Thursday, December 21, 2006

South 2 The Pole - November to December 2006

Welcome to the journal record of my Dec '06 Antarctic Adventure in which I live out one of my many big dreams. In particular I’ve dreamt about climbing Mt Vinson for years but could never ‘justify’ it. Then after my first visit to the Antarctic Penninsula in Feb 04, I decided it was time to live this dream.

This journal is quite lengthy & if you’re reading it but really just want to get to the dramatic section, just scroll down to Sat 2 Dec.

In Oct 05 I heard the ‘ploop’ sound of the plastic wrapper of a heavy magazine or brochure landing on the floor as Postman Pat went on his way. In the wrapper was the Jagged-Globe brochure for the '06-'07 seasons – a temptation worse than anything the Devil himself could conjure up. Immediately I’m off for a quick scan & within days the brochure has post-it stickers on the Antarctic section & is left lying around on the kitchen table, just in case Joyce might like to read it!

For the '06 season Jagged were not only offering Vinson but also an opportunity to ski / sled haul the Last Degree to the South Pole itself in the footsteps of Scott. Well now, if you’re going to go on one trip, you might as well throw in the second one! With planning permission received from the ‘home office’ it was time to start making this dream a reality & I booked my place in late Nov '05 & so the adventure began.

But it is not finished yet & there is unfinished business to be completed & I shall be returning to Antarctica once again in Dec 07.

Sat 18 Nov '06 - 17.30 - Punta Arenas, Chile

It might be a long way to Tipperary but I can tell you it's an even longer way to Punta Arenas.

Left Dublin 12.00 Thurs 16th - London - Madrid. Dep Madrid 23.50 - arr. Santiago 9.30 (13hrs) & then onto to P. Arenas (4.30hrs) Got here 16.30 Fri 17, after just 22hrs in the air & the rest in airports. Sleep ?...... about 3 -4 hrs. Anyway it's a lot better than Scott & Shackleton's journeys of 3 months by sea. Weather is good, here 13 degrees, sunny & windy.

We have a group of 4 + guide for Vinson which is a good number. Myself, Richard from the UK, Jon from the Philippines, Fredrik from Sweden & Ian our UK guide. Fredrik Strang from Sweden summited Aconcagua last Saturday is now heading forVinson as the final leg of his record breaking 7 Summits in 7 months. So I'm in good company & Fredrik is getting a lot of media attention because of his achievements. He's also filming for a documentary.

Spent the day doing gear checks, packing food & weighing everything. All my personal gear is down to less than 28kg which is very good & on top of that we have to take group gear. For Vinson we're taking enough food for 18 days, 3 tents, stoves, fuel etc. etc. & it weighs a ton. We'll probably have 55-60kg each which after base camp has to be carried to high camps. Weight is absolutely critical on this trip & unless an item is vital, it just gets left behind because everything has to be carried on the Vinson leg.

We're expecting to get away from Punta to Patriot on Monday but may possibly go Sunday afternoon, which would be great. Patriot is only a summer season camp & hasn't been fully set up yet & probably won't be ready when we get there, but we'll manage somehow. Anyway we're set to go & of this group just Jon & myself are going onto the Pole with probably one other. I'll probably get to post an update on Sunday before I go but after that I probably won't get another done until I get back to here. I will have access to a satellite phone at Patriot & at the Pole & will of course phone home with updates.

That's all for now.


Sun 19 Nov '06 - 17.40 - Punta Arenas - Ready & Waiting

Gear checked (again), weighed by ALE & now loaded on the plane for departure hopefully tomorrow Mon am. My rucksack which I'll have on my back most of the time weighted in at 18kgs, which is good & then I'll have 25-30kgs on the small sled for the move to Vinson base camp. From there we carry to camp 1 etc. We have food for 18 days with us just for Vinson, and this is in case we get stuck on the mountain or at base camp. For the Pole leg there will be 8 people & we'll be using full size sleds which will take all of our gear, so we won't have to carry rucksacks on our backs, which is good.

Full group briefing today & slide show of what we can expect and it sort of made the hair on the back of my neck tingle just a little when you see it in detail. The logistics & costs involved in putting these expeditions on are incredible & the attention to detail is vital with no risks taken.

There is a group of 3 women heading off on the full trek to the Pole - 800miles / 50 days - plus one UK guy, John Wilton Davis, doing a solo to the Pole unsupported. The rest of us, about 20 are heading for Vinson. Prospects for getting out tomorrow look good at this stage & from 7.00 am we'll be on standby with just 40 mins notice that we're off.

Not much else to report. If we're off tomorrow I'll try & post an update to let you know. If not I'll have all day to do it so you'll hear anyway. From here on everything is a new experience & we're all looking forward to it with great anticipation.

Mon 20 Nov '06 - Punta Arenas - The Waiting Game....

We didn't get away this morning due to high winds at Patriot Hills & we're now on hourly standby.

The wind at Patriot is both friend & foe. Friendly in that it is only because of the high Katabatic winds that sweep down off the mountains that these aircraft can land at all. In doing so the wind blows all the snow away & the ground is left as an undulating sheer blue-ice strip. But the only available 5 km strip of this surface also means that the aircraft have to land in a cross wind which they can't do if the winds are too strong. ALE have to watch the winds & get a reasonably clear window to make the landing & of course when we take off we're not landing for 5 hrs so it's about trying to predict the trends. They also simply can't afford to take any chances because apart from the dangers involved the costs of aborting a flight & turning back is huge. These flights cost about $350k to operate so it is a consideration.

So we wait.....

The seafood & steaks here are fantastic & Punta itself is OK. You wouldn't want to spend your holidays here because this is summer & about as good as it gets. They had snow last week & the wind never stops blowing & I mean never.

Apart from that not much to report so I'll sign off.

Mon 20 Nov '06 - Punta Arenas - We're on our way in 30 mins...!

Take off is in 90 mins from now. Firstly we fly over the great southern ocean, the roughest seas in the world. Then over the majestic coastline of Antarctica & then deep into the Ice World to Patriot Hills.

Patriot is the remotest place on the planet with the nearest humans 1100 kms from us & at the Pole itself, which is hardly civilisation itself.

By for now!

Mon 20 Nov '06 - Punta Arenas - The Waiting Game.... Part 2... Weather delays departure.

Alas, we're still in Punta.

It was all going too well to be true & we fell victim to the natural elements over which we have no control. The flight was postponed 30 mins before take off due to a change in the weather conditions at Patriot & we had to stand down & go on 2 hourly standbys which by 19.00 hrs eventually led to a full stand down until tomorrow. So we start the process again tomorrow. This is not unusual & the norm is for at least 2 aborted departures. Last year they had a 10 day delay in getting people out & anyway you get used to the weather dictating progress when you're mountaineering & just get on with it. It could be worse, we could be stuck at camp 1 or 3 high on the mountain waiting for a storm to blow itself out, so at least we have the comfort of our beds here (& the bar).

Politics & competition are now coming into play in the race to the summit. Freddie the Swede is climbing with us & is just 24 hrs ahead of an American who is also here in their individual bids to set new records for the 7 Summits. They both started in May on Everest but Freddie summited 24 hrs ahead & both are now on their final summit so there is an added edge to this, which frankly the rest of don't need. Anyway our Jagged-Globe guide cannot allow Freddie's objectives to interfere with the overall team objective of the full team summiting so Freddie is now trying to get an ALE guide to climb with just him. The American is a guide himself & therefore will be allowed to climb with just one other person & will have a clear advantage & should make up the 24hr deficit easily. The stakes are high because both obviously have serious sponsorship, TV & books deal etc riding on setting a new record. Whoever is successful & one of them will be, will have knocked 100 days off the old record. Try & imagine the logistics & effort involved in climbing the following in 7 months......and the cost!!

Everest, Tibet
Carstensz Pyramid, Australasia
Kilimanjaro, Kenya
Elebrus, Europe / Russia
Denali, Alaska
Aconcagua, Argentina
Vinson, Antarctica

There are also 2 Swedes & 2 Slovenians racing to be the first to Climb Vinson & ski the decent & the Swedes are also claiming that if successful, they will be the first to have climbed & ski descented the 7 Summit Series. Anyway, good luck to them & we're staying out of it.

