Cinematographer for VICE on HBO and documentarian for a handful of Roark journeys. Jerry has seen places few people in the world have ever gone. Like: North Korea. The guy literally shook Kim Jong-Un’s hand. Or, Libya as it fell into chaos after the Arab Spring, or Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria during their respective wars.
WAKING UP ON TAI CHAU ISLAND, HONG KONG.
“Around dusk on a vacant island in the Ninepins off of Hong Kong, while the rest of us scrambled to set up our expensive tents with nylon rainflys, I watched Jerry Ricciotti in utter nonchalance throw a mosquito net over his tripod, curl up beneath it on bare ground and quickly fall asleep. I thought to myself, “well damn. That there’s a real traveler.” - Beau Flemister
Hardest Way South
AN EXCURSION TO A PENGUIN ROOKERY
By: Jerry Ricciotti
The 30 knot winds in Antarctica’s Wilhelmina bay is violent and too much for our inflatable packcrafts. After an hour of searching for shelters behind icebergs and islands with safe landings we elect to go back to Where We Started. The sun won’t set here on the peninsula but in the coming hours it will sink below the mountains behind us and drag slowly behind those big granite monuments, casting a changelessly blue hue over everything and lowering temperatures to below-comfortable. Where We Started: the destination for our packrafting excursion, is a small penguin rookery on an island equidistant from our sailboat and a natural glacial amphitheater on the edge of a small bay.
Wearing snowboard goggles we squint at the surface of the water, it looks like road rash on the skin of a motorcyclist after an accident. It is imperceptible as water - it has taken on a different texture, more like gravel than water. We paddle our packraft to shore, the tips of the kayak paddle take huge bites out of the nearly freezing water but our progress is pathetic. Inflatable rafts are the worst possible craft for these conditions but eventually we get them to shore. It’s the first time I have to trust my dry suit on this trip. Made with GoreTex, these new dry suits are lightweight and breathable - it feels more like wearing a fishing wafer than the dry suits I would perspirate in on the water as teenager. On land the rafts show their advantage: they’re light and easy to drag past the penguins watching on curiously. A strong tug of the cargo zipper deflates the raft and reveals the waterproof bags we’ve stashed inside for the nights camp. Sleeping pads, a tent, stove, some whiskey, headlamp, goggles, MRE’s, honey, a book.
I’m obsessed with sleeping in a snow cave and I get to work digging a wall with my snow shovel into the slope of the hill. I dig six feet wide and four feet down. I get to the bottom of my wall and smell it for the first time: the unmistakable scent of fish. I start to dig into the bottom of the wall and carve out a 36-inch tall cave that runs lengthwise for my sleeping area. As I dig into the bottom of the wall I see dark shades in the snow. I know that it’s penguin shit but I don’t want to believe it so I keep digging. I unearth more penguin shit. The penguins below us are gents, with a single chinstrap penguin in the mix, they must have laid up on this part of the island when the snow levels were lower. I begin to regret my camp location but my hands are wet and cold and I’ve decided this is a point of no return.
To my right I can hear ice crashing into the water in the bay next to us. I swing around each time I hear the thunder of ice breaking off to see frozen debris making waves in our little bay. It’s climate change happening before your eyes and while I’ve been fortunate enough to see this many times, you never miss a chance to see it again. It’s like a lightning storm or a meteor shower, it just never gets old. In a few minutes, every scoop of the shovel has small black turds in it and before long I've covered the kitchen area behind me in penguin shit. The stench is overwhelming but my wet gloves are beginning to freeze and I’m too stubborn to sleep in the tent. I came for this cave and it’s a glorious cave and goddamnit I’m going to sleep in it, penguin shit and all.
The heat loss on my wet hands is increasing rapidly. I grab the shovel barehanded now and continue hauling snow behind me. My blood vessels begin to widen, allowing blood to move more easily through the arteries and veins in my hand. The more I shovel the warmer my hands get and the glacier to my right begins a thunderous show of calving. It is more active than most I’ve seen but the calving happens at random and I know from filming them that if you want to see one you have to just stare... for a really long time. There will be time for that later. My hands are warm now but the rest of me is cold and there’s penguin shit to move so I resign myself to seeing the final stage of the process - when the ice hits the water - and I keep digging.
The awkward flightless penguins look on as I pick through a few remaining droppings on the floor of my home, their all-fish diet at least smells like fish and i convince myself I’ll get used to it. I unfold my sleeping pad and hang a journal and my wet gloves on tent stakes inside the shelter before boiling water. I want to boil water for a hot toddy: I’ve brought whiskey, tea, some honey but I forgot a lemon. Snow is an excellent insulator, which is why I’ve chosen to sleep inside it tonight, but when melting snow for water you have to add a little at a time - fill the pot to the brim with snow and it will insulate itself and take a long time to melt. Snow is mostly comprised of air so it takes a lot of snow to finally get my desired quantity. I’m mostly looking down at the pot, begging it to boil. I remember I’m in Antarctica and a watched pot never boils so I turn to look at the ice forms hanging above the bay across from us and no sooner do I look up, out of boredom and reverence for the thing of natural beauty next to me, than do I see one of the biggest pieces of ice fall 400 feet from its footing into the inky blue water.
I fall asleep to the sound of that glacier calving and I never got used to the smell of the penguin shit.