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With You in Spirit, A Solo Climb with an Old Friend

With You in Spirit

A solo climb with an old friend

by Conrad Anker

Interior Antarctica is a desolate place. The diversity and amount of vegetation of a normal suburban lawn far exceeds the sum of living things in the Ellsworth Mountains. The land is judged by the wind and ruled by the ice. It is lifeless. Ice, rock and atmosphere are its three components. Some might view this landscape as empty, a void of nothingness, but in the stark simplicity of this continent is an amazing beauty.

A peak between Tyree and Epperly. Alex Lowe and I look down on its northwest face from the summit of Tyree. It looks fun. I’m not sure of its history; it intrigues me because of its location. The peak becomes the focal point of what to do with my free time. Has it been climbed? I think so. Erhard Loretan has climbed out here. Where, I’m not sure. And at one time, perhaps, dinosaurs marched all about before the rock was compressed, metamorphosed and uplifted. Surely they were the first ascenscionists.

I’m not able to embark on the project until the last group of Vinson climbers arrives. Flying in from Punta Arenas, Chile is conditions-dependent, and their flight is delayed for six days. While I wait, I climb Mt. Vinson’s ruta normal. Also in the interim, Marek Kaminski arrives from the Patriot Hills base camp. He had skied to the South Pole alone in 1995. We share a few days in the weather port, exchanging notes on the various disciplines of Antarctic exploration. The beauty of the Antarctic desert is profound, yet skiing across alone seems to me akin to listening to a skipping track of your favorite CD. Even though you love the music, eventually the repetition will drive you crazy. The food…same sorta thing.

And also, as I wait, I sort my gear for my solo journey out onto the ice.

I had carried my sled to the pass separating the Branscombe Glacier to the upper Nimitz Glacier and left some ski tracks for the pilots. When the last group arrives, I help get them situated, explaining the importance of sunblock, then, at 11:30 p.m., I head out to the pass. I run in to Patrick and Vika, a pair of Finns who have spent the last 17 days exploring the northern part of the Ellsworth mountains. They were fortunate in climbing four virgin peaks; they also climbed Mount Gardner via the original route, running out of food along the way, only to discover the cache left in 1966 by Nick Clinch’s first ascent party. In the cache, they found chocolate and pudding purchased in New Zealand—still edible, testimony to the continent’s continuous cold.

It crosses my mind as we wish each other well and speak of wine upon my return that they might be the last humans I encounter. I hate these thoughts, but they hold the ring of truth. Going out alone on an unknown peak….I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have them.

Heading out, I have grand plans: Peak “Loretan,” the south face of Epperly, and an enduro traverse over to Vinson. With the seven days I have before work calls again, good weather would allow for much of this. My physical exertion level and what that will allow are another matter.

After four hours of pulling my sled, I am at the base of the western spur of Epperly. I pitch my tent in the yellow glow of the austral summer midnight. At 82 degrees south during the summer, the sun hasn’t set. It never does, orbiting above you instead on a low azimuth that brings only subtle changes in the appearance of the landscape. The changes tell you when to climb.

Eleven a.m. I awake to a very still tent with muted light. Visibility is down to 20 meters. Ground fog—a familiar weather pattern. Climbing is not an option, so back into my sack I creep.

Twenty-four hours later, the weather hasn’t changed. I sleep on, amassing a total of 16 hours of shut-eye. Very quiet. I’m all alone. As time passes, it changes the grand plan. Food rationing is pretty straightforward: You set your oats aside and, if you touch them before the appointed time, well, that just don’t cut it. Rationing books, on the other hand, is another matter. I have no strength; how can one stop in the middle of a page-turner? Reading Somerset Maughn, my imagination takes me away from the white room to the rain forests of the Amazon, the Dakota plains, the Steppes of Central Asia, the hidden spires of the Himalaya, the golden Sahara—places I’ve been, places I’d like to go, places in the pictures and on the maps.

On the second day, I sleep a little less, venturing out on my skis for the sake of exercise. I begin to think that if this keeps up I would rather have a few extra books than extra food.

