What I learned from my global surf-and-turf challenge.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 30 2009 10:18 AM

Climb Every Continent, Surf Every Ocean

What I learned from my global surf-and-turf challenge.

Francis Slakey. Click image to expand.
Francis Slakey

If you ever find yourself surfing the Arctic Ocean, here's a tip: Don't borrow a wet suit from a Norwegian. Those people have massive feet. The wet-suit boots I borrowed are so loose that my toes feel as if they're soaking in a bucket of ice water.

This sort of thing happens when you're trying to become the first person to summit the highest mountain on every continent and to surf every ocean. And cold feet only ranks about a 2 on a 10-point "get me the #$!% out of here" scale. I've been through worse over the last 10 years while I worked on setting the record. Getting shaken down at gunpoint by Indonesian soldiers ranks a 7. Suffering a tongue lashing in the dung hut of a Maasai chieftain registers a 9. I endured a 10 with every one of those horrid gym workouts that pureed my muscles but drove my resting heart rate down to an efficient 39 beats a minute.  

There have been plenty of good times to balance out those bad ones. I was given an amulet etched with the meaning of life. I was serenaded in the streets of Tblisi, Georgia. I met my wife climbing Everest.

I'm thinking about all those experiences as I step out of the surf and onto the Arctic sand, my feet sloshing in the borrowed boots. As I unzip the wet suit, having just set the record, I realize that the best moments didn't come when I was on a board or wearing crampons.

I had been climbing for years when I came up with the global surf-and-turf idea. The first step was to draw up the to-do list. Seven mountains to climb—that was clear. But how many oceans to surf? That depends on the map.

You might think that map-making matured when we realized that the Earth wasn't flat. No, geographers still haggle and muse. In fact, the only reason that some maps show an Antarctic Ocean is that a few years ago, the International Hydrographic Association established it on a 27-to-1 vote, with 40 abstaining. That's not much of a mandate—40 voters obviously had something better to do with their time.

I admit I didn't want to surf Antarctica. I had climbed in Antarctica, and I had no desire to return. It's a lung-freezing, ass-numbingly cold place. Thankfully, the National Geographic Society made its own cartographic assessment and concluded that there was no Antarctic Ocean. That was authoritative enough for me. I struck surfing Antarctica off the to-do list.

Finding a place to surf the Arctic Ocean turned out to be more manageable than expected, thanks to continental drift. After South America hooked up with North America a few million years ago, a gulf stream was redirected northeast, eventually creating a remote beach on Vestvagoy Island, Norway, that runs about 10 degrees warmer than anywhere else in the Arctic. I circled it on my map and decided to save it for last.

That left 11 items on the to-do list, including climbing Mount Everest.  

When I was on my way to Everest, our expedition passed the monastery of Thyangboche, the home of the most holy rinpoche of the Khumbu.

The rinpoche has staying power. According to his followers' best estimates, he has had at least six incarnations spanning three centuries, and he's been living at Thyangboche for most of the last 100 years. As far as I can tell, he's spent most of that time sitting on a cushion.

It's not every day that you get to talk to someone who's been meditating for 300 years, so I stopped in to ask him the meaning of life. The translator whispered my question to the rinpoche, who paused in deliberation. Finally, he leaned into the ear of the translator and whispered a phrase. I prepared for an epiphany. The translator cleared his throat and said, "He'll get back to you on that."

That evening, I heard rustling outside my tent. I pulled up the flap to find a young monk with a scarf-wrapped bundle from the rinpoche. When I unfolded the scarf, I found a freshly etched amulet.

I rushed to the tent of my Sherpa friend Pemba and asked him for a translation.

"It is written in old language," Pemba responded, "I don't know it."

"Who does?"

"Nobody."

"What do you mean, 'nobody'? Obviously, the rinpoche knows what it says. He wrote it."

"No, the rinpoche doesn't know. It is very, very old Tibetan from scrolls. Everybody just recites—we don't know what it means."

The next day, Pemba took my amulet and sewed it up tight in a pouch woven from the fabric of a blessed scarf. He explained that I should wear it around my neck and not take it off, even if it itched. I obliged.

Weeks later, I was descending from the summit of Everest when clouds blew in. A blizzard hit us hard and left the team badly scattered along the Southeast Ridge. We made a few key decisions that pulled everyone through. Some of the Sherpas saw it differently. They attributed our survival to the amulet. It was inscribed with the meaning of life; it had juice.

With every surf trip, every climbing expedition, another bizarre entanglement popped up. Debacles led to friendships; failed summits led to lawsuits; and on a climb half a world away I met my wife, even though she lived in Washington, D.C., just two Metro stops from me. Thinking back, I realize now that every adventure was telling me the same thing: The world is an intertwined, luminous, unending ball of threads. And after 10 years of puzzling over that amulet, it is here, with my wet suit dripping on a small crescent of sand in the Arctic Circle, where I finally realize what it says. It's a simple message, really: Go pull a thread.

Francis Slakey is a professor of physics at Georgetown University and a lobbyist for the American Physical Society. As part of the 2002 Olympic Games, he carried the Olympic torch from the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

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