Climb Every Continent, Surf Every Ocean
What I learned from my global surf-and-turf challenge.
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.
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.
Photograph of Francis Slakey by Matt Girard and April Sauerwine.