A Chilling climb

David Whalen
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Americans risk life and limb scaling icebergs in L'Anse aux Meadows

No matter the risk and the prevailing wisdom against doing something, you can be sure there's someone out there willing to try.

This spring, six ice climbers from Pittsburgh proved that in L'Anse aux Meadows.

Anyone who's read, "The Lure of the Labrador Wild" knows how unforgiving the province can be for big-city American explorers with aspirations for grand adventure.

Left, Tom Prigg mounts an iceberg near L'Anse aux Meadows. Prigg (right) and five others from Pittsburgh climbed two icebergs in May. Submitted photos

No matter the risk and the prevailing wisdom against doing something, you can be sure there's someone out there willing to try.

This spring, six ice climbers from Pittsburgh proved that in L'Anse aux Meadows.

Anyone who's read, "The Lure of the Labrador Wild" knows how unforgiving the province can be for big-city American explorers with aspirations for grand adventure.

But in mid-May, the U.S. ice climbers achieved their goal of climbing an iceberg. They were bold, yet always aware of the risk they were taking.

"There's no skill in surviving," trip leader Tom Prigg said bluntly in a phone interview from his home in Pittsburgh.

"You really are putting a bullet in a chamber and pulling the trigger."

Prigg, a lab manager in the neurobiology department of the University of Pittsburgh and an avid mountain and ice climber, came up with the idea about six years ago. He says he was intrigued by the unique appearance of icebergs. The dark aqua hues and the smooth face of an iceberg are a far cry from the jagged texture of the frozen waterfalls and cliff faces he was used to climbing.

"The whole thing just looks really beautiful and I thought from an artistic view it would be a very esthetic climb, and that's really what the attraction was," Prigg said.

He was joined by climbers Ben McMillen, Sarah George, Don Wargowsky, Dan Hostetter and Justin Kaiser.

In preparation, Prigg devoured any information he could find on icebergs. He monitored iceberg tracking websites and contacted local tour guides who were used to working near icebergs.

"I even did a silly thing where I took different shaped ice cubes and watched how they melted and tapped them around to see how they would roll and try and get clues. I don't know how much knowledge I gained from that, but still, it's fun to experiment a little, being a scientist," Prigg said.

When they arrived in L'Anse aux Meadows, locals were frank about what they thought of the idea.

"Pretty much everyone told us we were crazy," McMillen said.

"It's very difficult to explain to somebody in a matter of 30 seconds that you've spent five or six years planning this and going over it in your head."

Icebergs are notoriously unpredictable. By the time they've reached the relatively warm Gulf stream off Newfoundland, they're significantly less stable than when they first break off from northern glaciers.

"When the temperatures are up, you've got huge thermal stresses that go through these things and ultimately they're continuously eroding and deteriorating," said Freeman Ralph, director of ice engineering at C-CORE.

"Within a moment's notice that whole thing can come down and not just tip over, but the whole thing, in many cases, just disintegrates, to the point where there's nothing left, just slush in the water," Ralph said.

Edward Kean, an experienced iceberg harvester for Iceberg Vodka, has seen a number of people attempt to climb icebergs. He holds nothing back in describing what he thinks of the activity.

"I've seen several groups of them. A lot of them are just plain nuts. There are some icebergs you can get on but there's a lot you can't," Kean said. "It's a dangerous thing to be at."

Aside from their normal ice-climbing equipment, Prigg and McMillen's group wore thick wetsuits and personal flotation devices. After their Jet Ski broke down, a fisherman took the group out to the bergs. Boarding proved difficult.

"The waves were pushing the boat backward, forward, left, right, and so you had to time when your axes hit the iceberg," Prigg said.

Once on the iceberg, the climbing was fairly straightforward.

"Nowhere else can you find ice that's that clean and that perfect," McMillen said.

The group climbed two icebergs over the course of their three-day trip.

Having reached his goal after six years of planning, Prigg isn't sure if his iceberg climbing days are over. He's aware the group was lucky to have returned onshore safely.

"Half my brain says, 'just take what you got and be done with it,' and half my brain says, 'that was a lot of fun'," Prigg said.

"You have to wonder if you keep doing it, are you really taking these risks seriously?"

telegram@thetelegram.com

Organizations: University of Pittsburgh

Geographic location: L'Anse, Pittsburgh, U.S. Newfoundland

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