Cold Comfort: A Head of School’s Lessons from an Antarctic Adventure

Climbing Antarctica’s highest peak—where average temperatures hover around -20F and base camp is reached by taking two unusual flights from Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost point—might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. But for Head of School Ryan Dahlem, who scaled the Vinson Massif years ago with a team that included his father, John, the challenges of the climb were part of what made it a life-changing experience for him.

Dahlem shared the story of his Antarctic adventure with Middle School students on Wednesday at a division meeting; he reprised the presentation for Upper School students on Friday. Since relocating to Massachusetts in July to lead Rivers, California native Dahlem has frequently been cautioned about harsh New England winters; Wednesday’s talk served as, among other things, evidence that Dahlem knows how to handle the cold. 

The students listened raptly as Dahlem described the expedition, beginning with the difficult journey to Antarctica and “one of the coldest mountains on earth.” Once the travelers had reached Punta Arenas, nearly halfway around the world from California, the adventure had just begun. Dahlem explained that flights to Antarctica couldn’t leave at a particular scheduled time, because rapidly shifting weather had to be factored in. Storms delayed their departure until, on the third day, they were told to be ready on 30 minutes’ notice to hop onto a military cargo plane. A four-and-a-half-hour flight sitting next to barrels of jet fuel brought them to Antarctica, which Dahlem described as one of the “most beautiful and spectacular places” he’d ever seen—as well as one of the strangest. The climb took place in January, during the Antarctic summer, when the sun shines brightly overhead at midnight. Dahlem said the vast icy landscape almost felt like landing on another planet.

From there, a small plane equipped with skis for landing gear brought the team to base camp. Again, the excursion was dependent on the vagaries of the weather, and more than once there were delays due to storms. Among the slides he shared with the Middle School students was a brief video taken high on the mountain during such a storm, with the tents nearly obscured by swirling snow; a voice on the video can be heard to say, “We are pinned down.” 

One challenge, said Dahlem, was ensuring a supply of drinking water. Snow is plentiful and clean, of course, but fuel is required to melt it, and the group could only carry so much fuel in their backpacks and sleds. This made it imperative to finish the journey to the 16,000-foot summit and back within a certain amount of time. 

Another challenge is crevasses, treacherous holes in the ice that may be camouflaged by snow, trapping climbers unawares. At one point, Dahlem recounted, his father fell into a crevasse, but disaster was averted because the climbers were roped together, allowing them to help one another if someone fell. 

It was one of many metaphors and life lessons afforded by the experience. “The thing I love,” said Dahlem, “is that the experience never leaves you. I’ve changed as a result.” Since the climb, he said, he feels more gratitude, more patience, and a deeper appreciation of natural beauty. He urged the students to do the same while pursuing their own challenges, and to take care of one another as if they were roped up as climbing teammates.  

It’s not just Mt. Vinson that changed Dahlem, he concluded. “Rivers has also changed me, and I imagine it’s changed you,” he said. “Let’s have a wonderful winter, even if it’s cold—maybe especially if it’s cold—and enjoy it together.”  
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