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Silence of the Lands—Antarctica

Silence of the Lands—Antarctica

Jay Smith

No other region offers mountaineers more spectacular, unexplored climbing potential than Antarctica, the last expanse of true wilderness on our planet. Far from the flat, featureless wasteland that many imagine, the southernmost continent is a dreamscape of mountain ranges that beckon with thousands of unclimbed, unnamed and even unseen summits.

—Gordon Wiltsie

THE CONSTANT DULL DRONE OF THE FOUR GIANT PROPS powering the ancient DC 6, better known as the Ice Princess, had put almost everyone to sleep. Having flown over the southern coastline of Tierra del Fuego for nearly four hours prior, the scenery below had become monotonous, an endless expanse of bitterly cold ocean tortured by unrelenting ruthless winds and littered with monstrous white caps. This was the notorious Drake Passage, named for Sir Francis Drake, who rounded Cape Horn in 1578. These were the much-feared seas that few vessels sailed and even fewer had succeeded in navigating safely. Before long, these scenes dissolved into a flat gray of dense cloud cover. Should our aircraft go down here, survival would be less than five minutes for those unlucky enough to have lived through the crash. I certainly felt vulnerable in the old converted cargo plane, which now seemed to be skimming the surface.

Our pilots were following a compass heading of due south. Destination: Vinson Massif, Ellsworth Mountains, Sentinel Range, Antarctica. Ellsworth Land was discovered by Lincoln Ellsworth, an American who made the first aerial crossing of west Antarctica in 1935. The successful flight was the second attempt and although successful, he and his pilot Hollick-Kenyon had to walk the last 16 miles after running out of fuel.

The remote peaks of the Sentinel Range are located only 700 miles from the South Pole at 78° south latitude. The six highest peaks of the continent lie in a tightly grouped row, interconnected by the broad plateau running south to north with Mounts Craddock, Vinson and Shinn joined by a spiny ridge to the north enchaining Epperly, Tyree and Gardner. All of these giants rise to over 15,000 feet from varying elevations on the Nimitz Glacier from 4000 to 7000 feet. The Vinson Massif rises highest in the center and attains an altitude of 16,058 feet. To either side is a vast sea of glaciers extending all the way to the Ronne Ice Shelf and the Atlantic to the east or across Marie Byrd Land and to the Pacific to the west. Some 68% of the world’s freshwater supply is locked up in the icecap, which covers all but 2% of the continent. If the ice were ever to melt, it would raise the level of the oceans by 160 to 200 feet, flooding many of the largest cities of the earth. The thickest section of the ice sheet has been measured to a depth of 15,700 feet into a submerged rock basin below sea level.

Antarctica is the world’s highest, coldest, driest continent with an average mean elevation of 6732 feet. The mean temperatures in the interior during the coldest month vary from -40° to -94°F and from 5° to -31°F in summer. On July 21, 1983, the Soviet station, Vostok, measured a record-breaking -128.6°F. The continent’s average snowfall is so minimal that the place is considered the “coldest desert in the world” and its inland ice areas receive less than one inch of precipitation per year, less than that of the Sahara.

Our eight-man expedition consisted of Conrad Anker and me as guides for our four clients, Clive Duval, Steve Plumb, Paul Teten and Dr. Jim Fries. Joining our group was Robert Anderson in his bid for number six of this Seven Summits Solo binge, accompanied by photographer Joe Blackburn.

Four other expeditions were also on our Adventure Network flight. We were certainly amongst good company. The famous Swiss guide Romolo Nottaris and his client, Everest veteran and accomplished guide Phil Erschler and his group, but the real treat was to rub shoulders with British climber extraordinaire Doug Scott. Doug was joined by his partner, the super-strong and experienced Roger Mear, a veteran of the “In the Footsteps of Scott” expedition which retraced Robert Falcon Scott’s epic and tragic second attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. The older Scott’s five-man team desperately toiled for 3½ months only to find a Norwegian flag already planted there. Then, on the return trip, all members died of exhaustion, starvation and exposure. The last three came within 11 miles of their food and fuel cache.

A beam of sunlight refracted through the window, struck my face and ignited a spark of curiosity that spurred me from my fetal position on the heated floor boards of the aircraft. Peering through six inches of plexiglass, I caught my first glimpse of the continent. The vision below was just as I had pictured it. A surreal coastline of gigantic icebergs laced with turquoise fractures and a backdrop of a cobalt sea. Cold and inhospitable, yet magnetically beckoning. A region of the globe alone and different from all others, lifelessness and solitude unmatched.