That's all for now & I hope I won't be sending a similar update tomorrow, because we're already a day behind & just want to get going. I may send an update before we head tomorrow or else we'll still be here & I won't have anything much else to do.

Thurs 23 Nov '06 - Punta Arenas - The Waiting Game..... goes on & on...

This is now Thurs 23 Nov & we still haven't got away....!! I didn't bother updating with this news over the past few days because we kept expecting to be going but the weather at Patriot Hills in Antarctica has not been favourable at all.

On Mon 20 we were at the airport, through departures & ready to board when we had to stand down & go on 3 hourly standby & we've been on that since then. Twice we've actually been on the bus to the airport when we got the call to stand down.

There is nothing we can do except wait & this is not unusual & will not affect our achievement of our objectives because we will simply stay in Antarctica until we're done anyway. The frustrating thing is that we can't go off & do much because we have to be available to get the update every 3 hrs & possibly go within the hour.

So we eat, watch TV, have a short walk about & wait.

You may hear from me again or hopefully not because we'll be gone.

Thurs 23 Nov '06….cont. Finally on our way!

Yes, we are finally on our way this time & at 21.30hrs the giant Illyushin 76 took to the air with 30 expectant adventurers plus 6 ALE staff on board. The Illyushin is a utility aircraft, designed to do a rough, tough job in difficult conditions & there is no Business Class on board & there is in fact just one class & that is ‘Cargo’. It is an ex-Russian military freighter with about 20 metal, stiff back seats down each side, facing inwards & with no windows. About 80% of the space is taken up with cargo, stacked to the roof right down the centre of the aircraft.

The cargo is a mix of drums of aviation fuel, general supplies, equipment & food for ALE’s seasonal base at Patriot Hills, plus the tons of equipment & food for the various climbing teams & I do mean tons. Our group of five had stripped down our gear to the minimum required & including all of our personal gear, group climbing gear, tents, stoves, fuel & food for 18 days, we weighted in at 600kgs – over half a ton ! Each person’s personal gear which had to include everything we needed for the trip had to be under 27kgs each & at $65 per kg for excess weight, you were not inclined to pack anything you didn’t have to have. Anyway by now I’ve got to be pretty good at packing & travelling light & the 9kg packs Joyce & I managed with on the Tour De Mont Blanc last Sept now seem like an indulgence.

The flight itself is not a pleasant one & could really only be described as mild torture because of the heat inside & the noise generated by the jet engines, above which it was impossible to even speak to the person beside you without shouting right into their ear. But nobody forced us to go on this trip & we all knew that this was only a minor discomfort compared to what lay ahead.

Touchdown at Patriot Hills was at 1.50am & there was a palpable tension & silence in the air as Big Bird finally came to a stop, the engines shut down & we prepared to exit. With full battle dress on including snug down jackets, 3 layers of gloves & headgear, the door opened & an incredible bright light started to pour into the cramped interior space filling every available nook & cranny, blinding everyone like rabbits in a car’s headlights. Those first few footsteps carefully placed on the sheer blue ice surface that was the ‘runway’ were accompanied with a thumping, pounding heart & the realisation that after all the dreaming, planning, preparation & training, we were now finally setting foot on the hallowed ground that is the Antarctic Interior. Welcome to a new & very different world, welcome to the Ice World, thousands of miles away from civilisation & about as far away from Dublin as you can get on this planet. Like aliens disembarking from a space craft onto a strange new planet we moved, with tiny baby steps at first, across the ice & away from the Illyushin & as our confidence grew in our footing we began to gaze & marvel at the surrounding terrain. Occasionally the stillness of the air was punctuated by a hoop of joy as small groups gave a ‘high-five’ & joyfully roared to the skies above ‘ Yes, Antarctica…..yahoooo’ Yes, indeed we’re finally here & ready for a great adventure, so bring it on.

In those first 15 mins there are two factors that one is immediately aware of. One is the sheer vast scale of everything, the mountains behind & then the flat bright white surface stretching away to meet the horizon & going on & on & on, until you reach the South Pole 1000 kms away, from where it carries on for another 2000 kms. Remember, Antarctica is bigger than Europe & we are only going to be operating in one small tiny area of this incredible continent which has no permanent inhabitants. The second factor is the brilliant brightness at 2.00am. Imagine the brightest, sunniest day you’ve ever had at a ski resort, with the sun blinding you as it reflects off every snow covered surface. One of those days when you feel it’s great to be alive & out in the mountains. That’s what it’s like here in Antarctica in summer, but here we have it for 24 hours a day, every day. There is no sunrise, no sunset & the sun never dips below an angle of about 30 degrees. It just travels around you all day. Here you don’t split your day into ‘day & night’, instead you operate on a 24 hr day & your activities are dependant on whether the sun is behind a mountain or not, because if it is, the temperatures plummet & you certainly don’t want to move from the comfort of your down filled sleeping bag or tent until the sun has warmed you in the morning.

ALE’s seasonal base Patriot Hills is located about a 1.5 km walk away from the runway & out of the worst of the Katabatic winds that sweep down off the mountains & we soon start to head towards the tented village. We’re met & welcomed by the staff there & following a briefing & a meal provided for us by the staff we set about getting our tents up & settling down for some sleep at 5.00am. in what is a very surreal environment. I’d like to say that I had a dream filled sleep lasting 8 hrs but it was far from that & I probably got a couple of hours at best.

Fri 24 Nov '06 – Patriot Hills. Altitude - 920mts

I got up about 11.00am. Yes, a little late but remember I am on a holiday. At Patriot, ALE provide a communal mess tent for the various groups to cook & eat in while we await the move to Vinson Base Camp (VBC) which is weather dependant & could be today or any day in the next week but at 2 hrs notice either way. So like a good boy scout, be prepared to move quickly. The conditions at VBC are apparently looking favourable & we’re expecting to be transferred there sometime late today & in the meantime we have to re-sort the gear & food & stash some supplies for our return here in 10/12 days time. Plus I’m stashing here, some equipment like skis that I don’t need on Vinson but do need for the trip to the Pole. The day passes quickly & after I phone home we hear that we’ll be on our way at 22.30 hrs. The transfer to VBC is by 2 ski equipped Twin Otters which have been adapted to take 10 people plus all their gear. We’re on the second flight out & there is a great buzz about as we finally board, strap in & taxi for take off. The 1 hr flight is a fantastic insight yet again into the sheer vast scale of this place. It was the shortest 1 hr I ever spent doing anything & every minute bought a new view of this ice world. Mountain peaks jutting out from the ice which looked like cloud cover & all lit by the ever present brilliant white light of the sun, which at this time of ‘night’ was casting long deep shadows across the terrain. This is truly an astonishing place which is just impossible to portray properly in photographs, yet alone in the written word. The only noise on board the Otter was the constant buzz of the twin engines & the click- click of cameras as the occupants sat, stared & recorded these amazing vistas for the first time.

About 50 mins into the flight we get our first view of the Vinson Massif out of the right hand side windows. All 10 necks & heads twisted & stretched to get these first glimpses of the majestic Mount Vinson (4897mts) rising high above all other peaks not just here but above all other peaks on this continent. This is what we have all come here for. A privileged opportunity to climb & summit the most inaccessible of the 7 Continental Summits in an environment that is as hostile & harsh as you can find anywhere on the planet. Looking out on this vast empty ice world one is also reminded & left in no doubt that you are alone here & that there is no back up support should anything go wrong. Team work, self sufficiency & self preservation are going to priorities from now on if we are to be successful in our quest & come out of here unscathed. Considering what we were to encounter later, these are chilling thoughts at this early stage but we have come prepared for everything, even if we don’t expect to be hit with everything.

