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Ice-climbing excursion fraught with danger

| Sunday, June 6, 2010

After years of planning, Don Wargowsky was ready to leave on the trip of a lifetime, save for one detail.

He had to travel to Ohio to visit his parents, tell them the truth about what he was going to do, tell them he loved them and say goodbye.

Just in case.

Wargowsky and five others from Pittsburgh were going to Newfoundland to climb on icebergs in the North Atlantic, something few have ever done -- with good reason.

The risks were deadly. The ice can cleave, and chunks the size of school buses can plunge into the ocean. The iceberg could suddenly become unstable and roll over, sending top to bottom and vice versa in no time.

Even the simple act of falling off the 'berg would mean plunging into the frigid water since the climbers can't use ropes or other standard safety equipment. No one wants to be attached to something that could suddenly be 200 feet underwater.

The fishermen in the village of L'anse aux Meadows, a former Norse settlement and their destination point, told them there are no warning signs when an iceberg is about to break apart or roll. Fishermen don't like to go anywhere near them, even in boats.

"No one up there said it was a good idea," said Wargowsky, 26, of Trafford, and a recent graduate from Chatham University with a master's in education. "No one anywhere thought it was good idea."

No one, that is, except for veteran mountaineer and ice-climber Tom Prigg, 39, of Millvale, who first dreamt of the trip after looking at pictures of icebergs and talking with friends. He was joined on the expedition by Wargowsky, 26-year-old Ryan Hostetter, of Monroeville, a custom fabricator, and three graduate students: Sarah George, 24, of Friendship; Justin Kaiser, 28, of Shadyside; and Ben McMillen, 29, also of Shadyside.

The trip was six years in the planning, primarily because there was so little information from others who'd done what they wanted to do.

"I'd actually never heard of anyone climbing icebergs," Prigg said. "Every time I'd bring it up, the only people who talked about it said how dangerous they are and how climbing them had always been out of the question. That kind of stuff always attracted me."

Even an Internet search on the subject brings up more results on a specific variety of rose than information on the act of climbing icebergs. Only a few entries address what Prigg wanted to do, and most are about professional rock and ice-climber Will Gadd.

Prigg contacted Gadd for advice.

"His response was: 'It was the most dangerous thing I ever did, and I'll never do it again, but everybody has a right to kill themselves,' " Prigg said.

No turning back

The truth was, all the warnings in the world weren't enough to dissuade Prigg and company.

On May 14, they set off on a 40-hour trip in a converted school bus heading north to Newfoundland, the easternmost province in Canada.

In a small fishing village of 110 people, their presence was no secret.

It also wasn't a secret what the locals thought of their plan.

They told them they'd seen icebergs that rose only two or three feet out of the water sink fishing boats when they rolled. They told them the wave from an iceberg rolling offshore nearly destroyed a dock.

They told them they weren't very smart.

"We did have one person who was actually very gruff with us who said he'd been living there his whole life and had seen them flip over and that we should stop what we were doing," Wargowsky said. "We thanked him for his concern. Then a few days later, we saw him again, and I think he took it very personally that we went ahead and climbed. It really seemed to bother him."

The group had planned to use a jet ski to get from the shore to the icebergs, located not too far from the coast. But when their jet ski failed, they found one fisherman who agreed to take them in his boat, even if he did think they were nuts.

One of the most difficult things about climbing icebergs is getting onto them.

With most of the iceberg underwater, the boat is over top of the ice. The waves and swells around the mass make the movement of the boat unpredictable, and it requires a combination of balance, strength and luck to drive an ax into the ice, leap from the boat and not fall.

On Wargowsky's first try, a swell hit and his arm was crushed between the boat and the 'berg.

It wasn't broken, but it was swollen and bruised from his wrist to his armpit.

He continued, but actually being on the iceberg, about the size of a large house rising above the surface, didn't make anyone feel more comfortable. "It's very dense ice, and it's under extreme pressure," Wargowsky said. "When you put an ax in it, it's like a shock wave. There's all this built-up pressure, and as soon as it has a way to escape, it pops, and it's really loud. It's scary.

"On regular ice, if that happens, it means the ice is about to fail, and you're (done). But with this, that was just what it sounded like every time you hit into it."

It was an exercise in getting on, summiting and getting off the iceberg as quickly as possible. They were already tempting fate; the longer they stayed on, the greater the chance of a problem.

The first day, only the three most experienced climbers got on the iceberg because the swells made the entry and exit too dangerous. The second day, all six got a chance to climb, first on the same smaller one, then on a bigger iceberg about 60 feet tall and 200 feet wide.

Wargowsky said they stayed in touch with some of the people in the village, and that days after they left, the bigger iceberg broke apart.

Both icebergs were partially grounded on the ocean floor, although the danger of tipping was still very real. On one climb, as the tide came in, they felt the iceberg pick up off the floor, then settle back down.

"I think it was the scariest thing I've ever done, and I've done a lot of things," said George, a mountaineer whose resume includes climbing Mt. Rainier and New Hampshire's Mount Washington.

Still, she said, it was worth it.

"I'm very glad I did it," said George, a master's student in art education at Chatham University. "I don't know that I'd ever do it again."

Why do it?

For George, part of the intrigue was doing something so few others had ever done. She wanted to be able to look back at pictures of her on an iceberg when she was 90 years old. And there was also a little something more.

"I also know that very few women have ever done it," she said. "I only know of one other woman, and I couldn't let the boys go have all the fun. I wanted to show women can do it, too."

Prigg, who received the Scott Fisher Conservation Grant from the American Alpine Club and is now working on an educational video about icebergs and the environment, also said it was about having a unique experience.

"That's what all of mountaineering and climbing is; to see things and experience things you don't get in every-day life," he said. "There are five, six billion people in the world who will never have that experience. It's almost like putting a flag on the moon."

Wargowsky said it was incredibly difficult seeing his mother cry when he told her what he was going to do, knowing his family would be in fear until he was home safe.

He also recognized that it's selfish and accomplishes nothing other than enjoyment and a good story.

"It's something that I need to be happy," he said. "If I'm not climbing, if I'm not outdoors experiencing new things, it's really hard. It's almost like I get depressed. I think the addictive part is that you're just so in the moment, it lets you escape from other things. It's pretty much impossible to stop doing."

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