Editor's Note: It is with great sadness that we report that Rob Gauntlett died on January 10 in a climbing accident while attempting to scale a section of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. His friend and climbing partner James Atkinson also died. Our thoughts are with their families and friends. We will continue to follow this story on our blog.
Imagine this. You climb Mount Everest by the time you're 19. And that's tame. You want to try something outrageous, something never before attempted. How about traveling from geomagnetic pole to geomagnetic pole in one frantic dash? Start north of Greenland, then ski and dogsled on thin ice, cycle most of the length of the Western Hemisphere, and sail for months into the Antarctic. For Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper, two British teens fresh out of prep school, this sounded about right. A 26,000-mile epic that would take more than a year. Never mind that they had no serious funding, very little time to plan, and no sailing or dogsledding experience. Never mind that they would almost die (twice, it turned out). They had climbed Everest—Mount Everest!—in a similar way, learning skills as they went and paying for it with loans and small corporate grants they dug up themselves. Prudence wasn't necessarily their main concern. They just wanted to throw themselves out there. So on March 28, 2007, they set off—two 19-year-olds running behind dogsleds into a blizzard in northern Greenland—on the most madcap adventure we saw all year.
Their first challenge was to find the starting line. The geomagnetic poles are wobblers in the sea ice, shifting around a few miles from year to year, depending on how the cosmos is feeling. The pair had to sled for ten days, along with Inuit guides, just to find the northern one, an unceremonious patch of ice atop the Arctic Ocean. From there they sent the dogs back (too easy) and began the trip in earnest: skiing south for 250 miles, pulling their sleds behind them. They'd planned to travel on the flat coastal sea ice, but it was so thin they had to climb over rocky headlands instead. That meant glaciers and crevasses. They didn't have good maps or local knowledge or even the right equipment for this. They just skied behind their sleds on the downhills, hoping for the best. If an ice bridge collapsed, they figured the sled would make it to the other side before one of them plunged into a crevasse. They'd be left dangling but would have a way to pull themselves out. "We did actually both fall down some crevasses," Hooper admits a bit sheepishly.
After 21 days of this, they reluctantly called in the Inuit dog teams once more, since the going was so slow. But the ice was getting thinner and thinner. "The Inuit were getting worried about the conditions," Hooper says. "A dog team [coming to meet them] from the other side of the bay had to turn back after a sled and a couple of dogs went through the ice. You could feel [the ice] flexing." So they aimed for an island where they could camp for two or three weeks until the Ice Maiden, a sailboat, could meet them for their second leg, the trip down the infamous Iceberg Alley to New York. But Gauntlett lost a glove and went back to fetch it. "There was a distinctive crack," he says. "And for a second I knew exactly what was happening. I remember thinking, man, this actually isn't that bad, but then I could feel the water, like knives everywhere, and I hit my head on the ice and went unconscious."Next: Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler >>