At the top of the bottom


— Ten years ago, Steamboat resident Frank Williams was pressing glass on a powder day at the bottom of the Silver Bullet Gondola.

While in line, he met Australian Graham Goldin, and the two struck up a friendship that is still in place.

And thanks to that friendship, 10 years later he was waiting in another line at the bottom of the world.

He was climbing a never-climbed-before mountain in Antarctica with a group of self-proclaimed adventurers across a snow bridge that spanned a deep crevasse.

Williams was waiting, watching the man in front of him to cross the bridge, when the man suddenly dropped through the layer of snow, catching himself with his arms.

"This is serious business," Williams said.

The climbing crew rushed to the aid of the man, whose legs dangled precariously, who was pulled out with ropes.

Williams had to find a different path along the deceptively stable-looking bridge but got a glimpse of the hole in the natural structure his fellow climber had punched through.

"He never had a chance to look down in that hole," Williams said while thumbing through a photo album of his trip. "But where I crossed, I looked down to where he was and I couldn't see the bottom."

The episode occurred during one of four ascents Williams made in Antarctica, each a day trip.

A Russian ship, chartered specifically for the journey, was used by the climbers as a base camp.

The expeditions were led by world-renowned mountaineer Greg Mortimer, whom Williams met through Goldin.

Mortimer is known for climbing some of the most daunting peaks in the world, including Mount Everest and K2.

Mortimer has taken up an interest in climbing mountains in Antarctica, charting Russian vessels to take him there. Williams met the man more than a year ago and was invited to go on the expedition.

Williams left Feb. 12, starting his trip in Ushuaia, Argentina, the most southern city on the earth, Williams said. From there, the Russian vessel, which carried a crew of 25 and 45 passengers, headed to the rough seas of the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.

During the whole 48-hour voyage, the ship rocked violently through the sea that threw waves over the bow of the vessel.

"Green water," Williams said, "would go over the whole front of the boat."

Even a small walk on the ship involved grasping onto a railing to keep balance in the tossing seas, he said.

The first stop on the Antarctic Peninsula was Desolation Island, where the group climbed into inflatable rafts to get on shore. The water there is about 33 degrees, so any misjudgment with the raft that ended with someone in the frigid water could be fatal, Williams said.

"You wouldn't last long. You would have less than 10 minutes before you'd go into cardiac arrest," Williams said.

On the island, the group explored for a while, then returned to the ship. The crew then navigated the ship into Deception Island, which is a volcano peeking out of the water with a hole in the side that allowed the ship to sail through and reach the center of the island.

From there, the vessel sailed to the Graham Land, where the group would do its climbing.

Climbing in the Antarctic is different, explained Williams, who has climbed mountains in the United States and Europe.

The climb starts 10 to 15 yards from where the rafts land.

The mountains look like an extension of the Andes both on a map and by their very appearance. But they come right out of the water, Williams said.

All the climbs were day climbs. Crampons and ropes were a must with the climbs, which mainly involved navigating around deep crevasses and over snow bridges.

The group also had the opportunity to climb glaciers.

"The glaciers were huge," Williams said. "They would make the ship look like a toy."

But one lasting impact that stuck with Williams when he returned on March 3 was the encompassment of nature.

Williams told of the snowstorms, where the wind would blow a whiteout. Or where the seas would rage from the wind and the crew was isolated on the boat because it couldn't anchor and there was no way of making it to shore. Williams said more than anywhere else he's been, he saw how the human being is a fragile entity.

"You're just a little thing," he said. "It's a harsh environment."


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