One long day: for Steamboat’s Doug Tumminello in Antarctica
November 29, 2015
Steamboat Springs — Doug Tumminello knows weird things can happen, and really, that's at the heart of it all, the answer to the first question and the last.
He's adventured around the world, climbing mountains and braving oceans, and if all goes as planned, he'll start his next great adventure today from the icy abyss that is the edge of the Antarctic continent.
His target is the South Pole, 730 miles away, and he intends to make it there in 40 to 45 days on skis, fully self-supported.
The answer, Tumminello said, is in the Indian Ocean.
He was there seven years ago on one of those adventures. Then, the goal was to paddle across that body of water, 3,700 miles, with seven other men in a small boat.
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They were well on their way and in the middle of the ocean; it was during the black of night that they saw something strange.
"These flares came shooting up from the horizon," Tumminello said, recounting the experience while sipping a latte at a downtown Steamboat Springs coffeeshop.
His eyes lit up, the magic of the moment still with him years later.
"These flares were surrounding us, shooting up, greens and purples and reds and pinks, all different colors," he said.
In the boat, in the middle of the rocking ocean, they had no idea what they'd stumbled into, but in a deep way, it answered that question: "Why?"
The adventure bug
Tumminello, 48, actually thinks the question, "Why?" says more about the asker than it does the asked.
In his eyes, there's a long answer — one involving a colorful night on the Indian Ocean — and a short one.
It's not quite as simple as "because it's there," George Mallory's famous quip about his continued and eventually fatal attempts to summit Mount Everest. It's not far off, though.
"For me," Tumminello began, "it's about really living life. I just know life is so short, so very precious, and the notion that you can somehow change that by playing it safe, by not taking risks, by being so very conservative in your life choices, is an illusion and false."
A West Point graduate and Army veteran, he's now a lawyer, based in Denver but working out of Steamboat Springs, where he lives with his wife, Lisa Renee, and two children, Alexandra, a senior at Steamboat Springs High School, and Bowden, a sixth grader.
He's been on some intense adventures but paused to stress he's not reckless.
"I've not gotten up as many mountains as I've summited," he said.
Mountaineering was his gateway into the world of adventuring and accounts for many of his trips. He's summited Denali twice and has done a lot of climbing elsewhere in Alaska.
He climbed Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, and in 2006, assaulted Mount Everest, reaching the summit after battling illness that nearly derailed his attempt on the way up.
He always had ambitions beyond climbing, however, and that's what led him, eventually, to the Antarctic.
The answer to another important question is detailed.
Skiing to the South Pole? How?
The short answer is with plenty of planning and lots of help.
A trip to the Antarctic region has dominated Tumminello's thoughts for years. Actually taking the trip this year comes after the same venture was twice postponed — once in 2013, when Tumminello sustained a back injury, and again in 2014, when work intervened.
That didn't make the run up to leaving any less hectic.
It was a full family affair, with Lisa Renee helping shop for the vast array of supplies needed and Alex and Bowden helping research the destination.
It took them all to help assemble the necessary information.
Tumminello expects his sled to weigh in at more than 200 pounds, and he needs everything required to survive for more than a month in a hostile environment. He's taking a compass, a map and a GPS device, of course, in addition to a satellite phone and satellite beacon, so he can check in at home and be tracked online throughout his trip. He's taking a small camping stove, as well, and a North Face mountaineering tent he reinforced to withstand the brutal winds that stand as one of the primary hurdles on his trip.
He'll have a battery pack to recharge his devices and a solar panel he can unfold on his sled to recharge the battery pack.
All the mission-critical components — such as the satellite phone, GPS handset and compass — will have backups, as well.
"It's tough, because that's what causes a lot of the extra weight," he said, considering the redundancy. "That adds a lot of the burden to a solo effort."
It may add weight, but it also ensures he won't have to quit due to a single, simple mechanical flaw.
He had the sled, known as a pulk, shipped straight from the factory in Norway to Tumminello's jumping off point in Chile and is taking one set of skis, Fischer E99 Xtralites, with a set of climbing skins screwed in and permanently attached.
He'll have a parka with a fur hood, layers to stay warm, four pairs of socks and two sets of base layers for more than a month of skiing.
"I'll be pretty ripe by the end," he said with a grin.
The sled's harness includes an element that juts out from the chest where a compass fits, so even when the wind kicks up and whiteout ensues, he can focus on the compass and follow the bearing through the muck.
For food, he's packing a variety and hopes to put down 4,900 calories per day, lugging along 50 days worth. It will mean dehydrated dinners from Backpacker's Pantry, cuisine such as chili mac, Bolognese-style pasta with beef and spaghetti and meatballs.
