National Geographic : 2007 Jan
started the helicopter crews, for cost reasons, had returned to their base in the city of Norilsk-840 miles away from the cape. Now there were pro cedures, restrictions, military permits to obtain. It was nighttime, and the helicopter pilots weren't allowed to fly at night. Then the wind kicked up, and they had to wait until morning anyway. Victor broke the news to Thomas. Make a new camp from the remains of your old one, Victor told him, and try to keep warm. By then the wind had died down and the ice wasn't mov ing so much-the storm was over for the time being. So Thomas went back to his original camp, dragged his sledges to the new spot, and fixed them together with his skis into a kind of catamaran; that way, he'd have something to sit on in open water, if he needed to. Food bags and other gear had been strewn over the ice in the storm, and a polar bear came sniffing around. He had to fire three live rounds into the ice at its feet before it went away. He was waiting with his catamaran and his .44 when the light came up, which, of course, allowed him to see farther away, and what he saw was a huge expanse of open water not very far in the distance. It was as if he were sitting on the beach at the seashore. Waves were washing up on the edges of his ice and melting it away. He vacillated between panic and calm. Scream ing, swearing, crying, praying, and then getting back to work: watching the ice, checking his gear, keeping warm by the stove. He still hadn't called his family. His compo sure was iffy, and he didn't want to frighten them. He didn't think his wife, Asta, originally a farmer's daughter from Norway, could handle it, and he didn't think he could handle her not handling it. The view from Switzerland -------------------------------------------- Back home, meanwhile, Asta could tell some thing was up. Thomas had been phoning her every day. Now he was phoning only Hans, and when she spoke to Hans he would say only that something wasn't so good. She could hear him searching for his words. Finally, Christine Kopp, a writer and close friend who had accompanied Thomas to Siberia, spilled the beans to Asta. Christine called Thomas and told him he had to call his wife, and so he did. When the two finally spoke, he tried to explain: the bad ice, the 146 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2007 open water, the sudden storm. He was crying and uncertain if he'd survive the night. Asta told him there was nothing he could have done, he didn't have to explain. "You use your energy up there," she told him. "Don't worry about us." But after they hung up, she couldn't breathe. It wasn't long before Thomas's predicament leaked into the media: Swiss Explorer in Race with Death. That sort of thing. The children Linn, 11, Silje, 9, and Julie, 5-were quieter than usual, as if they didn't want to know more. To protect them, Asta kept the newspapers away, the radio and TV turned off, and took them to a museum in Bern, called the Sensorium, to distract them from the prospect of their father's death. No eating, drinking, or sleeping allowed After the call, Thomas decided he owed his fam ily for their unconditional support: I'm not allowed to not come home. Then he did a strange thing. He went to his tent on the old campsite, and, instead of collecting it, he cut out the draw ings his family had made on the inner tent wall-a drawing from each daughter and one from his wife. He was doing everything he could to live, but a part of him was preparing to die. This is what's going to help me now, and this is what I'll take with me if I'm going to die. A third night out there loomed. The sleeping bag, everything, was wet, and all he had for shel ter was the outer tent with no floor. He hadn't slept, and he couldn't afford to. He wanted to eat, but he was out of fresh water and there was no clean snow to melt. He was situated on saltwater ice, and as soon as any new snow hit the ice, it absorbed salt. He'd been using what snow he could glean from the folds of the tent and the tops of the sledges. But the food was too salty and made him sick. On top of everything else, he was suffering from diarrhea. "I fell asleep," he told Victor during one of their calls. Just for 15 minutes. "No, no, no, no!" Victor said. "You must not sleep! Call me now, every ten or fifteen minutes!" Thomas got the Styrofoam box his father had made for him to store his batteries in, a com forting reminder of home, and spent one night and another day sitting on it. Making calls, trying to figure out what he did wrong, and thinking about the meaning of his life.