The other passengers heard my camera clicking and all rushed to the port side of the Princess, causing her wing to dip to a rude angle as the pilot fought to right her. The navigator dashed out of the cockpit to remind us of seat assignments and of the course corrections the captain was being forced to make as his human payload kept shifting. We then took turns viewing the awesome vista until the clouds closed in once more.

After seven airborne hours, the Sentinel Range appeared and the wing dipped again. Twenty miles to the east rose the lofty chain of summits, safeguarded by appalling faces of up to 10,000 feet in relief. Beyond was nothing but an endless flat ocean of ice leading to the Pole, far in the distance.

Our expedition had originally been conceived by Mugs Stump. He had been to Antarctica four times, usually working as a safety consultant for the National Science Foundation, overseeing the transport of personnel and supplies, collecting rock samples and making sure that everyone came back in one piece. It was during these trips that he had picked off two of Antarctica’s largest faces while he waited to be flown out. He first bagged the 2200-meter (7250-foot) southwest face of Mount Gardner, which he soloed in a very rapid 7½ hours. Soon thereafter, he soloed the 2500-meter (8200-foot) west face of Mount Tyree in an astonishing 9½ hours. These were great prizes and he accomplished them in impeccable style. He felt that these climbs ranked as his two finest.

While attending a meeting in Berkeley, Mugs had invited Conrad and me to assist him in his next venture south. We were to guide clients up several new routes in the range and afterwards do a bit of climbing for ourselves. But in May of 1990, a phone call left me shattered. Mugs had been tragically killed while guiding on Denali. America had lost its foremost mountaineer and I, a good friend and mentor.

I automatically assumed that the Vinson trip was cancelled. After all, they were Mugs’ clients, but a phone call set the wheels turning again. They were adamant about going and sought these climbs as much for Mugs as for themselves. After six months of preparation and 4000 air miles, we were about to touch down on the blue ice runway of Patriot Hills.

An aqua sheen glared below as the landing gear of the Princess dropped to greet the blue ice runway. Fishtailing at 125 miles per hour had us grasping the seats with a death grip until the props reversed and slowed us to a reasonable speed. Stepping onto the runway nearly sent us onto our butts. The ice is so slick that it’s a wonder that these pilots still claimed a perfect flying record.

The stay at Patriot Hills was brief. A hot meal, a quick nap and we were off again. This time, the eight of us crammed into a smaller dual-prop Twin Otter with equipment stacked to the ceiling. Our pilot, Brydon Knibbs, gave us a fly-by of our objectives before setting us down on the Nimitz Glacier. As we finished unloading our baggage, he tested our senses and asked how far away we figured the low peaks across the Nimitz were. Our three-mile estimate fell short by five. He flew off into the distance, a mere speck silhouetted against some indiscriminate bump, and we began to understand the true scale of these mountains and the undertaking we were embarking upon.

As the shadows of the great peaks extended for miles across the silence of the lands, we erected Base Camp at the foot of what would soon be known as Texas Glacier. This was the broad valley that would serve as the approach to our objectives. No life form had ever entered this surreal wonderland. We would be the first. These thoughts coupled with continuous daylight and the excitement of the climb made sleep difficult.

Morning begins early for a mountain guide and supplying food and liquids for six people is a never-ending chore. With four hours of brewing behind us, we packed and started up our route towards Mount Vinson’s untrodden south face. Laden with heavy packs and sleds, we carried with us ten to twelve day’s food and supplies.

For the next three days, we steadily gained elevation up the mountain and established a camp beneath the icefall that would prove the technical crux of our climb. Here we got a welcome break as high winds, bitter cold and poor visibility kept us in our tents a few extra hours, but by noon glimpses of blue sky prodded us back into action.

We danced quickly across the “ballroom of death” (one of Conrad’s favorite sayings), a sérac bench, the passage beneath a cirque of icefalls barring the summit. Threading amongst blocks, we climbed a steep 3000-foot face in the shadows of a nearby ridge. Temperatures in the shade were easily -30°F, but the winds were dead calm. Stopping for more than catching your breath had you chilled in minutes. But caution here was mandatory and we ran in place as we belayed our team up this most difficult section.

