Antarctica was everything I had imagined and hoped it would be – remote, cold as hell, stark, harsh and stunningly beautiful. From the moment the C-130 cargo plane touched down on the off-piste, blue ice runway, 300 miles from the nearest “town” of the South Pole, it was obvious that we weren’t going to have to try very hard to have an adventure – just surviving was going to be a handful.
Getting down to The Ice requires some determination. You have to really want to do it, as the expense, logistics and amount of gear required are all sizeable. To get flown into the interior requires all of that, and in my case, a good dose of luck. This came in the form of a NOVA film project that was put together by Conrad Anker, who I knew from his earlier days at Black Diamond Equipment. Conrad had the original idea to traverse the Ellsworth Mountain Range from north to south, which would have been a 200-300 mile, multi month outing. After working on this for a few years, the plan changed to an east to west traverse of the range with a trip over the top of the continent’s high point, the 16,067’ summit of the Vinson Massif.
The idea behind the film was to get a group of three people to talk about various aspects of the Antarctica experience. As the designated Alpinist and Expedition Leader, Conrad talked about the challenge of climbing in such a remote, cold area and all of the logistics that went into putting such a trip together. Jon Krakaurer filled in with some history and background, while Dan Stone of Boulder, CO was the resident Glaciologist, who was in charge of the science aspect. The film crew was made up of John Armstrong as the lead cameraman, Rob Raker as the sound guy and Liesl Clark as the director. Dave Hahn and myself were along as field guides, with Dave having the current record of 20 trips to the summit of Vinson.
After enduring weeks of bad weather, we were finally able to fly from Patroit Hills to Flower Hills on the east side of the Ellsworth range to begin our journey. Starting at about 1,000’ above sea level, we proceeded to double haul 1,300 pounds of gear up 40 km of untouched glaciers and 15,000’ of vertical over the period of 15 days. While most of it was very gradual and pleasant, the cold was a constant reminder that we were far from Kansas. Temperatures ranged from –20c to about 0 and the ever-present winds drove that even lower with windchill.
With 24 hours of beaming daylight, our schedules often depended on what we had done the day before. If we stayed up late, we could sleep in without worrying about the consequences. As we were skiing up valleys that had never been explored before, there were countless first ascent possibilities within meters of our tents. Conrad and Jon were able to climb Mt. Havner as an all night outing and I was able to climb and ski Mt. Mohl during a half-day of bad weather. The crux of our major climb came at a 3,000’ headwall, aptly named The Hahn Headwall in honor of Dave Hahn, who pioneered a safe route through the hanging seracs to place us on the 13,000’ plateau. From here, all of us were able to make it to the summit and back the next day in a marathon outing. As a special bonus, we hauled all 60+ pounds of camera gear to summit and were able to shoot some amazing footage in the –70c temperatures. The only casualty was a frostbitten finger, some buzzed toes and lots of malfunctioning electronics.
One of the great surprises about being down there was meeting all of the interesting people who were coming and going. The bulk of the people were tagging Vinson as part of their Seven Summits quest, but others were trekking to the pole, doing crossings, guiding, using traction kites, skiing the last degree to the pole and generally living a life of adventure. It was easy to see why many of them kept coming back year after year!