Surfer Shirley Metz Will Be Hanging Tough, Not 10, on Her Historic Ski Trek to the South Pole
updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
As Metz, 39, huffs and puffs her way over the hiking trails in 80°F heat, poetic visions of snowbound peaks fill her head while polar mood music wafts through her headphones. "I've fallen in love with a beautiful continent," rhapsodizes the surfer-turned—polar adventurer. The chilly object of Metz's passion is Antarctica, where she has since joined a team of nine men and one other woman that set out Nov. 27 on a 55-day, 740-mile overland trek to the South Pole.
Braving yawning crevasses, 60-mph winds and—40°F temperatures, six of the expedition members intend to become the first Americans to ski to the bottom of the world, and Metz—who until late last year was selling surfing sportswear—will make her mark as perhaps the unlikeliest polar explorer of this or any other century. For her fellow expeditioners, the tanned, blond, perpetually cheerful Metz will provide relief from the bleak terrain and exhausting routine. "When you're doing 55 days of skiing in intense conditions, it's crucial to keep up your spirits," says expedition manager Hugh Culver. "She's the person who will keep them motivated when they're 36 days into the trek and hating to be out there."
Metz fell in with the expedition after returning from a cruise to Antarctica last January. Hoping to turn her home videotapes into a documentary, she began contacting experts on the Pole, including Canadian expedition leader Martyn Williams. Impressed by her enthusiasm and her camera work, Williams offered Metz the job of taping the trip. But first she had to prove she belonged on a team that includes a triathlete, an Indian Army colonel and a woman who more clearly meets all requirements, Harvard divinity student Victoria Murden, 24, an experienced sports trainer and mountaineer. In May, Metz traveled to New Zealand's Mount Cook for a crash course in snow survival and crevasse rescue. In June, she met the other team members for the first time during a training session on Washington's Mount Rainier. "When they picked me up, I was wearing a green neon outfit, a black trench coat and a safari hat," she recalls. "I think these mountain men were expecting something different." To butter them up, Metz had baked 70 coconut—chocolate chip cookies the night before.
Metz is of the new breed of explorers, less motivated by the adventure than by the agenda. She is not going where no man has gone before. On the contrary, her aim is to publicize the fragile nature of the inhospitable continent. Since almost all that awaits this expedition is known, the primary challenge is physical. To prepare for it, she and her fellow explorers have attained a remarkable level of fitness, one almost certainly not known to earlier adventurers like Roald Amundsen and the unfortunate Robert Scott, whose party of five perished.
Last July, Metz climbed Wyoming's Grand Teton, and a month later she tackled Idaho's Sawtooth Range. In between, she followed her California regimen of hikes, roller-skiing and paddling the coast on her surfboard. By September, when the group met for a training run in the Canadian Yukon, Metz had added 14 lbs. of muscle to her 5'7" frame. Although she and her teammates will need every ounce of endurance to complete their trip, risks have been minimized. A watchful air-support crew will drop supplies every few days and stand ready to fly anyone in need back to a doctor waiting at the Patriot Hills base camp. The group will ski an average of 15 miles a day—their supplies following on two snowmobiles pulling sleds carrying a ton of equipment each. While skiing, the group will be shielded by down parkas, pile pants, long underwear, plastic face masks and reflecting eyeshades.
Such an elaborately equipped expedition costs about $100,000 per person, and Metz had to raise her share of the cash. She and her husband, Richard, 59, had some money remaining from selling most of their partnership in Hobie Sports, which he founded 37 years ago with surfboard-and-catamaran guru Hobart "Hobie" Alter. She accepted donations from friends and corporate sponsors. But the bulk of the money came from an inheritance left her by her younger brother Jerry, who died five years ago at age 29 from a blood clot. "I'm skiing to the South Pole for my brother too," she says.
Metz hopes her status as a polar explorer will give her credibility with the politicians who will decide the fate of the continent. "Antarctica is the most awesome place," says Metz, "but I'm upset with what's going on down there." Besides the environmental risks of proposed oil and mineral exploration, Antarctic advocates are concerned about the destruction of penguin colonies, overharvesting of krill and the depletion of the protective ozone layer. Since 1961 the Antarctic Treaty has protected the continent from commercial exploitation, but some have advocated opening it to prospecting when the treaty is up for review in 1991. Environmentalists favor a United Nations proposal to preserve Antarctica as a world park.
"Let's leave Antarctica to science," says Metz, "and, of course, to the penguins."
—Monty Brower, and Lorenzo Benet in Capistrano Beach