It’s 6:30 am here at my house in Washington state, and the fact that the sun won’t be up for at least an hour reinforces the fact that I am not in Antarctica any more. I’ve become used to 24 hours of sun during my two-and-a-half weeks guiding on Vinson Massif (the highest point on the Antarctic continent) with Dave Hahn, fellow RMI guide Billy Nugent and an international contingent of nine clients. The weather for our trip was mostly excellent, which meant sunburned faces, so my peeling nose makes me look very out of place where everyone is in the throes of a Northwest winter.
Even though the worst thing I took home from Antarctica was sunburn, the possibility of cold injury is ever present. Thus, it is necessary to prepare yourself for that at all times. A crevasse fall could result in a change in perceived temperature of up to 60 degrees, so climbing in the sun with warm clothes on is a requirement on the mountain. Our good luck with the weather means I have found myself in the ironic position of returning from Vinson with the only complaint being that I was a little too hot for part of the climb. That sounds like success to me!
The whole trip was a blast. Since it is a highly desired trip both for climbers and guides, we ended up with a great guide crew. Typically Dave, Billy and I lead our own trips, but in this case Dave took the helm and Billy and I assisted him. We joked at the beginning of the trip that there wasn’t going to be anyone to run the stoves and dig out the tents since all of us are usually running the show. But Billy and I spent years apprenticing on Denali and Rainier and a ton of old memories came back as we worked together in the kitchen.
After a small delay flying onto the continent the trip went like clockwork. We stepped off the flight and right onto another plane to Vinson Base Camp. After that, it was a by-the-book climb as far as schedule goes:
Day 1: Carry gear from Base Camp to Camp 1
Day 2: Move to Camp 1
Day 3: Carry gear to Camp 2
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Move to Camp 2
Day 6: Summit!!!
Day 7: Descend to Vinson Base
It sounds simple and since we had great weather it really was. The summit was about as different from my last time there as could be. During my only previous trip to Antarctica this past January, we had very cold conditions on summit day, whereas this time I never even took my ball cap off! I couldn’t imagine a more perfect day on the summit. Dave said that of the 28 trips he’s made to the summit this one was in the top three. I feel extremely fortunate to have had such a beautiful day. The views of the Ellsworth Mountains were unbelievable; the range looks like a giant buzz saw erupting out of the flat ice sheet. The dark rock appears as if in direct opposition to the white snow covering the land. I describe it as a binary experience. Everything you can see is either perfectly flat or extremely steep, white or black, snow or rock. To me, this range ranks with the Alaska Range and the Himalayas in terms of beauty, but it definitely has it’s own unique feeling.
A huge part of the relative ease of the trip was our crew of clients. We had a very experienced group, including several Everest summiters, and this allowed us to move efficiently up and down the mountain. Combining the high competency level of the clients and a long spell of good weather truly made for a great trip.
The trip began with 36 hours of travel to Punta Arenas, Chile. The experience traversing the Earth from north to south is much different than east to west as there is very little jet lag. The downside is that you neither gain nor lose a day as you would when crossing the International Date Line. So I was deposited at the tip of South America feeling the full effects of a long journey. Our team gathered over the next 24 hours, and we busied ourselves by getting our last minute food and gear together and preparing for the flight to Antarctica.
The flight in the Russian manufactured Ilyushin 76 is always a tough one to schedule and the folks at Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) have to plan long and hard for every flight. There are no air traffic controllers, ground radar and such on the Union Glacier in Antarctica, so they have to have their weather forecast spot on to have a successful flight onto the ice. Upon our first meeting, ALE announced that the flights were behind schedule and it would be a three-day delay before we could fly. This was a blessing in disguise for us, as we were able to visit Torres del Paine National Park for a few days—a welcome distraction from sitting in the hotel stressing about weather.
After our brief sidetrack we were informed that the first flights had all been completed and we were set to go next day. At 8 p.m. the following evening, we all grouped up in the hotel lobby with our climbing gear on, boots included, ready for the flight. It’s necessary to board the Ilyushin with all of your gear since you exit into the interior of Antarctica. So it’s straight from hotel to plane to the coldest place you can imagine. It’s a bizarre transition.
Once we completed the flight to the Union Glacier, we were whisked quickly to Vinson Base Camp in a twin-engine Dehavilland Otter. The Otter is the workhorse of Antarctica, flying people to various spots on the continent. ALE flies people to Hercules Inlet where they will begin a 700-mile trip overland to the South Pole, to the Pole directly and of course to Vinson Base. The flight to Vinson is one of my favorite parts of the trip. I spent the entire flight staring out the window and marveling at the hundreds of peaks in the area that have never been close to having a person set foot on them and most likely never will. It’s an amazing sight for sure.
Thus, deposited at Vinson Base we did the only thing there was to do and began the climbing process. Within 36 hours of landing we had our first cache established on the mountain and were enjoying soup and dinner after a day of climbing. Everyone was feeling great and was psyched to keep going. We were camped next to a few other groups of climbers, but other than our small community it was total solitude.
The next few days saw us getting into the rhythm of expedition climbing where you ferry loads of food and fuel up the mountain. On Vinson this consists of two carry days and two camp moving days. The carry days can actually be physically tougher even though your pack is lighter than it is when moving an entire camp. This is because a carry day involves covering twice as much ground as you go from one camp to the next and back again.
But with one rest day and no need for sitting out bad weather, we soon found ourselves at high camp and poised to go for the summit. One of my favorite things about climbing close to the Poles is the long days and thus no need for an “alpine start.” When climbing closer to the equator you need to maximize the daylight and so you typically wake up some time near midnight and begin your climb. On Vinson we woke up at 7 a.m. and began at 9. It’s so much more civilized! The summit day on this mountain is not very steep until the final few hundred feet, so we began at a fairly moderate pace and quickly covered a lot of ground. The forecast had been for some wind, but we experienced none at first. This had the unexpected effect of making us rather hot in our down suits. We all unzipped them as much as we could and I even rolled the top completely down on mine. There could definitely be worse problems to have in Antarctica other than being too warm, that’s for sure.
After several hours of moving up the glacier the route steepened towards the summit pyramid. Here, the temps moderated some and the down suits were put to full use again. The last hour of climbing is along an exposed ridge and Dave, Billy and I short-roped our clients through the tricky section. After seven hours of climbing we had topped out on the “top of the bottom of the world,” and as I’ve said it was spectacular.
After spending almost an hour on the summit, the team climbed strongly back down to high camp. What had taken us over seven hours to climb was dispatched in just over two on the way down. That’s an impressive feat at the end of a long day. Everyone was still pretty smoked by the tough day though and we all passed out fairly early in our tents.
The next day everyone had mostly recovered form the summit and was anxious to descend. Cleaning up a high camp is usually one of the toughest parts of an expedition and for sure this was no different. But everyone chipped in and as we shouldered our loads for descending to base the thoughts of heading home spurred us on. Our trip back to base was enjoyable, with the nice weather we had begun to expect from Antarctica. I think Dave is the only one in our group who had ever tasted a true storm there, although my experience back in January was much colder than this trip. Either way, no one was complaining about it being too nice and it was great relax after walking into base camp and realizing that we had never seen any hint of bad weather while on the upper mountain.
The planes started flying into Vinson Base a few hours after we returned and at 3 a.m. that night our crew piled into the Otter for a late-night flight across the Ellsworths. The flight back to Union Glacier was probably the most scenic flight I’ve ever been on. The sky was orange from the low sun hitting the clouds and the mountains cast their long shadows across the ice. It was the perfect cap to a great trip to the top of Antarctica.
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