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Vinson:  Ilyushins, First Ascents, and Changing Weather

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.

-Jake Norton

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