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Seven Summits: Climbing Antarctica’s Vinson Massif

by Dave Mauro

 

This is the fifth installment in Dave Mauro’s Seven Summits series. In previous accounts, Dave was introduced to high altitude climbing on an unlikely ascent of Alaska’s Denali, North America’s highest peak. After Denali, Dave determined to attempt to climb the highest point on each continent – the “Seven Summits.” Successful ascents followed:  

Mt. Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mt. Elbrus (Europe), and Aconcagua (South America). In this account, Dave describes a climb that is – too put it mildly – extreme: 16,050 foot Vinson Massif, the highest point on the frozen continent of Antarctica.

 

Dave contemplating the icy vastness beneath Vinson Massif
Dave contemplating the icy vastness beneath Vinson Massif

 

The airport in Atlanta was brand new, a proud gateway that advertised the progressive nature of this town to all who had come for the recent Olympic games. It was sleek, automated, and vast. Delta airlines had made it their hub. It had been designed with every travel scenario in mind …except wind and rain. Given much of either and a scene of such chaotic helplessness followed that it reminded one of the scene in The Wizard Of Oz where the flying monkeys ravage Dorothy and her friends.

It was raining in Atlanta the day my flight arrived there. Though there was time to make my connecting flight to Chile, it was already understood that there would be no point in trying. I was shuttled off to a one-star hotel with the other confused passengers and told I would be on the flight leaving the next evening. At least I had a roof over my head, which was better than my duffels got. They arrived in Chile soaked completely through. I spent two days in Punta Arenas drying my gear out on improvised clothes lines in my hotel room. Still, it could have been worse.

Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas

Phil and Steve arrived with no gear at all. With the help of airline officials, it was determined that their things were in Madrid, Spain. Promises, threats, and pleas were exchanged until all came to the understanding that these vital supplies would arrive in two days. They did not. Phil and Steve spent the last five hours in Punta Arenas, before leaving for Antarctica, buying replacement gear. They burned through $8,000 in one epic retail orgy, then, price tags still dangling from the gear, boarded the Russian cargo jet that would take us to the coldest place on earth. They would be relying on untested kits.

Antarctica is a land of superlatives. It is the driest place on earth (averages just 2 inches of snow fall per year). It is the windiest place on earth (average wind speed of 23 mph). It has the highest average elevation (6,200 feet) of any continent. But above all, it is the coldest place on earth. The coldest naturally occurring temperature ever measured was at a Russian station in Antarctica called Vostok. There the thermometer cracked -128 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to sublime dry ice. The average summer temperature, December-January, is -17 Fahrenheit. We arrived on December 3, 2010.

Flying south:Into the white
Flying south:Into the white

Though we tent-camped on the ice next to the glacier runway, there were comforts provided to our team. Antarctic Logistics Operations, the operator of Union Glacier base camp, had built and staffed several seasonal Quonset huts for the scientists, climbers, and south pole trekkers coming to Antarctica. Hot meals were served inside these heated shelters, and space was set aside for teams to socialize or play cards. We waited for the weather to clear and studied our next move.

We had arranged for a DC-3 on skis to do the heavy lifting from Union Glacier. A few days after arriving in Antarctica our provisions and persons were thusly loaded onto this vintage aircraft which deposited us on an un-named glacier far inland. I watched the DC-3 lift off and leave as we stood there next to a mountain of gear, on a spot that had quite likely never known a human footprint. I remember thinking “I hope I didn’t forget anything important.” From there, a specially equipped Twin Otter ferried loads up the narrow valleys of blue-ice glaciers to the foot of Vinson Massif.

A storm hit almost immediately after we built our base camp. The clouds obscured the sun, and the temperature dropped to -40 Fahrenheit. It was impossible to keep warm, regardless of how much down I put on. The tent gave shelter from the wind, but did not dent the cold. I paced the perimeter of camp to generate some body heat. In Antarctica, the only warmth a person knows is what one’s own body generates.

Union Glacier Camp
Union Glacier Camp

My team passed the time talking about cricket in the small group tent we had fashioned as a cook station. A big grudge match called “The Ashes” was underway between England and Australia. Regular updates were obtained via satellite phone. Being the only non-cricket-speaking member, I entertained myself by intentionally getting the terminology wrong. “What’s the latest with the Cinders” I would ask. “Ashes” they would correct, patiently. Tony was from South Africa. Guy was from England via Cayman Island. Mark was from New Zealand. Phil was from the Isle of Mann. Only Steve, originally from Milwaukee but now an ex-pat living in the UK, could translate Cricket to me, often using analogies from baseball. In the end I came away with the impression that cricket and baseball are alike in as much as good food, drink, and a complete absence of anywhere important one needs to be are essential components to spectatorship.

We also talked about other teams on the mountain, including one that had been trapped at high camp by the same storm holding us down. Radio transmissions reported they were out of food, very low on fuel, and various members had frostbite. I would catch up with this team many days later back at Union Glacier as we waited to leave Antarctica. They looked like hell. Non spoke. Not even to each other. I asked what they thought they might take away from this experience. All were silent. They did not even look at me. Then, finally, one woman said “I just want to get out of here.”

