A day of moving. Tear down tents in scalding light. Stuff packs as if you’re insulating walls, every corner filled. It’s two-layer weather today. Polypro and thin fleece are barriers against UV more than temperature. In fact, the immaculate snow reflects such intense heat that I find myself rolling up my sleeves as I walk. I think I forgot to bring a pair of shorts.
From our nomadic vantage we can glimpse the drooping cone of Mt. Shinn and the severe tooth that is Epperly. We snap photos at rest breaks, which we take every hour or so. The high-diversity light digs bottomless pockets in shadows, cold dark ghosts amongst ubiquitous squints. Thank heavens for sunglasses.
Stiffness from yesterday’s carry is apparent yet easily worked through. Our team does well. We cut an hour off our previous time, set our tents up with still strengthening heat, enjoy a dehydrated dinner early, squirt aji to spice up noodles, guzzle hot-drinks on Dave’s orders.
The other teams are at various stages: Willie does a carry to the top of the fixed ropes; Vern carries to high camp. We are the caboose and we’re not worried about it.
“People often get excited with good weather like this, want to climb the mountain in one push. But yeah, they end up exhausted on summit day, or get caught in weather and run out of food,” says Dave. That won’t happen to us, I think, we have enough food for weeks.
The nightly shadow doesn’t envelope camp until 4am, but we are asleep long before that. Namgya, Dave and I are cuddled tightly, vents open wide to prevent condensation. It’s too hot to zip our bags until mountains obscure the sun and the world reverts to a bone-chattering freeze.
Day 5: 1/16/2010
The tent walls are caked with tiny icicles when sunshine finally breaks our slumber at 11am. It got cold last night, really cold. At one point, clasped in the supposed –25F comfort of my Siberian goose down sleeping bag, I was shivering. The cold makes the thought of rising extremely unappealing, but I must nourish, I must hydrate, I must build stores of energy for today’s climb. It will be a long day after all.
Sun eventually peeks out from behind the 6000-foot flanks of Vinson Massif, and instantly, life beyond the sleeping bag is bearable again. We fill our backpack’s frozen bodies with heavy loads, strap pickets and shovels to the outside. We activate our avalanche beacons. “Is everyone beeping?” asks Dave. Various nods and grunts signify the affirmative.
We are the first team to reach the base of the fixed ropes that day. 1200-meters of neon orange line is connected by snow-anchors, pickets, long aluminum poles. We attach our ascenders to the ropes, slide them up, the miniscule teeth biting the cord, and begin to climb.
This is the first time I have used an ascender and it is a safety precaution more than anything. The slopes are not overly steep—maybe 35-40 degrees. Dave cautions against weighting the ascender, recommends using our legs to climb, a novel idea. Ice axe in one hand, ascender in the other, we begin crawling up the massive headwall.
To be honest, I would never consider fixing ropes on a slope like this. I would feel completely comfortable climbing it in normal glacier-travel style, tied to my partners but not to the hill itself. This exact thought is running through my mind—what a bunch of wussies we are—when we arrive at our first rest stop, a small rock outcrop called “Lunch Ledge.”
I clip my pack to the ropes, extract my insulation-clad water bottle, and sit down, facing away from the slope. What stretches out in front of me is at first confusing. For hundreds and hundreds of miles—as far as I can see—there is nothing but white. Mistakenly, I think I’m viewing a bank of clouds, some massive front that is building beneath us. I’ve seen clouds like this from the summit of Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker. It’s really nothing new. I’m content in my ineptitude for a few moments while I sip on my bottle. What I soon realize however, to my gulp-inducing amazement, is that these are not clouds at all. This endless expanse of white, this colorless ocean, this pallid panorama is, in fact, ice.
The reality of our isolation becomes shockingly apparent. The fixed ropes are here because if something bad did happen, the rescue team is a hell of a long ways away. In truth, there is no rescue team. We are the rescue team. The fixed ropes are our safety net.
Thankfully, no rescues are necessary. We reach High Camp, at approximately 12,400-feet, deposit our loads, sip more water, begin descending. On the way down, we use the lines like a railing, grasping it in our gloved hands, letting it run through our fingers while we step carefully down the ivory staircase.
We return to Low Camp after nine hours of climbing without mishap, guzzle hot liquids, devour savory carbohydrates and proteins, retire to our sleeping bags in the wee hours while the sun is still brilliant, wonder how tomorrow will be different.
Day 6: 1/17/2010
To say that yesterday was not hard for me would be a lie. Friction scabs on my right shin, a blister on my left big toe, tightness in my shoulders illustrates the difficulty. Regardless, creaking into motion this morning, I was expecting to climb. Our gear and our spirits, buoyed constantly by the seamless weather—azure skies again—are poised for upward action, a move to High Camp. Sashko, the Macedonian cardiologist, is so sure we’ll move that he packs before trudging to the Posh for breakfast.
It comes as a surprise to all of us I think when John Kelly decides to call it quits. The British businessman with a home near Stonehenge has developed a gritty cough, which he says festers deep in his chest. The cough prevented adequate rest after yesterday’s carry and he is feeling, perhaps as a result of his selfless nature—he doesn’t want to “inconvenience” the rest of the team—like it would be better not to continue. Persuasion to the contrary doesn’t have an effect, so Dave and Namgya tie him between them, lead him back to Base where he’ll be roomed-and-boarded by the ALE staff, a luxury that the rest of us secretly envy.
Now, one soup packet remains unopened at dinner with extra cocoa and coffee packets too, blatant reminders that our team is smaller by one. I start the stoves, boil water for hot drinks while Tim fries quesadillas. Brent contributes smoked salmon and, with extra aji, the snack is an adequate distraction. Books, an iPod, a journal are about as active as this rest gets.
Dave and Namgya are gone for about six hours. Dave chugs two liters of water when he returns, rests for a matter of minutes, begins preparing dinner. He never stops. It is quite impressive. He is on the clock 24 hours a day until we’re safely back in Punta Arenas. I join him in the Posh, ask if he needs a hand.
“No, I think I’m good,” he says, looking me in the eye, “But tomorrow, unless they call for Hurricane Zeus, we’re climbing.”