Many expeditioners and mountaineers have ascended Mount Erebus, and will again. They have or will arrive in droves to climb even more difficult peaks, such as Mount Lister or Vincent Massif or Mount Vinson. Their achievements are showcased in Outside Magazine or Rock and Ice, in which they detail their technical proficiencies, gear, and strategies for the climbs.
“Douglas Moeson” is a legendary figure in the lore of The Program because in 1991 he ascended to the peak of Mount Erebus by his slight technical skills, his pro-active disregard of local policies, and with a bag of sandwiches from the Galley.
What is different about the typical Antarctic peak-baggers vs. Moeson is that the former don’t have to be back on the clock the next day working construction. Also, while other mountaineers may broadcast their achievements openly, either for fun or for funding, Moeson at the time barely peeped, lest his job become suddenly unavailable. In short, whereas the classic line of asking a mountaineer why he climbs a mountain with the reply, “Because it’s there,” might in this case be answered with the reply, “Because it’s there, and you could get caught,” followed by a devilish snicker through the cigarette smoke.
Moeson is a contractor who snuck out of McMurdo, ascended Mount Erebus, and made it back in time for the Monday morning safety meeting.
His achievement was first popularly acknowledged in Sara Wheeler’s “Terra Incognita”.
This interview was recorded in January of 2008 in McMurdo.
Note: None of the accompanying photos are from Moeson’s ascent. They’re merely page filler from the editor’s collection.
What is it that you did, first of all?
I appropriated a snowmobile, got it a large chunk of the way up Erebus, and then hoofed it the rest of the way. It was a long and complex chain of events.
What were the things you had to do before you actually left?
There were two people who knew, and I made quite sure that they weren’t going to be nervous and panic right away. A few years before, three people had tried to go up Erebus in the winter, but they ran into bad weather and had to retreat. Unfortunately, they had told some of their roommates, and the roommates panicked and told Search and Rescue.
As a result, when the storm subsided, Search and Rescue went for them, and met the party coming back, all healthy and hearty. Had the roommates not been told, the party still wouldn’t have made the climb, but they would have snuck back in unnoticed. I figured that if I got into any trouble on the mountain, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that it would make any difference anyway. So what the hell.
In the summer, NSF parks the snowmobiles out by Scott Base, so that the science groups having projects within fifteen miles or so can just grab their snowmobiles. But one science group never used them. Never. For some reason they were assigned them, and no one seemed to notice that they never used them, except a few of us. The scientists left the key under the seat, which was easily figured out. So I took the snowmobile for a little ride, just a little one. The next weekend I came back and looked at the odometer, and it hadn’t changed. So the next weekend, I took it out a little farther. And the next weekend. The science party had no interest. So a few of us went out to Cape Evans and harassed Greenpeace, actually, to party with them and drink wine. And I took it out to Hutton Cliffs a few times. That’s a nice pickup line. You see a young lady and say, “Do you want to go for a ride tonight?”
The first year I was here, before I knew it was even against the rules, I skied to Erebus, right down the peninsula, and probably gained a thousand feet in elevation. I had various adventures on the way. So I knew that much of it. Then I took a run, following that route I knew, and went to three thousand feet one weekend, also bringing a young lady along. And then a little later I and two unnamed accomplices took two snowmobiles up to five thousand feet.
How high is Erebus?
Almost thirteen. So I had a good chunk of the beginning route reconnoitered. I had also been studying the route with my binoculars for several years thinking about this.
What did you take with you?
I had a sleeping bag, some extra food…
What kind of food? High-protein packs?
No, not mountaineering-type stuff. All I had was a bunch of sandwiches wrapped in foil from the Galley. It was a motley collection of clothes and food, a little bit of rope, crampons, and an ice axe that I didn’t use. I didn’t have a tent. I had no idea what was going to happen, and I didn’t have access to real mountaineering gear, so it was just a collection of what I thought I might use.
So what happened at tee-off time?
I took off on Saturday night, about 9 o’clock, while everybody was getting drunk. Before, during the work week, I had driven out and filled up the snowmobile gas tank, and got another five-gallon jerry can and put that on. I caught the shuttle to Scott Base, went out to the snowmobiles, threw the backpack in, fired it up and went down the peninsula. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, this is absolutely ridiculous. Why am I even attempting this?” You get further out and you get more and more committed.
You were planning to go to the top, right? Or just as high as you could?
I wanted to go as far as I could, but I had a reasonable expectation that making the top was possible, though everything would have to fall into place correctly. No weather or other problems. But I figured I had a reasonable shot, that it was feasible. So, I got past where I had been before, and it became a little bit of a slope…
It’s a mountain.