At 23.40 hrs the pilot banks right & climbs gently as he guides the Otter along the rising glacier. Ahead we can see the outline of some tents at VBC & we are soon sliding to a halt on the soft fluffy wind driven snow. VBC at 2200mts is like everything from now on, another new experience. Sitting in the middle of the glacier the view back down is truly spectacular & takes in distant peaks & ever present ‘sea’ that is the polar plateau ice stretching into the never- never & pouring over the cols or gaps between the peaks. Looking back up the glacier, on the left side there is a tempting jagged scramble ridge rising in line with the glacier. On the right the much more formidable face that rises increasing steeply for probably over 1500mts before it breaks onto a col. Looking directly up the glacier I can see the outline of the route to camp 1 & the eye can imagine the track as it winds it’s way the 8 kms to camp. Midway up the glacier I can see the towering summit of Mt Vinson itself popping it’s head up from behind the lesser peaks which guard it from this angle. But enough of this gazing at our new world, we have serious work to do before we can settle down to either dream filled or restless sleep this night.

It’s midnight & we have tents to put up, protective snow walls to build around the tents & a cooking area to prepare before we can cook dinner. Now you know what I mean by a 24 hr day. Ideally we need to get all this done by 1.30 – 2.00 am before the sun hides behind the mountain on the right taking away the little, yet valuable radiant heat the sun provides, plunging the temperatures to -20c. After a couple of hours of hard physical work, we have a hot dinner & with renewed energy levels & fresh adrenaline rushing through our bodies the desire to go to bed is far away. We gaze & marvel at where we are. It is still brilliantly bright even if we are in the chilling shadow of the mountains but it is also 4.00am & time for some sleep.

Sat 25 Nov '06 – Vinson Base Camp 2200mts

I didn’t sleep well & only got about 3/4 hrs, but is that any surprise when I didn’t go to bed ‘til 4.00am! My body clock is all screwed up already & I can see that in another day or so I’m going to lose all concept of what day it is & what time of day it is. It’s impossible to be any other way because there can be no routine or normal day here so you just stumble on. But I must be conscious of it because to perform properly I’m going to need some quality sleep on a regular basis.

We finally got up about 10.30 am & set about the various tasks that needed to be done. Ian & Fredrik built the kitchen/dining area (the nosh house) & prepared a meal whilst Richard, Jon & myself reinforced the walls around the tents area (the posh house) & generally started sorting out our gear. The afternoon was spent dividing the food supplies between what we needed at VBC & the 8 day supply that had to be taken up the mountain later on. The snow walls around the tents have to be about 1.5mts high & are essential to keep the winds off the tents otherwise we’d freeze inside & the tents could get blown away or badly damaged. Similarly the kitchen/dining area is dug out of the ground & head height protective walls built. The blocks of snow are very easy to cut out of the ground with a saw because the snow is very dry & light & half metre blocks are easy to lift into place. This process has to be done at base camp & camp 1, whilst at high camp we will manage with just walls protecting the tents because we’ll probably cook & eat in the tents.
Fredrik is suffering from a bad cold/flu & is not well at all & unable to do a lot of the heavy work which is fair enough.

Most people are curious but not inclined to ask about the toilet facilities here, so I’ll fill you in on that aspect now. They are as I expected them to be & you must remember that there is a very strictly enforced ‘leave no trace’ policy here & everything & I mean everything, has to be taken back out on the Twin Otters to Patriot & then back to Punta Arenas in Sth America for disposal. You cannot just bury your waste here because when the winds come & sweep away the top layer of snow any buried waste would be exposed & the place would be like an open dump site in no time. Outside of the Patriot camp urine is disposed of down a communal bore hole which is drilled out at each camp. So you simply use your personal ‘pee’ bottle & then empty it down the deep hole. At Patriot all urine is tanked & removed to Sth America for disposal. At VBC, for your other functions there is a sheltered communal throne which ALE maintain, empty & remove back to Patriot etc. Once out of VBC & on the mountain each person is given a supply of handy sized black refuse bags which you use once or re-use if you wish, seal, store & remove back to VBC on the retreat. All other waste, food waste, packaging etc. etc. has to be bagged, sealed & taken back to VBC & onward to Patriot & Sth America. These things have to be dealt with & when you have to go, you have to go & it’s no big deal. The bonus is that the loo at VBC has the most incredible view down the glacier & one could easily sit here for an hour or more, if it wasn’t so cold. I must suggest that they put in a magazine rack. Anyway, you wondered & were curious & now you know.

With the day’s work done, we had dinner at 20.30 & were ready for an early night at 23.00.

Sun 26 Nov '06 - VBC 2200mts

I would love to say that I awoke to the sound of summer birds twittering in the sunshine but the reality is that we, the visitors here to this most hostile of the planet’s environments are the only living things about. Nothing else exists or lives here & apart from ourselves & our equipment there is nothing else here that represents modern life. No wildlife, no plants, not even the vapour trails of distant aircraft that one can see even in the remotest parts of Siberia or outer Mongolia as travellers are transported around the globe. Even the biggest & best aircraft available dare not fly across the vast emptiness that is Antarctica, for there is nothing but hopelessness for them here should they have to land. Antarctica is also surrounded by the great oceans of the world & the Capes of the great continents that do stretch towards this ice world do so in a timid & wary manner. Safe in the knowledge that they are somewhat protected & divided from this forbidding land by the great oceans, South America, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand are a vast distance away.

I awake to the sound of my companions shuffling uncomfortably in their sleeping bags in the increasing heat that is building up in our 3 man tent. The sun is truly warming us up & by 10.00am it’s time to rise. We have a breakfast of hot porridge with granola & honey followed by countless mugs of tea. After each morning & evening meal there is the endless melting of snow & boiling of water to provide the hydration required each day & night. Each of needs to be taking on board about 4-5 litres of pure fluid each day in order to maintain hydrated in what is a very dry environment.

Today we’re going to do a food’n’fuel carry & stash to a half camp midway between VBC & Camp 1. Here we will bury the stash & then pick it up on the way through to Camp 1 tomorrow. Doing this enables us to stretch our legs, acclimatise & takes some of the effort out of the next day. We load up 3 sleds with food & fuel for 8 days & head off on the 4 hr journey in what can only be described as picture perfect conditions. With no wind, clear skies & temperature probably only about -5c. this is a very pleasant but I note in my journal that night that Vinson’s nature has yet to show it’s nasty side which it surely will do at some stage in the week ahead. Little did we know what Mother Nature was planning for us as she kept her watchful eye on us as we slept & dreamt easily in our beds at night.

There are already 3 teams of 2 persons each gone for an early summit in separate bids to be the first in a number of races going on. There is Dan, a Canadian striking out on his final of the 7 Summits Series which he’s hoping to complete within a record period of 6 months. He’s teamed up with Rex a 25 yr old Australian who is also on the 7 S’s circuit & they headed out as soon as they landed at VBC. Then there is a team of 2 Swedes, Martin & Olaf, of whom we shall hear a great deal more of, as this adventure unfolds. They are attempting to climb / ski up all of the 7 Summits & then ski down. Having successfully done so on 6 so far including Everest, Vinson is the final target in their quest to be the first Swedes to accomplish this remarkable feat. For Everest they decided to drive from Stockholm all the way to Tibet & then climb Everest. They are followed by a team of 2 Slovenians who are attempting to do the same & likewise are on their final summit. So big stakes for some of these guys who have serious sponsorship behind them & hence coming second may count for nothing. Our team has Fredrik Strang also from Sweden who is just 23 hrs ahead of Dan in the bid to be the fastest person ever to complete the 7 Summits Series. Dan summited Everest last May, 23 hrs ahead of Dan & the countdown began then. But Fredrik has already accepted that he cannot beat Dan to the summit because as a qualified guide Dan is allowed to strike out on his own with one other person, whereas Fredrik has to either stay with our team or find another guide to go alone with. He has been unable to get another guide at short notice & as a team we are not going to be moving as fast as he can & he has therefore had to accept the situation & just get on with it. These guys are seriously talented, strong, world class & professional athletes & are in a different league to the rest of us who let’s remember, are here on holiday!!

