- Melissa Arnot
- Alex Barber
- Gabriel Barral
- Jake Beren
- Zeb Blais
- Katie Bono
- Anne Gilbert Chase
- Sean Collon
- Leon Davis
- Elias de Andres Martos
- Cody Doolan
- Paul Edgren
- Mark Falender
- Leah Fisher
- Eric Frank
- Steve Gately
- Josh Gautreau
- Thomas Greene
- Casey Grom
- Dave Hahn
- Walter Hailes
- Tim Hardin
- Mike Haugen
- Andy Hildebrand
- Mike Hinckley
- Joe Horiskey
- Nick Hunt
- Tyler Jones
- J.J. Justman
- Levi Kepsel
- Mike King
- Adam Knoff
- Katy Laveck
- Ben Liken
- Josh Maggard
- Paul Maier
- Linden Mallory
- Lindsay Mann
- Andres Marin
- Jeff Martin
- Erik Nelson
- Billy Nugent
- Brent Okita
- Logan Randolph
- Tyler Reid
- Dave Reynolds
- Kel Rossiter
- Geoff Schellens
- Shaun Sears
- Garrett Stevens
- Jason Thompson
- Mike Tomlinson
- Mark Tucker
- Mike Uchal
- Pete Van Deventer
- Alex Van Steen
- Ed Viesturs
- Maile Wade
- Mike Walter
- Seth Waterfall
- Solveig Waterfall
- Peter Whittaker
- Win Whittaker
- Bryson Williams
- Dan Windham
- Robby Young
Posts for Vinson Massif from 01/2011
Antarctica didn’t let us go easily. It was 1:00 AM when we saw the definitively-Russian Ilyushin lumbering through the Antarctic sky. The temperature was some 20 below, and the 30 knot winds made it feel much, much colder, ripping heat from exposed flesh with efficiency. But, for a huge jet landing on a strip of blue ice, a strong headwind is a nice thing, helping to slow the giant bird down.
With a delicate landing that defied its massive bulk, the Ilyushin touched down to many a camera-shutter click and loud cheer. After days of delay, strikes, broken parts, and other issues, we were all ready to move onward. After unloading many tons of Jet A aviation fuel in 55 gallon drums, the ALE team called us all to board. A few moments later, doors were closed, engines spun up, and the pilots lifted us off the runway as smoothly as they had landed; it was hard to tell we had even gone airborne. While on the flight down we all were wired with excitement and slept but little, this flight was the inverse: tired from days of climbing, we all quickly succumbed to the late hour and fell asleep. In hindsight, the bit of wine and beer we had at Union before leaving might have helped a wee bit, too.
At 7:00 AM, another masterful landing thumped us down on the tarmac in Punta Arenas. As we exited the hulking Ilyushin, we could all smell it and see it: Green things. Trees, plants, animals. Life. After 3 weeks on the ice - in a land of intense beauty, but almost completely devoid of life - it was a welcome sight. The idea of a bed rather than a Thermarest, and walls instead of nylon, wasn’t bad either. So, we quickly headed to to the hotel.
It always amazes me how quickly we transition in these modern times. It wasn’t that long ago that expeditions wound down slowly, and reintegration into “normal” life took time. The body, and more importantly the mind, was granted simply through logistics the luxury of moving from the stark mental and physical environment of the expedition back to the frenetic pace of life in a slow manner. Today, it’s anything but slow. Just hours ago we sat on a glacier on the bottom of the world, climbing mountains and routes which had never seen humans. And, now, just hours later, I’m on the internet in a hotel amidst a bustling city, and the rest of my team is on an airplane, well on their way to home, family, life. Amazing, and hard to digest.
Like the departure, the return home is something of a bittersweet affair. Certainly, in the words of Big Head Todd, “more sweet than bitter”, but still a challenge. We who go to the mountains generally do so for a reason. It feeds us. It grounds us. It makes us thrive. The simplicity of the mountain life is wholly engaging, and leaving it is tough. But, to simply remain would be avoidance, escapism. And, perhaps, make the love of the mountains moot, for without black we cannot have white. It is only by leaving home that we realize how fortunate we are, and for some of us it is only by living the mountain life - and then leaving it for a time - that we remember to value it and apply its lessons and teachings to our lives back home.
