This time of year in Antarctica, the sun never sets. The warmest part of the day is actually during the evening when the sun gets a little lower in the sky, hitting you straight on. After two days living in a horizontal position in my tent, waiting for clear skies to allow the Twin Otter to pick us up from Vinson Base Camp, I was more than ready for some adventure. We immortalized Mount Vinson by flying over it from all sides, reliving our time on it by flying over the climbing route and dreaming of new lines on all the untouched surrounding peaks. An hour later, we were back at Union Glacier camp where we’d started 12 days earlier.
I instantly connected with my longtime friend Victor Saunders, a British mountain guide who lives in Chamonix and who is always thirsty for first ascents. And there are plenty to be had around Union Glacier since this is the first year ALE (Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions) is operating from here. He’d just put up five new routes with clients and invited me to join him for a sixth one.
We left camp after lunch and skied the 5 kilometers to the base of the beautiful ridge line, defining the horizon before climbing up to the ridge proper. The wind died, and we were now basking in the late afternoon sun, making our way up a knife-edge rock-and-snow ridge. Grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this first ascent, I untied from the rope and soloed ahead, breaking trail the whole way for Victor and his two clients, Dominic and Nick. The climbing reminded me of the ridges I guide all summer long in the Swiss Alps: loose on easy terrain and solid on the steeper steps, but without any scratch from previous climbers’ crampons.
When I reached the summit, I was elated. Being the first to tread on any ground is so unique, so special. It’s so rare to know that no one before you has stood on a summit, or has climbed the line you are looking at; you have to figure out as you go, with no beta, relying solely on your technical and route-finding skills. To me, first ascents are the most rewarding style of climbing and all the more in a remote setting like Antarctica.
We were back at our skis by midnight, the sun still looming high above us in the sky as we looked back to our ridge, the Midnight Ridge.
Audio dispatch by Peter Whittaker
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