Monday 27 Nov '06 – VBC 2200mts

We rise at 10.00am & kick into action mode immediately. We have breakfast & start breaking camp for the move to Camp 1 at 2700mts. We’re a bit late setting out for whatever reason & reach the half camp stash in 3.5 hrs. Conditions are good, it’s warm & sunny & we take a lunch break of salami, cheese, crackers, trail mix & flapjacks here, then dig up the stash & load up the sleds again. Now the going gets tougher. Rucksacks are heavily loaded & we’re also pulling fully loaded sleds. It may be only a 500mt ascent along a 8km trail but it’s in soft, heavy going snow & we’re pretty exhausted by the time we reach Camp 1 at 2700mts. The wind also hit us halfway up & the temperatures dropped 10-15 degrees c. in about 15 mins on route.

It is with great relief that we drop our packs at camp but then realise that we have to get camp set up, build the protective walls, cook & eat dinner before we can get to bed. This was a tough camp to set up because we first had to shovel about 30cm of loose snow away from an area 8mts x 5mts for the tents, then cut & build walls. After a hearty meal of soup, boil in the bag chicken curry, desert, the usual mugs of hot liquids & biscuits we finally got to bed at 3.00am.

Another subject that people wonder about but rarely ask about is personal hygiene. It is a very important topic & on the mountain we all have to be vigilant about it & have agreed to keep reminding one another about it rather than complaining if we see someone being in any way neglectful. In & around the kitchen, cleansing fluid & wipes have to be available & used all of the time when preparing group meals. With regard to personal washing etc it is amazing how far you can make a couple of baby wipes go in the morning & evening. In particular one’s feet have to receive daily attention in order to avoid problems. Teeth brushing is a relatively straight forward procedure & you make do with a lack of rinse water. Shaving is not really an option & after 2 weeks I had a lovely soft, warm, pure white growth which helped keep the winds from damaging my beautiful, soft & well maintained skin! You can change into fresh clothes daily if you’re prepared to carry all that weight, which nobody will do.
Considering that you’re not perspiring a lot using the same clothing day after day is not an issue with perhaps just a change of one’s base layer after a week or so. I usually keep a separate set of long johns & long sleeve thermal top for night time use because it is always nice to have something ‘fresh’ to put on at bedtime. I changed socks every 2-3 days & always used a liner sock. Having said all that when I got back home I was close to burning my clothing rather than washing it but with a squirt of this & a dash of that in the washing machine, everything came out smelling almost of roses, even if it did take Dyno-Rod a week to clear the drains.

Tuesday 28 Nov '06 – Camp 1 2700 mts

Wow! what a great sleep I had last night & boy did I need it. Only woke up at 12.00 & again it’s a beautiful day outside. Clear blue skies, only a gentle occasional breeze & about -7c. The sun doesn’t come around the mountain at this camp until 11.00am & until it does it’s cold in the tent & you’re not inclined to move. It was a very cold -25c last night outside & even dropped to about -7c inside the tent, but nestled in our bags it didn’t affect us.

Today is a rest day & we divide out the food’n’fuel to go to High Camp & generally prepare for the push onwards & upwards. In the afternoon we go through some crevice rescue drills & re-familiarise ourselves with the routines. We’ve all done this plenty of times before but it is important when you’re with a new group of people because different guides will operate in different ways & it’s good to go through the drill so that we’re aware of what we all have to do in the event of an incident. Little did we know what was to be thrown at us later by Antarctica’s Mother Nature who at this stage must have been looking down at us with a wry smirk on her mischievous face as we played our games in her backyard.

All of my gear & equipment is performing well & without any problems, which is fundamentally down to the detailed preparation I did before coming out here & the advise given & taken on board. My fleece lined Buffalo suit is a superb piece of kit & has made my Gore-Tex jacket redundant & relegated to the role of spare clothing. I’ve also yet to use any of my down clothing but then the temperatures haven’t dropped low enough yet. The Buffalo gear is superb & I’m literally living in it day in day out but it would be far too warm even for skiing in & is designed for Cold Climate use only. So a big ‘thank you’ to Roger Mear for his assistance in prepping me for this.

The weather at this early stage of the season is a complete contrast to last year when the early groups were hammered with bad weather on arrival at VBC, but no doubt we’ll get some of that as the days go on. ALE have a staff of 4 at VBC which includes a medic & a nurse (male). Two of this team operate as mountain rangers & have already been up the mountain ‘wanding’ the route & crevice areas. Wanding basically means placing short bamboo wands at sightable intervals along the designated route & at all crevices that can be located. This helps dramatically in reducing the danger particularly on days of bad visibility.

Incidentally the 2 young Swedish skiers had already summited & returned to VBC before we left there yesterday & were intending to have a rest day before going off to tackle other ski / climbs in the area. They left VBC 2200 mts, late on Sat evening, summited (4497 mts ) in the early hours of Mon, rested a few hours at High Camp 3700 mts on the decent & then got back to VBC mid day on Monday !! That is a phenomenal effort even if they were travelling on skis. Dan & Rex got to the summit a day later, stayed a night at High Camp on the decent & re-joined their group at Camp 1. Like the Swedes they left VBC immediately on arrival. Another huge achievement.

The 2 Slovenians departed a day after them & also achieved a very fast ascent & decent. It must be remembered that all 3 of these teams of 2 were fully acclimatised before arrival here but none the less, a great achievement by all.

My Sunnto watch / altimeter etc packed up today which I’m not happy about because when I’m on a trip I always like to know how long I’ve been out for & the current altitude so that I’m always aware of what’s still ahead. Plus I didn’t bring a spare one because Sunntos simply don’t break…….Shit !!..... F*** !.... Damm…….

Tomorrow he plan is to do a food’n’fuel carry & stash to High Camp 3700 mts & return to Camp 1. This is the normal routine & whilst it means going up the route on two consecutive days it is generally accepted that it is still easier than doing one huge carry. It also gives you an extra day of acclimatisation & follows the general rule of ‘climb high – sleep low’.

But……STOP PRESS…….at 1.00am Ian, following some discussions with some of the other guides who had returned from the day 1 carry up, decided that it may be a better tactic to do the carry in one huge day, then have a rest day at high camp before our summit attempt day. What did we think about that? Well, naturally we went for it because we felt fresh after our days rest & whilst we didn’t relish the thought of the huge carry, we said we’d give it a go.

Joyce would absolutely love it here & whilst she would be very capable of the long treks & even summiting, I fear the big heavy loads would her undoing. She has done plenty of Alpine 4000 mt peaks with me including Mt Blanc in one single push from the railway straight to the summit, but the physical effort required here is far greater than the Alps.
Sam who was with us on that great night on Mt Blanc as a 15 yrs old in 2003, could certainly buckle up & get on with the task.
Ian would prefer to take the helicopter up & either snow board or paraglide down. Maybe he’s right.

So to bed at 2.00am for a big day ahead.

Weds 29 Nov '06 – Camp 1 2700 mts

Christ! What a day!

Now that I read my diary for this huge day & write this log I fully realise that this was the day that (nearly) broke me. Physically & mentally it was the toughest, hardest day I’ve ever done. Not only did I hit the wall big time but I had to go beyond it in a big way & it left me in a very dangerously weakened condition by the time we arrived at a windy & cold High Camp (3700mts) at 00.30 hrs. To be truthful I had never before had to push myself for so far, for so long & the effort left me in such a low condition that it concerned me greatly because this was a dangerous place to be. Could I recover sufficiently to be confident about summit day because without confidence I was surely going to struggle? Would 24 hrs be enough time?

Today had started well with a good breakfast in good weather. We then started breaking camp & packing our rucksacks & 3 sleds. The plan was to haul the sleds up the glacier to a point short of the great headwall, stash them there & from there we’d have to carry everything all the way up the 900 mt headwall. I hauled one of the sleds nearly all of the way to the drop point & found the combination of the heavy sled & a huge backpack very hard going. We had departed at 15.30 hrs & expected the trip to take 7 – 8 hrs.