As I sit here in Punta, backing up gigabytes of images, listening to CNN, and watching ships bob in the nearby harbor, this all rushes through my mind. I am excited beyond words to get home. It’s been far too long since I’ve hugged my children and my wife, and patted my dog’s head. I long to answer my daughter’s questions, to hear about her day, and listen to my son say her name - a new trick he developed during my absence. But, I also know that, before long, the flood of emails and deadlines and bills and housework and the frenetic pace of modern life will threaten to overwhelm. It is then, I hope, that my mind will harken back to the austere simplicity of Antarctic life. I hope I will be able to conjure up the invigorating lessons of the high peaks, my mountain mind speaking to me through the fog of modern life: “You’re but a small part of a big machine. Be humble. Hug your family. Be thankful. Smile.
Relax…Focus on what’s important in life, the fundamentals, for soon you’ll be back again in the mountains.
What do you do in Antarctica when you want to kill time? you eat, sleep, read, play games, write in your journal and…. do first ascents. Not a bad program, isn’t it?
After a great breakfast of french toasts and beautiful lunch, I headed out with Nick, Victor’s client, to do one more line on the north face of Mount Russman. It takes about 30mins down the now well travelled ski track to the base of the face. There, we trade skis for crampons and poles for ice aces. Victor followed behind with the Union Glacier camp head chef, Gavin.
Today’s line was a mix of steep snow and steeper ice with wild mushroom formations stacked on top of each other. The climbing was smooth and we moved quickly through this untouched terrain. As we neared the top, huge cornices were towering overhead and the terrain was steeper than what it had seemed like from the bottom. We topped out 2hours after leaving our skis. We radioed in to camp to notify them of our success on the route and to let them know that we were headed straight back to camp. It’s requirement and we need to communicate with camp on a regular basis while out in the field.
This was Gavin’s first first ascent, just like it had been for Richard Parks a few days ago. So, he got to name the route. He offered a few names, but the one that stuck with “Route du Jour”. It was a perfect fit for a chef and also because this is realy what it is like: we wake up in the morning and wonder which route is going to get plummed that day, much like a chef decides on what menu he is going to prepare.
We just got news that we are likely not flying tomorrow night. So, there might be more “Route du Jour” to come!
Two nights ago, when I sent my last dispatch, we were all a bit deflated, having been told we’d most likely be sitting here at Union in bad weather for 4 more days. To our surprise, though, yesterday morning brought brilliant blue skies and the possibility of an Ilyushin flight in the evening.
As the day went on, it was clear the Ilyushin would be coming to take one load of passengers out to Punta Arenas. Included in that first flight would be Ed, Cindy, David, and Ben. The rest of us - Peter, Seth, Caroline, Kent, and I - would be on the next flight.
With ample sun and stunning peaks waiting outside camp, there was little option but to go climbing…for those of us not packing. Mount Rossman, a towering massif of snowy ridges and rocky buttresses, had lured many already with it’s siren song. Unclimbed until last year, nearly every couloir and ridge on the multi-summit peak had seen a first ascent in the past 10 days. Caroline went off with Vic Saunders and some others for one of the few remaining unclimbed lines on the right side of the peak. Soon after, Seth blasted uphill, skis on his back, to make turns off the summit. Kent and I, after finishing up some production work, decided on another unclimbed line, a nice looking couloir climbing some 1500 feet up the peak.
For me, the joy of doing a first ascent, of setting the first tracks on a given route or peak, is not to be able to brag about it, but rather just the sheer adventure
of it, for you have no idea what lies ahead. Sure, Kent and I looked at the route from camp, saw that it looked continuous and snowy the whole way, and seemed to be steep enough to be fun, but not too steep. But, you never know. Would the snow be good? How about the rock quality where it seemed to pinch closed 1/2 way up? Ice screws? Pickets? Would there be the bullet-proof, blue ice we’d seen elsewhere, or just easy-going neve? While those questions could be intimidating, swirling in the back of the mind, they are, to me, the part that gets me going. It’s the lack of knowledge, the feeling of some vestige of “true” adventure, which makes such an outing enticing.
In the end, Kent and I found a beautiful, aesthetic line following generally good snow up a 40-55 degree couloir for 1500 feet. The rope and gear we brought stayed in my pack, neither of us feeling the need for it with such good conditions. It was just fun climbing, some shooting by both of us, and an immensely enjoyable few hours on a new route on Mount Rossman. We called it “Ilyushin Fields” after the plane which, as we descended, dropped through a curtain of ice fog onto a blue ice runway, loaded 62 passengers, and swept them off to Punta.
Soon, we hope, we, too, will be in the air from Antarctica over the Drake Passage. But, if not, while some 20 first ascents have been ticked off around here in the past 2 weeks, there are still a lot of firsts left to do around Union Glacier. We won’t be bored.
