Cameron Smith: Scripps Ranch’s Indiana Jones

Explorer and archaeologist Cameron Smith left the comfortable temperatures of San Diego on Dec. 27 and on Dec. 28 headed for -40 degree temperatures in Iceland. Cameron, who grew up in Scripps Ranch, would be the first person to attempt a solo crossing of Vatna-Jokull ice cap, the largest glacial icecap in Europe.

“Fewer people have been to this icecap in the winter than have climbed Mount Everest or walked to the North Pole,” he said.

His itinerary would take him from Los Angeles to Reykjavik where someone would drive him 200 miles to Hofn, where he would travel by snowmobile to the foot of the glacier. Ascending the 15 mile eastern ice cap margin to the “Central Ice,” he would journey across the 77-mile ice cap and descend another 15-mile glacier on the west side. All this while hauling a 160-pound sledge containing his food and survival gear.

Being so far north on the globe, Cameron would have only a few hours of light each day. Anticipating storm conditions which bring high winds, snowdrift, and “whiteout” conditions, Cameron expected the modest journey of 100 miles could take a month to complete. “When the wind really goes wild,” he said, “I might have to survive in snow caves or igloos. The tent would simply be shredded in these conditions.”

Cameron has been trying to make this trip for five years, having to put it off for a variety of reasons. He almost made it once, but his trekking partner pulled out at the last minute. To ensure that his dream would reach fruition, Cameron started making plans for a solo crossing.

Traveling by ski or crampon, Smith would depend on a global positioning system unit and chest-mounted compass to keep him going in the right direction. He must wear a head lamp to illuminate an area five to ten feet ahead.and keep covered in long underwear, fleece jacket (parka with many layers), ski shell (full body suit), insulated mittens over gloves, a hood, hat, neoprene mask, and goggles. Because exposed flesh freezes in seconds in those temperatures, no skin can be exposed to the elements.

He hoped to walk eight hours each day before setting up camp (careful planning has scaled the setup time of three hours down to one hour. An equal amount of time will be needed to break camp and pack up the next day.). He expected that some days he might only be able to walk for three hours.

“The stove is my most important piece of equipment,” Cameron said. “If I lost my skis I could live without them. Even if the tent were destroyed, I could dig an ice cave as I learned in Boy Scouts. But if the stove goes out, I can’t melt water, and I can’t survive without water.” His equipment includes two stoves and a good repair kit to ensure that he’ll always have water.

A satellite phone would keep his support crew in London and the U.S. apprised of his whereabouts. After dinner each night he’d make notes in his journal, plan for the next day, or listen to his tape player… if it wasn’t frozen.

Much of the weight he’d haul would be food, packaged and labeled in plastic bags. Meat would not be on his menu during the trek because it weighs too much. His meals would be dried turkey (dried foods are mixed with water to make it edible), oats, textured vegetable protein, peanut butter, couscous, nuts, peanuts, peanut butter chips, and lots of butter. Butter will be in and on everything he ingests, including the tea he drinks while on foot. He must consume 5,000 calories a day to keep up his energy level. His mom, Margit, had baked energy bars made of nuts, butter, chocolate, and oatmeal to help him on his way. Each is 700 calories.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, on Jan. 2 a severe windstorm hit and damaged Cameron’s base camp causing him to consider aborting the trip. He repaired what he could of the equipment and after several days decided to modify the expedition goals. In good spirits and physical condition, he would explore the volcanic area instead.

The many crevasses he encountered on the ascent in the next few days interfered with his progress. The sledge continually got stuck, and he finally unloaded the equipment and carried 150 pounds on his back. The weight and dangerous conditions slowed him down to a mile a day. On Jan. 9 he had to backtrack one mile due to difficulties experienced with the crevasses.

At the time of this writing, he was still on the ice cap, sending daily reports of his whereabouts to his web site. He also was able to make a one-minute call to his parents each day to assure them that he was all right.

Cameron moved to Scripps Ranch with his parents, Don and Margit, and brothers, Julian and Mark, in 1979. He credits Boy Scout Troop 616, where he gained the rank of Eagle Scout, with awakening his spirit of adventure and love for the outdoors. Each month the troop would have a camping trip.

“I don’t know if they still do that,” Cameron said. “It was on a Scout trip through the Sierras when I saw those big mountains. I knew then that I wanted to climb them! Since then I feel the same way whenever I see anything tall – a mountain, a house, a tree. I want to climb it to the top.”

Now 33, Cameron has spent the last 15 years going on mountaineering and archaeological expeditions in Africa, South America, Canada, Alaska, and Europe. He is completing his Ph.D. in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and does his analysis in Portland, Oregon. He has written extensively about archaeology and mountaineering and is currently working on a book about expedition planning.

How Cameron’s Iceland expedition concluded will be reported in a future issue of the SRCA Newsletter. Scripps Ranch is proud to have spawned its own Indiana Jones.

Ed note: At press time, we were able to get an update from Cameron’s website [www.sfu.ca/~csmith] and from talking with his parents. Because of unfavorable weather conditions, Cameron had to call a halt to his journey on Jan. 15. A foot of new snow obliterated many features in the landscape, rising temperatures melted the ice, and snow covered the crevasses, creating too many dangerous conditions for the solo traveler.

Cameron searched the area at the foot of the glacier for geologic data and planned to discuss his experiences with park rangers and Reykjavik explorer Halldor Kvaran. He will make a brief stop in Scripps Ranch to see his parents before going back to British Columbia to resume work on his Ph.D.