Everyone found it tough going & at the sled drop point the sled loads had to be divided out amongst all five of us. I cannot remember ever having to carry such a heavy load & certainly never up a 900 mt headwall with steep sections of up to 40 degrees which required very careful crampon placement & balance. But we were now committed & there could be no going back. We had no option but to continue because we simply couldn’t stay where we were. Onwards & upwards & ever so slowly, I was always aware that this headwall had broken stronger men than me in it’s past. But I was determined not to give in & I gritted my teeth & ground out the steps one by one. By the time we’d passed through the creviced area that was in a few days times to play a leading role in our adventure I was very weak but moving up over the now gently sloping area that led to high camp. But it was painful & it literally one boot length in front of the other, pause, then move the other boot forward. If this was anywhere else I’d have been able to stop & rest but here in these cold windy conditions that would have been a very dangerous thing to do because I would have chilled to the bone. 20 mins later & almost 9 hrs since departure we hit camp. I collapsed in a heap, aware but not caring that this was not the thing to do. I really was in a ‘bad place’.

Ian recognised this & insisted that I take cover in the temporary Bivy shelter for a while as they started to get camp set up. 30 mins later I felt somewhat better & wanted to do my share of the work, so I joined the team in the now bitterly cold & windy conditions as we set up camp as close to the side wall as we could. Shortly afterwards I was huddled up in my bag as Ian prepared a hot meal & drinks in the porch of the tent as he also lay in his bag. It was 03.00 am before we settled down to sleep which was restless & did not come easily. Remember we were now at 3700 mts & the air was starved of oxygen as well icy cold. Temperatures inside the tent that night fell to – 17c so God knows what it was outside. I tried to figure out why I felt so bad after what was admittedly a tough day but one that I should have able to manage better. Yes, I’ve had a sinus infection since the day I arrived in Punta Arenas which left literally unable to breathe through my nose at all & having to spend a lot of time every morning trying to clear my lungs, throat & nasal passages of gung. This hasn’t helped but was manageable.

Was lack of proper sleep & rest a factor? You get used to that in the mountains so it shouldn’t have been an issue.
I was eating as well as I could considering that as you go higher, you tend to lose your appetite, but you also know that you simply have to force yourself to eat or you will struggle.
I had done plenty of 10 -12 hr treks through Wicklow that included serious height gains so stamina wouldn’t have been an issue either. I’d dragged a heavy truck tyre through the woodland trails for hours at a time to simulate the sled hauling. I have great stamina & I can go on for hours & hours so long as the pace is such that it suits my lungs & my pace at normal altitude is generally faster than most people I go on the hills with.
Being slightly asthmatic I do struggle once I get over about 3500 mts but my stamina & will power usually get me, through providing the pace is moderate which it seemed to be on the day.

So my thinking is that the primary cause for my difficulty was the unusually heavy loads that had to be carried which combined with the other factors in play led to very strenuous & ultimately draining session. The loads were unusually heavy simply because we had decided to go for a single big carry to high camp rather than the normal split load & 2 day effort that every other group adopted not only this year but also in previous years. It had been suggested by Ian to us all that we adopt this strategy & we all went for, so I’m not saying that it was his error of judgement alone, but I do think it certainly didn’t suit me even if at the time I thought it might. A serious lesson learnt.

Thurs 30 Nov '06 – High Camp 3700 mts

As I’ve already said quality sleep was hard to come by in these conditions & by 11.00 am I still felt pretty bad & decided that my only chance of any decent recovery physically & mentally would mean staying in my bag for the day resting, eating & taking on board as much fluids as I could. I was also conscious that this was not the place to be taking any chances because on this mountain if you drain the tank dry high up on summit day, you’re going to have a very tough & potentially dangerous time getting down not just to High Camp but all the way back to Camp 1 & VBC. Vinson at 4897mts is not a high peak, nor is it a technical climb apart from a short section on the summit ridge. The summit day effort from High Camp is basically a long snow plod with an altitude gain of 1200 mts which usually takes 12 – 15 hrs for the ascent & decent (9 hrs+ up & 3 hrs+ down).

So why is it regarded as a difficult mountain?

Firstly, whilst the 4897mts is not high, the combination of very cold temperatures in Antarctica at this altitude & the already low air pressure at these latitudes causes the air pressure to drop even lower resulting in a level of oxygen in the air similar to a 6000mt peak anywhere else. Acclimatisation is therefore vital.
Secondly there is the extreme cold to deal with. Good clothing & gear plus spares generally take care of this issue but if you haven’t got the right gear, you cannot & will not be successful on Vinson. Thirdly, it is regarded as one of the toughest in terms of the sheer physical effort required to transport all the gear, equipment & food required for 8 days on the mountain. There are no sherpas, porters, donkeys, yaks or camels to carry the heavy loads. On most other big mountains you have donkeys or yaks to carry a lot of the way & then sherpas to set up camps & cook etc. which takes a lot of the physical effort out of it.
Fourthly, there is the mental strain of knowing that you cannot push yourself so far that you put yourself into the exhaustion danger zone simply because there is no support team or mountain rescue to fall back on.

If you’re on an Alpine mountain & you really push yourself beyond where you should, you know that within 2 hrs you can get yourself down to a cosy mountain hut or refuge where you can get food & rest & that 2 hrs later you can get back to the valley. You will also have the option of a cable car. If you’re really in trouble you can dial up a helicopter to come & airlift you out to a hospital. There is no such safety net here in Antarctica. You are on your own. There is no professional mountain rescue, no helicopter lifts, no huts and no cable car down. There will be limited medical assistance at VBC (8 hrs away) & after that at Patriot Hills (1 / 4 days away if lucky) & repatriation to Punta Arenas can then take up to 7 days after that. But this is what we all signed up for, so we’re not complaining & anyway we are on holidays after all & surely it beats being in the office ?

This is truly a barren, hostile & dangerous place to be & this forces you to operate well within your normal safety margin in terms of pushing yourself beyond where you would normally go. I have regularly on other mountains pushed myself way beyond what I thought I was capable of, but here I’m taking a more cautious approach. Yesterday I had to go beyond the limit because at that late point there was no option & right now at this stage I’m not sure that I want to go there again on summit day, so I will be setting my own limits & turnaround point to avoid that. The problem you have in a mixed ability team is that once you’re well on your way on summit day if one member genuinely can’t continue & has to descend, then the full team has to do like wise & this denies the stronger people of their opportunity to summit. The team can’t split up because we only have one guide. If someone has to turn back after just 1 hr due to illness or whatever, it’s not too bad because you can usually see him down to camp & then catch up & carry on. But if you’re 6 or 7 hrs into a 9 hr summit effort & someone can’t go on, it’s a tough decision. But each person is aware of this from the outset & has to make their own decision.

his is where team work & supporting & encouraging one another are very important along with the guide setting the pace to suit the weakest or slowest of the team regardless of how fit or strong the others are. That is of course providing that the pace is not so slow that it means you can’t summit within the normal time limit. The guide also has to set & communicate to all what the turn-around time limit will be. We’d set 9 hrs as our turn-around time which simply means that if haven’t reached the summit within 9 hrs, we were turning around & descending regardless. Remember when you summit any mountain, you’re only half way there because you’ve then got to descend & if you’ve burnt yourself out on the ascent, you could be in really big trouble descending. It is very important to remember that whilst summiting is the primary objective, survival & returning safely is the ultimate objective. This is what I had to think about all day while I rested, ate & drank & listened to the wind outside. Bed & sleep ( hah! ) followed dinner that night.

Fri 1 Dec '06 – High Camp 3700 mts - Summit Day!

Woke up after just a few hours sleep / rest.

Happy Birthday Mom. I miss you since you left us & I’m dedicating this day to you. I promise to give it as much as I can but to also stay within my personal safety boundary.

I really don’t feel good & I’ve never been as anxious or concerned about a summit day as I am right now. Usually I’m up early, have breakfast, get geared up & am mad keen to get going. But not today & that bothers me.

As we set off conditions are as near perfect as you can expect on Vinson. Windy at the camp but it will be just a light breeze when we get up out of the col. Yes it’s cold, about -15c, with blue, relatively cloudless skies. The only concern is the ominous & threatening looking clouds building up off to the North West.
Ian reminds us that this could be a 12 – 15 hr day, checks that we’re all up to this & also reminds us that it’s all of us or none of us. We’re all in full battle dress & I have on me 3 pairs of gloves, balaclava, hat, goggles, 3 layers under my Buffalo suit, down jacket & trousers. In my rucksack along with spare hats, gloves are my down jacket & trousers. With ice axe in hand along with 1 walking pole, off we go. Jon hasn’t been feeling well & has a dose of the trots since he got up & reckoning that he’ll be stopping to use his wag-bag on a regular basis. So after only 40 mins he decides to pull out & luckily he’s in sight of camp so we only have to watch him get down & then continue.
The other teams on the summit attempt today are all within sight with 2 of them just behind us. The pace set is good & I settle into it nice & steady. Lungs working hard but not overdoing it. The trick is to go at the pace of your lungs & not your legs & certainly not your head!

