CloudSpot Went to the South Pole (No... really!)

Meet Mike Gibbons.  Mike is not only a board member and advisor for CloudSpot, but is also a huge proponent and daily help to the entire team over here.  He also just became the 60th person in history to complete the Explorer's Grand Slam, and he brought CloudSpot along for the last stretch of it!

The Journey

To complete the Explorer's Grand Slam, a person must summit (using traditional climbing methods) the tallest mountain on each of the 7 continents, and reach (on foot) both the North and South Poles.  The tallest mountains from each continent are collectively referred to as "The Seven Summits" and include:

  1. Mt. Everest - 29,035 feet. Located in the Himalayas, the highest point in Asia.
  2. Mt. Kilimanjaro - 19,340 feet. Located in Tanzania, the highest point in Africa.
  3. Mt. McKinley - 20,320 feet. Located in Alaska, the highest point in North America.
  4. Aconcagua - 22,841 feet. Located in Argentina, the highest point in South America.
  5. Vinson Massif - 16,050 feet. Located in Chilean territory, the highest point in Antarctica.
  6. Mt. Elbrus - 18,510 feet. Located in Russia, the highest point in Europe.
  7. Mt. Kosciuszko - 7,310 feet. Located in NSW, the highest point in Australia.
"It didn't start out as a plan to do the Explorer's Grand Slam.  It started out being a 10 year old who wanted to go camping." 

It was Mike's second camping trip, and he was soon stuck in a major blizzard in which he contracted mild frostbite.  "I came back from that thinking - there's two alternatives here.  One option is that I give up because camping is too tough, and the other option was to figure out how to be good at it. 

That started a process over the course of my life where every time I had a chance to do a new mountain climbing adventure and I got it done, I would think about what I could learn next."  Through these years of embarking on new adventures, Mike came into contact with more experienced climbers who were equally as serious about mountaineering as he was.  It was these same people who would then join him on more challenging climbs. 

"Finally I found myself on teams who were renowned around the world.  Along with my patience and an extremely understanding wife, I soon became to realize that I had climbed a whole bunch of mountains that checked the boxes on key lists of accomplishment.  People would then tell me 'Well now you need to go climb this one - it should be next on your list.' So I thought to myself, 'okay, why not?'"

Not every climb was quite so technical.  One such experience was climbing Mt. Kosciuszko in Australia, which was made into a family affair.  Mike's wife and kids made the summit along with him, on a hike that only took a day.  But giving the okay to allow her husband on riskier climbs wasn't so easy.  "She (Mike's wife) knew it was my passion when we first met many years ago, and she didn't want to dampen my passion.  Certainly though, when speaking of a climb that takes weeks to get up a mountain only to stay for a few minutes, she thinks the risk to reward ratio is out of balance for her personally.  But she definitely appreciates that I enjoy it."

But just as you'd guess, the majority of the destinations weren't family friendly and required world-class climbing skills and months of preparation - one such climb was Carstensz Pyramid in New Guinea.  "In order to have an undisputed 'Seven Summits', you really have to climb 8 mountains."  Mike was speaking of the world's outlook on what constitutes a continent.  Here in the United States, Australia is considered a continent, so the peak on top of Mt. Kosciuszko must be reached.  Elsewhere in the world it's "Oceania" that's considered a continent, which would include Indonesia and the Australian region together - which means the treacherous climb on Carstensz Pyramid would round out the Seven Summits.  "Carstensz Pyramid is a pretty difficult climb, depending on how you climb it.  We hiked through the jungle to get there - so that's 6 days in and 4 days out in mud that's knee-deep.  Then there's this mountain in the middle of the jungle which you need to climb once you get there.  And then you have to do a Tyrolean traverse in which you have to shimmy across two points via a rope.  You're suspended in the air, and it's maybe a 600-800 foot drop below, so you don't want to tie the knot incorrectly."  

The award for the understatement of the year goes to...

The Dangers

Mike also spoke of his most dangerous moment during the expedition, which came during a "slip" while approaching to summit Mt. Everest.  "I was crossing a snow bridge across a small crevasse, and the bridge broke free under my right foot.  The initial fall was about 15 feet and the rope wrapped around my left arm and then broke free, and then I fell about another 15-20 feet."  He spoke quite calmly about this experience, but let me remind everyone that he wasn't falling toward the ground at this point - he was below the ground and falling toward utter darkness.  "I busted up my left arm, it was bleeding.  They pulled me out of the crevasse and I tried to continue to climb, but my arm had swollen up to the size of my leg and I couldn't feel it and had potential frostbite."   Mike had to quickly return to the US to repair his arm, but miraculously went back to Everest and performed a successful summit within just a few weeks.

The CloudSpot Flag

When I received word about a year ago that Mike was going to Antarctica to complete this incredible journey, my mind began to wander about how CloudSpot could be involved.  First there were ideas of grandeur in which I saw myself with a trident in one hand and a laptop in the other, furiously dominating the icy climate while creating galleries for the community - and then I took a puff of my inhaler and calmed down a bit.  Then Gavin realized that he's skipped leg day at the gym for the past two years, and we knew that we wouldn't physically be going.

But then I had the idea of creating a CloudSpot flag.  Flags are terrific because they're symbols for people to rally under and to identify with, and they're incredibly portable and easy to carry for the journey.  So with that, I solicited my wife's artistic skills and we got to work.

The flag itself took only a solid day to cut, paint and sew together.  It was created from 2 yards of fabric from Hobby Lobby and a little bit of white paint.  Sheri hand-drew the CloudSpot logo and then painted it by hand, and voila!  We all had a flag to rally under - and it was headed with Mike to the South Pole.

For the next few weeks, the entire CloudSpot team impatiently waited for news that Mike had made it.  We knew that he would be spending days snow skiing tens of miles each day in temperatures well below zero, and that he was bringing each and every one of us along for the ride.  Finally, we received this photo.

I'd be lying if I told you that we didn't all have a tear in our eyes. But to know that the CloudSpot flag had made it to the bottom of the earth and was there for the completion of a life-long journey was a moment we won't soon forget.

When Mike returned, I asked him what it was like to complete the Explorer's Grand Slam.  "It was a great feeling.  Every adventure has it's components of difficulty, and in this particular case, on day 2 I came down with the flu.  So out of the 8 days of skiing, I was running at less strength and capacity for 6 and a half of them.  Whenever things like that happen, you start to have doubts in your mind.  I was thinking 'Am I going to get sicker?  Am I going to have to call in somebody to help me?'  So there I was feeling horrible at 35 degrees zero with doubts in my head."  

But ambition is a powerful thing, and Mike cast those doubts aside.

"There were times in my life where I felt like turning around on a mountain. In fact, there were times where we did turn around. I've felt like I wasn't up to it at times, where I told myself I wasn't strong enough. Everyone has those doubts at different times. But you just have to push through them."

Mike also had a final word for our creative community. "Capturing moments is one of the most fun things about being on these trips.  There were these incredible times where you wanted to take a photo, but in order to do that you'd have to let go of the rope and take off your gloves, which may not be smart to do.  So the best photos end up being the ones that you took.  I view photography as a way to share an experience, and if you're out shooting a wedding and the photos make it to someone's aunt, then you've successfully done that.  It's important to share experiences in life, and so I view photography like that - as something that's so important to do."

Congratulations, Mike!