The Climb

December 24, 2013
Santiago, Chile

I've finally started my Antarctic adventure.  It seems surreal because for a long time I didn't think that we could afford this trip, but thanks to months of self-inflicted financial "lock down" and an open minded husband, we're here!
The last gear check, assisted by Cooper the Golden Retriever
Photo:  Darrin White

Although I have been thinking about this climb for over a year and training for it for seven months; for some reason, I don't feel ready.  Before previous climbs I had the sense that I would make it to the summit and safely back.  For some reason I don't have that same confidence yet.  Maybe because work has been more demanding than previous years and I haven't had time to focus on mental preparedness, or maybe because there is less documentation about climbing Mt. Vinson, so I have a blurry picture of what to expect.  My lack of confidence showed yesterday when, at the last minute of gear check number three thousand, I added a handful of extras to my already packed gear.  This included an extra pair of gloves, an additional sling and a biner.  And yet, today I find myself wondering if I can procure electronic boot warmers in Santiago.  What does minus 30 Fahrenheit feel like?

December 28, 2013
Punta Arenas, Chile

We took the four hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas yesterday and marveled at how much nicer South American airlines are than those in the US, it felt so civilized to eat an actual meal.  Punta Arenas is a small fishing village at the southern-most tip of Chile, it's situated just north of the Strait of Magellan amid a maze of islands.  Punta Arenas is one of the starting points for Antarctic travel, and there are several Antarctic logistic companies that operate here.  We've coordinated our travel through Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), who arrived at our hotel this evening to weigh our bags in preparation for our flight.  Mine weighed 21.5 kg and Darrin's weighed 18 kg.  Should have left the last minute gear at home!  My gear is now neatly packed into three bags: city clothes to stay at the hotel in Punta Arenas while I climb, a carry-on for the plane which contains a down jacket, pants, ski goggles and heavy gloves, and the 21.5 kg of gear which will be loaded as cargo onto the plane.  

December 29, 2013
Union glacier, Antarctica
Day 1
Aboard the Ilyushin 76
Photo:  Lisa White
ALE is the only commercial, non-gonverment flight service to Antarctica.  They operate Russian-built Ilyushin 76 cargo planes which land on a blue ice runway at union glacier.  Seeing the inside of a cargo plane is freaky.  There were cranes and pneumatic lines and who knows what else swinging above my head tempting gravity.  My plane was equipped with a fifty inch TV mounted at the front of the cabin and interfaced with a camera in the nose of the aircraft.  This allowed me to see everything in front of us, which was a bit unnerving at times.  About three hours into the four and a half hour flight, the sea had turned completely to ice.
The Iluyshin on the blue ice runway
Photo: Lisa White

As we settled into our sleeping bags at 6 am, I continued my obsession over staying healthy.  Ever since a kid sitting behind me on the flight from Seattle to Salt Lake City coughed incessantly, I've been eating zinc and vitamin C like candy.

The landing of a Twin Otter plane woke me up reluctantly at 8:45 am.  Due to deteriorating weather, we would fly to base camp this morning.  Reluctantly, I crawled out of the 28 degree tent and helped a neighboring Japanese team pack their tents since they were in queue to fly before us.  My stomach was still a little queasy, from nerves, or lack of sleep, or impending flu, but I appreciated the pancakes, eggs, fruit, and strong coffee available in the meal tent.

Just before 1 pm, we boarded a Twin Otter operated by Canadian Kenn Borek's company.  The short thirty-five minute flight was as beautiful as expected - everything was pristine and expansive.  The peaks were lower and smooth near union glacier and gradually became more jagged as we approached base camp.  As we landed my stomach sank, not from motion sickness, but because I spotted a steep trail in the snow on the outskirts of camp.  I was expecting the first part of the route to be mellow since I'll be pulling a sled.  I recovered a few minutes later when I realized that it was just tracks up to a ski hill.