So what do you think about for the next maybe 9 hrs as you plod along, slowly placing one foot in front of the other. Well, people have different techniques for this & it’s not usually a problem until the going gets very tough. When you’re plodding along you just concentrate on getting your breathing action working the right way & when it gets tough, you need to have something to take your mind off the discomfort. I try various techniques to maintain my concentration & these are some of them.

- Firstly I look for a marker not too far away & try to calculate how long it will take to get to it. Say 20 mins, then I work on the next 20 min section & so on.
- Then I work on height gain & only concentrate on the next say 200 mts of height gain. This works well on steep ground
- Counting from 1 – 100, again & again.
- Counting down from 100 – 1. Not as easy as it seems & requires a lot of concentration. I rarely get to 1 before the pain takes over!
- Listening to the ‘Scrunch-Scrunch’ of your footsteps as your heavy boots compact down the loose powdery snow underfoot.
- Listening to the metallic ‘Clank-Clank’ of your karabiners & other climbing gear jangling on your harness.
- Concentrating on putting your footsteps in exactly the same footprint as the person ahead of you on the rope. This works well because you then get into the same pace & unless they’ve got a gammy leg which swings all over he place, leaving you end up walking like Quasimodo !

In the end none of these work for very long & you end up just gritting your teeth, hyper-ventilating, suffering & reminding yourself why you’re here & that you are on holidays after all!

Onwards & upwards we go, the effort is beginning to tell on him & it starts to bite. No time to look around & take photos or in truth no interest in making the effort. Just let me get on with this, just keep grinding out the steps, one by one. It’s going to take about 150,000 steps to do this & how many have I done already?
I don’t f****** well know, do I! I lost concentration after the 3rd round of 1 – 100 for heaven’s sake! Just leave me alone! Genuinely, I’m not in good shape. I try to put it out of my mind & just focus on being positive but I’ve got a headache pounding through my brain, my mouth is constantly as dry as sandpaper because I can’t breath through my nose & I’ve got the usual nauseous feeling that comes in at 4000+ mt. Negativity is beginning to creep in & I’m conscious of not allowing myself to get dangerously close to the position I was in on the big carry up on Weds. It’s not worth that to me. I’m here for the full Antarctic experience & whilst summiting is important, I’m not going to become obsessed about it. Yes, of course I want to summit but I’ve also want to get back down to High Camp under my own steam & not be assisted down. But I’ve got to push these negative thoughts & doubts out of my mind, be positive & get back on track. I can do this, I know I can. I’ve pushed myself to new limits before & I can do it again, I know I can. Get going!
Onward & upwards. I’ve no damm watch or altimeter to refer to so I have to estimate our progress which doesn’t suit how my mind needs to work. I need hard facts & figures not guesstimates. But I’m managing.

We’re now maybe 5 hrs into this & although I’m feeling a lot worse than I’ve ever done on a summit day, I know I can continue on for 3-4 hrs at least & maybe longer. But I’m conscious that that is now not going to be enough to summit, descend & stay out of my danger zone. I’m now thinking of the rest of the team & their ambitions to summit & in particular Fredrik. At this point if I have to go back, we all have to go back. But maybe I shouldn’t be concerned about them & maybe sod them, I’ve got to look after & think about myself. What would one of them do in a similar position? So I battle on, trying very hard to be positive & to believe that I can do this without going over the limit into that ‘bad place’ again.

As we push on I notice that about 30 mins ahead of us just on a crest there is one of the IMG teams & they appear to have stopped. Then I notice another team, the second IMG one apparently descending or waiting for them. As we approach them I realise what’s happening & this is my final undoing! No, don’t let this be the case, please! Don’t give me any opportunity to descend. I don’t want to, I want to continue on no matter it takes. When we reach them we find out that one of guys on one of the teams is ill & needs to return to camp. Ordinarily this would mean the full team descending but since they have 2 small teams with 2 guides they can let 1 guide take the client down & the rest can continue, whilst still within the guide-client ratio considering we’re on predominately crevice free terrain.

Instantly I realise that I have an opportunity to descend with them & allow the rest of my team to continue & thereby not affect their summit chances. I’ve still got a few hours left in the tank & I’m reluctant to voice my thoughts to Ian because I want to continue. But If I don’t & then end up in 3 hrs time turning the team around, I won’t feel too good & it may not be appreciated by the others. But what would they do in a similar situation?
In the end I discuss it with Ian & I tell him how I’m feeling & my concerns. We’ve done maybe 6 hrs (4450 mts approx), & I tell him I’m good for maybe 4 hrs more (within my safety limit) but the summit & decent is going to take up to 7-9 hrs more & I tell Ian I can’t give him that much more without the real risk of needing assistance down. I discuss this with the Ian, Fredrik & Richard & tell them that there is a real risk that I will compromise their summit ambitions & that having considered the situation, I am going to take the opportunity to descend with IMG & allow them to continue. I feel I’ve done the honourable thing in sacrificing the by now slim chance I had left of summiting to give them a better chance. All 3 of them understood what I was doing, Fredrik thanked me for being honest & doing this & Ian thanked me for not being selfish. It was, I can tell you, with a heavy heart & some real regrets that I then roped with Roger from IMG & began the lonely decent back to High Camp. Roger incidentally was on the 5th of his 7 Summit Series & was bitterly disappointed to have to descend. But we must always remember that it is the mountain & all of the conditions that prevail & not us mere mortals that decide if the mountain is to be summited on any given day. You can never conquer any mountain, you can only summit it & the mountain decides when.

On the route down I cursed the IMG teams for stopping & for one of them to be descending, for I really wanted to go on for as long as I could. But a decision was taken & now when I look back on it, I’m content with the way it turned out. It simply wasn’t to be my day to summit.

Back at camp I got some food to eat, settled once again into my sleeping bag for some rest & awaited the safe return of the 3 remaining team members. As it turned out they were not as long as I though they would be. They continued on for another couple of hours as the weather started to close in & at about 4650 mts, just below the summit ridge they decided to descend. The summit ridge is about 700 linear mts with about 250 mts of vertical ascent but is over mixed ground, is a rocky scramble & takes about 2 hrs to complete, plus another hour or so to get back down from. In the deteriorating weather & very strong winds Ian & many of the other teams decided that it was too risky. Visibility on the summit was probably zero at this stage which didn’t help the cause either. One of the IMG guides was continuing to the summit & agreed to take Fredrik on his rope so that he could complete his 7 Summit quest. Ian & Richard returned back to camp after a total of 9.5 hrs out. Fredrik having summited returned after 13.5 hrs & some of the IMG team were apparently in a bad way after their long but successful day.
So, in the end, had I continued I wouldn’t have summited anyway & at least I feel good about giving the other 3 in our team every possible chance.
We all had a quick boil-in-the-bag dinner, hot drinks & then bed with the ever present & by now increasingly violent winds battering the tents which of course didn’t help trying to get to sleep.

At 4.00am awakened by the storm winds, Ian & I dressed to go outside to strengthen the protective walls & this I can tell you took a big effort to do at that hour & in the bitter wind, with temperatures somewhere around -20 or -25c. Little did we know what was to hit us within the next 24 hrs as we crept back into still warm bags & snuggled down to a sleep of sorts.

Sat 2 Dec '06 – High Camp 3700 mts - Decent Day

The beginning of the end?

