A few years ago, Scott Stoll asked himself a question: “If I only have one life, one chance, if I could do anything, what would I do?” His answer resulted in a four-year, 26,000-mile journey around the world on a bicycle seeking answers to the great mysteries of life, vowing to find happiness or die trying. Here is an excerpt from his new book, “Falling Uphill,” with a special postscript for Gear Junkie readers. In this story, Scott climbs Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand and wonders if it is worth finishing his journey around the world on a bike or if pride has trapped him.
Falling Uphill, Chapter 31: What are you trying to prove?
by Scott Stoll
After three hours of tramping up New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier, through rubble and streams, following yellow-tipped poles, and climbing up staircases carved out of ice, our tour group is approaching the icefalls where the top of the glacier has cracked along numerous faults as the bottom, remaining solid from the pressure, cascades in slow motion over a cliff, ripping the rocks off the wall and grinding them into silt. We cross five bridges — aluminum ladders topped with a sheet of wood, with rope handrails — the chasms deepen from a frosty white to a cool blue to a cold, bottomless black.
Distant ice tunnels thunder as they collapse. Just past the bridges, we lunch on a slope overlooking the toes of the glacier hundreds of meters below us on the valley floor where ribbons of silver streams braid themselves into the Waiho River, which disappears through a notch in the horizon into the Tasman Sea. “Does anyone suffer from claustrophobia or fear of heights?” asks our guide. “It’s a little late for that,” I say, laughing.
“This is your last chance to—” the wind freezes his words in midair— “isn’t raining yet.” In fact, a black cloud is forming around the tops of the mountains and the mist is slowly globing into a pissing drizzle (Kiwis call this fine weather). Our guide has a beaming smile and animated eyebrows that I imagined make women swoon; however, I lose faith in his wisdom, especially when he refers to the greywacke sandstone as “terminal moraine” as if a jeweler were referring to a pile of diamonds as glass. On second thought, that sounds incredibly arrogant — what exactly am I trying to prove to myself playing word games? — that I can outwit and out-survive my guide?
As lunchtime ends, our guide gives us more death-defying advice, “Don’t cover your ears with your hood so that you can hear me yell. Don’t cover your mouth so that I can hear you squeal when you fall. And don’t trip over your feet.” We enter the seracs, towering pillars of ice, as if the sub-Antarctic sea were breaking on the shores during a gale and flash frozen.
The deeper into the crevasse labyrinth we climb, the more the ice vacuums away my body heat, and the cleaner and bluer the ice becomes — blue as the bluest sky. I reach out and chip off pieces, intrigued to find the ice clear or white from a frozen effervescence of air. I lose sight of the group and hurry forward, but a spike on my crampon catches a strap on the opposing foot and I topple near the heels of Chris. I bloody my hands and knees but Chris isn’t impressed; he’s an emergency medicine specialist, “I find bullet wounds and drug overdoses really interesting,” he says. “I love the ER.”
The trip climaxes when we shinny down a narrow passage using footholds on each wall, spreading my legs wide to wedge myself into the crevasse. At the bottom, I shuffle my crampons across the ice on either side of a pool until it fills the entire passage. I dip my ice axe by its cord into the pool unable to touch the bottom. Unsure how to proceed, I push aside some mini icebergs until I locate a small foothold just below the surface. I take one long step, search the pool for another foothold, find it and hop across imagining one slip will plunge me into a subterranean river. The crevasse narrows, so Chris and I have to remove our backpacks to slide through sideways. The walls are canted so I lean back and shuffle forward like an inchworm.
continued on next page. . .