A full twelve hours of continuous climbing gained the summit plateau and our final camp. We pitched our tents in the lee of towering séracs in hopes of some protection from the notorious winds which blew down from the Pole and swept across this exposed wasteland. For the moment, the weather was unbelievable, absolutely still and cloudless. We prepared the meal clad only in boots and polypro bottoms. Sunbathing at 15,000 feet was something we had never dreamed of in the land of the midnight sun. The weather appeared perfect as we settled in for the fifth brief night.

The summit plateau of the Vinson Massif is immense. Three miles wide and ten miles long, it is a wind-scoured swath of blue ice and patchy snow. It is adorned with eight summits, all only a few meters under the highest. The problem was that the true summit, unfortunately, lay about seven miles to the north. The views were incredible: ice as far as the eye could see. It was as if we stood at the apex of the world’s largest glacier.

Four A.M. on summit day. Our two MSR stoves sputtered to life in the bitter cold shade of the séracs. Six hours of brewing and moans from nearby tents delayed our start until noon. We had climbed the mountain quickly and the effects of the many days of effort and the high altitude were adding up. Nevertheless, with the weather perfect and everyone feeling well enough, we set out for the top.

As we crested a large slope onto the plateau, a stiff breeze met us head on. We didn’t want to stop on the steep slope and remove packs and so we made a dash for the shelter of a small ice cliff just a short distance away. Within those few minutes, I got as cold as I have ever been. We fought desperately to get on more clothes with fingers like marble. Ten minutes of jumping up and down, high speed rubbing and a host of other tricks finally brought life back to chilled tissue. It had been a warning I’ll never forget. Fully bundled and warm again, we continued across the plateau. The winds grew stronger as we marched closer to the summit pyramid. We made a brief stop to regroup, rehydrate and fuel up before the cold forced us to get moving again.

Before us stood two summits separated by a col. A quick check of the map showed the left point was the true top. Gaining the col, we again entered into shadow and were hit by a much more vicious wind. We were wrapped up like mummies with hat, hood and face masks, which made breath condense on our goggles. We could hardly see. Steve’s exposed nose turned completely white. We dashed back into the sun and a small rock alcove which provided only slight shelter. We attended to Steve’s nose and discussed options. He was adamant about continuing to the top, only a short march away. With the aid of a chemical hand warmer and a neoprene face mask, we felt we could prevent further damage. All agreed to press on.

We were now minutes from the summit on a level section of the ridge, about 50 vertical meters from the top. In the distance, lenticular clouds rapidly enshrouded Mounts Shinn, Tyree and Gardner, now well below us. A glance toward the South Pole alarmed us. The condensing vapor was nipping at our heels. Our seven-mile return trip would be in a white-out.

Conrad and I decided on retreat. The well-being of our clients was more important than those last few steps. We had completed a new route to where it had joined others to the top. Had we not been guiding, Conrad and I would have continued the remaining five minutes, but duty called. However, there was no question about achieving one final goal. We spent those five minutes to pay tribute to Mugs Stump in a memorial service, and we dedicated the route to him. The climb is called “From the Heart.” Thanks Mugs. We miss you very much.

Our two-day retreat in severe conditions was difficult and dangerous, but it was completed safely. The storm turned out to be the worst of the season and continued for eight days. The timing of our decision had been critical and justified.

After a brief rest at Advance Base, we skied Dr. Fries and Steve out to Base Camp to await air transport back to Patriot Hills and then to Punta Arenas, where Steve’s frostbite would heal slowly but completely.

On December 12, Conrad, Paul, Clive and I moved Advance Base to the foot of Mount Craddock (15,257 feet), Antarctica’s highest unclimbed peak and only 250 meters less than Vinson. On December 16, when the weather had stabilized, the four of us stood on its summit in perfect conditions. We had completed a route up its west ridge alpine-style in a mere 13½ hours. Although extremely tired, we all felt utter fulfillment and Conrad and I rejoiced that we had conducted a pleasurable and successful trip.

Four days later, we were back in Punta Arenas for Christmas before repacking for Patagonia’s Torre Egger, where Conrad and I with Steve Gerberding would spend another 2½ months in the mountains.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Ellsworth Mountains, Sentinel Range, Antarctica.

Ascents: Vinson Massif, 4894 meters, 16,058 feet, via New Route, the South Face to within 50 meters of the summit, December 6, 1992 (Joseph Blackburn, Conrad Anker, Clive Duval, Dr. James Fries, Stephen Plumb, Jay Smith, Paul Teten).

Mount Craddock, 4650 meters, 15,257 feet, First Ascent via West Spur, December 14, 1992 (Anker, Duval, Smith, Teten).