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  Peace Expedition to Antarctica - 2004


On January 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 Sparks International Affair

(Expedition Log 10)

By Michael Greenspan

Vernadsky Research Station, Antarctica (65° S -- 64° W)

 It all began with Catrin Ellis Jones’ Pisco Sours (a mixture of pisco – an alcoholic beverage debatably of Peruvian or Chilean origin -- fresh lemon juice, crushed ice, whisked egg whites and icing sugar). Fueled by the first mate’s concoction, the evening took on a life of its own.  

The Breaking the Ice peace expedition to Antarctica had just concluded a brief voyage down the Penola Strait, after a morning visit to the nesting colony of Adelie penguins on Yalour Island (with Palestinian team member Suleiman al-Khatib persuaded to come along despite his distaste for the aroma of penguin guano). After Pelagic Australis and Pelagic had dropped anchor in a small, protected cove alongside the Ukrainian Vernadsky Research Station, the two boats tied up together and there was little to do but enjoy the warmth of a splendid Antarctic summer evening.

Sausages, ham and cheeses appeared as an accompaniment to the drinks and when the pisco ran out wine and whisky replaced it, along with orange juice for the abstemious. With Israeli and Palestinian expedition members, mountain guides, ships’ crew, media and communication specialists visiting back and forth between the boats, a cocktail party atmosphere began developing in the most bizarre of locations.

That’s when Vladimir, Vladimir, Vladimir and Yevgeny showed up – two Ukrainian researchers, their station chief and cook – bearing a welcoming gift of vodka from the Vernadsky stores. Glasses were rapidly filled and raised in a toast to international friendship. This led to another toast -- to Israeli-Palestinian peace -- which led, in turn, to more toasts – to various nations, notions, emotions and individuals. Ship’s doctor Arik Shechter, who immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine, helped out with translation, but the reasons for each refilling of the glasses were becoming less and less apparent and of increasingly less concern to the participants.

Vernadsky Research Station is famous for its hospitality. During their yearlong posting in the Antarctic these Ukrainian scientists conduct important studies of the environment (in fact, the hole in Earth’s ozone layer was discovered here during the base’s former incarnation as Great Britain’s Faraday Research Station). But, in addition to their ecological research the Ukrainians have also gained notoriety as the proprietors of the southernmost bar on the face of the planet – a popular stop for people traveling through the region. They are spreaders of goodwill in the remoteness of the frozen continent.

In a gesture of hospitality, the crew of Pelagic Australis invited its Ukrainian friends to stay on board for a dinner of roast lamb and mashed potatoes mixed with carrots, along with an uninterrupted flow of wine and vodka. All attempts at serious conversation proved futile and the evening repast was heavily spiced with hysterical howls of laughter. Nasser Quass, a devout Muslim who refrains from alcohol, seemed inebriated by the spirit of the moment. “I don’t believe I’m seeing this,” he said. “Look at these Israelis and Palestinians and French and Americans and Ukrainians all sitting around together and having fun. Everyone’s speaking a different language and it doesn’t make any difference if they really understand. They’re just enjoying themselves. No one back home will believe me if I tell them this is what I discovered in Antarctica.”  

Indeed, it was becoming increasingly difficult to think of this as an “extreme” expedition. And when the music began blasting from the loudspeakers in the ship’s saloon, any pretense of hardship on the high seas completely evaporated. With only three women on board, compared with about 25 men, the dancing got off to a slow start. But when Genya (he’d been Yevgeny before the drinking began) did his impression of John Travolta’s “Pulp Fiction” disco dance, the ice was truly and fully broken. Within minutes, the entire crowd was on its feet. 

What followed (until some indeterminate hour of the morning) is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to describe. After all, Breaking the Ice is a very serious initiative – an attempt by Israelis and Palestinians to reach the summit of an unclimbed mountain in Antarctica in order to show their peoples that they can, indeed, work together in pursuit of shared objectives. So, suffice it to report the following: expedition leader Doron Erel really does know how to boogie; Palestinian Olfat Haider and Israeli Yarden Fanta have some great moves on the dance floor; given enough liquid encouragement, even mountain guides can lose their equilibrium; even in Antarctica, it’s never too cold to take off your shirt; spending ten days together at sea is more than enough reason to let off some steam; and Catrin Ellis Jones makes a powerful pisco sour.

Yes, there are also days – and nights – like this here in the far southern latitudes. This one was a prelude to more difficult days and nights ahead as the expedition team gears up to leave its boats behind, pitch its tents and begin the long trek across the ice toward its final objective.

