Sitting on Top of the World

What are dreams made of? For Coloradans John Jancik and Ken Zerbst and fellow members of their Top of the World Expedition Team, they were made of little more than delicate tundra, sea water, ice and snow. The goal? First, the team hoped to plant an American flag on Oodaaq Island, the northernmost point of land on the planet. And second, they hoped to be the first team to climb Star Spangled Banner Peak, the highest peak of northern Greenland's unexplored Benedict Range. But more than anything, the ten-person team simply wanted to find mountains that had never been climbed and glaciers that had never been crossed--and northern Greenland, one of the few untouched places left on earth, turned out to be the perfect place to do it.

The team's 1996 exploits, caught on a documentary videotape, will be aired locally for the first time Sunday afternoon on KRMA-TV/Channel 6. Jancik describes the program as an adventure paralleling old-world-style exploration. "It's not about climbing a rock face on roller skates in the Himalayas," Jancik says. "In the video, people will be seeing images of what the environment looks like--the beautiful mountains and unexplored glaciers and the tundra covered with wildflowers. They'll see polar bears and musk oxen and the nesting places of all kinds of geese and birds. But they'll also see the trials and tribulations of what it took to succeed up there; it's a human story as well as an educational story."

The core group, which had been trying to put an expedition together for nearly twenty years, stumbled over several false starts before finally leaving for Greenland's remote shores. "But in 1996, things came together for all the right reasons," Jancik says. "We had an experienced crew, enough money, and the Danish government became somewhat more liberal about letting an expedition go up into a place so remote." The team included adventurers such as well-known outdoorsman/photographer Galen Rowell, a physician and a handful of geologists representing five Western states.

They almost didn't find Oodaaq. "Finding an island the size of one's living room is like finding a needle in a haystack," Jancik says. "Basically, we just bumped into it." The island, already an obscure speck in the sea with only sketchy coordinates, was nearly submerged last July by the seasonal ice melt. "All we found was a rock sticking out of a pool of melt water, but we were the first people to cross the Arctic Sea ice to do it," he adds. They were also the first Americans to set foot in those climes, and expedition member Terri Baker added another feather to their cap by being the first woman to do so. Similar laurels were attained in the Benedict Range.

Jancik says a second expedition to more unplotted territory in Greenland lands is now probable in 1999, with new goals, including plans to climb the as-yet-unidentified northernmost peak on earth. If successful in that endeavor, the group hopes to obtain permission from Denmark to name the summit after entertainer/environmentalist John Denver. But the spark of adventure is the real driving force behind their decision to take a repeat journey. "Our initial goal was making those first footprints," admits Jancik. "But to go back is truly something we've been thinking of since the first day we got home."


To Be at the Top of the World, airing at 3:30 p.m. December 27 on KRMA-TV/Channel 6.


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