It’s a mountain. So you’ve got to keep your engine speed up. You can’t just slowly crawl. You have to keep moving. You have to route find, and look for crevasses, at speed. You can’t go slowly and reconnoiter, because you have to keep the engine power up just to keep going.
So you could have fallen in a crevasse?
I presume I could. Nowadays, when I look with binoculars and trace out my route, I can see a very big crevasse, which I presume I crossed. But at the time, I was going for it. I have been out a bit in the mountains; I’m not an absolute novice at predicting where the crevasses might be, but it’s still kind of sticking your neck out. I wasn’t totally blind. I had some vague idea of what terrain lines to follow. But I just kept it up, and gradually it began to get steeper and steeper, and it finally got to the point with the snowmobile where you can keep climbing, but you can also come straight down. On the steep slope, when you turn is when you’re in danger of rolling. And I says, “I think I better stop here and turn.” I also wanted to make sure and point it downhill, rather than come back to it later to do the maneuver. So I stopped and sat there for awhile and thought, “Do you really want to do this thing?”
Were you freaking out?
Not quite yet. Since I left at 9 o’clock, it was now about 2 a.m. in the morning. At this point I was not necessarily going to go to the summit, but knew I could still climb for a couple hours. So that’s how you fake yourself into starting.
The first stretch of it was medium-soft snow, and then it switched to much harder snow. Then there were snow slopes, but with exposed ridges of rock. I stayed on the rock, and the ridge of rock would end, and I could usually get to another by traversing horizontally to the next one. Rather than climbing on the snowfield, I felt more comfortable climbing up on the rock.
When did you know that you were actually going to go to the summit?
Well, I just kept going on, and it began to get more tiring. After a little bit, it was about one step per breath. Then it moved to about two steps per breath. The weather was still perfect. There was no wind. It was perfectly clear. It was so warm I had to leave my jacket open. It might have been zero, but when you’re exerting yourself, that’s warm. I probably started climbing about 3 a.m. in the morning, and the more I climbed, the more the terrain opened around me, and the view just kept getting better. When I saw a big bluff of rock coming out I said, “When I get to that, I’ll reevaluate.” I got to that at about 9 a.m. in the morning, where I laid down for about forty minutes and tried to nap. I had decided to turn around at noon, in order to get back to town on time, but I could see that I was not going to make it at the rate I was going. So at this little outcrop where I had taken my nap, I knew either I was not going to make it, or I had to pick up my pace. So I dropped my backpack with all my survival equipment, took a bottle of water and the camera, and started up the rest of the way.
How much farther did you have to go?
Probably about 1500 vertical feet, and a couple of miles horizontally.
So at that point you were mixed about whether to continue?
At that point I was really mixed. I said, “If you drop your backpack and go on, you are really committed.” Up to this time I said, “Well, I’m getting higher, and it’s nice, but I can always turn around and go back.” It was a mixed feeling. I said, “I will regret it all my life if I give up. And actually, you might have gone too far.” But at that moment, I said, “You know what? I really don’t give a damn. I think I’m gonna go for it.” By that time it was getting to about four breaths per every step. I was very tired. And semi-hallucinating. Seeing things move out of the corner of my eye.
Tell me about that.
As I kept climbing, there were rocks and boulders, and many of them resembled human shapes. Somebody is watching me. I had a feeling that somebody, or something, was watching me. That there was some other presence there.
As you’re going up, you can’t see the peak, there’s just a snow slope ahead of you, and it goes on and on. Even though I dropped the pack, I was looking at my timeline, and thinking I would not be able to do it. And then it began to level off. There’s a shoulder, then a flatter area, before the central inner cone, and it began to level off. And I came over the shoulder, and for the first time I could see the central cone. And directly above the central cone was the full moon.
That was a sign.
It was. I looked at the full moon above the central cone and I said, “I’d like to make this bastard. It’s almost like a welcome sign.” Because I was full of trepidation and doubt. Tired and beat, and way out there, and out on a limb, but when I could see the central peak and the moon above it…when you get up to that level, you can start to see a little bit across to the other side. And it was all blue with water. Then I went on. I walked across the flatter area to the central cone.
Dude, you’re standing there alone at the top of Erebus, with no helos…
And the volcanic rocks, these volcanic bombs have splattered, and because of the sulfur or other residues or something, the rocks have a little more color, greens and yellows and reds and oranges are on the ground, and I stopped and began to pick a few Erebus crystals. That’s when I moved my turnaround time back. And then I got to the central cone: where it was scree, loose rock, slide-back-a-half-step for each step up, and that was real miserable. But by then I was going for it no matter what. Up and up and up. Then, instead of seeing at a 45 degree angle ahead of you, it was 35 degrees, then 30. Then I saw a footprint for the first time. And a few other tracks. From the time you see rock in front of your face, and then nothing in front of your face, is about four steps. Boom! All of a sudden you’re on top.