On the third day I radio to pilot Steve King that I have encountered Sasquatch and Elvis traipsing by on their way to a climb. Sasquatch was bemoaning Elvis’s bell-bottoms, calling them a hindrance to good crampon work, while Elvis thought Sasquatch couldn’t really climb. (He campuses all the moves). King and the climbers on Vinson think I am a bit off.

Seven a.m., and the sun is shining on the tent. I awake to warmth and sweat on the back of my neck. It’s the first clear day in 72 hours. The skis, radio antennae and sled have a rime necklace, a gift of the past three days of weather. I think back to the Inuit outfitter who helped me out five years ago up in Baffin. He described such weather eloquently: “The land,” he said, “is shy.”

After a few days of seclusion, the peaks cut a silhouette against the eastern horizon. Not really knowing what to do, I begin with the obvious: lots of Peet’s coffee brewed full-strength and a dub compilation on my Walkman that my niece gave to me for the Ice.

The only choice left after two Thermoses of coffee is to go up. I radio King and give him vague plans and itineraries.

“Off over there. Forty-eight hours till the next radio sked. If I don’t call in at the regular times, I’m out climbing. See you soon.” Can’t really make any mistakes, as the rescue crew is myself and David Hahn up on Vinson.

Packed pack: Twelve energy bars, two liters of bug juice and one of high-octane extrastrength coffee. Five pitons, six small stoppers, two screws, three cordellettes and 30 meters of rope. Mittens, sun hat and a down sweater. Spare shades. Not much on paper, too much when climbing and not enough when bivying. It hardly seems as if I am heading out for a climb in Antarctica. As a reserve, I have a handful of chocolate espresso beans, more for psychological aid than anything else. Do you think 30 bits of caffeinated chocolate could turn a really dire situation around? I don’t think so either; but still, they are a comfort.

So at noon on January 15,I ski off to the north. At the top of the first rise, I look over my shoulder and realize it is my decision and mine alone to continue. Alas, the draw of the mountains is strong; I keep skiing. Besides, is there anything worse than bailing off a climb and watching the weather improve as you try to justify your chicken-hearted action?

I ski three hours to the cirque formed by the southwest face of Gardner, the west face of Tyree and the northwest face of Peak Loretan. Looking up the 2000-plus-meters to the summits of these peaks I feel mighty small. Insignificant in the grand scale of things. Besides Loretan, the only other person to have ventured into this pocket of the planet was Mugs Stump, who soloed the faces of Gardner and Tyree eight years ago. I recall Mugs’ wild eyes as he recounted his climbs to me, many degrees of latitude away, over a cup of tea. His excitement was remarkable. I was excited with and for him but didn’t have much of grasp of what he had just done.

So here I am in this remote and obscure place, staring at 2100 meters of quartzite. What to do? The obvious couloir on the west face looks straightforward, each step like the last and identical to the next until it’s time to turn around. The northwest face looks enticing: lots of unknown terrain. Plus I’d be climbing by the same criterion as Mugs. His spirit would be with me; I could look over and imagine him climbing similar terrain and know it would be OK. I ski over a shallow trough, a facade for a big crevasse lurking underneath. With this safe passage, I figure it’s time to go forward. To the northwest face, then.

“Better get goin’ now before someone tells us we’re stupid,” Mugs used to say. Only thing is, there’s no one here to tell me if this is stupid—which is a good thing, as one comment could undermine a week’s worth of motivation.

The climbing gets steeper the higher I climb. Steeper than I thought—5.8 steep in ten- to 15-meter sections. Still, solid green quartzite with a bounty of jugs keeps enticing me higher. I stop twice for fluids and a snack. Looking over the horizon halfway up, I realize I’m in deeper than I bargained for.

I think about being alone in a very empty space. Out here, nature is power. We are very much guests. In the Himal or Alaska an epic eventually will lead to a village. With a bit of craftiness, one may even live off the land. This is not an option in Antarctica.

Two-thirds of the way, it dawns on me that I am pretty committed. Bailing out, procrastinating, rappelling down or walking no longer are an option.

