"No one in the whole world knows where we are tonight. . ."
-from Mike Hoover's diary. Feb. 20
Four American adventurers feared lost in Antarctica have returned safely after a two-month expedition by rubber raft and snow skis to the Forbidden Plateau, one of the leas explored regions on earth.
The trip was considered so dangerous that the National Science Foundation refused to sanction it. And when the four-Mike Hoover, 35; Beverly Johnson, 31; Rick Ridgeway, 29; and Mike Graber, 27-left here abroad a German cruise ship last Jan. 31, they had no sure idea of how they would get back.
The ship dropped them at an Argentine army encampment in the Antarctic called Base Alimirante Brown. Once they left the camp by raft, they were cut off from any kind of communication.
The four survived for over 30 days in the brutal, desolate Antarctic, where temperatures fell to 15 degrees below zero, winds reached 120 miles per hour, and where blizzards, rough seas and frigid waters made each day a test of their ability to survive.
During the time, two of the four fell into bottomless crevices in the Antarctic icemass-fissures almost impossible to detect because they are covered by a foot or more of loose snow.
Beverly Johnson was able to save herself by sinking her ice pick into the side of the crevice as she began fall. Mike Hoover was saved, after falling about 40 feet, because he was linked by mountaineering rope to his fellow explorers, who dug themselves into the snow to break his fall.
And on the return leg, again in the rafts, when they ran short of fuel and feared that they might be stranded, they decided their only hope was to hitch a ride on a giant moving iceberg, which the rode eight miles out to sea to save precious gasoline.
At any moment, the iceberg, which Hoover said was "continually groaning and moaning" like a rickety tramp steamer, could have cracked or flipped over-sure death for its passengers, who did not have life jackets because they knew they could live no longer than 10 minutes in the frigid waters surrounding Antarctica.
The four decided before they left Buenos Aires that they would rather die quickly by drowning than prolong their lives a few minutes more by wearing life preserves. "It's a short fast death or a long, miserable one," Hoover explained last week "Even with a life preserver, there wouldn't be time to swim to shore."
The expedition had set out from the Argentine camp in rubber rafts, one 16 feet long and the other 13 feet, to reach a part of Antarctica that is virtually unknown. By comparison, Mt. Everest and even K-2 in Pakistan are well-traveled.
"It's really neat to go somewhere where no man has ever walked before, regardless of all the Hassles it takes to get there," Hoover said when asked why the group, all from California, risked their lives to reach the Forbidden Plateau a mass of ice and snow that runs down the center of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Although Hoover and Ridgeway have both climbed K-2, Graber has climbed Mt. McKinley in Alaska and Johnson was the first woman to scale El Capitan in California, none had ever before been in the Antarctic.
Ostensibly, their purpose for the journey was to make a documentary for ABC-TV's "American Sportsman." But the "neat" idea for the adventure had come to Hoover and Ridgeway while they were climbing Everest three years ago.
They carried all of the fuel for their rafts, their food, skis, tents, clothes, cameras and almost a ton of other equipment with them, knowing that they could not radio for help.
And they had to plan for the possibility that they would have to remain in the Antarctic, either on their own or at the Argentine base-because, if they had missed an Argentinian naval vessel, which was the last ship to leave the Antarctic Peninsula this summer, there would not have been another ship out for at least eight months until warmer weather returned to the frozen continent.
Laughing in the Wind
After the raft trip, they established a base camp on a rocky promontory in Andxard Bay and began to climb to the top of the Antarctic Peninsula-a hard journey of 10 days.
They pulled their supplies on sleds, stopping each night to set up their tent before dark.
In a diary, he kept during the journey, Hoover described what it was like living with the incredible cold and harsh winds in the trek from Almirante Brown to the Forbidden Plateau and back. On Feb. 20, the four were halfway up the 7,000-foot incline to the Forbidden Plateau. In their tent at midnight, Hoover wrote:
"The steam from melting snow for water and meals completely fills the tent with fog, which moves with the popping of the tent . . . It's amazing how much of my daydreaming time is back in U.S.A. Is Mom having fits worrying-she could blow a valve over worrying about me, who is doing exactly what I've dreamt of doing.
"Well, this is it right now. No one in the whole world knows where we are tonight. It is an extremely barren and hostile place, the hardest continent to get to, so much so that no one even owns it. THE last place on earth . . .
"Just to stand with your back at an 80-m.p.h. wind it Antarctica and laugh at how neat it looks, laugh when it knocks you down. . .
"Why is that more fun than playing tennis in Palm Springs? In one case you're doing something vital. In the other, you're just f-king around. Well, I like it here and really like the people I'm with.
"The harder it gets the more they give up to each other. Beverly is No. 1 and the harder it is, the more strength she seems to have . . . I'm in love. . .
As Hoover was finishing his diary entry, he couldn't have known that he, Johnson, Ridgeway and Graber would be forced to spend the next five days in the same place waiting for the weather to clear.
Riding an Iceberg
They came to call themselves "The Great American Round Expedition" because they "ate and ate and ate," Hoover said: freeze-dried dinners of lasagna or beef stroganoff, Carnation breakfast bars, nuts, raisins and other health foods. All their water came from melting snow over two kerosene burners.
After reaching the Forbidden Plateau, they spent two days skiing and resting, shooting movie film and enjoying themselves before they began the shorter hike back to their base camp and the sea.
It was on the way down that both Johnson and Hoover fell into ice crevices, and it was when they reached the bottom of the incline that they discovered that one of their fuel "bladders" had burst, leaving them short of fuel to return to Base Almirante Brown.
After riding the iceberg for more than 24 hours, they were far enough out of the bay to follow the coastline back to the Argentine base. They got there too late for a British ship that was leaving, but too early for the Bahia Aguirre, which was expected about March 15.
Having about a week to "kill," they decided to attempt to cross the Gerlache Strait, on which Almirante Brown is located, to some islands several miles away. In some respects, the trip across the straits was the most dangerous part of the journey, since they were forced to travel in choppy seas thay at any time could have flipped over their light rafts and thrown any or all of them into the freezing water.
Although most of the time they were only three or four days by raft from the Argentine base, they might as well have been 1,000 miles away, since no one knew where they were or would have known where to look for them if they hadn't returned.
No one in Argentina had had any word from them since they left in January and by April, a day before they reached Buenos Aires, there was a growing fear here that the four had been lost.
The Next Assault
When they arrived last week, the group checked into a hotel, stored their equipment, and almost immediately began preparations for their next assault on the Antarctic.
They are determined that next January they will return, this time to climb Mt. Tyree, at more than 17,000 feet one of the highest unclimbed mountains in the world. Hoover is hoping to film the climb and then arrange for the first live television broadcast from Antarctica-when the four reach the top.
"To have nature thrown her worst at you and to survive is very exhilarating," Hoover explained. "It's dealing with the unknown. You come around a bend and you don't know what's coming at you.
"There is a great feeling of conquest, but it's not nature you're conquering. Everything you're conquering and fighting is yourself." CAPTION: Picture 1, Expedition members, from left, Mike Graber, Mike Hoover, Rick Ridgeway and Beverly Johnson on their return from Antarctica, by Alejandro S. Cherep.; Picture 2, Antarctica