San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Abandoned in Antarctica

I have not previously mentioned this episode, as I show up to such poor advantage in it. On reflection, though, you might profit by a reminder of what can happen when you let your reach exceed your grasp, so I will risk my reputation for the greater good.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

Our vessel was a retired whaler with a perfectly round bottom designed to survive the ice pack, but it rolled abominably in open water. Our objective was to visit the six Antarctic research stations on the peninsula still accessible by sea in the fall. And our leader, Olaf, was a lanky Swede who had scaled Everest twice and K2 once, being therefore supremely fit. But by the same token, the intensity of his desire to succeed caused him to despise anyone who was not fit and, I admit, I was not fit.

On this particular day, we were to land on a deserted pebble beach, scramble a mile over slippery boulders along the shoreline, visit a research shack operated by the Chileans, and return the same way. To make sure no one got left behind, everyone leaving the vessel had to pick up a numbered plastic tag and return it to the tag board upon return. But the loophole in this arrangement was that Olaf was in charge of the tag board, and Olaf’s undeclared opinion was that anyone stupid enough to get lost deserved his fate.

So 12 of us, clad like astronauts in our bulky thermal outfits, landed by Zodiak on the pebble beach and set out across the boulders, led by Olaf at his usual cracking pace. Years of smoking, drinking and just sitting had made me the least fit of the group, and I soon fell to the rear. Then, suddenly, misjudging the distance between two slime-coated rocks, I fell and sprained my ankle. I lay there for a while, hidden from the shore, reviewing my options. Then, secure in the knowledge that the group would return in an hour or two, I decided to savor the total solitude, total silence, of the icy continent and made no attempt to move.

But as the second hour passed without help, I became desperate, and contrived to drag myself over the boulders back to the beach. There, to my horror, I saw my whaler steaming out of the bay. Clearly, Olaf had let me down, and because of my unfitness I was condemned to die where I lay. So I prayed, fervently, and after hours of despair, it worked, and a rescue party arrived.

It seemed that the exhausted 11 had rebelled against returning over the boulders, insisting by radio on being picked up at the shack at the expense of a dunking in icy water. And Olaf had not even counted the tags, my absence not being noticed until dinnertime.

Since then, I have become an enthusiastic advocate of prayer.

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