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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 Ice Breakers Scale Volcano (Expedition Log 5)

By Michael Greenspan

Deception Island (63° S -- 61° W) January 5, 2004

After four days at sea, the members of Breaking the Ice, the Israeli-Palestinian peace expedition to Antarctica, reached their first port of call. At Deception Island, in a sea-filled volcano crater, Pelagic Australis tied its mooring line to the rotting remains of an old wooden boat, the remnant of an abandoned Chilean whaling station that operated here from 1910 to 1931. Several hours later, our sister ship Pelagic, carrying the expedition’s team of mountain guides and its physician, Arik Shechter, pulled into the same shore. After days of rocking and rolling on the rough seas of the Darwin Passage, the teams on both boats were happy at the prospect of getting a peaceful night’s sleep, uninterrupted by all-night watches on deck.

Before turning in for the night, Dr. Shechter came aboard Pelagic Australis to look in on Olfat Haider, the Israeli-Arab physical education teacher from Haifa, who was injured in a fall during the ocean storm that rocked the boat on Saturday night. Suffering from either a bruised or cracked pelvis, Olfat was in tremendous pain but good spirits, doing her best to believe that within a few days she’ll be fit enough to continue with our trekking and climbing mission to the peak of an unnamed mountain on the Antarctic Peninsula.

After a quiet night and a late wake-up call, the eight Palestinian and Israeli expedition members and their mountain guides gathered on the shore for an inland trek, meant to help prepare everyone for the physical challenges we’ll face in the days ahead.

At the team’s training camp in Chamonix, France in early November, several of us had come to realize that we had to get in better shape in order to succeed in our Antarctic Mission. Today’s walk clearly demonstrated that there had been a lot of improvement. Nasser Quass, the Palestinian from the walled Old City of Jerusalem, had dropped five kilograms since Chamonix. Palestinian team member Suleiman al-Khatib had made a New Year’s resolution to give up smoking – and was sticking to it. Palestinian journalist Ziad Darwish showed no signs of the injured knee that had given him so much trouble in the French Alps. On the Israeli side, however, Avihu Shoshani was having problems with his right leg and limping noticeably. While nursing his injury he decided to go ahead with the day’s plans.

With expedition leader Doron Erel in the lead we set off for the slopes near our mooring point. As soon as we gained some altitude fantastic land and ocean vistas came into view, revealing expanses of dark brown hills composed of volcanic ash, along with blue-tinted icebergs hovering off Deception Island’s shores. At various points along those shores the hot lava trapped underground produces hot sulphur springs that heat the freezing waters to temperatures warm enough to lure in bathers for a dip.

By the standards of experienced mountain climbers, today’s trek wasn’t much of a challenge. In fact, the professionals called it a recreational walk. But, for the expedition team members, the 6 kilometer walk, with a 200 meter vertical climb over snow and volcanic ash was no easy matter. Within minutes, we were huffing and puffing and stripping off the layers of warm clothing we’d put on in preparation for the hike. No sooner had we done so than the winds picked up, snow began falling and we were all putting on our warm layers again.

The walk was more than worthwhile. After about two hours it brought us to the island’s ocean shore, where we encountered a colony of Chinstrap penguins. This is the southernmost presence of this species on earth. These small birds, about 30 to 40 centimeters in height, showed no fear of us whatsoever, allowing us to wander freely among them. They were more wary of a seal hovering offshore, perhaps hoping for a penguin dinner. After taking a coffee and cookie break by the beach, we followed the penguins’ lead up the slopes to their nesting colony. There, we found hundreds of hens sitting on their chicks, keeping them warm. Heskel Nathaniel, the originator of the concept for Breaking the Ice, was impressed with the fact that the penguins seemed less fazed – and less exhausted -- by the long walk up to their nests than we did.

Tonight we set sail again, headed southwest for the Bransfield Straight and, beyond it, the Gerlache Straight and, beyond it, the continent of Antarctica. It’s difficult to believe, but it’s actually happening. The Breaking the Ice peace expedition is on the verge of reaching its destination.

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