It’s still January 11th in Port Townsend when the Ilyushin’s engines scream with counterforce and the plane rumbles to a stop, wheels scuffing blue ice, but here on the polar plateau, 700-miles from the South Pole, it is 2am on January 12th and the world is stunningly bright.
“The ice is very slippery, especially with stiff mountaineering boots, so be careful,” says a neon green vest with the words Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) STAFF printed on it. I clamber down the steel steps and onto the ice, my sunglasses fogging from the sudden temperature change. Down jacket, merino long johns, heavy gloves keep me warm, but my nose and cheeks are shocked. I join a group of climbers who are gravitating towards tubular weather-havens, like barber poles dug into the snow. This is Patriot Hills: a village of ice and light, caverns of frozen food, Ski-Doos, fuel drums, columns of mountain tents that seem somehow military regardless of their yellow and orange hue. For us, this is merely an in-between.
“Well, we could shuffle our feet for five hours trying to stay warm. But no. Instead, we build tents and get in our sleeping bags until the Twin Otter leaves for basecamp,” says Dave Hahn. Our team members—Tim Amos, Sashko Kedev, John Kelly, Brent Huntsman and myself—are not expert nylon carpenters, but constructing the three-person tunnels keeps us occupied, distracts us from the cold until we can crawl into our down cocoons. Circadian rhythms outrank sunshine; sleep comes easily.
Since Dave and I are sharing a tent, I wake too when neon vest pokes his head through the vestibule. “You’re up first Dave, toss your duffels on the sledge and I’ll drag ‘em to the Otter,” he says, a heavy Kiwi accent tapering every word.
The unexpected haste that follows is as good as coffee. Metal tent stakes almost burn my hands they are so cold and the sensation wipes away the clouds that five-hours of sleep have left in my eyes. We board the plane, a Canadian Twin Otter with skis instead of wheels, at 10am. The flight through the Ellsworth Mountains takes about an hour and we land with an elegant swoosh on the Branscomb Glacier at 7000 feet.
It’s a beautiful day and Mt. Vinson is visible through a saddle in the enormous metamorphic walls that surround us. Dave claims the most luxurious kitchen pit: stadium seating, high stove-counters, spacious central table and pole stanchion. It is the past result of an assistant guide’s laborious efforts and I’m thankful to avoid the same work.
Along with Willie Benegas and Vern Tejas, who are guiding, respectively, for Mountain Madness and Alpine Ascents International, we are the final string of crampon-crazies on the hill this season. When these other two groups swoosh to a halt, base camp buzzes excitedly. Folks romanticize about their Seven Summit bids, guides explain basic glacier travel techniques, I drink melted snow, hydrating preemptively with the hope we will walk tomorrow, that we will climb.
Featherweight snow calms the fired engines. Clouds arrive, carried on a dancing skirt of wind that brushes coyly against exposed skin and commands wide-eyed glances from every confident bud. As the sun hides behind the vast range, instantly casting a frigid shadow—the closest thing to night here—the country becomes silent; the excitement of today turns into anticipation for tomorrow.
Day 2: 1/13/2010
“Why move up in storm weather? If we’re going to be caught, it’s better we’re here than up there.” Dave’s reasoning, after 15-years of Antarctic experience, is not worth questioning. The snow-tanned skin of his face—every surface full grain leather except his lens-protected sockets—accentuates the slight crinkles that paw back from the corners of his eyes when he smiles. He smiles often, laughing at himself more than anyone, a long-jawed chuckle that belies his mellow nature and makes me feel like I’m sitting on a sofa in his living room rather than a bench carved from snow. Hell, this place is like a second home to him anyway. He serves breakfast while gusts whip powder under our Posh—a single poled kitchen shelter like a miniature teepee.
Why carry avalanche beacons if you don’t know how to use them? Dave conducts an impromptu seminar. Namgya Sherpa, an ALE employee with nine Everest summits and various other Himalayan peaks under his belt—he will be Dave’s assistant guide for the duration of our climb—digs a hole in the trampled snow, tosses in a beacon. He and I chuckle conspiratorially, thinking that Dave will never find the device, but it only takes the Taos patrolman a few minutes to uncover the imaginary body. We’ll be grateful for his speed, I think, when avalanche is for real.
Although we aren’t carrying today, like we originally intended, the weather is not tempestuous enough to prevent a little stroll. Legs get accustomed to hotel rooms and tents just like they must now get accustomed to walking. Dave leads a three-hour hike up the glacier. Namgya, Tim and I are one rope team. Dave, John, Brent and Sashko are the other. Our packs are light: snacks, layers, water. We gain and lose 1000-feet on the warm-up-hike.
Returning to Base, we all feel healthy, hungry, hotter than expected. Movement suspends temperatures at comfortable levels, but sitting in the Posh has the reverse effect. While Dave flips quesadillas, one of his tangibly perfect guide skills, the rest of us trap heat with down jackets and insulated pants. Roasting in our own sweat-built saunas, we gnosh calories, trade climbing stories, dig the heels of our moon boots into the snow, gaining traction, preparing for the starting gun that, weather permitting, will blast off tomorrow.
Day 3: 1/14/2010
Sunshine. It comes from all directions. We are trudging across a sphere of mirrors. We drag orange plastic sleds, which are tied to our packs, hauling fuel cans, food bags, down suits, solar chargers, shovels, duffels, an extra tent. Today we will stash these items at Low Camp and return to Base, the first expedition-style leg of our climb.
The bootpack meanders gradually over hidden crevasses for a few thousand feet. Ice flows beckon temptingly. Dave points out lines.
“Conrad went up the left side there. Skied down it. A Swiss team did the right edge.” The way he casually talks about Conrad Anker, widely recognized as one of the top alpinists in the world, reminds me of whom I’m climbing with. I feel suddenly humbled but simultaneously enthused to haunt the outskirts of this elite community. Maybe I think to myself, The left side doesn’t look that difficult. Given the resources and the time, the gear and the partner, I could climb that too.
Still, there are things I know I could not repeat. For instance, Willie Benegas, one of the guides with whom we share Vinson Massif, shattered the Mt. Rainier speed record during his first ever summit attempt. He climbed from Paradise Lodge to the summit and back to the Lodge in less than 4 hours and 30 minutes. Normally, the same climb takes three days.
Yet, like Dave—and perhaps the best guides share this trait—Willie is down-to-earth, friendly, confident and talkative. His heavy Argentinian accent can’t hope to mute his laugh, which is as thick as fillet mignon.
Willie’s group is ascending—they haul their entire camp in one straight-through push—while we return to base, our packs and sleds emptied at our Low Camp cache, our worn quadriceps rolling downhill with the rest of our bodies, our armpits sweating.
There are different ways to climb this mountain: fast or conservative. Dave condones the latter as opposed to Willie and Vern’s more aggressive stance. It feels wrong to be the only team left at base camp when we return there in the “evening” (the day’s walk took a total of 8.5 hours). I’m in no position to question success though, and Dave Hahn has been more successful on Mt. Vinson than anyone. I know he’ll get us to the top.
“There aren’t many places in the world where you can get a sunburn at midnight,” says Tim, applying sunscreen, shedding layers in preparation for bed. We all laugh, eyes inspecting our own skin, our own feet: daily rituals before sleep.
Author’s Note: I am currently in Mendoza, Argentina catching up on laundry, sleep, nutrition, hydration, communication and writing. I will be leaving society once again to climb Aconcagua in the next few days. Many thanks to the guest contributors who have kept this blog vivacious. I’ll try to complete the entries about Antarctica before I leave, but no promises! Ciao ciao, LW