‘Our last speaker was eaten by a bear’
Wave VIDMAR, A 39-YEAR-OLD ADVERSITY JUNKIE with a pale, resolute brow and a blond ponytail, wants to spend 60 days slogging through arctic wasteland with only polar bears, killer whales and frostbite for company. Since March he’s been choking down burgers and pies to store calories, cycling and swimming, sitting in freezers, dickering with Russian helicopter companies and dragging tractor tires up and down the Berkeley hills near his Fremont home. He cuts labels out of his expedition clothes, saving ounces.
Yet as dusk falls on the ragged, Chinatown-adjacent Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, here’s our man Vidmar, creeping along in a rented Pontiac. Slowing amid the carnitas joints, payday-advance outlets and pinata shops of North Broadway, he spots a locked-down pharmacy and a mysterious set of stairs. He parks and climbs.
And at the top he finds a man with a cash box, an unfamiliar flag and walls crowded with curling maps, yellowed clippings, moose heads and billfish, tusks and spears -- room upon room full of trophies from the bravest and most foolish moments in more than a thousand men’s lives. Once this was a Masonic lodge. Now it’s where an adventurer-to-be goes to get vetted.
“I was told it would be an Indiana Jones-type environment,” Vidmar says later, “and it certainly was.”
More precisely, it’s the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles, where a “Temple of Doom” sensibility collides with “Cocoon” in a “Training Day” neighborhood. Born in 1921 and relocated to North Broadway in the ‘90s, the club survives as a den for men “who have left the beaten path.”
Its 1,100 members over the years have included divers, climbers, pilots and liberated prisoners of war, and their adventures continue. Late last year, member Frank Guernsey, 60, went missing on a solo sailing mission somewhere between South America and South Africa.
Though he and most of the faithful from years past are listed these days as OTGA (On The Great Adventure), about 150 club members endure, most past retirement age. Basically, they’re Vidmar in 20 or 30 years.
About 30 turn up to hear Vidmar. A former tent designer for the North Face and veteran of various implausible ventures in mountaineering, cycling, running and swimming, he intends to hike, swim and ski across 600 miles from Siberia to the North Pole, alone and unsupported. He expects to hit the ice in February. This is his first public speaking gig.
During dinner, Vidmar sits beneath a wall-mounted kayak and hears how John Goddard had paddled more than 4,000 miles down the Nile in 1950. Goddard himself, near 80 and still a club regular, sits nearby, poking at his entree while tablemate Mike Smith explains how a one-man submarine wound up in his backyard. Then the guest speaker, 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds (on his way from 152 to a target weight of 205), clad in a khakis and a tennis shirt bearing his expedition logo, takes the floor.
“There’s quite a bit of character here, both on the walls and in the seats,” he begins.
Then with lights dimmed Vidmar clicks through the sky-and-ice-and-inspiration slide show, explaining his training, his timetable, the drift of the ice cap, the habits of polar bears. Just days before, he and his PR man signed on an online education company called worldwidelearn.com as a sponsor, covering $100,000 of the $140,000 expedition budget.
If he succeeds, Vidmar will be the first American to cover this route this way. He estimates it will take 60 days, at temperatures as low as 50 below zero, with brief daily dips in the sea (in a custom drysuit) as he advances from one ice chunk to another.
At this point in any slide show -- especially a post-meal presentation for a largely retired audience -- the nodding-off commences. And through Vidmar’s awkward early words on inspiration and challenge, yadda yadda yadda, the adventurers seem unmoved. In these rooms, why isn’t the issue.
But how: That’s a bone to chew on. But the more chilly details and challenges Vidmar supplies, the more his audience warms. Soon, the dusty air was buzzing with questions and suggestions.
Food? He’ll be dragging 130 pounds of it, mostly freeze-dried. Also more than 170 pounds of fuel, clothing and equipment on two custom sledges. Communications? Satellite phone and personal computer, the better to daily update his website and grant interviews.
No, he hasn’t investigated anhydrous lanolin for windburn. Yes, he will consider a mask and fins for swimming. No, he hasn’t been above the Arctic Circle yet or studied earlier expeditions in detail. Yes, he has thought hard about which handgun will stop a hungry polar bear. No, he hasn’t fired practice rounds yet. Now a voice from the back:
“Are you aware that our last would-be speaker was eaten by a bear?”
This is true. The club had booked grizzly-lover Timothy Treadwell, who was killed in Alaska in October.
“Thank you” is all Vidmar can say, offering a grin half-abashed and half-cocky. But later he counters: The odds of dying on his expedition may be hard to calculate, he says, but the odds of dying while driving home tonight are probably around one in 400.
This, the adventurers like. They can see something like their history in him, and he can see what might be his future in them. Amid friendly quibbles about firearms and swimwear choices, the club members send him off amid an approving buzz. “I like to see preparedness,” says adventurer Bill Murrell, “and I think he’s done his work.”
The next day, Vidmar blasts north again in the Pontiac, headed for another heavy lunch, another session with the tractor tires and maybe, after coming up empty on a couple of explorers’ queries, a little more due diligence on swim masks. Even the longest journeys begin with little steps, and sometimes you find them next to a locked-down pharmacy.
To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous West Wild columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.