Overpowers the senses: big mountain, little guy.

The nature of the rock is conducive to climbing. The sun, trolling its way across the western horizon, has warmed it enough to allow me to climb without my gloves. Setting my crampons nicely onto the edges of the quartzite reminds me where I am.

I stay closer to the ridges; in the gullies, the glaciers and avalanches have smoothed out the holds. I look up to see vertical gendarmes and imagine I am playing chess with the mountain. So far, moving diagonally, I have been limited to bishop, but now I play as a knight: three horizontal moves, then up one. Yet the mountain, with all the moves and all the power, remains the queen. A solid opponent. I play my moves well, the culmination of 18 years’ experience, and keep climbing.

At one gendarme, with no rock gear to set up a quick rappel, I have to downclimb ten meters to a saddle. A vein of crystals at eye level greets me at the notch. I never forcibly remove crystals from the mountains, though occasionally I take one sitting in the dust of time; but picking the first crystals I have found in the Ellsworth Mountains, I perceive things are going to be OK.

There still remain 100 meters of climbing—easy, I think, steep shady mixed terrain, the cold pulling my energy away. I see my breath in small little clouds that remind me I’m still here. The final 20 meters require tunneling through the summit cornice. Thirty centimeters of junk sugar snow overlay the solid alpine ice. With two layers of long underwear, fleece gloves and a baseball hat on, I am underdressed for the occasion. These final moves take an hour; the beep-beep of my watch marks the time. Snow has worked itself into all my folds. In this steep section, I belay at three points, leaving stoppers in small cracks. Time will tell who sees them next.

“Damn,” I think, “this is critical…’’—but then, in slow motion, I realize that it is only serious. Critical would be falling off.

Standing on the opposite side of the cornice, I put on my wind suit and swing my arms in circles to get the warm blood down to my finger tips. I’m in the sun, but the opera lady isn’t singing yet. Two more rock steps to the summit. Within a few moments, I’m on the ridge close to the summit. I wander over, snap a picture, drink a sip of coffee. The very tippy top is a bit dicey, a huge cornice overhanging the east face. I don’t stand there, just pass on my way. I’ve had enough adventure just getting here. The route was more difficult than I anticipated, and, after 11 hours of focused climbing, I am trashed.

Heading down the north ridge, it dawns on me that I am too hammered to continue on to Epperly, Tyree and Shinn. A small couloir looks like the best method for descending the peak. Before starting down, I lay down on a small patch of scree and doze off in the 3 a.m. sun. I sleep until shivering wakes me up.

One hundred meters into the descent I happen upon a single knife blade, a sign of Loretan’s passage two years earlier. The descent takes the remaining juice away. The slope is hard névé covered with a tricky layer of snow. I must kick steps facing inward in the shaded gully. At the last pass, I lie out in the sun, drying my feet, trying to melt water and enjoying the dreamy consciousness of being spent. I descend to my skis and ski back to my tent.

After 30 hours of being awake and on the go, I radio Patriot Hills and let them know I’m OK. I sound “out of it”; they ask if I’ve been drinking. Not enough, not enough.

I sit on my sled, hardly able to muster the patience to allow the snow to melt into water. As it does, it slowly brings me back to the present. I think back to what has just transpired. In 1992, we lost a talented alpinist to the glaciers of Denali. My life changed. Mugs had been my mentor. He taught me the joy of mental toughness, the ease of hard climbing and something about a way of life. There isn’t a day during which some part of Mugs’s life doesn’t touch me. Mugs’s dream climbs were his ascents of Gardner and Tyree: climbing, with no falling allowed. It doesn’t get much simpler than this. Even though I realize what I just experienced was an insignificant passage of time in a wild place, to be in the same spot as Mugs— even though a bit of distance separated us—was a very special moment.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Ellsworth Mountains, Sentinel Range, Antarctica

NEW ROUTE: The Northwest Face (V 5.8, 2100 meters) of Peak “Loretan” (ca.4800m), January 15-16, 1997, Conrad Anker