American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Antarctica, Ellsworth Mountains—Sentinel Range, Vinson and Epperly, New Routes; Tyree, Attempts; Ryan, First Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

Vinson and Epperly, new routes; Tyree, attempts; Ryan, first ascent. This season, with the support of the Omega Foundation, I led my sixth expedition to the range in order to climb and resurvey the high peaks. With Chileans Camilo Rada and Maria Paz “Pachi” Ibarra, and Jarmila Tyrill, a Slovakian living in Australia, our main objective this year was ascents of both Mt. Epperly and Mt. Tyree, two of the most difficult high mountains in Antarctica, to run the GPS on top and ascertain more accurate heights for our new map. After a one-week delay in Punta Arenas we landed near the old (pre-1993) Vinson BC area on November 28th and set up camp in perfect weather. Over the following two weeks we made ascents of the pyramidal Schatz Ridge, moved camp closer to the range at 2,350m, climbed a direct line on the north face of Knutzen Peak (3,373m), recced the approach to the west face of Tyree, and climbed over the bergschrund on the south face of Epperly to recce our planned route above. We also climbed around the col leading into the Vinson normal route, and the other three climbed part-way up Vinson, all in the name of trying to get some acclimatization before attempting what we knew would be a long and difficult climb on Epperly.

In the first week of December the weather was perfect, but it gradually deteriorated and during the night of the 13th/14th a major storm hit the range. Both of our tents were damaged—poles broken, fly ripped—almost simultaneously by a particularly strong gust, and we both spent the following eight hours huddled in severely damaged and disintegrating tents, holding them up against the gale with our backs or feet, fully dressed ready to get out if necessary. Not that we had anywhere to run to. Fortunately the storm eased around 10:30 on the 14th and we spent the day recovering and rebuilding, making use of our smaller reserve tent and scavenging one damaged tent to repair the other. It stormed again that night, but on the 15th we were able to clean up once again and re-sort the remains. On the 16th we skied around to Vinson BC with sleds, both to get some replacement tents from ALE and to spend some time higher on Vinson to acclimatize. Arriving at Low Camp late on the 17th, we spent two days in poor weather before heading up Vinson on the 20th in slightly better weather. Camilo and I climbed up by the ropes of the new “normal” route from Low Camp to Repeater Camp in three hours, but the girls had headed for a new line they had been eyeing over the previous weeks.

As one moves north, the main part of the west face of Vinson ends with a very faint rocky buttress. Just north of this is a smaller rocky face, cobwebbed with snow and ice lines, that had not been climbed. Jarmila and Pachi chose a line up the right-hand side of this face and crossed the bergschrund around 3,000m at 17:00. Climbing about 1,200m of moderate mixed terrain with some steeper, awkwardly sloping rock, in worsening weather, they topped out on the face at 23:30. From here they crossed into the upper cwm on Vinson to the normal route taken on summit day. At this point they met Camilo, who had been patiently waiting for them. In such poor weather Camilo and I had elected to stop moving up around 4,200m, from where I descended back to Low Camp. In a brief clearing of the weather the three decided to continue to the summit, though by the time they reached it at 05:00 on the 21st, visibility was minimal and they descended in whiteout using GPS, getting back to Low Camp just over five hours later. The women named their route the Chilena-Slovak Route. It is the first new route climbed on Vinson by an all-female team.

Late on the 22nd we left Low Camp and descended back to our camp beneath Epperly via the col between Knutzen and Shinn (“Sam’s Col”) that had been part of the pre-1993 normal route. Whilst very easy on the eastern “inside” slope, the western “outside” slope has become steeper and icier over the intervening years and is not recommended. Our route of descent took the mixed snow and rock slopes to the southwest of the col, requiring a descending traverse with some concrete-hard ice near the bottom, unpleasant with heavy loads. The following days were mixed weather.

The 27th looked like good weather, so Camilo and I set off for Epperly at 15:30. A rising traverse on the lower slopes led us up a snow ice face, which we mostly climbed on the left through rockier ground, as the snow was now quite deep and soft. The face narrows into a couloir higher up, before ending in a steeper rock wall some distance below Epperly’s summit plateau. The route to this point was mostly steep snow climbing, some easy ice, but with steeper steps of around 65° climbed through the mixed sections on bad, gravelly rock. We climbed all this unroped. By this stage we had been in radio contact with the women in camp and told them to start climbing. Thinking the upper couloir would dead-end in difficult rock, Camilo and I exited the couloir on steeper ground and wasted nearly two hours climbing loose rock and soft snow up a small rib forming the upper left wall of the couloir. This turned out to be unnecessary, as the couloir did in fact end in a body-width snow chute to top out at the base of the upper rock wall—a more sensible exit used by the women a day later.

