1st, 2004, four Israelis and four Palestinians (two women and six men) set off
on a sea and land expedition to the distant reaches of Antarctica. Their goal
is to summit and name a previously unclimbed mountain. Their expedition is
called : 'Breaking the Ice'. This journey combines the spirit of adventure
with a quest for understanding. It will force people separated by deep
political and religious differences to cooperate in pursuit of a shared goal.
Israeli-Palestinian Antarctic Expedition Reaches First Summit
By Michael Greenspan
Hovgaard Island, Antarctica
(65° S -- 64° W)
scenery is so beautiful and, in these coastal waters,
the sailing has become so smooth that, at moments, this
seems more like a vacation than an expedition.
The Israelis and Palestinians
of the Breaking the Ice peace mission have settled into a comfortable routine:
sailing during the day, anchoring at night (a relative term, since it never
gets dark this time of year at this southern latitude), preparing dinner, then
spending more time on deck absorbing the atmosphere of the Antarctic summer.
There’s plenty of time for
conversation and no lack of it. The subjects range from politics to family
matters – children, professions, health and lifestyles. “You see,” says
Palestinian team member Suleiman al-Khatib, “we’re not that different from one
another. All of us have the same problems and we share the same desires. This
is why I think that we can learn to live together, side by side.”
On this morning there’s
excitement in the air. On Hovgaard Island the members of Breaking the Ice are
about to climb their first mountain. This will be a training session meant to
help develop the skills required for the final trek to an unclimbed peak on
the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula.
First, there’s equipment to
prepare: plastic climbing boots, snowshoes, gaiters, ski poles, ice axes,
climbing harnesses, carabineer clips, ropes, thermoses and backpacks. Then,
there’s clothing to put on: thermal underwear, fleece shirts, balaclavas,
fleece hats, gloves and more gloves, windproof trousers and jackets,
sunglasses and goggles.
After all the equipment is
ready it’s time to smear on large quantities of sun block. In these latitudes,
even when clouds hide the sun dangerous amounts of ultraviolet radiation reach
the earth. Even those with the darkest complexions, like Israeli Yarden Fanta,
who was born in Ethiopia and Palestinian Nasser Quass, whose father came to
Jerusalem from Chad, have to take care not to get burnt.
Finally, there are cameras to
prepare -- many, many cameras. Digital and film cameras and video cameras.
Cheap cameras and expensive cameras. Everyone has a camera -- and some have
two. Nary a moment of their time together with go undocumented, much to the
frustration of the expedition’s mountain guides who believe that frequent
stops for photo opportunities destroy the pace of the climb and tire the
Getting everything and
everyone ready to go – and double-checking to make sure nothing’s been
forgotten -- is a time consuming matter. There are no quick moves on any
expedition. Proper preparation is essential for success and safety. But on
this morning, just as the team is ready to set off for the mountain the
weather turns bad, with temperatures dropping and horizontal rain pelting
against us. “It’s not a good idea to go out in conditions like this,” says
expedition leader Doron Erel. “It’s not just unpleasant. It’s also unsafe,
because the frigid temperatures can turn the snow to ice in no time at all.”
For the time being, the climb will have to wait.
There’s disappointment among
the team members, but it’s mitigated by the thought that they can pass the
time in the warmth of the boat, enjoying a hot drink and lunch. If they face a
situation like this during their trek on the Antarctic ice, they’ll have to
shiver away the hours in tents.
Just as they’ve accepted the
idea that today’s climb may be cancelled, the weather suddenly changes for the
better. Such sudden shifts in climate are typical of the Antarctic Region. So,
about an hour after Erel puts the climb on hold, he gives the green light.
With patches of blue appearing in the skies, they haul all their equipment
into rubber dinghies and head for shore. By the time they’ve clambered up the
rocks and snow at the water’s edge it’s absolutely sunny and warm outside and
people are removing the outer layers of clothing they put on just moments
before. “I can’t figure this out,” says Ziad Darwish, the Palestinian
journalist. “I never know what to wear. I feel like I’m in a sauna.”
Mountain guide Nadav Khalifa
explains that it’s better to walk and climb with as little clothing on as
possible. “Your enemy is perspiration,” he says. “Even though it’s cold
outside, climbing is strenuous physical activity and it makes you sweat. But,
afterwards, when you stop exerting yourselves, you become cold and all the
moisture on your bodies turns cold, too. It’s better to put on more clothes
only when you need them.” He also reminds us that people tend not to feel
thirsty in cold weather. “You’ve got to drink as much as you can because
there’s a real danger of dehydration here.”
Before beginning their ascent
of the mountain, the team splits into three groups, each with a mountain
guide, and they are roped together at intervals of about four meters. “I want
you all to keep the ropes almost taut between you,” Doron Erel instructs them.
“This is for your own safety. The snow looks harmless, but it hides crevasses
that can be several meters wide and dozens of meters deep. If one of us falls
into a crevasse it’s going to be up to all the rest of us to stop their fall.
What you have to do is anchor yourselves by digging your ski poles and ice
axes into the snow. After we do that we’ll figure out how to solve the
At the sound of this warning,
there’s a ripple of anxiety among the expedition members. Olfat Haider, the
Israeli Arab, is still nursing a bad bruise she receiving on board during a
storm several days ago and hoping she’ll be equal to the effort ahead. “It
still hurts,” she says, “but I think I can make it. I really want to do this.
It’s important to reach the top.”
While the mountain guides
refer to it as a ‘recreational walk’, reaching the top of this 380-meter high
dome-shaped mountain will be an important test for all the expedition members
(with the exception of Doron Erel, who has climbed to the summit of Mt.
Everest). It’s not merely a test of their physical abilities. It’s a matter of
principle. Climbing the mountain is meant to send a message – to show the
world that when they work together as a team Palestinians and Israelis can
reach their objectives.
Yarden, Olfart, and Nassar on board of
The climbers move ahead,
slowly and steadily, stopping occasionally for a brief rest and a drink of
coffee, tea or water. And then they move again, snaking steadily up the slope,
their snowshoes and ski poles crunching through frozen surface of the snow. As
they ascend they gain a new perspective on the sea and icebergs below. The
vastness of the view is breathtaking, with more and more of this frozen world
coming into view – a world of mountains, sea and icebergs. “I just can’t get
over how beautiful it is,” says Avihu Shoshani, the Israeli lawyer. “I’ve
never seen anything like it and I want to remember every single moment. But
I’m afraid I’ll never be able to make anyone understand just how wonderful it
About two hours after setting
off, the members of the Breaking the Ice peace expedition reach their first
summit. They raise their arms in exaltation. In Hebrew, Arabic and French they
wish one another, “Happy Summit!” Skip Novak rewards the climbers with pieces
of chocolate while, off to the side, Nasser Quass kneels in the fresh snow,
chanting prayers to Allah.
By professional standards
it’s really no more than a hill. But, for these newcomers to the world of
alpine sport this is a real mountain. For them, standing here, together, is a
genuine source of pride and an important step towards climbing the real
mountain just days from now.