By Tom Prigg; Photographs by Ben McMillen
Five friends and I decided to drive 40 hours each way from Pittsburgh to Newfoundland, Canada, to climb icebergs. So we loaded up a short school bus bought and modified by our teammate Ryan Hostetter and headed out, complete with a jet ski in tow. The destination was the fishing village L'anse aux Meadows, population of 110, and the site of Leif Ericson's viking settlement.
Icebergs present many dangers that normal ice climbing does not. These huge, floating ice chunks can literally roll in the water due to changes in the center of gravity. Our first task was to evaluate the stability of the icebergs based on their shape.
We climbed two icebergs total; first a "blocky" which is the shape of a cube and then a "dry dock," which resembles a dry dock for boats. "Dry dock" refers to the type of iceberg and not to whether it is grounded. Our original intention was to climb only "tabular" iceberg, which is one who's base is four times wider than it's height. But there was only one nearby and the swells were nearly 20 feet high. "Pinnacle" icebergs are the classical shape that most people think about when they imagine icebergs. Then there are "domes," whose shape comes from the fact that they have rolled over, and "wedges," which resemble a door wedge and are among the most unstable. These shapes give us clues as to which ones we should consider and which ones we should approach with extreme caution.
These are only guidelines, however, because the most significant cause for an iceberg rolling is the ice under water. Ninety percent of an icebergs mass is underwater. Not only does this present a problem in evaluating the ice, this hidden mass could capsize a boat during the roll. To demonstrate this point, look at how much of your ice cube is above the water in your next drink.
An iceberg rolls when its center of gravity changes. This can occur from melting in warm saltwater or when the submerged iceberg strikes the ground, breaking off a large chunk. Another factor is the changing of the low and high tides. When tides go out the iceberg may hit the bottom of the bay. The weight of the iceberg crushes the lower ice as it settles. When high tide returns the iceberg begins to float again causing it to shift or roll to regain a new center of gravity. Tides also affect the swells that one must navigate to approach and board an iceberg.
During our first climbing day we put the jet ski in the water to taxi out to our first iceberg. However, rocks got into our propeller due to the deep sand and shells that made up the shoreline. A crowd of curious fishermen began to gather around to watch us try to fix it and suggest ideas. When it became apparent that we were not going to be able to fix our jet ski, they recommended that we talk with Shane, the village daredevil, who owned three of his own.
Fellow teammate Don Wargowsky talked with Shane about using one of his jet skis. He was amenable to the idea but he wanted to take us out himself. When Shane put his jet ski in the water and I boarded, it began to sink. I thought that this must be some kind of a bad dream, but right then one of the fishermen, Godfrey, came around the corner in a small fishing boat. This was the same fisherman who warned me minutes earlier that I would probably die. After we had a talk about the chances we were taking, he finally said, "Everyone has a right to take their own risk."
I got into Godfrey's boat on shore and we headed toward the iceberg. I could feel my heart pounding and my breathing was growing faster and faster. As we approached the iceberg, ten-foot ocean swells were tossing the boat into and away from the iceberg with little effort. The first obstacle became immediately apparent. "How do I stick the iceberg with my ax while the boat is rising, falling and being pushed back and fourth sideways and colliding?" I fell several times trying to stand up in the small fishing boat while being tossed around. The primary concern was falling between the iceberg and the boat. The force of the collisions between the two could easily break my back or crush my skull.
Besides the incredible difficulty in standing during the swells, getting a solid stick with my ax into the iceberg required perfect timing. If the stick was not solid enough for me to hold my body but enough to pull me in between the boat and the iceberg I had a problem. I realized that what I had to do was to fully commit and quit worrying about how dangerous this all seemed. Hesitation and fear was not what was needed to mount this iceberg. As soon as the boat came into the iceberg once more I timed my swing and it caught solidly. I then threw my left axe in and now had two solid axes in the iceberg. I jumped out of the boat kicking my front points into the ice and climbed as fast as I could to clear the boat in case it came crashing back into the iceberg.
The ice was soft and somewhat sun-baked. This refers to the way the sun softens the ice and produces more air bubbles in the ice, giving it a white color. Typically an ice climber wants to aim for whiter ice because of the air bubbles. This allows the ice to expand a little to absorb the force of the ax and not fragment off. Clear ice lacks air bubbles and tends to fracture in a phenomenon called "dinner plating."
Usually, sun-baked ice is not very solid, however on this iceberg our axes were very solid. We had the benefit of only needing a single swing for a good stick but it was solid enough to take our body weight, which was necessary for us to throw our bodies onto the ice from the boat.
were also careful to swing for concave areas of the iceberg. Our concern was that the ice was under so much pressure that the convex areas would explode. Concave ice is seven times stronger than convex, an important fact for climbing ice under extreme conditions such as on an iceberg.
Our second iceberg had steep sides with an easy down climb. We couldn't trust just jumping off the berg because much of the mass was spread out far just below the surface. We also didn't trust being connected to the berg by rope of any type. Our concern was that we would be dragged underwater and drowned if we used ice screws. We didn't even use leashes on the axes for the same reason.
The safest style was to solo leashless. Leashless refers to climbing with out wrist leashes on the axes. Climbers usually use leashes to take some of their body weight off of their hands to rest their grip. On this day the wakes from the waves were not bad but still significant enough to make the initial stick into the berg difficult. Again, the timing of the swing had to be precise. The initial step onto the iceberg was steep and the ice was a bit harder than the day before. I stuck my two axes in and jumped into the side of the berg. My front points didn't get a perfect purchase into the ice, but they got enough to keep me from sliding between the boat and 'berg.
Although this ice was harder in texture I found it a bit more enjoyable to swing into. It simply felt stronger and more secure. Each swing still made that familiar high pitch crack from the 15,000-year old high pressured air trapped in the ice. I felt good and the climbing was very rhythmic. Normally, waterfall ice has bulges or divots that a climber can use to place picks and kick their front points into. Our icebergs were not like this whatsoever.
Iceberg ice is usually perfectly flat; I have never seen ice so uniform and featureless in my life. My line was steep and, without features to rest on, I would normally be a bit nervous. But in order to climb an iceberg, you cannot dwell on these things. It is too late to worry about the steepness of the climb, or how difficult or tiring it may be. Once you're on the boat and then on the 'berg, it is time to perform, not to think about choices that you no longer have. To be quick and confident we had to focus only on our climbing - stick one ax, "looks good," stick the next, "looks good," move feet up. For me nothing else existed. I got about halfway up when suddenly one of my axes caused a crack that I could feel through my crampons. This was the only time I felt nervous. I have no idea how deep the crack went or how it may have weakened the iceberg. The villagers reported, however, that days later the entire iceberg that I was on would be nothing more than crumbled sea ice filling the bay.
Climbing the icebergs was the best and most exciting ice climbing I had ever done. By normal climbing standards, the climbing itself was easy, but the thrill of getting off and on the boat and the uncertainty of what the iceberg would do added a danger that should make anyone consider, "Is this really worth it?" I am not in a position to say one way or another. I can only say that every person is free to take their own risk.
The real question is, "If you died today are you ok with that? Are you willing to accept that this may be the last thing you are going to do, and do you still think it is a worthy enough goal to attempt with that in mind?" The answer to that can only be made by the person who is about to board the fishing boat and temp their own fate.
Team Members: Ben McMillen, Don Wargowsky, Dan Hostetter, Sarah George, Justin Kaiser