Israeli-Palestinian Antarctic Trekkers on the Ice

(Expedition Log 11)

By Michael Greenspan

 

Prospect Point, Antarctica (66° S -- 65° W)

January 11, 2004

Pelagic Australis makes its way ever so gingerly among the floating sheets of sea ice off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, taking care to avoid the growlers (iceberg fragments) scattered among them. The boat’s aluminum hull can handle the former with relative ease, but the latter could do it serious damage. Just a week ago the sea ice was still frozen into a single solid mass and Prospect Point was unreachable. Today, we’re headed toward the shore.

There’s an air of excitement on board this morning. The Breaking the Ice expedition is within sight of the mountain its eight Israeli and Palestinian team members hope to climb in the days ahead – the mountain from which they hope to tell the world that their two peoples can set aside their historic conflict and work together in pursuit of a better future.

From this perspective, the mountain doesn’t look very high, very far or very difficult, but distances here can be very deceiving.

The weather is glorious – sunny and warm, windless and cloudless. People are dressed lightly, without gloves or hats. With the sun reflecting so strongly off the still water, everyone’s wearing sunglasses. And all are hoping that things will remain exactly as they are for the next few days, ensuring a smooth trek across the ice. If the winds blow too hard or snow begins to fall, the team might be forced to spend its time seeking shelter in tents rather than moving toward its objective.

The expedition has to be prepared for every possibility, so this day is spent getting organized. On the foredeck, team members are gathering ski poles and snowshoes and crampons, food and canisters of cooking gas, climbing ropes and tents. Expedition leader Doron Erel and mountain guide Nadav Khalifa oversee everything, counting every item to make sure nothing has been forgotten.

On the aft deck, communications specialist Tony Robinson is helping media producer Mario Dirienger assemble and test the portable (but heavy) satellite ground station, generator, fuel and computers that will enable the trekkers to beam news of their progress to people around the world.

Below deck, other team members are stuffing their backpacks with sleeping bags, thermal air mattresses, toilet paper, toothbrushes and utensils, along with various layers of fleece and down cold weather apparel – along with cameras, cameras and more cameras.

Expedition physician Arik Shechter is assembling his medical kit, carrying everything from aspirin to surgical implements, ready for any eventuality that may befall the team as it moves across the frozen glacier and its hidden crevasses.

And cameraman Colin Rosin is everywhere, capturing everything on video, observed by the occasional passing penguin or two.

While lead climbing guide Denis Ducroz and Pelagic Australis’ captain Skip Novak set off to scout the route to the mountain, team members Avihu Shoshani and Suleiman al-Khatib begin the slow process of loading all the equipment on rubber dinghies and ferrying it to shore. The expedition’s red plastic sleds are already there, waiting to carry whatever’s too big or too heavy to go on people’s backs.

The preparations will last most of the day. Everything will be checked and double-checked. Once the group sets out toward its mountain, there will be no turning back.

The teamwork evident on the boat this morning belies the heated debate that erupted last night in Pelagic Australis’ saloon when the expedition members attempted to work out the language of the joint declaration they plan to issue upon reaching the summit of the mountain. They want to make a statement that will resonate strongly with both Israelis and Palestinians, but finding words general enough to be accepted by all yet strong enough to get the expedition’s message across proved to be no easy task.

The conversation began calmly enough, with Breaking the Ice initiator Heskel Nathaniel suggesting that the resolution simply state the team’s understanding that Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace. “This is what we’ve seen here, among us,” said Nathaniel. “We’ve been together for ten days now. Look at how we’re getting along. This should be our message to the world – that we can do it, and that it can be done.” The suggestion met with universal approval.

But the atmosphere began heating up when Suleiman al-Khatib suggested that the resolution be more specific, including an objection to the separation fence Israel is building between it and the Palestinians. Doron Erel argued that adopting a political stance was not the expedition’s goal -- that its message was and should remain human. When Ziad Darwish suggested that the resolution make a statement opposing all use of violence, Avihu Shoshani argued that Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians were not violence but, rather, self-defense.

The longer the conversation continued, the more bitter the debate became. Avihu Shoshani became furious when Nasser Quass argued that Israel and the Jews had no real claim to what they call the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, now the site of the Al Aksa mosque, because there had never been a Jewish temple there. Quass was enraged when Yarden Fanta called Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat a terrorist and murderer. Ziad Darwish left the room, claiming that the conversation had turned into a forum for sensationalism. And Olfat Haider, sitting off to the side, appeared transfixed by the anger in the air. Later, she broke down in tears.

Yet, despite their differences, this morning all the team members were back on deck, helping prepare the equipment they’ll need for the days ahead, getting ready to embark on the final leg of a journey that has already carried them more than 13,000 kilometers from their homes in the Middle East.

