The other teams are a day ahead of us, which means they’ll be pressing for the summit while we’re moving to High Camp, but from the looks of the weather—grotesque lenticular waves, flowing gowns dressing summit and ridge—they’re going to encounter some wind. Even on the fixed lines a breeze picks up and I’m forced to halt the rope team while I add a shell-layer to my protective ensemble.
A freezing mistral attacks my cheeks, nose, any exposed skin. I hide my face from the blast, ignore the discomfort without breaking the rhythm of steps and breaths. High Camp tents are mostly empty when we arrive; the other teams did go for the summit today.
Dave, Namgya and I level snow with aluminum shovels, creating a tent platform that, once we have finished it, the others quickly occupy with one of the orange and blue shelters. Next, we excavate a Posh. Removing ice boulders and piling them around the pit rim, we gradually sculpt benches, kitchen counters, entryway steps that tunnel four- or five-feet into the glacier.
I’m happy to dig—normally a guide’s responsibility—maybe because I feel more akin to a guide than a client. I know how lucky I am to be here. I’m not entitled to personal service, to being pampered or looked after. I want to be an asset to this team, to Dave and Namgya, so I hog the shovel, pound it into the snow, fling loads out of the pit until I’m gasping for air, the altitude (12,400ft) a ratcheting vise on my lungs. If nothing else, digging is the best way to stay warm.
Vern and Willie return safely from the summit, their teams trailing behind them like so many tattered flags waving in the breeze. Exhausted, sun burnt faces leak stories of 40-knot winds, about how the guides wouldn’t allow photos on the summit, the conditions too poor and fear of frostbite. But they all reached the top. They all made it up and made it back. Beyond the haze of fatigue I can discern a pride-fueled gleam, a home-free relief that nourishes, alarmingly, a sense of doubt in my own emotions.
What if they caught the last decent window before a ten-day storm? What if Hurricane Zeus does explode upon us and we’re forced to retreat? What if this is the last sunshine of the summer? Dave, expertly, puts things in a different perspective: “A crowd, a mass of people clogging the summit, can be as bad as a storm. Both are dangers worth avoiding,” he says calmly. “Don’t worry, we will get the mountain.”
His words, like always, are enough to temper any gale. It seems like more than a coincidence that when we spread horizontal for the night, the wind has completely disappeared.
Day 8: 1/19/2010
Being the caboose has its advantages. Our exhalations are stronger than the non-existent breeze. Where yesterday Mountain Madness and AAI were donning their down-suit hoods, covering their faces with balaclavas, we are unzipping. We let the top half of the suits dangle from our waists like we’re surfers scoping the break. We’re the last team on the mountain this season and we’ve got one hell of a gorgeous day. Dave’s patience has paid off. Now all we have to do is climb.
Perhaps due to Posh digging, or a too-anxious-to-sleep night, I’m not feeling my best for the first few hours. Thankfully, the gradual slope gives me a chance to shed the cobwebs, slide comfortably into a rhythmic step-breathe groove. Our team moseys ever closer to the shark-fin summit, taking hourly breaks, clicking photos along the way.
After swinging crampons and grinding thigh muscles for about 7 hours, we reach the base of the summit ridge. The air has grown steadily colder—we no longer have our suits unzipped—and in anticipation of summit winds we strap on goggles, protect our faces with Buffs. Namgya and Dave’s forethought in this regard probably saves my cheeks and nose from being frostbitten because as we traverse the last 50-feet to the summit, a bitter wind picks up. It is nothing unmanageable, but combined with increased technical difficulty—the ridge is crumbly rock mottled by snow—the vibe changes from carefree motion to a somewhat frantic intensity.
I notice that the altitude (16,000+ feet) is affecting my balance slightly, so I continue with caution, mimicking Namgya’s footprints precisely until they lead, triumphantly, to the summit. Soon, all six of us are there together, hugging, high-fiving, shaking gloved hands, framing photos while trying to avoid exposing flesh to the gusts. Sashko unfurls a Macedonian flag; bright red and yellow rays shoot forth from a central orb in brilliant contrast to the sea of white, a goliath capsule devoid of hue except for us, miniscule blemishes on the highest stony wrinkle. Dave props up his camera— we huddle near the summit—and after fumbling for a few shifting-to-stay-warm moments, finds the timer, presses the shutter, crouches in front of us for the picture. I feel no sense of glory, of having reached my goal or accomplished the feat, until later when a cathartic flash overwhelms me at dinner. On the summit, I have neither time nor energy for these emotions.