This is day 6 at Union Glacier. The weather is stellar, not a cloud in the sky, the first plane out to Punta Arenas flew out last night and we just found out that we won’t fly tonight because the Punta Arenas airport is out of….fuel! Hard to believe, but so it goes. People are chomping at the bit to fly out but I really can’t complain. My time at and around Union Glacier has been really amazing. I have done three new routes in the past three days on Mount Russman. One was an easy but steep snow couloir to the summit of Mount Russman (1428m). I left camp after breakfast in a full on white out, cold temperatures and snowy weather, but after missing out on climbing a new peak the day before with Seth and Jake, I wanted to climb no matter what. We - Gordon and Simon (two British Army men we had met on Vinson) and I - skied the flat 3kms to the backside of Mount Russman roped up and left our skis at the base of the face. We couldn’t see the peak but decide for a couloir and made it to the top. I wish I could have seen camp 3000 feet below but the clouds prevented us from enjoying the view. Yet, it was a beautiful day just for being on the summit of the most obvious and closest peak to camp.
Yesterday, we woke up to beautiful blue skies and warmer temperatures. Victor - my friend I did that first ascent with the first day at Union - was going up his 10th first ascent in two weeks and asked me if I would join him and guide Richard Parks, a famous British retired rugbyman who is trying to climb the seven summits and two poles in seven months. From camp, Mount Russman offers a plethora of steep snow and mixed lines and lots of the first ascents have gone down in the past two weeks, but there were still a few lines to plum. We headed for a V shaped line, which offered up to 65-degree snow and ice. It was Richard’s first first ascent and I was so excited to guide him up it. He got to pick the route name: Gratitude. A beautiful name which describes perfectly how I also felt about climbing yet another new route in Antarctica and getting to be here all together with a great team and getting to hang out with amazing people. While I was climbing, Jake and Kent were also doing a first ascent on the same face and Seth skied from the summit, putting amazing tracks down the face, visible from camp.
It was colder this morning and when Victor, his client Nick and I headed for what could be our last climb here, we weren’t sure we should start up the climb in such polar temperatures. As soon as the wind died, it was warm again and we made quick progress up the 300 meters of snow and ice to the start of the route. There, the route switches from rock to ice and back to rock and is the only line angling left across the steep north facing wall (read south facing in the northern hemisphere). The rock was of poor quality but the line was so nice: I only wished I had more of these readily accessible lines in my backyard. We named it Diagon Alley, which coincided with finishing my audiobook, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We headed back down to camp hoping for the news that we would fly out. Hopefully we will fly tomorrow. Otherwise, there are many other lines awaiting first ascents to keep us busy for another few days.
Sometimes things work well, efficiently, smooth as silk. And, sometimes, well, one hits a few speed bumps. We’re in the speed bump zone.
Yesterday, we had high hopes that the weather would clear tomorrow, allowing the Ilyushin - with its new fuel pump - to cross the Drake Passage and drop onto the blue-ice runway to shuttle us all back to Punta. But, weather is indeed a fickle element, and generally prefers to surprise rather than be predictable. To the surprise of some 100 people here now at Union - clients and staff alike - the forecast today is for 4 more days of bad weather, unflyable.
So, we’re stuck. It snowed all day today, with a low, grey ceiling of cloud, and will most likely do it again tomorrow. Some people have been waiting for a flight out for 2 weeks. ALE is doing everything they can, but the weather is out of even their control. So, we sit. We wait. We play cards, we laugh, we go out for a climb, a ski, something to pass the time and keep our minds off loved ones and family far, far away. It could be worse, much worse, so there are no complaints.
We all appreciate you’re tuning in these last few weeks and following along with our little adventure. I thought I’d leave you now with one of my favorite quotes from a hero of mine, and a figure of Eddie Bauer history and lore: Dr. Charlie Houston. Leader of the 1953 American expedition to K2, Houston and team had an epic op the peak. The barely survived, and one member, Art Gilkey, sadly perished on the peak.
Later, Houston reflected on the climb in his book, “K2: The Savage Mountain”, and wrote thus of climbing:
“Why climb mountains? The answer cannot be simple. It is compounded of such elements as the great beauty of clear, cold air, of colors beyond the ordinary, of the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience. The pleasure of physical fitness, the pride of conquering a steep and difficult rock, the thrill of danger controlled by skill…How can I phrase what seems to me the most important reason of all? It is the chance to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off non-essentials, to come down to the core of life itself. On great mountains, all purpose is concentrated on the single job at hand. Yet the summit is but a token of success. And the attempt is worthy in itself. It is for these reasons that we climb. And in climbing, we find something greater than accomplishment.”
Again, thank you all for following along. Happy adventures, and a deep Namaste from the far south.