By 11.00 am we’re all still dozing away, snug in our bags & as the sun comes around to start warming the interior of the tent we start to shuffle & get up. Grim looking day outside & not much point in going out unless you have to & at this stage, we don’t need to, so we stay where we are. This is a windy, bleak spot & apart from a view down the route we came up it is of little interest. The wind is howling & raising the spindrift & blowing it everywhere. The general consensus amongst most of the guides leading teams is that we should wait a few hours & see if the wind will drop to make breaking camp & getting out of here a little easier than it would be if we moved right now. The weather is difficult to predict here because you can’t see much & certainly can’t see behind the mountain from where it is coming from. Mid afternoon, we get a VHF report from VBC relayed through Camp 1 that the weather is expected to deteriorate & that a 3-4 day storm front could be about to break in the area. Accurate weather forecasting around here is very difficult simply because there is very recording done of the weather because there just isn’t much interest in it apart from the people located here. There is no regional ‘Met Service’!

At about 17.00 hrs the call went out from the guides that we were breaking camp & descending as soon a s possible. Most of the teams had started the process before us because they were already up & out of their tents & that 10 -15 min gap was later to prove to be vital. Breaking camp in conditions like this is always a big effort but it has to be done & if you don’t get on with it, no one else is going to do it for you. With strong winds, poor visibility, the tents half buried in wind driven snow, it was an effort to get them down & packed. The tents are always left ‘til last in a situation like this just in case we need to take shelter at the last minute. Ian did consider aborting the decent on account of the worsening conditions & discussed the option with one of the other guides of staying where we were & waiting it out. But all the other teams were ready to move out & if we stayed we’d be on our own. We could have stretch the little food we had to last 3 – 4 days & we had good shelter, so could have descended after the storm had blown through. But Ian had to make a decision, didn’t fancy being there on our own & opted to continue to move out. He did give the last of the other groups a bundle of wands & asked them to wand the early part of the route which hadn’t been marked out by now.

We were ready to go 10 – 15 mins after the last of the other groups but by now the weather had really got bad with gale force winds & visibility down to between 5 – 10 mts. The rope order was Fredrik at the front, myself, Richard, Jon & Ian at the back. Fredrik would be OK at the front because of his vast experience & I’d be experienced & strong enough to keep him out of trouble. Ian wanted to go at the back from where he could keep a watchful eye on Jon & Richard, so his strategy was sound.
Within 5 mins of leaving camp Fredrik was having some difficulty just spotting the next wand 10 mts ahead & at one point without having spotted the next one he started to wander about looking for it, which is always a dangerous thing to do. Sure enough he put his foot where he shouldn’t have & dropped into a hole. The rope between us was tight & I instinctively dropped into an arresting position & held him. He seemed to only drop up to his chest & within 2 mins we had hauled him out. A little shaken, partly from fright & partly from the physical effort of getting out, he struggled up into a hunched position, took a few deep breathes & then gave me a big smile & the thumbs up to say ‘thanks’.
At this point I realised that this was going to be a very difficult, dangerous decent & that we all had to be very vigilant not only about what we were doing but also what the person in front of us was up to because their life was potentially in our care. On we went, gradually getting closer to the crux of the decent, the most difficult section. Here the ground dropped off sharply & was riddled with crevices & gaping holes ready & waiting to swallow us up should we make a mistake. Fredrik had to stop at almost every wand to stare blindingly into the driving spindrift for the next safety marker. This was time consuming, frustrating & but absolutely essential if we were to make safe progress. At each marked crevice he would stop, turn around, point it out to me & await my signal that I was aware of it. I in turn was doing the same to Richard & so on back the rope.

We were now in the middle of the worst section & as we approached what was probably the biggest & perhaps the most obvious of the crevices we hesitated as Frederik crossed the snow bridge & then stepped sharply on down hill. I came to it & I remember saying to myself that this a mean looking one, but whilst it was a wide, it was open & had a good snow bridge that just needed 2 big steps to get across. Before I crossed I turned, pointed it out to Richard, he acknowledged & then on I went. About 15 paces or 20 secs later I felt a sharp pull on the rope that I somehow knew instinctively was more than the normal tug of a good tight rope between climbers. In one swift movement I dropped to the ground & managed to turn around & face uphill to where Richard should be. But he was gone! Vanished into thin air. Maybe I was just not able to see him because of the swirling spindrift & the now steepened ground between us, for I was now lower down the hill than he would be because of the sharp decent. With just a 5 mt rope length between us surely even in this poor visibility I should be able to see him. But no, he was gone & it wasn’t into thin air, it was into that damm yawning crevice. Oh shit! Now we have a real problem & this is just not the place to have it.

I could then see Jon sitting down & locked into a holding position & at first I thought he was also half way down. I couldn’t see Ian at all because he was 5 mts back & the steep ground didn’t allow me a view over the top of what was the crevice & the snow bridge. Fredrik was 5 mts below me & instantly secured the line & himself with a snowstake. I was about 1.5 mt off the track & as I continued to dig my feet into a small ledge I also started trying to hammer my ice axe into the ground in an effort to secure my position. But in doing so my axe suddenly broke through yet another hole & I realised I was probably now lying over another potentially dangerous & weak hole. I’m not sure if I froze with fear or just the realisation of what could happen to me if I fell through, but I certainly froze for about 30 secs & then roared to Fredrik that I needed to move & would he please make sure he had a tight rope on me!! That was too close.

By now Ian had secured the line to Richard, Jon & himself & was working on setting up a pulley system to start hauling Richard out. My role was to secure the rope from my end as Frederik, staying tied into the rope moved uphill to assist Ian in the hauling. Richard was down about 4 mts & as usually happens when you have a big pack on your back was hanging almost upside down because he simply couldn’t maintain the physical effort to keep himself upright. In addition to his difficulties his rucksack was impeding any efforts to haul him out by getting caught on the angled side wall of the crevice. Fast & instant action needed to be taken & Richard in having great difficulty in getting his pack off was not going to be able to take it off & secure it to the rope to be hauled out separately so he decided that he’d have to drop it to the bottom of the crevice & say goodbye to it forever. But apparently he was now having trouble getting the buckles undone. To get his knife out of his pocket to cut the straps he needed to take his outer gloves off, but when he did so, his liners came off also & in the swinging & jostling around he neglected to ensure that they were secured to his wrists & in attempting to stuff them inside his jacket, he dropped them. Disaster!

He now needed to hauled out very quickly but he still had to drop his pack & by the time he finally got out the damage to his hands had been done. He was probably in that icy tomb for 30 mins which is long enough to chill you to the bone even with good clothing on. His hands were now badly frost bitten & he was also suffering from hypo-thermia. Ian had to make instant decisions about our next course of action & the only option we had considering everything, was to get some form of shelter up & quickly or Richard was going to have real problems.

This was not a good situation to be in. Richard had no pack & therefore no down clothing to put on, so I whipped my down jacket out of my pack & put it on him & as I did so I said to myself, ‘people are going to die on this mountain tonight’. As I comforted Richard, Jon was also in a bit of a state & Ian & Fredrik laid some sleeping mats down & set up the temporary Bivy shelter. Ian instructed Richard & Jon to get in & then asked me to stay with them & try & stabilise them by ensuring we all stayed as warm as we could. Meanwhile, Ian & Fredrik started to dig a snow hole but it was impossible due to the concrete hard ice 30 cm down. So their next option was to cut a ledge to sit down into, cover it with sleeping mats, then get the tent sheet over us & held down as best we could with our hands. Our packs were used as a protective wall behind our heads apart from mine & Ian’s which we took into the shelter with us. When we all got in & held the flimsy cover tight I pulled my down sleeping bag out to wrap around Richard & Fredrik who was now cold from being outside for so long. We used whatever else we could get out of the packs to stuff around us for insulation & then took a breather to assess our situation which didn’t take much to figure out, was not good. We had 2 bags of trail mix & a few bars between us plus hot water in my thermos & nalgene bottle & that was it. Everything else was outside in the packs making up the protective walls.

By now it was about 20.00 hrs & the priority was to stabilise our position, do whatever we could to retain as much body heat in the shelter & then try & make contact via our VHF radio with Camp 1 or VBC way down below us. It was a dire situation that was to get worse before it got better.

