By Lisa Donchak
Imagine crossing 300 miles of frozen desert, on foot, with nothing but what you can carry on your back and pull in a rickshaw.
In 2002, that’s just what four National Geographic explorers did. Carrying nothing but 30 days’ worth of food and supplies to help them forge over mountains and up rivers, these men were going where no car or pack animal could bring them: to the calving grounds of the rare Tibetan antelope, the chiru.
On Saturday, two of the explorers on the team, Rick Ridgeway and Jimmy Chin, visited UC Santa Cruz to talk about their experience trekking across the Chang Tang plateau.
“Where we were going, there wasn’t another gas station for the next 1,000 miles,” Ridgeway said.
The expedition wasn’t just for fun. Traditionally, Tibetan nomads have hunted chiru in small numbers. But in the 1980s, shawls made out of chiru fur became a high-fashion item, sometimes selling for as much as $15,000 per shawl. Poaching and slaughtering chiru for their fur became a very lucrative business.
“We were there to record and publicize what we found to protect this place from the poachers,” Ridgeway said.
The crossing to the calving grounds was arduous. Every morning, the team, including Conrad Anker and photographer Galen Rowell, would wake up before dawn to take advantage of the frozen ground. By mid-afternoon, the top layer of permafrost would thaw, making it much more difficult to pull the rickshaws across the desolate plain.
Chin was in charge of the videography during the trip.
“It was interesting, because I had never filmed before,” said Chin, who had been hired to replace an explorer unable to go.
“Every time I was wondering where we were, I thought, ‘Well, we’re in the middle of nowhere,’” Chin said.
In one of Chin’s film segments, Ridgeway is taking off his shoes and socks in the dark before the sun has risen. The camera follows Ridgeway’s bare feet, which start crunching across thin sheets of ice. The ice gives way to frigid water, and the camera follows the explorer through a knee-high lake.
“We didn’t want to walk all day in wet boots,” Ridgeway explained in the video. “I finally got to wash my feet.”
The talk was part of an all-day event hosted by the College Eight and Oakes College Programs Offices and National Geographic to help promote the $5,000 Young Explorers Grant, a grant given to 18- to 25-year-olds to help them pursue their interests.
Valerie Guerrero, the Oakes College programs coordinator, helped organize the event and the presentation.
“We thought this would be a great way to give the city at large a [chance] to enjoy some of the connections the campus has made with National Geographic,” Guerrero said.
About 80 students registered for the events during the day, which included presentations and workshops by those who had received grants in the past, Guerrero said.
The talk was hosted by UCSC graduate John Francis, vice president of research, conservation, and exploration for the National Geographic Society.
At the beginning of the talk, Francis showed a seven-minute segment on a project he had been working on at National Geographic called CritterCam. Researchers attach the backpack-like cameras to animals, which allow the researchers to learn about the habits of animals that may be harder to follow, like whales and sea lions.
“I find as many excuses as I can to come back to Santa Cruz,” Francis told City on a Hill Press. “With this presentation, we want to inspire people to care about the planet and let students know that we’re looking for new partners.”
The four-man expedition across Tibet had a bittersweet conclusion. Rowell and his wife died in a plane crash shortly after the four explorers returned from their journey. However, due to the information that the four collected, the chiru calving grounds are now part of a larger land reserve in Tibet and safe from poachers.
For more information about the Young Explorers Grants, visit nationalgeographic.com/yeg.