By 3 pm Darrin and I has erected our tent and unpacked what we would need for the few days that we'll be here.  Base camp is situated in a bowl on the Branscomb glacier, and the terrain is unbelievable beautiful.  The skies are crystal clear and blue, everything feels crisp and comfortably cold and untouched.

December 30, 2013
Vinson base camp - 7,160 feet
Day 2

I woke up this morning after twelve luxurious hours of sleep!  Most of the day was spent organizing gear, food, and fuel for the remainder of our trip.  The weather was brilliant again today - calm, sunny, and about zero degrees Fahrenheit, I was warm in a layer of down.  
Mt. Vinson base camp
Photo:  Darrin White

Late this afternoon, I prepped my sled for our move tomorrow to low camp, which is at 9,400 feet (2,865 m).  It's only 2,150 (655 m) of gain over about six miles, so I'm expecting the trip to be easy and enjoyable.  I'm ready to do some more exploring of this dazzling glacier.

December 31, 2013
Low camp - 9,400 feet
Day 3
Starting the hike from base to low camp
Photo:  Darrin White

We moved at a very leisurely pace and made the trip in just over six hours, as I expected, it wasn't difficult.  There was one small hill just outside of camp and another about three quarters of the way to low camp, but outside of that the terrain was easy and my fifty pound sled and I moved easily across it.  

The weather forecast arrives via radio each day at noon, and today's forecast predicted overcast skies, light snow, variable winds, and temperatures around five degrees Fahrenheit.  I was thankful for the overcast skies because the sun is scorching.  I did get cold a couple of times when we stopped moving, but warmed up once I started to move again.  I was wearing softshell climbing pants, a long sleeved wool shirt, plus a light weight down coat and light weight gloves.  

January 1, 2014
Low camp - 9,400 feet
Day 4

I awoke today to the tinney sound of someone playing "Auld Lang Syne" on a small guitar.  It sounded beautiful in the cold, crisp air.  I checked the temperature on my watch, covered with frost and hanging from the ceiling of my tent, seven degrees Fahrenheit.  For some reason I decided that it would be a good idea to go outside and check things out.

Like base camp, low camp is situated on the Branscomb glacier.  On one side the camp is bound by black, rocky peaks that jut out of the glacier and rise steeply into the bright blue sky.  We'll walk around these peaks to reach the headwall which will take us to high camp.  The other side of camp is open to the expanse of the glacier, sparkling bright white in the early morning sun.

After a quick tour around camp, I made my way back to my (relatively) warm tent and decided that it would be a good time to change clothes.  I'm not sure why I felt like this was important to do in the seven degree tent, which wouldn't be warmed by the sun for another hour, but I did.  My clean clothes had been re-purposed as my pillow overnight, so I started by putting them in my sleeping bag to warm them.  After about twenty minutes, I stripped down and put them on, they were of course, still cold and I quickly regretted my early morning desire for clean clothes.  I snuggled in my sleeping bag for another thirty minutes until the sun hit the tent.  Within fifteen minutes the temperature inside rose to forty-five degrees Fahrenheit.  Tomorrow I'll stay in my sleeping bag wearing my dirty clothes until the sun shows up.
View of pyramid-shaped peak
Photo: Darrin White

We spent most of the day packing and organizing for our move up the headwall tomorrow to cache gear.  I'm thankful that I haven't had to use my heavy down parka and pants yet.  One of my last minute I-don't-think-that-I-have the right-gear additions was a mid-weight down jacket, which I've been comfortably wearing with a down sweater around camp.

We got restless this evening, so we walked the short distance to the beginning of the fixed lines and cached the gear that we'll move up the fixed lines tomorrow and cache again at the top of the headwall.  After a short jaunt up the fixed lines, we walked over to a col for an unbelievable view of a perfect pyramid-shaped peak.  So far this part of the continent is breath-takingly beautiful to me.  I can't believe how stark and pristine everything is. 
Photo: Lisa White

On our way back to camp, I got a full view of the headwall, it looked long and steep!  Using fixed lines to aid my ascent of the headwall didn't concern me, I'd successfully climbed and descended Denali's headwall.  But Vinson's headwall looked longer to me than I had imagined, I guessed the steepest section of the route to be forty degrees or so.   Our Japanese colleagues had successfully ascended the headwall, cached their gear, and returned to low camp today in nine hours, and two of their climbers are in their seventies, so I think I can do it!

