In Recess

Down the Hatch

An insatiable appetite for adventure brings a Houston attorney to the glacial caves of Iceland

By Eric Quitugua

Derek Pershing in a Cave
Houston real estate attorney Derek Pershing explores the ice caves of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in southern Iceland. Photo by Derek Pershing.

Afraid of small spaces? For Houston-based real estate attorney, former U.S. Army combat medic, and outdoors jack-of-all-trades Derek Pershing, the answer is no. Harsh environments and landscapes, no matter the location, are no st range lands for Pershing, who grew up climbing the mountains of Montana. He spoke with the Texas Bar Journal about his love of exploring caves—prefaced with a disclaimer: “Ice caves can be very dangerous. Ice caves constantly change and I always recommend hiring a local guide familiar with the ice cave system and glacier before entering an ice cave.” A week later, Pershing was off to Iceland for yet another adventure, including descending into a volcano, with his fiancée and fellow attorney, Lauren Valenti.

Did you find ice caving or did ice caving find you?
As I gained experience in ice climbing, mountaineering, and photography, I began seeking out challenging landscapes to photograph—which eventually led me to some cold dark ice caves.

What gear do you need and what’s the most reliable?
Typically, I will have ice crampons (spikes for boots), mountaineering boots, waterproof jacket and pants, insulation, helmet, head lamp (with extra batteries), climbing harness, ice axes, ropes, gloves, backpack and, of course, my camera equipment. I meticulously select the equipment for reliability and have not had any issues yet.

You were recently in Iceland—is that where you typically go ice caving?
I have explored only a few ice caves so far in Iceland. The caves change almost on a daily basis, so weather plays a significant role in their accessibility. Alaska also boasts some amazing ice caves and moulins—internal glacier waterways that are like plumbing systems for meltwater—under the Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau.

What’s the name of the cave you were in this year? How would you describe it?
Breiðamerkurjökull. This glacier is in southern Iceland and involved driving to the base and traversing the glacier for several hours. This glacier is adjacent to Skafafell, which is a popular glacier that offers ice caves to visitors without as much technical experience.

What makes for a perfect descent down a cave?What conditions/time of year are necessary for a climb to go smoothly?
Glaciers have some interesting topography. I find that many of the ice caves are initially accessible by walking in some hidden outflow areas and not necessarily descending in. Within the cave system, you will find areas where the water melt will create moulins and drops, which you can descend to get farther in the cave system. Because the cave systems are really waterways under the glacier, it is crucial that you assess the temperature. In Iceland, the season will usually be around November to April (when everything is pretty frozen). As the temperatures warm, the caves collapse or the water outflow gets dangerous. In Alaska, I have been as late as early July.

Derek Pershing in a Cave
Pershing goes on adventures with his fiancée and fellow attorney, Lauren Valenti. In the summer, the couple visited the magma chamber of the thrihnukagigur volcano. Photo by Derek Pershing.

When did you become comfortable with it?
There is risk associated with every activity in life. You do your best to gain experience and technical skills to mitigate the risks. I was pretty confident about my technical skills with ropes and ice travel before I ever went into an ice cave.

Are you ever fully comfortable on a climb?
Surprisingly, yes. I usually find great peace in getting off the grid whether on top of a mountain or under a glacier.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how daunting is ice caving?
I think this varies with individual risk tolerance. To me, climbing around in ice caves is not daunting at all and I would probably say a four. To those that feel claustrophobic, you probably couldn’t pay them enough money to be in a cold, dark, and small space.

In addition to ice caving, you’re a self-described travel adrenaline junkie. You hear the term “wanderlust” or see it in a hashtag, but you’re going all out. For instance, you climbed Gran Paradiso and Mont Blanc—what was the experience like and what was the prep work for the climbs?
That is definitely true. I grew up in Montana climbing mountains and being outdoors in the harshest environments. I joined the Army when I was 18 to see the world and seek adventure. Gran Paradiso is the highest peak solely within Italy. It was actually my training climb for Mont Blanc (the highest peak in the Alps and Europe outside of Russia). Mont Blanc was a rewarding and sobering experience—it is a very dangerous mountain and around 100 people die on average every year from falls or rock fall in the Grand Couloir. On my particular climb, a climber was descending past our team; he slipped and slid right off the cliff to his death in front of us. It was like slow motion in retrospect. We called in the helicopter to extract his body.

Has anyone ever looked at your climbing/caving adventures and thought you’re out of your mind? Have you?
Pretty much all of my colleagues and friends. My clients, my firm Wilson Cribbs and Goren, and my family have been supportive and understanding. I know that I live on the edge, but I have had a rewarding life and I am grateful for each experience. If my time gets cut short, I hope I will be doing something I love.TBJ

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