Peter Whittaker wraps up the RMI Vinson Expedition
Hi this is Seth Waterfall checking in from the Union Glacier camp in Antarctica!
All is well with the team. We had a great day of activity outside of camp. After breakfast this morning we headed out in a ‘track van’. This is a 4x4 Ford Econoline van that is fitted with snow tracks instead of regular wheels. It is basically a 4 wheel drive snow mobile that keeps you protected from the elements. We took the van for a five mile ride from our camp to a spot called the Wave. The Wave is a huge wind deposit of ice that has formed a wave-like feature around a mountain called Mt. Charles. It is one of the most interesting and bizarre glacier formations that I have ever seen. There is no glacial erosion from solar effects or air temperatures here so the glacier has formed a curl around Mt. Charles that looks exactly like a barreling ocean wave. The only thing different is that this one is over 200 feet tall and stationary.
At the Wave the group split up. Some of us were busy taking photos and video for the First Ascent clothing company while the others in the group got to climb Mt. Charles. The weather was fairly poor today with a cold wind and a bit of snow so we didn’t stay out for much more than a couple of hours. The climbing party met up with the filming party just after lunch time, piled back into the track van and headed back to camp. However, Jake Norton and myself decided to stick out the bad weather and go climbing in the area. We were inspired by the free ride out to the other side of the Union Glacier, but the problem for us was that we would have to ski the five miles back to camp after our climb.
That said, we were really psyched up to climb some of the local peaks as most of them have never been climbed. The Union Glacier camp is in it’s first year of operation and this part of the range has seen little visitation prior to this climbing season. Due to the poor weather we decided on a fairly small but steep peak
that had caught our eye from camp. Jake and I unloaded our gear from the van and were soon left alone in the cold and blowing snow.
We set off to the base of the mountain and after an hour of skiing we reached the base of the mountain. There was a steep snow ramp on our right that lead directly to the summit and a rock ridge on the left. We decided to split the difference and headed straight up towards a plateau near the summit. The snow was nice and firm, perfect for cramponing, as we started but soon deteriorated to any icy crust over unconsolidated sugar-snow. This made the climbing more difficult so we switched over to the rock ridge. The rock quality was good and we enjoyed excellent climbing to a flat notch just below the summit. From there we had excellent snow conditions to the top. Amazingly we had a lull in the weather for most of our climb and our time on the summit. So we were able to enjoy a few moments of ‘top-time’ before descending back to our skis.
We then had a quick snack and headed off back towards the marked trail leading to camp. After an hour of skiing we reached the trail, this meant that we only had 5 miles to go to camp! Checking our watches we realized that we would have to hustle to make it back for the 7 p.m. dinner call. With over 100 people in camp the food does not last long and neither of us had eaten much since breakfast. The wind had picked up again but it was blowing at our backs and after and hour and a half of flat skiing across the glacier we arrived at camp… with 20 minutes to spare before dinner! The food was excellent. The A.L.E. staff really goes out of their way to treat us well here on the ice.
We are all settling into various games or books for the evening’s entertainment. We’ll check back in tomorrow with the latest from our adventure here in Antarctica!
Peter Whittaker describes the days adventures
This time of year in Antarctica, the sun never sets. The warmest part of the day is actually during the evening when the sun gets a little lower in the sky, hitting you straight on. After two days living in a horizontal position in my tent, waiting for clear skies to allow the Twin Otter to pick us up from Vinson Base Camp, I was more than ready for some adventure. We immortalized Mount Vinson by flying over it from all sides, reliving our time on it by flying over the climbing route and dreaming of new lines on all the untouched surrounding peaks. An hour later, we were back at Union Glacier camp where we’d started 12 days earlier.
I instantly connected with my long time friend Victor Saunders, a British mountain guide who lives in Chamonix and who is always thirsty for First Ascents. And there are plenty to be had around Union Glacier since this is the first year ALE (Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions) is operating from here. He’d just put up 5 new routes with clients and invited me to join him for a sixth one. We left camp after lunch and skied the 5kms to the base of the beautiful ridgeline defining the horizon before climbing up to the ridge proper. The wind died and we were now basking in the late afternoon sun, making our way up a knife edge rock and snow ridge. Grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this first ascent, I untied from the rope and soloed ahead, breaking trail the whole way for Victor and his two clients, Dominic and Nick. The climbing reminded me of the ridges I guide all summer long in the Swiss Alps: loose on easy terrain and solid on the steeper steps, but without any scratch from previous climbers’ crampons. When I reached the summit, I was elated. Being the first to tread on any ground is so unique, so special: it’s so rare to know that no one before you has stood on a summit, or has climbed the line you are looking at; you have to figure out as you go, with no beta, relying solely on your technical and route finding skills.To me, First Ascents are the most rewarding style of climbing, all the more in a remote setting like Antarctica.