January 2, 2014
Low camp - 9,400 feet
Day 5

We had a leisurely morning in camp today as we prepared to move up the mountain.  This morning I stayed inside of my warm sleeping bag until the sun met the tent and warmed it to a reasonable temperature.

From low camp, we re-traced our steps from yesterday on the short, twenty minute walk to the base of the fixed lines.  I added my cached gear from yesterday to by already heavy backpack, and guessed that it's new weight topped forty-five pounds.  We were not tied into the climbing rope as we ascended, as we had been on Denali.  Part of the reason for using for using the climbing rope when ascending and descending Denali's headwall is that there are crevasses at it's base.

I attached my ascender into the rope, and took my place in the back of the group, not because I was slower than my teammates, but because I was significantly shorter.  During yesterday's short excursion, I was nearly lifted off the ground by the fixed rope between my legs when the taller boys behind me leaned back on the rope.  Call me crazy, but I like to be firmly affixed to the earth on a forty degree slope.
Moving up the headwall
Photo:  Darrin White

The headwall is nearly 2,000 feet in total, and steepened as I gained altitude.  The weather was clear and sunny and I was comfortable in a baseball hat, buff, wool shirt and softshell pants.  In total, there were six sets of ropes anchored to the headwall.  They were in much better shape and easier to use than the ropes on Denali's headwall had been.  No doubt, in part because they are used much less frequently. 

At the very top of the headwall is a steep ridge, the wind picked up at this point, and I added a layer and roped up again.  High camp was another ninety minutes away on straightforward terrain.  I felt good except for my heels, which were sore from awkward foot placement on the headwall.  When we got to camp, it was sunny with 20 mph winds.  I added another layer of down and double-checked myself to be sure that I didn't have any exposed skin.  I moved quickly to dump my cache and secure it until I returned.

We arrived back at low camp in full light at midnight, nine and a half hours after we left.  As I stood in camp, feeling odd about putting on sunscreen at midnight, I noticed lenticular clouds building over several of the peaks surrounding camp - a sign of the winds that we had experienced higher on the mountain.  It felt like a day of extremes - frigid cold temperatures followed by scorching heat from the blazing sun, calm skies in low camp followed by stinging wind and lenticular clouds up high.  

January 3, 2014
Low camp - 9,400 feet
Day 6

I woke up around 11 am and listened excitedly to the noon weather forecast.  It sounded favorable so we started packing along with the other teams in low camp.  I was looking forwarded to moving up, but a little worried that my pack would be heavier than yesterday.  On the fixed lines I fell into a rhythm of taking two or three breaths, and then a step.  I occasionally switched my ascender between my right and left hands to balance the effort and concentrated on stepping sync my team, which meant taking bigger steps than felt natural, but it helped to be in sync with everyone else.  We made it to high camp in six hours and I uncovered my cache without being assaulted by the wind.  Darrin and I quickly set up our tent, having defined a smooth routine that hardly required communication because we had done it so many times over the years.  We helped to set up the cook tent and build fortifying walls where they were needed.       

After a pasta dinner, I fell into my sleeping bag at 2:30 am.  I scanned my body and decided that I felt beat up, I had a slight headache from the altitude and heat exertion, my armpits were chaffed from moving my arms forward so many times to push my ascender up the rope, and my feet ached.  But, I felt satisfied by my efforts over the past two days, it was arduous moving up the fixed lines, but I felt strong and ready to keep moving up the mountain.

