the article with the odd title in National Geographic. Having spent a good deal of my life working at research stations around Antarctica, and being a fan of polar exploration in general–the story caught my eye.

Endurance athlete Colin O’Brady was describing his upcoming ‘Impossible First’ expedition-–to be the first person to ski across the continent of Antarctica, alone, unsupported, and unaided. I was a little surprised the story was being covered by such a prestigious magazine considering a famed Norwegian, I believed, had already claimed that prize some years back.

I checked my facts and recollection. Indeed, in 1997, Børge Ousland made an incredible 1,864-mile traverse of Antarctica, solo, and unsupported. His achievement put an end to one of the last great polar challenges the likes of which Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackelton, couldn’t have imagined–let alone accomplished.

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Børge Ousland arrives in McMurdo after crossing Antarctica

Ousland had skied for 65-days, from sea-level up to 11,000-feet, via the South Pole, withstanding hurricane-force storms and temperatures dropping to minus 68 degrees fahrenheit. In the 400-pound sled he dragged, he had everything required for the entire journey–food, fuel–everything. He was ‘unsupported’ as they say; meaning, he had no resupply of any kind.

To put this monumental feat in perspective, the first trans-antarctic crossing accomplished in 1958, led and co-led by Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary (of Mt. Everest fame), required tractors, Snow-Cats, dog-teams, air-support, fuel caches and two separate teams traveling on opposite sides of the continent–one to lay fuel depots for the other.

Ousland wasn’t the last one either. Another Norwegian, Rune Gjeldnes, in 2006 skied 2,988-miles across the continent to set a distance record for ‘solo and unsupported’. And again in 2017, Mike Horn set another ‘solo and unsupported’ distance record of 3,169-miles.

Was I missing something? How was O’Brady able to claim the prize that Ousland and two others had already achieved?

It was the word ‘unaided’ I had overlooked. The crafty soloists had employed kites– small, lightweight paragliders used to harness the wind, which propelled them over the surface of the snow. It appeared the word ‘unaided’ simply meant: not aided by the wind.

kite-skiing-cold.jpg.696x0_q70_crop-smart

In Ousland’s own estimation, he used his kite for about ⅓ of the entire distance. And it is true, the skillful use of a kite can greatly increase a skier’s daily mileage. For example, the distance world record for kite-skiing (set in Greenland) is an outrageous 370-miles covered in one 24- hour period.

So the question is: if you can’t use kites, what about skis? Or satellite phones–which provide a huge psychological benefit to the soloist? Or GPS devices–which make navigation nearly dummy-proof? But fair enough. A challenge is a challenge and there aren’t many ‘firsts’ left in the world. So, O’Brady was attempting to cross Antarctica solo, unsupported, without using the wind to his advantage. It would be muscle-power alone. The equivalent of paddling across an ocean instead of sailing across. O’Brady is obviously a purist and that we should appreciate.

And then I promptly forgot about the man who doesn’t like wind. That is, until I saw an article in the New York Times a couple months later. Colin O’Brady Completes Crossing of Antarctica With Final 32-Hour Push. They go on to describe his efforts as one of the “most remarkable feats in polar history”.

To add to the mystique of O’Brady’s accomplishment, just the year before, Henry Worsley, a retired British Army officer, had perished while attempting what O’Brady had managed handily. Worsley was on day-71, a respectable 900-miles into his journey when he used a satellite phone to call for rescue. He was suffering from severe exhaustion and dehydration and was subsequently evacuated to Punta Arenas, Chili where he was diagnosed with bacterial peritonitis. He died of organ failure soon thereafter.

The New York Times states O’Brady had completed the crossing by skiing 932-miles. But wait a minute. 932-miles is half the distance Børge Ousland skied in ‘97. How was O’Brady able to do this? Did he know some secret shortcut? No. He simply did not include the Ice Shelves on his map. He expects the public will believe they are not part of the continent.

ousland_obrady1-1

Technically speaking, the Ronne and Ross Ice Shelves are floating sheets of ice hundreds of feet thick and thousands of years old. The Ross Ice Shelf alone is the size of Texas and is connected to the greater land mass by hundreds, possibly thousands of glaciers and ice streams.

