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Winter 2005
photo by Richard Howard
Going to Extremes
A conversation with
Peter Goransson, E07

It was summer in Antarctica when sophomore Peter Goransson climbed Vinson Massif, one of the youngest people to ever scale the imposing peak. The eight-day January journey took him from the relative warmth of his home state, Maine, to one of the world’s harshest environments, where wind chills may have dipped below minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit at times. At 16,067 feet, Vinson Massif is Antarctica’s tallest mountain and one of seven peaks recognized as the highest points on their continents. Goransson, with his family, has already scaled two others—Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mt. Kosciusko in Australia (still to go: Mt. Elbrus in Russia, Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, Mt. McKinley in Alaska, and Mt. Everest in Nepal). After his trek, Goransson, 20, found out he wasn’t the youngest person ever to ascend Vinson Massif—a 14-year-old boy had just done that. But Goransson was in good company, traveling with a mountain climbing outfit. His fellow hikers also included his father and his father’s friend Ray Greenlaw, both of whom are comfortable going to extremes, such as taking on back-to-back marathons and other challenges. (Greenlaw holds the world record for completing the Pacific Coast Trail in 83 days, a feat he chronicled in his book The Fastest Hike). Some of that spirit is rubbing off on Goransson, who most of the year logs 50 to 80 miles a week for the Tufts track and cross-country teams, training for triathlons, and pursuing a no less challenging major in computer engineering.

“The hardest part is getting there. We flew from Boston to Miami to Santiago, Chile, to Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Straits of Magellan, the southernmost point of South America. From there, a special plane took us into Patriot Hills, Antarctica. They land you on this two-mile-long blue ice runway. The only way the plane can stop is with reverse thrusters. Landing there was just amazing, because you figure that this plane could crash so easily. Basically, you’re landing on an ice skating rink. From Patriot Hills, I had to get on another plane for an hour’s flight to Vinson base camp. That plane was a lot smaller and it took off on skis.

“Antarctica is absolutely barren nothingness as far as the eye can see. It’s also a beautiful place. But this is a whole continent, three times the size of the United States, where you see absolutely nothing along the horizon unless you are right on the coast. Mountains, the sun, and of course our GPS helped us with orientation. The temperature probably averaged about 0–5 Fahrenheit, but since the sun never goes down in the summer there, it was very powerful. Some days we’d be comfortable walking around with a shirt and baseball cap because the sun was so strong. Early on I got really badly sunburned on my nose and had to create a protective nose-piece out of duct tape to shield it from the sun’s rays.

“Vinson Massif has an awesome presence. Imagine the White Mountains three times taller, covered by a mile-deep sheet of ice and snow, so only their tops are sticking out, and glaciers are running down the sides. Up until summit day, it was crystal clear. The physical act of climbing was very exhausting at times. There were hourly breaks where we’d get 15 minutes to eat and drink quickly; it was like this all the way up. Usually I was able to put the exhaustion out of my mind, as I normally do during long triathlons, for example. But after seven-plus hours of climbing on the average day, it was hard to continue putting the fatigue out of my mind. Realizing how hard it had been leading up to that point and reading Ray’s The Fastest Hike along the way were great sources of inspiration to keep me going.

“You can’t get to Vinson unless you’re serious. When you’re doing it, you can’t concentrate on anything but doing what you’re doing. There’s no time to enjoy something when you have to think about the next job. It’s not over until it’s over.
“The weather was bad at the end of the trip, so they couldn’t fly the plane in from Punta Arenas to Patriot Hills. We were stuck. For six straight days I was moving from one tent to another all day long, waiting, hoping that the weather would clear.

“My agenda each day was to wake up at two o’clock in the afternoon, go to breakfast, and then read, play cards. At one point, I was so bored that I took a piece of cardboard and a Magic Marker and drew out a chessboard. I made little cardboard chess pieces and played with my dad. I brought the set home and put it under glass for my dad to put in his office. It has our picture in the middle. He likes that a lot.

“I competed in my first triathlon when I was 14. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with endurance races and done a few of them every summer. I did my first half–Iron Man triathlon last summer. I enjoy feeling that I can compete with people physically. If you can just finish a triathlon, then you should get a lot of respect, because that’s a hard thing to do. Then you can say, ‘Well, now triathlons feel easy to me. I want to go to the next level. I want to do an ultra-marathon.’ This happened to my dad. At one time my dad would never have done an ultra- marathon, but now it seems he goes out and does 40-mile races with only a couple days’ notice. The bar has to be raised or else it feels like there’s a lull. Once you reach a goal, how can you set that as a goal again? That’s the mentality that most cross-country and track runners have. Because if you think about it, if you get a PR (personal record) in track and you lower your mile time by five seconds, the next time you run a mile, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, I hope I get that same time again.’ You’re always going to want to do faster and faster and faster, because it’s essentially setting a goal for yourself and accomplishing it. There’s no better feeling in the world than achieving what you set up, especially if it’s really high. So you want to have a goal that’s doable, but still really hard. I think endurance athletes have different attitudes than other competitors because they’re competing mainly with themselves.”