The storm broke on the third day and we loaded our sleds for the move up the valley. I had not felt my toes in two days and looked forward to an opportunity to pump some life into them. We roped together for glacier travel, shouldered our packs, and harnessed our sleds behind us. The difference that direct sunlight makes, versus a shadow, amounts to almost 20 degrees in Antarctica. So our move was carefully timed to chase the trailing edge of Vinson Massif’s shadow as the sun rotated around the mountain. We made good time under comfortable conditions, arriving at Camp Two late that afternoon.

The coldest seat on Earth
The coldest seat on Earth

The wind in Antarctica has little to oppose it. it easily gathers steam as it shreds across the barren land. Such winds are capable of turning tent and occupants into a tumbleweed. So constructing protective walls around camp is essential. We did this by sawing large blocks of ice by hand, then stacking them in place, ala Mayan Eskimo. It was arduous work repeated each time we arrived at a new camp, but the body heat generated was welcome and I found myself looking forward to the task.

The team lingered in our camp at the foot of the headwall as the next weather window approached. Moving to high camp would involve a steep ascent up the ice face and we would be quite exposed. The conditions had to be right. In the idle hours gathered in our group tent we each confessed to having fallen in love with the woman pictured on our box of cocoa packets. “Marta,” we named her, and placed her cardboard likeness atop an icy altar carved into the snow bench. She would be the figurehead at the bow of our Viking ship.

Phil and Steve’s untested kits were performing decently. This was owing largely to their having chosen tested brands like North Face, Outdoor Research, and Marmot. But Phil had been unable to find a tall sleeping bag and so had to sleep with his parka on to protect his shoulders and head. As well, the unfamiliar boots both men wore blistered their feet badly. Neither complained

Ascending to camp
Ascending to camp

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There is no real darkness in Antarctica during the summer. The light fades to a soft hue as the sun rides the horizon for a bit. The temperature drops. Then the day starts all over again. “Look at this bloke coming across the ice,” Phil commented, observing a lone descending climber. It was 2 a.m. and we were standing outside, taking in the view. “There’s no band waiting for him, no crowd cheering,” he continued. “And he wouldn’t want one either. This man has been at war…really, with himself.” The climber walked past our camp without even looking in our direction. I would have liked to shout a greeting his way and asked how his climb went, but felt it more important to respect his space. If he chose to not engage us it was probably too soon for war stories.

We left one tent behind to conserve on weight when the team moved up the headwall to high camp. This meant we would crowd three of us into each two-man tent. Guy and I shared our tent with Tony. The three of us slept on and under all kinds of gear that could not be left outside. By morning the condensation from our breathing had formed long icy tendrils that hung from the ceiling of our tent, delicate and crystalline. I bumped them as I tried to sit up and the tendrils came clattering down.

There was very little wind as we set out for the summit that morning. The sky was clear. The team was in good spirits. We could see the summit from where we started and most of the approach looked uneventful. The sun would be to our left, which meant the right side of my body would be shaded during the -30F morning hours. I activated a chemical hand warmer and packed it into the glove of my right hand. This was a tip I had been given by my friend Mike Crowley, who had climbed Vinson Massif the prior season. It proved quite helpful.

Climbing fixed lines
Climbing fixed lines

By early afternoon we had gained the saddle below the summit ridge of Vinson Massif. The wind was ripping through this higher reach, so we paused to put on our heaviest gear. As we did so, one of Steve’s crampons spontaneously jettisoned a critical screw that held the device taut to his boot. Without it, there would be no way he could continue on. Incredibly, Tony found the rogue hardware in the snow, amid fifty MPH winds, and Steve’s summit was saved.

The team carefully picked our way up the steep icy rock face to the ridge. The wind was so strong it was difficult to hear one another, even when shouting from a few feet away. For the next twenty minutes we advanced up the catwalk to the summit, clipping into protection where it existed, throwing running protection where it did not. Then we stopped. Mark, our guide, suggested we give Tony the honor of first summit. Tony, a sixty-something adventurer, had already summited six of the world’s seven summits. This would be his seventh. We stepped aside and motioned for him to come forward. A moment later, icicles handing from his thick grey mustache, Tony backed up onto the pinnacle that defines the top of Vinson Massif and took his place in the record books.

Dave atop the highest point in Antarctica
Dave atop the highest point in Antarctica

We each had our moment on top. Then the team organized for a group photo. I released a bit of my brother’s ashes and wept, overcome with the kind of joy that lives next door to grief. Phil comforted me, saying “I know. I know.” I would have liked to call family on the satellite phone but the conditions were far too harsh to linger any longer at the summit. We were also dogged by the forecast of a new storm heading our way in less than four hours. That storm caught us an hour away from high camp.