Epperly was supposed to be 4,359m, but our altimeters showed we were at that height already, though we could see we were still some distance from the summit. We melted ice for drinks before heading east across some easy slopes toward the daunting summit pyramid of Epperly. This we climbed directly up its west face, scrambling over easy rock to a point beneath the cornices atop the face. However, upon climbing onto the highest cornice we faced the problem we had known about long before. The actual highest point of Epperly is a slightly detached, steep pillar of rock, draped in thin ice, the top of which was about 4m above us. The side facing us looked difficult to climb, but possible if we could reach it. The pillar to the left and right was vertical to overhanging rock, with a 2,000m drop below. We could see a piton, with webbing attached, low down in a crack on the pillar, no doubt left by Erhard Loretan—the only other person to have been up here—on his climbs in 1994 and 1995. However, when I went to step across the cornice to reach the pillar, my foot plunged through into space, meaning I could not even safely reach the base of the pillar. Given the position, our fatigue, the cold, and the difficulty of the pillar even on this side, we decided not to risk trying to climb it. We instead placed the GPS on the highest solid ice of the highest cornice and let it run—approximately 3m below the highest point of rock on the pillar.

We downclimbed our 2,200m route in softening greasy snow, which proved exhausting and quite a mental trip, taking nearly as long as the climb up—38 hours in total. The women followed our tracks, avoided our route-finding error, and summited in around 16 hours to retrieve the GPS, which had recorded over 11 hours of data. They also had a slow descent, but we were all safely back in camp in the very early hours of December 30th. At least two of us experienced significant hallucinations during the climb, due mainly to fatigue, dehydration, and altitude, with both Pachi and me imagining an extra climber with us. For this reason we decided to name the route The Fifth Element.

With the data processed by AUSPOS via Iridium satphone and laptop, it eventuated that Epperly is in fact 4,508m—not counting the approximately 3m extra to the top of the rock pillar. That’s 149m higher than the previous official height, making Epperly around the 6th highest mountain in Antarctica. No wonder it took us so long.

On New Year’s Day we hauled sleds, via our cache at old Vinson BC, for 15km to a camp beneath the west face of Mt. Gardner and set up in cold, windy weather. Camilo and I had climbed Gardner back in December 2005 and our plan now, having ditched our original west face objective, was to repeat this route to high on Gardner then, as the Tyree first ascent team in 1967 had done, traverse high around the eastern side of Gardner using a high camp to launch a climb onto the connecting ridge to Tyree. In January 1967 Barry Corbet and John Evans had summited Tyree this way, in a 22-hour round trip from a tent placed by them and their team on the col between Gardner and Tyree. We would go somewhat lighter, with just a small tent and minimal food. All the bad weather meant that we extended our time on the ice with ALE and agreed to fly out around January 14th, ten days later than first planned. At this stage, with several days of poor weather forecast, Jarmila decided she needed to stick to our original itinerary and be on the January 4th flight home, so she left the team on the 3rd, returning to Vinson BC for an immediate plane to Patriots.

By Sunday January 6 blue sky returned, so Pachi, Camilo and, I headed up with a two- man tent and food and fuel for 48 hours or so. In good spirits, with the weather looking great, we climbed quickly up Gardner’s normal route and found a nice flat place for the tent at 4,120m, high on the east side of Gardner. As we discovered, the 1967 team had also put a high camp here, the remains of which are visible nearby. We ate, drank and dozed for around eight hours, packed in the tent like three sardines with two sleeping bags. We reckoned it was game-on for sure. Unfortunately, as we were racking-up around 14:00 on Monday, the weather changed incredibly fast and clouds moved in from the west, totally smothering Tyree’s upper-third and bringing more wind and snow. I’d never seen bad weather come in so fast in the Sentinel Range.

Before retreating, we did a brief recce of the passage from Gardner’s slopes across toward the ridge for Tyree. Conditions up high worsened, though on our descent we diverted across the northern end of Gardner’s upper plateau and made the first ascent of Mt. Ryan, a small peak newly-designated by the USGS in 2006. This was very easy from our side but is very steep and rocky to the north side, where it joins the south ridge from Mt. Shear. In very cold and blustery conditions we ran the GPS for just over an hour, then got moving. The winds had scoured the upper plateau of Gardner and now vast sections of blue ice were revealed, like walking on slippery glass. So, now getting plastered with rime, we had to actually do a near-horizontal rappel across one section to reach softer ice and the couloir down.

A couple of days later it cleared up again and we had to give it one more shot. We had no more food at this camp, our rescue insurance would run out in less than a week, so it was right now or never. Again the climb up Gardner’s northwest couloir was straightforward in the sun, but wisps of snow over the crest signalled something else above. Sure enough, as we crested the plateau we saw a vast sea of gray cloud filling the eastern side of the range to the horizon. I’d said to Camilo that if we found something like this we would have to call it off, but we knew this was our last shot, so we just pushed on a bit more in case things got better. They didn’t. Camilo and Pachi really wanted to stay, but I could not place both the Omega Foundation and ALE in a position where we might get into trouble, in such a difficult place, in such bad weather.

Lower down on the plateau we decided to get something out of our failure and made the first ascent of the rocky peak at the northwestern extremity of the Gardner plateau, west of Mt. Ryan. As we scrambled to the summit and placed the GPS, the cloud started flowing through the gaps in the range and over the plateau like water over a dam wall. Knowing we still had the blue ice to cross I called it off after less than 30 minutes and we made our way down one last time, gusts of spindrift chasing us down the upper couloir. Of course the sun came out the next day as we were leaving the mountain. Hauling full sleds out of camp on the 14th, we reached old Vinson BC a few hours later, spent one night there and were back in Punta Arenas for lunch on the 16th.

Damien Gildea, Australia

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