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Cratering in Newfoundland

Don Wargowsky climbing an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. Climbing icebergs had been a long held dream of author Tom Prigg. He finally made his dream reality in 2009 and then returned the next year to spread the ashes of his friend and fellow dreamer Mike Brown. [Photo] Kelleigh Miller

The notion of climbing an iceberg was formulated one night over beers with my good friend Mikey Brown. Mike was an avid climber who loved to take risks, and get himself into strange climbing situations and humorous adventures. For him living in a campground was not uncommon. Being the archetype climbing vagabond, he tipped waitresses to finish meals on other tables. He once convinced a girl, who he’d just met to climb Royal Arches with himself and three others. She had never climbed before. Mike told the group that he knew the walk-off. Why would anyone ever question that he didn’t? He’d been living in Camp 4 all summer. They made the 1,400-foot route, but Mike inexplicably couldn’t remember, or find, the walk-off. The five of them shivered all night on a slab of rock in shorts and T-shirts. He never heard from the girl again. This was climbing with Mike. Although Mike thought the idea of climbing an iceberg was a bit ridiculous, he was all in. The two of us started planning this trip together. The year was 2004, and at that time, we only knew of one team who’d attempted an iceberg.

[Photo] Tom Prigg

In the summer of 2009, Mike passed away. Distraught with the idea that we never completed one of our craziest ideas, I called Don Wargowsky. He had recently finished a Master’s in teaching, but was following his passion–living out of a tent–in West Virginia. We met over beer to hash out our plan. Months later, with four others, we drove a modified short-bus from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Newfoundland. After a major bus breakdown and other bump-in-the-road epics, we completed our iceberg-climbing goal. Over time, Don and I felt a void that we couldn’t describe. A year later, we found ourselves back on the cold, windy shores of L’Anse aux Meadows.

Left to right, Tom Prigg, Eliot George, Aaron Stout, Don Wargowsky and Godfrey Parsons. [Photo] Erin Cassese

We had driven forty hours and 2,000 miles to reach the northern tip of Newfoundland. This area is known as “Iceberg Alley,” and was the home of Leif Ericson’s Viking settlement–the fabled “Vinland.” L’Anse aux Meadows bears a resemblance to the villages in Hemingway’s novels. Rusty, orange anchors and bleach-white fishing nets litter the shores; waves splash against holed fishing boats. The fishermen are jovial, generous and hardworking people, adapted perfectly to their finger-numbing, wind-burned environment. The fishing village has a population of one hundred and ten. School buses haven’t visited the village since the last two school-age children graduated. Most of the young adults moved to larger cities in search of higher paying jobs. The combination of industrial big-net fishing and global warming have all but crushed their way of life.

[Photo] Tom Prigg

From the shores we spotted the hazy shape of a distant iceberg. Like a gliding ghost, the Northeaster winds pelted the pale monolith’s sides, propelling it across the horizon. We feared the cruising iceberg’s submerged ice would break apart, smashing against the seafloor. The fishermen of L’anse aux Meadows keep their distance from the icebergs. An iceberg’s danger is concealed by its immense beauty and size. Like an ice cube floating in scotch, only ten percent of an iceberg is above the ocean’s surface, making it impossible to know when its center of gravity changes. The frozen canvas of the ‘bergs’ walls are painted in an array of zebra strips: black and white mixed with swaths of sky blue, sculpted by waves into multi-story works of art. Nothing stands in the way of these Goliaths. They have been sinking ships for centuries. Without warning the behemoths flip, crushing any boat nearby and exposing a clean face.

On the morning of our climb we made a reconnaissance of the iceberg we were to climb. The rough seas made transitioning from the boat to ice a dangerous undertaking. Godfrey Parsons, a gutsy fisherman and our captain, suggested that we wait and watch the weather, “It’ll probably not get worse. Usually the winds die down in the afternoon.” Godfrey checked the weather back on shore. At 10 a.m. he returned, bursting into the fishing shed, “We gotta go now. The winds are changing. They’ll be blowing from the northeast, and Northeasters are always trouble! If you are going to do this, you gotta do it now!”

Eliot George on the ‘berg. [Photo] Tom Prigg

We suited up. Every ocean swell body-slammed the small vessel. My internal dialog repeated, “Shit, somebody’s gonna get hurt.” Waves pitched the boat wildly in all directions and the unpredictable motion made standing up extremely difficult. Trying to stay balanced while swinging my ice tools in the same place was nearly impossible, so I strafed the ice until I got a good stick. Once an axe was good, I put all my trust onto it, then jumped from the boat and thrust my front-points into the ice mid-leap. If the ‘berg rolled, I didn’t want to be dragged under the freezing water, so we all climbed without leashes or ropes. Nearly every swing of an axe bounced off the 15,000-year-old ice. Sticking my way to a ridge, I suddenly heard a thunderous BOOM. The waves crashed through a notch in the iceberg’s center. The explosive sound pounded adrenaline into my heart; I had never felt so alive!