January 4, 2014
High camp - 12,400 feet
Day 7

I woke up at 5:30 am to use my pee bottle, and checked the temperature on my watch, three degrees Fahrenheit inside the tent.  My sleeping bag has turned into a closet, half of my belongings are in it.  My extra clothes and gloves are arranged along the left side to keep them warm in the event that I need to put them on, and my food and sunscreen are at the bottom to keep them from freezing so that I can use them when needed.

Sun arrives at camp at 7 am, much earlier than at low camp, so I can venture outside of the tent without misery.  Since I'm at the bottom of the earth - and it's summer - the sun just rotates around camp, never traveling lower than the horizon.  As far as I can see the terrain is stark white, interrupted occasionally by sharp black rocks that poke the bright blue sky.

The noon forecast projected high pressure and stable weather for the next three days.  Weather on Mt. Vinson isn't as variable as other mountains, it is usually controlled by high pressure at the polar ice cap.  So, assuming this holds true we should be able to summit tomorrow.  

I took advantage of our first rest day today by first wiping fresh-smelling dryer sheets on all of my dirty clothes to freshen them up.  It had a marginal affect, even so I was glad to have brought them.  My hair, on the other hand, is a lost cause as usual and "washing" it isn't an option given the temperature.  I should have just shaved it.  Next I organized my gear and warm clothes for tomorrow's potential summit attempt.  I stuffed un-wrapped candy in every pocket and stashed honey in convenient places.    The highlight of the day was walking to the edge of camp and looking down at low camp on the Branscomb glacier.  Low camp was now empty except for one team.  Although the winds had not returned, it was probably minus ten or fifteen Fahrenheit outside, so my walk to the edge of camp was a quick one. 

High camp with Mt. Shinn in background
Photo:  Darrin White

I'm hopeful that we'll summit tomorrow, I feel ready.  The route is four and a half miles with just 3,600 feet of gain, less than hiking from the Paradise parking lot to camp Muir on Mt. Rainier.  Obviously it's a lot colder, which is the biggest issue.  Of course I don't want to be too cold, but being too hot zaps my energy, which is almost as bad.  I've learned to regulate as much as I can by taking off my hat and gloves, and opening zippers to cool off.  I'll come up with a plan before morning!  

January 5, 2014
High camp - 12,400 feet
Day 8   

I woke up at 5 am this morning to the wind beating the sides of the tent, so my hopes for a summit attempt started to fade.  At 8:30 it hadn't stopped, but we got up, ate and got dressed for what I assumed would be a dress rehearsal.  It was really cold as I waited for my team mates to check their gear and make their final preparations.  I jumped up and down and waved my arms to keep the blood flowing and keep my heart rate up.  I was wearing my balacalava, fleece buff, and several layers of down.  I suddenly wasn't worried about being too hot.  

As soon as we rounded a corner about ten minutes outside of camp the wind completely abated.  I took off my heaviest down parka and ventilated my pants, but I still got too hot.  The next two hours were the hardest of the day thanks to my elevated temperature.  Finally I took my down pants off and got some relief.  We were walking through a wide valley on the Vinson Massif, I was surrounded by multiple pristine peaks, the most prominent of which was my objective, Mt. Vinson.  We continued for about another hour until we reached a rocky band, we were two hours from the summit and since the wind had picked up and the remaining terrain was relatively flat, I decided to put my heavy down parka back on along with mits.  

Other climbers on the Vinson Massif
Photo:  Darrin White

I could see Mt. Vinson off to the right, growing closer as I moved toward it.  Everything felt wide and broad and expansive and quiet except for my breathing.  Eventually we reached the rocky summit ridge, which was flat, easy to ascend and provided brilliant views of the massif.  The weather was perfect, no wind and weather forecasted to be minus thirty-six Fahrenheit.  

And then there was the summit!  Wide with a slight ramp to the tippy-top.  We stayed for twenty or thirty minutes and I soaked in the amazing views all around me.    