We were back at our skis by midnight, the sun still looming high above us in the sky as we looked back to our ridge, the Midnight Ridge.
- Caroline George
Peter Whittaker checks in to lay out the plan for the days ahead.
Hello there, this is Peter. It is January 17th and it is 8:45 [p.m.] here down in Antarctica. [We’re] on the ice, back here at Union Glacier. We woke up this morning to beautiful blue skies and sun which is really nice after two days of weather. We were told that we had an hour to pack and break the tents and that the plane would be picking us up right after that. So we scrambled and broke everything down [and] the plane showed up. We were pretty excited to work our way to a couple of objectives that we had identified as skiable and climbable on the way to Union Glacier. When the pilot showed she had a forecast that was not good and we decided that we would fly back, watch the weather, and see how things went. The weather rolled in and shut things down; we were able to get back in to Union Glacier where we landed in that’s where we are now. So we were not able to get to our ski objectives were a little saddened by that. But we’re here and the forecast is not too good for the next several days. But we’re already getting maps out and finding some different objectives. The cool thing is that the runway is in an area here at Union Glacier that is basically unexplored, so there’s lots of potential for first ascents and first descents, accessible by Twin Otter if the weather permits, and also by snow mobile and they have these wonderful vans with big snow tracks on them as well. So, the game is always changing with a few twists and turns but the whole team is here. We did reunite with Ed, Cindy and David and so the whole team is back together, all nine of us. We’re eating dinner and digging in here. [Brief Static] That’s the update from the First Ascent RMI Team down here on the ice and we’ll talk to you soon.
Peter Whittaker checking in from the ice.
Sometime around 560 B.C., a guy named Siddhartha Gautama - otherwise known as the Buddha - established as one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism that to exist is to suffer. Not a very inspiring precept at first glance. But, what the Buddha was really getting at is the idea that everything in life is in a constant state of flux and change, that even joy must one day come to an end; thus, everything is transient, security is simply not a reality.
Our time here in Antarctica - especially these last few days - has proven the 2500 year old thoughts of the Buddha quite right.
With a bright sun and bright hopes, we packed eagerly this morning at Vinson Basecamp. Only a few wispy clouds were visible, and we were all excited to be dropped by Twin Otter in a new place to make the first tracks on an unknown peak. As we zipped our duffels, the whining of the Otter’s engines rattled through camp, and the pilot, Monica, soon touched down on the snowy runway.
But, she brought bad news: another weather system was moving in, and the forecast called for the storms to close in - shutting down all flights in this vicinity - by tomorrow night. Time to change plans; it would be imprudent to be dropped on a remote glacier with a major weather system bearing down. So, we decided to fly by some predetermined spots and, if things looked good, get dropped, climb through the night, and zip out before the weather stranded us.
Soon, we were aloft, saying goodbye to our friends at Vinson Basecamp, and zipping around Vinson, Shinn, Epperly, and the other giants of the Sentinel Range. Then, on we went toward Union Glacier…and more change. With every passing minute, clouds on the horizon built up. Thirty-five minutes into the trip, it was obvious that this storm system was a big one, bearing down fast. If we got dropped down, there was a good chance Monica would not be able to get back in tomorrow to pick us up. And, the latest news was this storm could be 5-6 days. A biggie.
Sadly, our hand was forced, and we made the prudent decision: land back at Union Glacier camp, and hope to be able to zip out in some reasonable weather in the next couple of days to do some climbing, skiing, and filming.
To exist is to suffer. Life is transient. I’ve always thought, had he lived a bit longer, the Buddha would have agreed with the comedian Dennis Leary, who once said: “Life is tough…get a helmet.”
We really shouldn’t complain, as it could be much worse. Some people have been waiting 11 days already at Union Glacier to fly back to Punta. We’ve only been stuck for two days. But, for an active group of people, two days lying in the tent in a fog as thick as pea soup…well, that can be like an eternity.
We’re hanging in there, though. We got a brief respite this morning when the clouds lifted enough to expose the checkerboard of icefall immediately outside of camp, and a brief glimpse down to the Nimmitz Glacier. But, then it all socked in again, encasing us in a deep, thick fog and taking visibility down to about 50 meters.
So, we read. We sleep. We listen to music. We eat. We repeat. Not much else can be done. Patience, and a good sense of humor - two essential elements for a good team in the mountains.