[Photo] Tom Prigg

We had one objective to put to rest. A year before, to pay homage to our friend, Mikey Brown, Don and I had pounded two ice pitons into an iceberg, but in this manner, our closure was as hollow as the pitons in ice. Two weeks before we left on this trip, Mike’s mother contacted me. Her request: “Could you spread Mike’s ashes on an iceberg?” There was no hesitation, this was something that absolutely had to happen. After Aaron cruised up the wall of ice, it was time to carry out our tribute. Don Wargowsky and I jumped onto the ice. Climbing to the ridge once more, we kicked our front-points in deep, planted our axes and pulled the boxes of ashes out. My teeth gripped the taped-down edges of the clear-plastic, ash-filled urn. It opened, but only enough to get gray, tasteless ashes in my mouth. I spit and chuckled, then wondered, “How am I going to do this?” Then it all made sense. I grabbed my axe and stuck it through the box. Ripping the pick through the urn made it easy to pour the light, dusty ashes out. Our climb was done and Mikey became part of one of our craziest ideas.

Tom Prigg and Don Wargowsky spreading the ashes of their friend Mike Brown. [Photo] Erin Cassese

It was time to return. Down climbing, I struck the ice causing a “dinner plate.” Not the usual six-inch saucer, this detached layer surrounded my entire body with its considerable, six-foot diameter. If I had fallen, I would have slid between the boat and iceberg. “FUCK!” I heard, “Relax dude, you’re doing fine.” I swapped my axes, hooking one around my neck. Switching hands, I reached out and swung for a secure placement. I got a good stick, then smashed all of the loose ice away. After down climbing, I jumped backwards and ripped my axes from the ice, landing on the deck of the boat. We still had three more climbers to go.

Godfrey Parsons, Tom Prigg and Aaron Stout watch as Don Wargowsky transitions onto the ice. [Photo] Graney Juris

Eliot George climbs as the boat circles around the iceberg. [Photo] Tom Prigg

Our window of opportunity was closing rapidly as the Northeaster’s winds intensified. The boat continued to flail in a chaotic dance with the iceberg. Shattered ice rained into the ocean as Eliot George swung over and over again from the deck of the boat until he heard the Thunk. His axe stuck. Then a large gray wave grabbed and threw the boat away from the ice, dislocating Eliot’s shoulder. Still gripping his axe, Eliot hung over the water. We pulled him back from being crushed. He didn’t whine, whimper or scream out; there was no indication of his pain except for the funny way he rolled his next cigarette.

As Eliot popped his shoulder back in, and we brought the boat around for another try. This time he got two good placements, then leaped from the boat. The scars from our crampons were high above the water’s surface, and the iceberg was tilting. To retrieve the climbers, we had to maneuver over a shelf of submerged ice that was slowly rising. Motoring up to retrieve Eliot, the iceberg rocked back, exposing the aquamarine shelf.

[Photo] Tom Prigg

The propellers struck the rising shelf and stalled the engine. Godfrey frantically pulled the cord to restart the motor before the iceberg’s suction sank us. The motor screamed. The ocean batted us around like a bath-toy. Getting just close enough, Eliot fell back onto the deck. Aaron Stout was the last of our four to climb. He reached out with his long arms to take a few swings. The boat rocked up and down so quickly that Aaron’s pick holes were feet apart. It was no longer safe for the boat here. We took him over to the shorter end of the iceberg where the ocean was a bit smoother. Aaron was able to make the climb to the ridge and back down. But the water around the iceberg was its own torrential sea storm; control was nothing more than a distant memory. We motored back to shore with no desire for any more gambling.

Aaron Stout on the iceberg. [Photo] Tom Prigg

Mikey Brown climbing the nose. [Photo] David Micklo

The next morning we looked out at the iceberg from shore. Once again, we could see it rocking violently. Within an hour, it began to roll and break-apart. In just forty-eight hours the iceberg came close enough to shore to climb, then crumbled into sea. The disintegration of the colossus punctuated the dangers we had faced.

Two years before, I had run into Mikey switching buses in downtown Pittsburgh. We decided to get a beer, and I told him that I had given up on the idea of climbing an iceberg. “Too many years of it never happening. It’s just becoming embarrassing now.” He talked me back into the idea by telling me, “You know, it doesn’t matter if you don’t do it or give up. You already put everything into it, and sometimes things don’t workout. But you’ve shown me what could be possible. It’s better than everybody else who never tries at all.” I am not sure if there was ever true closure. He should have been there to climb with us. But spreading his ashes on an iceberg in the North Atlantic is probably as close to closure as anyone can get.