The final climb: Vern Loehr completes continental challenge
Vern Loehr knew exactly what he was doing.
But when one considers that this 70-something New Richmond resident knew he would be spending time strapping plates to a dinner table, hanging tightly onto a ship's railings while trying not to throw up, sleeping on a sheet of ice and climbing a 3,000-foot mountain at the bottom of the world, many would consider him crazy.
In fact, he wondered more than once just exactly what prompted him to take a trip to Antarctica when he could have spent those two weeks in the comforts of his home with his family.
On the flip side, this was the final destination of a multi-year effort to climb a mountain on every continent — something he was compelled to complete. He had already completed climbs on the other six continents and it was only Antarctica that kept him from exclaiming that he had finished his ultimate goal.
"I knew I had a story to tell ...and there's a lot of emotion in it," Loehr said. "It's a very personal thing from the standpoint many don't understand it and go even further saying there's something wrong with [me]. 'What are you trying to do, shorten your life? What is it that makes you do this?' That's what many have asked. I don't know, but it's a personal thing. You can share the story, but I don't think the thing that drove me to do it can be explained."
While Loehr and his son, Scott, made the trip while others asked why, they completed it with pride and a sense of accomplishment that Vern found not only on this trip, but from the other six climbing expeditions.
Vern and Scott spent 16 days for their expedition, 11 of them traveling from the tip of South America across turbulent waters, spending time exploring the continent and getting back to South America. The other five days were spent mostly on air travel from the United States to South America and back.
And while the logistics of getting to and from Antarctica posed their own issues of difficulty, Vern said he has no regrets in making the decision to travel.
"I have no problem in saying it's the most beautiful place I've ever been ... and I've been in a lot of beautiful places," he said.
Most have images of Antarctica as a cold, desolate and all-white continent — much of which is true — but Vern said the crystal clear blues and whites that make up the landmass and surrounding landscapes is something he has never seen and something he will never forget.
Despite having to navigate through the international travel game, it wasn't until Vern and Scott arrived at the tip of South America that their real travel challenges were evident.
"All of this, of course, involved international travel," Vern said. "Traveling from Minneapolis was 32 hours to when we landed at Ushuaia Island off the tip of South America, where the boat embarks [to Antarctica]."
Boarding the boat that would take them to Antarctica, Vern and Scott were prepared for rough seas and seasickness by wearing a special patch that provided them with sea sickness medication.
However, for those who weren't as prepared as the Loehrs, it was a much more difficult trip. When the boat embarked they were told they would hit the Drake Passage a few hours into the journey.
"The Drake Passage can be worst water in the world," Vern said. They discovered that quickly.
"At midnight, we thought, 'gosh, what hit us?' The waters were wicked and the 267-foot boat we were on was not a luxury cruise ship," Vern said.
In all, there were a few more than 100 on board the ship, but when it came time for breakfast that first morning, Vern said there were 10 who made it. The others may have tried, but most ended up back in their rooms attempting to make it through the voyage.
"The comforts were great," Vern said, "but you can imagine two-and-one-half days of this going from the tip of South America to Antarctica. If you ask people about the trip, the crossing of the passage lets people know they don't want to do that again ... but you get your sea legs."
It was worth it.
"Being there ... It's just the most beautiful place ... if you took a picture and you did it in 360, every picture would be beautiful to put on the wall," Vern said.
Landing on a peninsula on the northern coast of Antarctica, Vern and Scott soon learned that the continent is the size of the United States and Mexico combined.
All of the activities, for the most part, took place on the peninsula.
While most have the impression that Antarctica is colder than cold, Vern said that they were very lucky during their stay.
"It was about 20 to 30 degrees during the day and went down to around zero at night ... but if you're talking about other areas on the continent you could be talking about minus-70 or minus-80. We never saw that kind of cold."
That's because when they visited, the summer season was just beginning.
As for people ... there were very few signs of humans.
"There are no people anywhere except those at the research stations," Vern said.
They did see one building, that being the Argentine research station that was abandoned.
Theirs was also the only ship for the first three days of their stay, according to Vern. On the fourth day, the sister ship arrived.
