At an age when most people are considering retirement, 62-year-old Livingston photographer Tom Murphy is preparing to launch what may be the most ambitious wilderness expedition of his life.
Murphy has signed on with a group of seven other friends and acquaintances to charter an 80-foot boat from the Falkland Islands. The crew will sail for four days across the notoriously nasty Drake Passage, which is known to generate waves up to 50 feet tall, to reach the Weddell Sea on the east side of the Antarctic Pennisula.
The Weddell Sea is the same place where Shackleton lost his ship to the crushing sea ice. Murphy hopes the crew will be able to land near Paulet Island, but that depends on the quality and quantity of sea ice. If the sea ice is sparse, the group could push farther south. If the sea ice is thick, they could have to land farther north on the peninsula.
“If we get farther south, we may get lucky and only have to ski 40 or 50 miles,” Murphy said. “But there’s also the possibility that, if the ice is like this year, we won’t be able to get to good ice. So it could just be a boat ride, which to me is like time in jail.”
Murphy is hoping to reach ice that’s anchored to the continent, ice that doesn’t drift, to ski on to the final destination — Snow Hill Island. That’s where he plans to photograph a colony of about 30,000 to 40,000 pairs of emperor penguins, what he calls “the cutest bird chicks of any in the world.” It will be his first time visiting a colony of the birds. Other members of the group have plans to ice climb on the icebergs, ski, hike and study the penguins.
Compared to other trips to the region, the expedition will be fairly unscripted and inexpensive. Although it will cost about $100,000 to rent the boat for a month, previous visitors to the region taking chartered tours had to pay $30,000 to $35,000 apiece for passage on a Russian icebreaker ship.
In all, the small group will be spending a little less than a month on the ice. To haul enough gear for such a lengthy outing, they will each pull sleds that could weigh up to 250 pounds. Included in the weight the crew will be carrying is 100 gallons of stove fuel needed to melt snow for drinking water and meals. To ease that work, the team will learn to kite ski.
“It may be a little more variety than I want,” Murphy said.
But if it works, instead of covering 15 miles in an ideal day, the crew may be able to travel 15 mph harnessed to the parachute-like kites.
In addition to the skiing, other difficulties the team will face include October temperatures hovering around 0 degrees. They will have to camp out in tents, their main protection from wind in an area known to produce 100 mph blows. The wind can also wipe away any snow from the ground, forcing the group to ski on bare ice. Pressure ridges in the ice could also stall forward progress. And if they come to open water, the group will be taking along inflatable pack rafts to deploy.
Although the crew will have satellite phone contact with the ship that will be waiting for their return, as well as GPS devices and a satellite map of the ice, they will be essentially on their own.
“The truth of it is, if somebody gets hurt, it’s going to be self-rescue. So that’s reality,” Murphy said.
Along for the ride
When invited, Murphy’s 32-year-old friend Rick Smith, a Bozeman cinematographer, had no hesitation in signing on for the trip to the icy southern end of the world.
“Who does that?” he said. “Who, one, has the opportunity? There are a lot of trips in that region, but none of this sort, to be sort of a rag tag group of folks exploring the world. It’s a chance I just can’t miss.”
He has no doubt that Murphy is up to the task.
“I don’t know if it’s the Norwegian in him or what, but he seems to function best in the cold,” Smith said. “And his work in Yellowstone in the winter is unrivaled – his south to north solo journey.”
In that trip, Murphy traveled 125 miles in 11 days on skis, breaking trail most of the way.
“I have more concerns about myself than him,” Smith said. “He’s at a level of fitness that he’s built up over the years. It’s not like his day job is sitting at a desk.”
During the trip, Smith will be shooting video for what he hopes may become a film on the expedition.
Although Murphy has made a name for himself taking photographs in nearby Yellowstone National Park, he has been enamored with Antarctica since he first went to South Georgia Island, just north of the continent, about 18 years ago.
“I fell in love with the place,” he said. “It’s just beautiful, with 10,000 foot peaks coming up out of the sea. They are a lot more impressive than the mountains around here because you’re looking up at them from sea level.”
But what really impresses him is the icescapes.
“They change literally by the hour,” he said.
Big icebergs can tower 80 feet above the water and 200 feet below. As the water melts off the bottom of the bergs, they’ll eventually flip upside down.
“What’s happening underneath is actually spectacular,” Murphy said. “There are these big arches, big caverns the size of a small house melted back into the blue ice. It’s sort of like the sandstone formations in Utah, but it’s blue ice.”
So Murphy has signed on several times in the intervening years to teach photography on some of the charter boats that take tourists on cruises to the southern continent. Most recently, he’s been working for Cheeseman’s Ecology Safaris. Ted Cheeseman, one of the business’s owners, came up with the idea for the eight-man expedition in October that will include his wife, Renee DeAngelis. The other members of the expedition are a South African doctor and his wife, Ross and Franelise Hofmeyr, and British penguin researcher Tom Hart. Two of the five have never skied before.
Murphy is excited. When Cheeseman asked if he wanted to go, Murphy said he could be ready in a day.
“The truth is, once we get off that boat for a day, we’re on our own,” he said. “I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but I like that idea.
“And the reality of it is, when I’m 72 I probably won’t be able to do it.”
Don’t wish Murphy good luck on the adventure, he doesn’t believe in it.
“I have firmly believed all of my life that you make your own luck, you take advantage of opportunities or you lose them,” he said. “That’s what a lot of my photography is about, taking the opportunity and making the best of it.”