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Death didn't stop this world traveler

COLUMN ONE

Ralph B. White was a National Geographic cameraman who spent his life pursuing adventure. His friends have carried out his last wish, taking his ashes to every continent.

January 02, 2010|By Christopher Reynolds
  • Rory Golden endured a harrowing climb to carry Ralph White's ashes to the summit of Mont Blanc.
Rory Golden endured a harrowing climb to carry Ralph White's ashes…

In the last 22 months, Ralph B. White's meticulously logged schedule shows trips to the mountains of Nepal, the Australian outback, the China-Mongolia border, a Rwandan volcano, Iceland, Benin and the waters off Zanzibar.

Ask White's buddies at the Adventurers' Club of Los Angeles and they'll tell you this itinerary could threaten the health of any other thrill-seeker. But White's stamina is not an issue. He died, at age 66, on Feb. 4, 2008.

It's his ashes that have been traveling since then, borne to the ends of the earth and the depths of the sea by his fiancee and fellow Adventurers. Thanks to them, tiny portions of White's remains, carefully measured out in plastic bags, have put in enough posthumous miles to rival King Tut. Instead of a bucket list, he's got an ash log. It's six pages long.

"Rather than have people mourn him, he wanted to give people incentive to go have adventures," said Rosaly Lopes, who was engaged to White when he died and is the keeper of the ashes.

Though White covered a lot of the Earth during his life, said Krista Few, his daughter, most of these scatterings have delivered his ashes to new territory. "The competition is what is the most bizarre place we can take Ralph?"

To appreciate how well this afterlife suits White, you have to consider the life that came before, friends say.

Born in San Bernardino in 1941, White grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii, served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, founded a parachuting school in Lancaster and worked as a free-fall cameraman for the TV show "Ripcord." As a contract cameraman for National Geographic, he filmed horses, sharks and whales in the wild and searched for the Loch Ness Monster.

When a French American expedition found the Titanic on Sept. 1, 1985, White was there rolling tape. When director James Cameron made the film "Titanic," White worked as an expedition leader and second-unit cameraman. Though the Titanic wreckage lies 12,000 feet below the sea, White returned again and again on salvage efforts and other expeditions, marking hundreds of hours at the wreck.

"I was born an adult in search of a childhood," White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal when an IMAX documentary on the Titanic wreck played there in 1998.

For nearly 30 years, White was a member of the Adventurers' Club, an old-school invitation-only outfit that dates back to 1921. Its 146 Los Angeles members (all men, including Cameron) are invited to convene weekly in an upstairs clubhouse on North Broadway that's crammed full of tokens from remote travels, including a stuffed polar bear that glowers by the door.

Past members include astronaut Gordon Cooper, director Cecil B. DeMille and actor Buddy Ebsen. White's face can be found in the photo gallery of past club presidents.

"Ralph had a very outgoing personality. His sense of humor was right on the edge," said Allan Smith, the current president. "He could toast with the best of them and joke with the best of them."

In 2007, when a friend asked White what he would want written on his tombstone, he e-mailed Lopes a copy of his answer. He preferred cremation, he wrote, and this epitaph:

"Ralph White is not here. He's scattered around the world."

Then he went back to life as usual. But in early February 2008, White suffered an aortic aneurysm. As he lay in Glendale Adventist Medical Center, prospects dimming, many of his loved ones waited outside the intensive care unit.

"There were about a dozen of us there," said Lopes, 52, who is a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. "The doctor came in and told us he had passed away. A friend asked what his wishes were, and I remembered that e-mail."

It was, Lopes said, "like a ray of sunshine coming in the room."

The global distributions began just 20 days later. First up was Rory Golden, an Irish friend who scattered ashes at the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built.

Six weeks after that, Lopes arrived in Vienna on a journey that White had planned to be part of. Early on "an absolutely beautiful sunny day," Lopes and a friend found their way to Prater Park and boarded its giant Ferris wheel.

There were three other people in the cabin, but Lopes and her companion had a window to themselves. When the wheel stopped as they reached the very top, 212 feet above ground, she reached for her purse and seized the moment.

"I scattered the ashes out of the window, only a few . . . And I could see a few grains lofting out, and the sunlight reflecting on them," Lopes said.

"When you lose someone who's close to you, it's a journey. It was, I think, good for all of us who were close to him, to feel like we had some kind of mission. It helped me."

Lopes has scattered bits of White's remains on three continents, at sites that include the ruins of the Temple of Thor in Iceland and the Fairview Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where 121 Titanic victims are buried.

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