We clawed our way into camp and ate a hasty pasta meal. The temperature was so cold that what remained of the steaming meal had frozen to my plate only four minutes after being served. All night long our tent buckled beneath the powerful gusts of wind, then springing back up when they relented. We slept very little. We skipped breakfast the next morning, preferring to strike camp and get down the headwall before the storm worsened to a point where doing so would no longer be possible.

Conditions improved as we descended, pausing at Camp Three to eat, then continuing down the valley past Camp Two, and arriving at base camp that evening in time to climb aboard the Twin Otter as it dropped off another expedition.

My 19 year old son, Chase, tries to teach me the expressions used by rappers. This comes in handy when I find myself improvising such a character on stage. Being as middle-aged and white-bread as a person can be, such words strike comedic contrast when they come out of my mouth. Always a crowd pleaser. It was Chase’s voice that came to me as the IL-76 lifted off from Union Glacier three days later. We were all dressed in heavy down, packed together like chicks in a nest. A soothing darkness beat back the dim lights of the Navigator’s instruments. I could feel myself drifting off to sleep as the jet raced down the ice, that early dream-state when voices come to you. The nose of the aircraft lifted and the landing gear went silent. In that moment I heard Chase declare “we out this bitch!”

Dinner Time
Dinner Time

I have heard people use the term “re-entry” in describing the process of returning from Antarctica. The context this appears in suggests some similarity to the experience of returning astronauts. Such a notion might not be as romanticized as one would think. Indeed, NASA has used Antarctica for components of astronaut training, and popular conspiracy theories suggest it to have been the location of the faked moon landings. In the course of our time in Antarctica there was no darkness. Except for the sky, there was no color. There was no smell of any sort. Aside from the wind, there was no sound. Our sense of taste vacated as a consequence of altitude. Much of the time our numb fingers knew no touch. For two weeks we existed together in a state of profound sensory deprivation. Upon re-entry to civilization I found myself quickly over-stimulated by the signs, lights, noises and activity around me. I wanted to hide in my hotel room. Eventually I wandered out and hunkered down in the tiny computer room adjacent to hotel lobby. I spent most of that first day posting blog entries I had written in Antarctica and eating chocolate. I kept my world very small.

My family was already gathering in the Phoenix area for the Christmas holiday when my flight touched down. Lin would be flying down from Bellingham to join us a few days later. I decided to welcome her dressed as a penguin. This is something Lin started by dressing as a Cheetah when meeting my return flight from Kilimanjaro. It was not easy to find a Penguin costume in the Arizona desert, but I prevailed.

I pulled up to the Mesa airport ten minutes late and in a panic. The whole effect would be lost if Lin walked off the plane and I was not there to greet her as she had me. I hurriedly threw on the heavy costume and headed for the terminal. The realistic design of the garment pinched my legs close together at the ankles, making anything better than a fast waddle impossible. I was breathing hard inside the headpiece. Sweat ran freely down my face. My penguin feet were slapping hard on the pavement. I could see passengers pouring into the baggage claim area. With both flippers waving madly, I bum rushed the lot of them. Unfortunately, these people were exiting the flight from Great Falls and I only succeeded in fostering a festive sort of confusion. Lin’s flight from Bellingham was running an hour late.

Homecoming
Homecoming

Families with children assumed I had been hired by the airport to bring a little holiday cheer to the otherwise mundane experience of waiting for relatives to arrive. I found myself posing for photos and allowing kids to touch my beak. Several people asked why I was dressed as a penguin, and, having time on my hands, I shared the story of my trip to Antarctica and the many themed reunions Lin and I have enjoyed. The story spread.

I noticed something strange going on as passengers from Bellingham filed out. The party meeting them would linger instead of proceeding to the baggage carousel. Most of the passengers had deplaned and become part of the large crowd around me by the time Lin walked out. She was dressed as a snowflake. There was glitter on her face, and she wore a homemade headdress of cutout paper snowflakes. Her blouse and pants were a flawless white. Her finger and toenails were painted red with tiny white snowflakes attached. Her blond hair was braided back with all the delicate intricacy of fine lace.

It is perhaps a testament to how specifically her eyes searched for me that Lin did not notice the six foot tall penguin standing among the crowd now watching in silence. She walked past me. But, as she did, I honked at her. She stopped and looked back at me. I honked again. A brilliant smile came to Lin’s face as she rushed into my open flippers while cheers and applause erupted around us.

Vinson Massif 033

 

Next up: Papau New Guinea’s Carstensz Pyramid

 

Dave Mauro is a longtime Bellingham, WA. resident. By day he works as a financial advisor at UBS. By night he is an improv actor at the Upfront Theatre. Now and again, he travels the world with the goal of climbing the highest summit on each of the planet’s continents. Accounts of his successful attempts of Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus and Aconcagua can be seen at www.AdventuresNW.com. And look for the final chapter of Dave’s epic quest -an attempt on Mount Everest – in the Autumn issue of Adventures NW magazine, available this September.

 

His blogs, photos and videos are also available at https://sites.google.com/site/davidjmauro/.

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