"This was a mountaineering package," Vern said about their trip. "This was not a tourist thing ... you don't sail along and take pictures of penguins ...," he said. The idea is to do activities in the water and on shore, he said. That included the kayaking and mountaineering activities. It also included one night sleeping out in a sleeping bag on the sheet of ice.
Vern and Scott were among the six Americans on the venture, but there were also Germans, Scandinavians, two couples from Italy, two couples from Russia and a few from China.
Most of them, according to Vern, were in the 25- to 32-year-old age range.
"They were there to hike and to climb," Vern said about his traveling companions.
"When you get over 60, like me, many are couples not doing the activities but they wanted to be there just to experience Antarctica."
Vern said their days were spent hiking, kayaking and viewing the spartan, yet beautiful natural setting.
He described one incident where a single seal was out on a piece of floating ice when a group of killer whales came onto the scene.
"The entire ship stopped," Vern said. "If National Geographic was there they would pay big bucks to see what we saw. The killer whales were swimming around the seal ... they hunt like wolves. They break the sea ice until the seal has no place to go."
Vern said they witnessed it all until the seal finally slipped into the water, never to be seen again.
When it came time for the mountain climb, Vern said, "there were 15 of us. They rope you together about 30 feet apart. The idea is that if you fall in a crevice that the others will be an anchor."
In climbing Mt. Banck, they found a mountain that is 3,000 feet high with four inches of compacted snow on top of ice on top of rock.
"We started out too late and made it about 75 percent to the summit and even though it was still daylight, the tour guide had to call a turnaround at 5:30. It would have been slow going and we were 75 percent of the way."
When the climb was deemed officially over, "that's when I decided my climbing was over ... I said, 'it's over' ... not with any regrets," Vern said. "I said to myself, 'you don't have to do this any more.'
At that point, Vern and Scott decided they wanted to take pictures.
I got the New Richmond News out to use with the pictures and then my son pulled out a banner ... from his backpack and I thought it was the Cubs' banner. Instead it marked every mountain on the continents [that he had climbed]. When I saw this, there were tears and I was glad I had goggles on ... it was such a fitting end to it all."
Coming to an end for Vern was the journey he began in 1993 when he was 51.
The ultimate goal for Vern was to climb on all seven continents, but the goal of doing so didn't become a reality until after the fifth climb, he said.
"It didn't dawn on me until after five continents," he said. "The last two were Australia and Antarctica. I decided to go to Australia as a tourist and took two days to climb on my own.
"But now that Australia was completed, there was always something that said, 'finish the job, Vern.' I told no one about signing up for Antarctica — I signed up on my own."
Eventually, he did tell and that's when his son, Scott, said he also wanted to go.
"When I compare this one with other climbs ... logistically, this was the toughest to get to, and the most expensive. I did a lot of trying to get in shape with aerobics and weights, but being 74 is different than at 51 in strength not running out. When we were roped together there are people of different ages and climbing endurance. I've learned that you go little by little. But in Antarctica, we were under a time constraint and you have no choice but to keep pace. If you can't keep pace, you get unhooked from the rope. I knew that when we turned around I knew I had sapped myself. When we stopped I was probably the loudest noise, saying 'thank God.'"
Admitting that he is done with this type of travel, he did indicate that he will continue to travel, but at a slower pace. Those travels are also sure to include his wife, Julie, in the future.
Going through customs on the way back to Wisconsin, a doctor with which he struck up a conversation told him that without something to do he would go into depression if he didn't come up with something else.
"That will never happen to me," Vern said.
"When I see planes flying over the house ... I think that I have to do it. I'm going to go on shorter trips and experience far less stress. I'm not sure what portion of the world I would want to see. I've seen the places I've wanted to see, but we may go back to some of those places," he said.
"I get to the point and realize ... that the years are piling up. Even as you continue to do things where younger people are involved, you realize that maybe the way you used to do things might not be the way it should be done today."
Accepting his limitations with such fond memories has been humbling, but Vern said it's time to move on.
"I'm glad it's over ... I know that part of my life is behind me ..."