In my opinion, it wasn’t very sporting of Mr. O’Brady to pluck from the map the very place that claimed the lives of the explorers who came before him. Robert Falcon Scott and his team, overcome by the elements and sheer exhaustion, perished on the Ross Ice Shelf during their return journey from the Pole in 1912. Their bodies are still there.   

B
Scott in center, and the other four men who died on return journey

Okay, so perhaps O’Brady isn’t the purist he says he is. But still, he was alone–right?

Actually, no.

British Army Captain, Lou Rudd, was also attempting the first solo, unsupported, no wind crossing of Antarctica at the same time. They even shared a plane to their mutual starting point. Upon landing, O’Brady unloaded his gear and said goodbye. The plane taxied about a mile away (but still in earshot) and dropped Rudd off. They skied separately from there, Rudd in the lead at first but then leapfrogged by his competitor. Early in the race they camped within eyesight of each other, often no more that a kilometer apart. Can this really be considered alone? Seeing another person in that wasteland, regardless of whether you are communicating or not, is a psychological benefit that Ousland didn’t have.

And then there’s the South Pole Traverse road. Both O’Brady and Rudd used it while traveling the 350-miles from the Pole to the bottom of the Leverett Glacier–their self-imposed finish line. The South Pole Traverse (SPoT) is a tractor train convoy that hauls fuel from McMurdo Station over a thousand miles to resupply Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The trail took four seasons to complete and must be reflagged, packed, bladed, and scanned for crevasses every year. This is a great deal of work. Labor I’m familiar with, as I worked on SPoT for four seasons.

Over the years I’ve seen more and more expeditioners use our trail. Before 2009, you never saw anyone out there, not even airplanes flew out that way. But since then, more and more people are coming. They hear there is a crevasse-free route across Antarctica and that’s the only place they want to go. Personally, I’ve always wondered why you’d want to come all the way to the bottom of the earth just to ski on a road. The simple and obvious reason is: the chance of success is much greater. But where is the adventure in that?!

The SPoT road is safer too. An expeditioner no longer has to worry about navigation because they can simply follow our flags and tracks even in a whiteout. On our road, expeditioners don’t have to worry about crevasses–gaping, often hidden chasms that can swallow a person or vehicle–because we use Ground Penetrating Radar to locate and avoid them. We also blade the trail, knocking down the six-foot high snow-hummocks known as sastrugi. On the polar plateau we mow down about 100-miles of these frozen, fin-like obstructions. This greatly lessens the burden on a skier, who, without our trail, would have to pull their heavy sleds up and over each one of these icy hills or triple their distance finding a path around them. Had Worsley used our road (which he didn’t–opting to forgo the flagged route for an untrammeled one on the Shackleton Glacier) his daily physical exertion would have been substantially reduced. Perhaps he might still be alive today.

sastrugi1
Sastrugi

sastrugi2
First pass with a blade. SPoT road.

Once on the SPoT road, both O’Brady and Rudd’s daily mileage increased dramatically. This is because they were ‘aided’ by the SPoT teams and their hard work. During the last two days of O’Brady’s expedition, he was able to ski for a total of 79-miles, nearly four times his usual daily mileage. When asked in a telephone interview how he was able to accomplish this, he said, “I don’t know, something overcame me.” He never once mentioned the trail, the flags, or how he is able to avoid the many crevasses with ease.

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Photo taken by Colin O’Brady. Picture clearly shows he is skiing on SPoT road

Skiing 900-miles across Antarctica is a genuine achievement that should be admired. However, in my opinion, it is a personal accomplishment and not a legitimate ‘first’.

In Rudd’s own words, he says, “…doing an unsupported crossing starting on the edge of the floating ice shelves by the water’s edge without the use of kites or resupply is nigh on impossible, although I’m sure one day someone will crack it.”

So, for all you purists out there with lofty, Antarctic aspirations: Does Rudd’s statement suggest an opportunity? Does the first true solo, unsupported, ‘unaided’ crossing of Antarctica remain?

I believe it does.