I had a very profound emotion at the top: I didn’t have to climb anymore. Not satisfying the goal, not seeing the top, but just not having to goddamn climb anymore. Relief.
So you’d been up for thirty hours at this time?
Thirty hours or more. It was probably about 1 or 2 in the afternoon on Sunday at that time. Then I got a little bit of enthusiasm, and I walked all the way around the rim. About half way around on the other side, there was no trail, and the terrain began to get a little odd, with rough terrain. And that’s where all the fumaroles were. Coming up in all strange shapes, and by now I’m in full hallucination mode. And they looked like creatures moving. This was a continuation: I definitely had this feeling there was something else there, and I was being watched. And whatever entity was watching was, at the very best, neutral. The most optimistic was neutral. That it didn’t give a damn whether I lived or died. But sometimes it was slightly hostile. The very best feeling I had was that it didn’t care at all.
Did you have other thoughts about it being worse? What was the worst you thought of it?
There were times when I could feel a sense of: “What are you doing here?”
Do you think it’s possible that the universe is malevolent?
Basically, yes. I think it’s at best neutral, and somewhat of a “if you think you’re good enough, then try it, but it’s a little bit of a challenge.” I’ve kind of always had that impression of the universe. It’s not an immensely warm-hearted welcoming one. Though when I saw the full moon above the crater, there was a slight touch of a semi-welcome, a slight gesture of a friendliness…
Maybe it was taunting you…
I think it may have been a tease. A bait.
Like those flowers that look so nice that eat the insects that come near.
Then I continued around, and I was stumbling, and the ground was rougher, and I thought, “Here’s where you have made your error, you’re going to sprain an ankle on the rocks, and then you’re really going to be pickled.” I never would have made it after that. I didn’t even have a radio. So I’m doing my circumnavigation and finally encounter my tracks where I had come up. I started back down. Going down was a little easier. I was able to take one step for every breath on the descending.
But you’re still wrecked at this point?
Oh, I was still fried. I was stumbly wrecked. I found my pack where I’d left it and started down. As I was going down the rock ridges I could sit on my butt, but I had to do the reverse on the ice fields, and this was getting pretty shaky. One time I slipped, so lying on my belly I dug in my ski poles, and probably slid 150 feet before I stopped. I was thinking, “My god, this is humorous.” Because the slope was two or three thousand feet if I hadn’t stopped myself. And I eventually stumbled my way to the snowmobile with this nagging thought: Is it going to start? It started, much to my relief.
On the way up it had been perfectly clear, and the view was magnificent. But during my time up there, a cloud deck had moved in, with the tops of the clouds at about six thousand feet. So I was still up in the clear blue, but it was all white carpet below. Going down, I’m glad I found my tracks because when I got in the clouds I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet. So I just concentrated following my tracks because I couldn’t see anything else. Eventually at about two thousand feet I came out of the clouds, near Room With a View. And then just proceeded back, totally fried.
So did you just park the snowmobile and catch the shuttle?
As I was coming back by the Kiwi ski hill, I was like, “You’re entering human territory again and, despite the state of mind you’re in, you have to actually relate to human beings.”
You had something like an acid trip.
The whole thing was very similar to a 24-hour acid trip. Absolutely amazing. So I pulled back into the snowmobile parking lot, shut it off, got my backpack, and waved down a shuttle I saw coming down the road. Now it’s about 9 o’clock on a Sunday night. There was some young lady driving the shuttle, and I sort of stumbled in there, and I remember her looking at me oddly, but she didn’t say anything. I don’t know what I looked like, but I must have looked pretty ridiculous. Really bad. She looked at me several times like, “What have you been doing?” Then I got dropped off at the dorms, and went to bed.
Did you tell anyone afterwards?
Afterwards, a few select people. I told the two people who knew I’d gone. And the next day I told some of the people who knew that the snowmobiles were unattended. I did notice that the next year the snowmobiles were parked in front of the Chalet, and locked up. I wonder why.
So you really didn’t need any accomplices for this at all?
I didn’t need anyone’s help; I didn’t really want anyone’s help. It’s much easier to keep things discreet when nobody else knows. There’s no point in blabbing beforehand. Afterwards, you’re sort of justifying it, well, bragging a little bit.
It was kind of fun because if you pulled one of those off, you kind of got to be put on the inside, and then people would exchange more information with you. Then during ASA’s time they realized that if they sponsored more official boondoggles they could cut down on some of this.
Have there been any repercussions from your trip?
There have been no repercussions, although at the time if I happened to encounter some of the mid-level managers at the bar, and be sitting next to them, some would say to me in a side voice “Y’know Moeson, you really can’t do that kind of shit anymore.” And then give me a thumbs-up sign.