AAC Publications - http://publications.americanalpineclub.org

Antarctica, Ellsworth Mountains, Sentinel Range, Epperly-Shinn Col, West Face, Attempt and Accident

Epperly-Shinn col, west face, attempt and accident. Tom Nonis and I were dropped off in the cirque to the west of Mt. Epperly on November 23. We planned to climb the west face of the Epperly-Shinn col, with the idea that after having reached the col we might be able to attempt the first ascent of Mt. Epperly’s south ridge and/or the first ascent of Mt. Shinn’s northwest ridge. Leaving camp at 6 p.m. on the 25th, we skied to below the west face of the col and started climbing at around 7:30 p.m.

Our route went up a 55° gully to the right of the icefall and, where the snow quality deteriorated, moved onto mixed ground. The buttress consisted of good quality quartzite, which was easy to protect and allowed us to move together for the majority of the route. The temperature was most of the time around -25°C, with no wind. However, at around 2 a.m. on the 26th we lost the sun and donned more clothes, to cope with dropping temperature and increasing wind.

Toward the top of the gully we moved leftward onto a terrace, where the angle dropped to a more manageable 45°. Here we spent three hours searching for a bivouac site, as we were unable to find any ledges big enough or flat enough for our tiny tent. The wind speed increased, and both of us suffered minor frostbite.

Finally, at 8 a.m., we discovered a split in a stable serac at 4,100m, which allowed us to set up the tent. We had climbed 1,500m.

On account of the high wind and extremely cold temperature we stayed put for 28 hours, trying to rest and rehydrate. The estimated temperature was below -45°C, a figure recorded in the sun at around the same time by a guided party on the Vinson-Shinn col, which is 300m lower.

At midday on the 27th we decided to downclimb the route and wait in base camp for warmer weather. The sky was blue, and there was no wind, but it was still extremely cold. Five hours later we were traversing the lower slopes near the bottom of the route, when a snow slab, lying on hard ice, sheared from beneath my feet. I fell 10m, cart-wheeling, and breaking my tibia and fibula. I eventually managed to ice-axe arrest, but in the process of coming to a halt, ripped the pectoral muscle off my arm.

Nonis established a secure belay and made a satellite phone call to the ALE base camp at Patriot Hills. He then lowered me the remaining 150m to the glacier, where an ALE Twin Otter picked us up on the morning of the 28th. We arrived in Patriot Hills on the 29th, having been forced to sit at Vinson Base Camp for 24 hours due to bad weather. At Patriot Hills I was put in plaster and finally evacuated to Punta Arenas on December 4. I subsequently had operations on both the leg and the shoulder in Santiago.

Although we both had a lot of experience of cold conditions in New England, Alaska, the Yukon, Poland, Greenland, the Patagonian winter, and Antarctica, we had never been on a technical route before in such a low temperature, and it required a significant amount of our experience just to get through the bivouac. In addition, neither of us had previously taken so long to find a bivouac site where we felt we could survive the conditions.

Nick Lewis