Photo:  Vern Tejas

We descended the ridge and made our way back to camp without incident and enjoyed a much deserved ramen dinner.  I felt good, tired from a long day, but content  that I performed well and climbed in good style.  

January 6, 2014
Low camp - 9,400 feet
Day 9  

We had a leisurely morning and enjoyed a late pancake breakfast before packing up to depart from high camp.  The wind was blowing stronger today, and I was happy that we hadn't decide to postpone our summit bid by a day.  Despite the harsh environment, the Vinson Massif is one of the most beautiful places that I've experienced.  It is overwhelming to consider the vastness of this continent and the countless miles of untouched mountains.  A small part of me didn't want to leave.

We finally left our camp at 3 pm, and moved toward the fixed lines on the headwall, I was looking forward to the descent.  The wind had diminished, and left a clear, cloudless day with brilliant sun shining all around.  I moved confidently down the fixed lines and rounded the corner to low camp.  By now I was beginning to overheat, but I could see clouds on the boundless horizon, so I knew that I'd cool off before long.

At low camp I was reunited with my sled, and loaded it with most of what had been in my pack, which probably weighed 45 pounds.  I added to it some group gear and hit the road.  We traveled to base camp in less than three hours and since the forecast called for three days of clouds, Darrin and I made sure that we chose a flat, level spot for our tent, anticipating that we might be in it for a while.  

January 7, 2014
Union glacier 
Day 10  

I was looking forward to enjoying base camp for a few days, and was genuinely disappointed the today when the weather was clear and I heard the drone of Twin  Otter engines in the afternoon.  I was sad to learn that Darrin and I were scheduled for the second flight.  I spent the next few hours soaking in the pristine beauty of this place and feeling grateful to experience it.  I feel melancholy because the climb that I've thought about and planned for for over a year is over, and it seemed to pass too quickly.
Leaving Vinson base camp
Photo:  Garrett Madison

Both Darrin and I had varying degrees of high altitude coughs, and although I was a little congested in the morning, the debilitating cold that I worried about catching from the kid on the plane never materialized.  

We arrived at union glacier just before dinner and ate with the luxury of tables, chairs, and silverware before setting our tent up on the ice.  Union glacier camp is an interesting place.  It is primarily occupied by climbers from various international teams, and you can easily detect those arriving from those departing by the sunburns and swagger.  The next most populous group is tourists venturing to the south pole.  This group is made up mostly of Americans in their 60s who are both intrigued and appalled by the climbing group.  Next are quirky scientists who are studying everything from astrology to meteorites.  Finally, the smallest crowd is the un-supported adventurers who are trekking via various modes of transport on various parts of the continent.  You can discern who is who by their boots, plus most of the adventurers are missing digits.

January 9, 2014
Union glacier
Day 11  

I've spent the last two days luxuriating in the amenities of union glacier camp, I washed my hair with hot water and pomegranate soap and dried it with a fluffy towel, I ate pie and cake and drank wine and wondered how it was possible that I was on the most remote continent on earth.  This afternoon Darrin and I ventured out and walked a 10k loop around camp and were.  The loop was marked by wands, which seemed unnecessary at first since I could see for miles.  But the harsh wind, which  blasted by us from every direction soon revealed the necessity of marking the trail.  I walked slowly around the loop and listened to the crunch of dry, hard snow under my boots, and soaked in the vastness of this place.

Walking around union glacier camp
Photo:  Darrin White

When we returned to camp at 5 pm the rumor was that the Ilyushin would land late this evening, secretly I wish that it won't.  I'd like a few more days of pomegranate soap and chocolate cake.  The buzz around camp continued to build until an announcement was made during dinner that the cargo plane would arrive at 2 am.  This declaration set the camp into a flurry of activity as everyone played their role to prepare for the event.  On schedule the giant plane coasted onto the blue ice runway, dwarfed by the giant peaks surrounding it.  I watched the new climbers disembark the bus and assume my former tent.  I hoped that they would find as much wonder in this place as I had.

No comments:

Post a Comment