Larry Swalheim in Antarctica: Knocking One Off the
Landmark Services Co-op CEO Larry Swalheim doesn't look like a daring adventurer, but you'd be surprised what he lived through during a February 2010 trip to the bottom of the world, Antarctica. The trip knocked one of the remaining things off of his personal "Bucket List," but it's doubtful that anything remaining will compare to it because he could easily have kicked the bucket.
From getting an up-close look at majestic whales, to coming all too close to potentially vicious leopard seals, to nearly becoming a human Popsicle in the 28-degree salt water of the coves and bays and channels of this isolated continent, Swalheim had a treacherous ball.
Long, Strange Trip
Communing with frozen nature is a far cry from Swalheim's task list at Landmark Services Cooperative, where he concentrates on selling crop "inputs" (seeds and fertilizer the like) and marketing farm "outputs" (crops and milk). But after his experiences with getting to and taking in Antarctica, there probably aren't too many business challenges too daunting for him.
Where did Swalheim get the idea to pack for this one? A cousin of his had taken the same trip 10 years before, and her stories and photographs were intriguing enough for Swalheim to research the Antarctic continent. Having watched The Bucket List, a 2007 motion picture in which terminally-ill men escape a cancer ward with a "to-do" list of things to accomplish before they die, and realizing that Dec. 14, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen becoming the first man to set foot on the South Pole, Swalheim decided it was go-time no matter how much this trip would take him out of his comfort zone.
Make no mistake, this trip would have encroached on anyone's comfort zone. (Swalheim's wife, Dottie, was not the least bit interested in accompanying him; it was, after all, not on her bucket list. Smart lady.)
Listening to Swalheim, it's hard to tell which barrier was larger — getting there or surviving the actual visit. The first leg of his trip — a flight to Atlanta — was among 500 flights cancelled due to a paralyzing snowstorm in the heart of Dixie. Some people would have taken that as an omen, but Swalheim wasn't about to pass up this chance to pour one out of the bucket, so he employed a combination of chutzpa, blind luck, and creative cajoling to reach his destination. He did so by way of Atlanta, where he caught a break in booking an international flight amid a sea of stranded travelers, and Rio de Janeiro, where lacking a visa, he spent time pleading his case in two police stations. Having finally convinced airport security he wasn't staying, it was on to Buenos Aires, where his traveling travails cut short his visit by one day, and then finally it was off to the city of Ushuaia, the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego.
Ushuaia is surrounded by the picturesque, snow-capped Martial Mountain range, and Swalheim was in complete awe of the natural scenery as his flight descended into the city. "They call that city 'del Fin del Mundo,' which means the end of the Earth," Swalheim noted. "It's the most southern city in the world."
Dreading the Drake
That's where Swalheim would catch the boat that would take him and 280 other passengers through more awesome scenery in the archipelago at the southern tip of South America and then on to Antarctica, where his excellent adventure got really interesting. The 40-hour boat ride to Antarctica would amble through the Drake Passage, where the convergence of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern Oceans make for some of the roughest seas in the world. Named for Sir Francis Drake, the 900 miles of roiling sea starts at Cape Horn, the Southern most point of South America, not to mention the scene of many a shipwreck.
This leg of Swalheim's journey required lots of Dramamine. Many passengers would let go of their "Eggos" as the seas rocked their Norwegian vessel, the Fram, which was all of 66 feet wide and 282 feet long. The ship, built in 2005 and named for an early-generation polar research vessel, had crashed into a glacier during its maiden year after the power went out in its engines.
For the most part, those choppy Drake Passage waves were about 12 feet high, but they were consistent and they have been known to double that height on occasion. All night long, the waves were rough, and in the morning, Swalheim guessed that about 20% of the people onboard did not come down for breakfast, despite a scrumptious array of culinary treats.
If you could sleep, he said you were in good shape, which perhaps is why one remedy for a bad crossing might have been falsely advertised. "Most of us took Dramamine. We were told it was non-drowsy but that's a farce. It made you drowsy. I don't care what they said. Once we got going, the boat was up and down, up and down — kaboom! — all night long. Laying there, you could feel the waves go up."
On approach to Antarctica, large icebergs and glaciers provided the first glimpses of natural eye candy, but they were only a preview of what was come. The seven-mile long Lemaire Channel provided a real Kodak moment, with 3,500 foot cliffs on either side that conspire with the sun to paint a stunning self-portrait on the water. "On a decent day, you can see all of the reflections on the water and you think there are four cliffs out there," Swalheim said. "It's absolutely breathtaking, going down that straight."
Off the Antarctic shore, the smoothness of the ride in and out of coves and straights and channels rendered Dramamine unnecessary. And nobody actually goes to the South Pole — you have to be part of a research station to go there — because it's a protected, pristine country. There are no cities to visit and no hotels to check into. Passengers simply sleep on the boat while it's docked, but take rubber boats called Zodiacs on sightseeing excursions and hike in certain areas on land.
"That island is absolutely meant to be pristine," Swalheim stated. "You leave nothing there except your footprints."
The boats held eight people who had to dress warmly (surprise) with expedition jackets and rubber boots among their gear. They headed out intermittently through an opening at the bottom floor of the ship. On trips to the shore, no more than 100 people could be on land at any one time. During the day, the high temperature might reach 20 degrees above zero — February is a summer month down there — only to slip back below zero at night. "Totally bearable," Swalheim stated. "I was dressed for it."
No amount of dress would protect people in July (Antarctica's winter), as temperatures can reach 80 below.
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