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Antarctica, Ellsworth Mountains, Sentinel Range, Vinson Massif, West Face, Purple Haze Couloir

Vinson Massif, west face, Purple Haze Couloir. It was January 15, 2005 and we had been stuck in Vinson base camp for several days, waiting for clear weather so we could fly to Patriot Hills and then home. The weather was cloudy enough to prevent a safe landing but not bad enough to keep us from climbing. Around midnight we put together a small amount of gear and prepared for our climb. Neither of us had brought technical gear; we were there to guide people up the Normal Route on Vinson, not to climb steep snow and mixed ground. So, with borrowed technical tools, 30m of rope and a few screws, we set out.

On our ski to the base of the west face we discussed which of the gullies to try. We both had thoughts of the unclimbed gully just left of Banana Friendship Gully but shared doubts of its feasibility, given our meager rack. We decided to give it a try, but were willing to back off if it became too difficult to climb safely without proper gear.

At 2 a.m. we began climbing. From the Branscomb Glacier the route starts with a bergschrund, followed by a 40-50° snow slope through broken rock bands. The climbing was on perfect névé that gradually got steeper. The angle approached 70° as we entered the gully, which, higher, narrowed until it ended in a 10m chimney barring access to a low-angle slab. Once above the chimney we discussed turning back, but it seemed more dangerous to retreat than to keep going, so we carried on.

From the low-angle slab we traversed left to a sloping ledge, which led to a snowy ridge. The crest looked like it might offer a direct shot to the top of the face, but instead it led to another 500m of 50-60° mixed climbing. It was a spectacular night with colorful skies and an ever-present “purple haze” above. We topped out in the late morning and, knowing planes were now likely to be flying, opted to forgo the last few hundred meters of straightforward climbing to the summit.

The route, which we named Purple Haze Couloir, gave 1,750m of climbing on snow and short sections of mixed terrain up to IV 70° (we started from the Branscomb Glacier at 2,800m and reached the ridge atop the face at 4,600m). We went from base camp to base camp in 13 hours, descending by the normal route. As we suspected and as Murphy’s Law would have it, not long after we started our climb the weather improved sufficiently to get our clients on planes to Patriot Hills. However, the gracious ALE staff were kind enough to wait until they saw us coming, before calling the last plane of the season to Vinson base camp.

Dave Morton and Todd Passey, AAC