Late in the afternoon, with all their equipment ashore, they established their first base camp on Antarctic soil, ready to begin days of trekking and camping, testing their physical and mental abilities and, they hope, proving to everyone that they can break the ice – that they, the people, can achieve peace.

It all began with Catrin Ellis Jones’ Pisco Sours (a mixture of pisco – an alcoholic beverage debatably of Peruvian or Chilean origin -- fresh lemon juice, crushed ice, whisked egg whites and icing sugar). Fueled by the first mate’s concoction, the evening took on a life of its own.

The Breaking the Ice peace expedition to Antarctica had just concluded a brief voyage down the Penola Strait, after a morning visit to the nesting colony of Adelie penguins on Yalour Island (with Palestinian team member Suleiman al-Khatib persuaded to come along despite his distaste for the aroma of penguin guano). After Pelagic Australis and Pelagic had dropped anchor in a small, protected cove alongside the Ukrainian Vernadsky Research Station, the two boats tied up together and there was little to do but enjoy the warmth of a splendid Antarctic summer evening.

Sausages, ham and cheeses appeared as an accompaniment to the drinks and when the pisco ran out wine and whisky replaced it, along with orange juice for the abstemious. With Israeli and Palestinian expedition members, mountain guides, ships’ crew, media and communication specialists visiting back and forth between the boats, a cocktail party atmosphere began developing in the most bizarre of locations.

That’s when Vladimir, Vladimir, Vladimir and Yevgeny showed up – two Ukrainian researchers, their station chief and cook – bearing a welcoming gift of vodka from the Vernadsky stores. Glasses were rapidly filled and raised in a toast to international friendship. This led to another toast -- to Israeli-Palestinian peace -- which led, in turn, to more toasts – to various nations, notions, emotions and individuals. Ship’s doctor Arik Shechter, who immigrated to Israel from the Ukraine, helped out with translation, but the reasons for each refilling of the glasses were becoming less and less apparent and of increasingly less concern to the participants.

Vernadsky Research Station is famous for its hospitality. During their yearlong posting in the Antarctic these Ukrainian scientists conduct important studies of the environment (in fact, the hole in Earth’s ozone layer was discovered here during the base’s former incarnation as Great Britain’s Faraday Research Station). But, in addition to their ecological research the Ukrainians have also gained notoriety as the proprietors of the southernmost bar on the face of the planet – a popular stop for people traveling through the region. They are spreaders of goodwill in the remoteness of the frozen continent.

In a gesture of hospitality, the crew of Pelagic Australis invited its Ukrainian friends to stay on board for a dinner of roast lamb and mashed potatoes mixed with carrots, along with an uninterrupted flow of wine and vodka. All attempts at serious conversation proved futile and the evening repast was heavily spiced with hysterical howls of laughter. Nasser Quass, a devout Muslim who refrains from alcohol, seemed inebriated by the spirit of the moment. “I don’t believe I’m seeing this,” he said. “Look at these Israelis and Palestinians and French and Americans and Ukrainians all sitting around together and having fun. Everyone’s speaking a different language and it doesn’t make any difference if they really understand. They’re just enjoying themselves. No one back home will believe me if I tell them this is what I discovered in Antarctica.”

Indeed, it was becoming increasingly difficult to think of this as an “extreme” expedition. And when the music began blasting from the loudspeakers in the ship’s saloon, any pretense of hardship on the high seas completely evaporated. With only three women on board, compared with about 25 men, the dancing got off to a slow start. But when Genya (he’d been Yevgeny before the drinking began) did his impression of John Travolta’s “Pulp Fiction” disco dance, the ice was truly and fully broken. Within minutes, the entire crowd was on its feet.

What followed (until some indeterminate hour of the morning) is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to describe. After all, Breaking the Ice is a very serious initiative – an attempt by Israelis and Palestinians to reach the summit of an unclimbed mountain in Antarctica in order to show their peoples that they can, indeed, work together in pursuit of shared objectives. So, suffice it to report the following: expedition leader Doron Erel really does know how to boogie; Palestinian Olfat Haider and Israeli Yarden Fanta have some great moves on the dance floor; given enough liquid encouragement, even mountain guides can lose their equilibrium; even in Antarctica, it’s never too cold to take off your shirt; spending ten days together at sea is more than enough reason to let off some steam; and Catrin Ellis Jones makes a powerful pisco sour.

Yes, there are also days – and nights – like this here in the far southern latitudes. This one was a prelude to more difficult days and nights ahead as the expedition team gears up to leave its boats behind, pitch its tents and begin the long trek across the ice toward its final objective.

 
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