It'll be oatmeal and Pop-Tarts — frosted blueberry — for breakfast, and it all will get a caloric boost from coconut oil, liberally applied. He'll munch on snacks throughout the day — trail mix, nuts, energy bars and 50 mini Snickers, one per day for the maximum amount of time he expects the trip to take.
"They're great energy food," he said of the candy bars and Pop-Tarts, "but maybe not so great if you're feeding them to your kids. If you're skiing to the South Pole, they're alright."
Physical preparations took plenty of planning, as well.
To simulate the massive dose of cardio in his future, Tumminello ran hundreds and hundreds of miles and competed in several marathons during the summer.
To simulate the sled he'll drag with his supplies, he attached two large tires to a harness and hauled them back and forth along trails and roads near the family's North Routt County home.
"I drag them up and down the road and over trail for hours and hours at a time," he said.
How? With a lot of work.
The "where" of the situation is what warrants all the work.
The story of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's escape from Antartica following a shipwreck resonated with Tumminello as a child. That feat has drawn him south magnetically.
The continent is the fifth largest, bigger than Europe or Australia, and has about 4,000 residents, all temporary and scientists or workers at the many scientific stations sprinkled across the continent.
Tumminello will be heading straight for one of them, a station at the South Pole staffed by about 200 during the southern hemisphere summer and 50 during its sunless winters.
He flew to Chile with his family Nov. 20 and set up shop in the city of Puerto Arenas, a way station for many heading to Antartica. His plans to fly today in a cargo plane for the Union Glacier Station, then catch a bush plane to the Hercules Inlet, a spot on the continent's coast, even though it doesn't seem so, as the Ronne Ice Shelf covers the bay on one side and the Skytrain Ice Rise towers on the other.
He won't ski directly to the pole, instead cutting his way through the Patriot Hills and around a dangerous patch of crevices before turning toward the pole.
"I'll go around a small range, the Thiel Mountains, and that's pretty much it as far as terrain goes," Tumminello said. "Other than that, it's just a big, white polar ice cap."
It's uphill the entire way, from sea level at the start to 9,000 feet at the pole, mostly thanks to the pole's enormous ice shelf.
That change in elevation and the swirling weather that develops at the Earth's axis often pushes winds down that slope, katabatic wind that can top 100 miles per hour.
He plans to follow a strict regimen when it comes to skiing: 80 minutes on, 10 minutes off for 10 to 12 hours per day. The time will surely blend together, though because the sun won't set during his trip.
It'll be one, long day, and he hopes he'll reach the geographic pole by the end, the Earth's axis that's marked by a candy-cane striped pole stuck in the ground near the United States-run Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station.
"It will be amazing to see," Tumminello said. "I've read about it and seen photos and talked to people so much I feel like I know it, but when I get to see it, it will be exciting, really exciting."
It's a tremendous adventure, but with the winds and the cold, the isolation and the difficulties, it's easy to ponder the first question and the last: Why? Tumminello said he's asked that question all the time.
"Something like this is not a panacea for anything," he said. "The way I look at it, it's an opportunity to separate, to go out and have an adventure you can grapple and learn from and, ultimately, to come back and reintegrate, take the lessons learned and continue on down the road."
He said it's truly more about the journey than the destination — more about what can happen along the way than the snapshot taken at the end.
Why? He realized "why" once on one of his trips to Denali, high on the mountain's slopes.
He and two friends were planning to spread a friend's ashes from the mountain's peak, but that plan was in doubt as they hunkered down at high camp on the mountain.
"We were in a raging storm, absolutely raging, so severe there were three of us in a tent, and we sat up all night with our backs against one side of the tent and our feet against the other trying to keep it from being destroyed."
By morning, they were convinced to give up and began preparing for the trip down when the storm suddenly cleared.
That window changed their minds. They quickly reversed their work and made for the summit, spread the ashes and headed back down. The moment they arrived back at the camp, the storm roared back to life.
"People will chalk that up to a natural phenomenon, a break in the storm, but I chalk it up to something more than that," Tumminello said. "It was intervention from God, just our gift."
It was a sensation similar to that night on the Indian Ocean, when flares shot high into the sky, baffling the eight rowers in the boat.
They got out their radio and tried to hail nearby ships, wondering if there was trouble and if they might be able to help.
They got no answer.
They then called back to their base but could find no information.
There was no explanation. It made no sense.
Pressed to guess, Tumminello can only speculate. Maybe a satellite crashed through the atmosphere in the area?
Even he doesn't think that's very likely.
"To this day," he said, "there's no explanation."
It's just a mystery — a strange, magical moment he experienced because he was there trying to row his way across the Indian Ocean.
Like the weather window on Denali, it was a gift, and you don't get a gift like that by watching a movie about climbing a mountain, listening to a story about rowing across the Indian Ocean or reading a book about skiing to the South Pole.
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