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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 Reaches First Summit

(Expedition Log 9)

By Michael Greenspan

Hovgaard Island, Antarctica (65° S -- 64° W)

January 9, 2004

The 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 climbers.

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 problem.”

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 Pelagic Australis

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 is.”

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.

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