Things seem chaotic from the wind, the fatigue and the fact that Brent, whose strength had been dwindling, is now dangerously exhausted. He hardly responds to Dave’s forceful orders. “I was completely blacked out,” says Brent.
Dave recounts the situation: “We were standing face to face and I told you that your nose looked frozen. You just nodded. You didn’t look worried or shocked. You didn’t bring your hand up to feel your nose like most people would instinctually do. So yeah, at that point I obviously wasn’t concerned about frostbite anymore. I knew there were worse things that could happen.”
But Dave remains calm. With Brent grasping Dave’s shoulders—they look like part of a dance floor train—and Sashko in the anchor position guarding against potential falls, they safely descend the ridge. Our rope-team follows and as we lose elevation, Brent’s inebriation soon wears off. His nose is fine; the only true damage is a blank spot in his memory, a blank spot that, for the rest of us, is filled with images from the top of the bottom of the world.
Namgya pulls wands from the route as we descend. Drifting snow will gradually conceal the bootpack, erasing our presence, the presence of all life until the first ALE climbers fix ropes and build tents in October or November of next year. It’s a mysterious privilege to be the last team on the mountain. Maybe it feels like our story, our presence on the summit, will endure until the next person leaves their mark, which won’t be for a long time.
“I like being last,” says Dave, “it reminds me of when I used to be Base Camp manager and I was the absolute final person here.” He tells a story about leaving a bowl of cereal in the weather-haven before departing for the winter.
“As if you had just stepped out to grab the newspaper,” I say.
“Exactly. And when I returned the next year, it was always untouched. It wasn’t stale or soggy. I’d pour milk and start eating.” In some small way, our Vinson footprints are just like that bowl of cereal.
After the 10.5-hour summit day, we spend a night at High Camp nursing water bottles, eating splendidly and reminiscing poetically about our adventure. The next day we carry heavy loads down the fixed ropes, (a result of expedition-style tactics is that when the climbing happens quickly, you’re left with a lot of excess) fill sleds at Low Camp, drag the extra food, tents, shovels and fuel back to Base.
The waiting begins again, but it’s different now. Our bodies are accustomed to walking and it feels odd to read, eat, sleep, listen to music for a few days without moving. Rhythms tend towards perpetuity; it’s tough to sit still.
Reuniting with John, who has been living in thick-mattress luxury, is heartwarming. We relate our experiences since he departed, chiding Brent for his altitude overdose and subsequent mental bald-spot while we sip boxed wine in celebration.
Dave tells Shackleton stories, flipping butter-laden quesadillas with his trusty spatula, smiling so the slight crinkles around his eyes run deep. The guy still hasn’t stopped working. Even now that we are just waiting here for the plane to arrive, he is still guiding. His stories get our minds off showers, restaurants, first-world luxuries. He reminds us that food and liquids will keep us warm. He makes the waiting easier.
After two nights, the sky clears and we fly to Patriot Hills, where we are delayed again. All the climbing teams are now united. We share the spacious kitchen tent, sit in actual chairs, play Rummy or Hearts to pass the time. Vern Tejas strums his guitar. One evening, Willie Benegas, Mike Horst, some of their clients and myself play spoons. Like usual, the game devolves quickly—Willie flies across the room, grabbing frantically for a spoon, but I hold on tight. We joke that, as the loser, Willie should have to run outside naked, or stick his tongue to the Twin Otter.
The games end when we board the Ilyushin two days later. We exchange brisk handshakes with neon vests, frame group photos, perform all the goodbye rituals. It’s sad to leave, to know that some of these people—whom you have shared this barren expanse with, this remote mountain—you may never see again. I have a notebook full of names and address though, and I’ve met more than a few folks worth looking up.
My mind shifts to the next adventure. From Punta Arenas, I will fly to Mendoza, Argentina and begin an expedition to Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at almost 23,000ft. Standing on the blue ice runway, listening to each farewell, I’m reminded that, for me, this is hardly an end. For me, this is one step in an endless staircase of mountains and the next step is not far off.
I turn around, wanting to take one last look, one last breath before I clamber into the dark belly of the aircraft. I scan the horizon, admiring the rugged mountain lines. Are those clouds I see? No. At the furthest boundaries of my vision there is only rolling ice and punched-up rock, there is only cat-pawed snow, an infinite desert, a vast plateau, a perpetual expanse of solid white.