Contact was eventually made with camp 1 by VHF radio & they relayed messages between us & the ALE team who were at VBC. We set up a system of hourly contact with them as we tried to figure out the best way to get us safely out of where we were. The other descending teams had not even reached VBC yet & some had stopped at camp 1, tired & exhausted after their own efforts to get down the dangerous headwall & the trek all the way back to camp. When the descending guides heard of our predicament they naturally wanted to assist but were also exhausted & very concerned about having to trek all the way back up into the storm. A decision was taken that it was not safe to do so at present but that the 2 Swedish ski-climbers Martin & Olaf would head on up to the base of the headwall, set up a tent & be ready to move on up when ever the opportunity arose. In the meantime we would simply have to do our best to get through what was going to be a very difficult night & also pray to all of our Gods that we would get out of this alive.
Ian went outside to try & recover some more gear & the 20 mins it took him left him exhausted, very cold & it was clear that moving from here was simply not an option. We could not descend this mountain with Richard in the condition he was in & the rest of us also beginning to struggle. By the time we’d have got out of the shelter, roped up, got our much needed packs sorted out & started moving, we’d be frozen stiff & in these conditions were very likely to have another accident. Richard would have needed to be carried or supported by 2 people & in the event of another fall we’d not have had the energy to get anyone out again. We would simply have stumbled on into certain disaster & death. As the hours rolled on through the night the only messages we heard from camp were those we didn’t want to hear…… 'sorry guys but we simply can’t get up the headwall I this storm & all you can do is hang on & wait' We knew the people down below us were risking their own lives in an effort to get to us & get us out, but we desperately needed help.
Morale was good & we were all keeping a positive outlook on the ultimate outcome which was important because if negative vibes started coming through we’d go down hill quickly. We kept prompting one another to ‘think warm’, wriggle our fingers & toes & do shoulder rolls to maintain circulation. We even sang a few songs & ‘Ten Green Bottles’ got the accolade for being the only song we managed to sing all the way through.
As the hours rolled on & on, the wind continued to hammer our shelter & we feared it might be ripped to shreds which would multiply our problems by 100 fold, because without that slender yet life saving shelter we would be totally exposed to the 50 mph winds & -40c temperature outside. That would probably have forced us into attempting to move on downwards to what we feared would our doom.

Sun 3rd Dec '06 – Ice Headwall 3500 mts

By 10.00am nothing much had changed, the conditions outside were if anything windier, the rescue team still couldn’t make any progress in reaching us & had been beaten back 3 times in their attempts. Morning turned into afternoon then into late afternoon, the mood was changing from being positive on the face to privately fearing the worst as we faced a crucial & possibly fatal second night here high on one of the most exposed & inaccessible mountains on the planet. To one another we put on brave faces & stayed outwardly positive but inside some of us were getting bad vibes & the battle for real survival & our lives was beginning. I could see from Ian & Fredrik that with their vast experience they knew our situation was now very bad, the realisation that this may well the end of us was now a looming prospect & we may as well prepare for it.

Ian was still on the radio pleading….. ‘Listen, David (Hamilton) & all you guys down there. You are some of the best climbers & mountaineers in the world & you are our only hope. If you can’t get to us, you know what’s going to happen here. People are going to die! You’ve got to help us, please!’
The reply came back….. ‘Ian, we’re doing our very best but we can’t risk more lives & have a possible double tragedy. We will keep trying but for now you are unfortunately on your own’
Chilling words to here, I can tell you & they certainly got me thinking.

So what does one think about hour after hour in a situation like this?
Was I scared, frightened?
No not really & as I’ve said, you have to try to remain positive & consider have we done all we can to help our situation. But at the same time you come to realise that your chances of getting out of this are growing smaller & smaller as the hours tick away into another very cold night. So yes, you are forced to think about the bad ending that his may become. It’s not like a car crash or falling off a cliff, where you’re killed in seconds. Here it was going to take time. But how much time & how cold could you get before you drifted off into a sleep which would ultimately lead to a coma & then death?
I genuinely along with some of the team now believed that this was going to be the scenario. Why should I feel able to think any other way. There was no point in thinking, ‘No, this can’t happen to me, these things only happen to other people’! Mountain accidents & tragedies happen all the time, so why couldn’t I now be caught up in one, I wasn’t invincible, immortal or immune to such happenings & had no right to even dare that I might be. I knew all of this & that was why I was very calmly able to accept the situation I was in.

My only thoughts on this subject were for Joyce, & our 2 sons Ian & Sam. I wasn’t concerned for a moment about myself because that would only have been self pity & that was pointless. Anyway, I go on these trips knowing & prepared for the risks & dangers. Yes mountaineering can be & probably is a very selfish activity, so if you’re prepared to take the risk then you must accept the outcome. This is something I’ve always been prepared to do.
But Joyce, Ian & Sam don’t deserve this. They just don’t deserve it to be this way. I certainly wasn’t going to hide from reality. I had to think about & reconcile privately in your head about the situation, the possible fatal outcome & the consequences for my family. In the end, you accept that if it’s going to end this way then so be it. But I kept thinking that Joyce & the boys just don’t deserve this.

There is no doubt that we & all of the teams were praying for the one thing that could enable the rescue party to get us the headwall. We needed a 1.5 – 2 hr break or even easing of the raging Katabatic storm to allow the rescue team up the ice headwall but so far it just wasn’t happening. So the hours rolled on, we stayed with our private thoughts & continued to encourage one another to be positive & stay awake. At this stage sleep could have come very easily because I was very tired from the lack of it. But I was simply afraid to sleep for fear that I would never waken again & I kept telling Jon to check me & not allow me to drift off. Sometime about 19.00 hrs we sensed a change in the wind direction & a slight easing in its intensity, followed by a raise in temperature as the sun seemed to penetrate the slim tent covering that we had over us. Anxiously Ian radioed this to the team down below at the base of he headwall & hope inside the shelter lifted momentarily. Down below it wasn’t quite as good & they still couldn’t take the risk of moving up. First 10, then 20, 30 mins went by as we urged them into action & our hopes drifting away. Eventually the call came through that Martin & Olaf were on their way up. The collective sigh & roar inside the shelter was nearly enough to lift it right off us as we clasped our hands & turned our eyes to heaven in a silent yet relieved ‘thank you’.

But they hadn’t reached us yet & it would take 1.5 hrs or more to do so during which time the wind kicked in again & we feared that they may be turned back. This was the longest hour or more in my life & we all sat silent, waiting, waiting & praying. But we had work to do & needed to be ready to move as soon as the team arrived. We could not afford to be faffing around outside in the prevailing conditions that we were hopefully about to encounter.
Please don’t turn back, Martin & Olaf, please keep coming! Keep on coming up to us, please! We tried to listen for them above the roar of the wind tearing away at our flimsy shelter but could hear nothing. We dared not even breathe out load.

'Hello, Hello!'

Did we hear something outside?

Instantly, 5 hearts suddenly stopped dead, but only for a moment. Then ‘thump, thump, thump’ as they pounded back to life with massive energy from the realisation that we had all heard something outside & what we had heard were the calls of Martin & Olaf to us. This time the roar that went up could have started an avalanche but we cared not a bit, because we now had a chance of getting out of here, alive. My rucksack had already been repacked & within 10 minutes we were out, being roped up & ready to move off. We ditched a lot of group gear from our packs in order to reduce the weight to be carried down in our weakened state. Bloody hell! The conditions out here were much worse than we had imagined, the wind was still incredibly strong & within minutes our outer clothing had frozen solid. Visibility was still poor but manageable & we all just wanted to get out of here. Our time in the freezer zone was, it now appeared to be coming to an end soon. We were by no means out of the danger zone yet & had to concentrate hard on crampon placement for quite sometime yet. But we were going to make it & the tears flowed as we made our way downwards to safety. It was now about 21.00 hrs.

About 1 hr or more later we arrived at the bottom of the headwall where the Swedes had a tent set up & 5 of the guides including David Hamilton were also on hand armed with hot drinks & snack bars. It was quite an emotional scene as we hugged & clung to our rescuers & shed a few tears of relief. We still had about 1.5 hrs to trek to camp but we were able to do so without the burden of our rucksacks because the support team that arrived offered to take them on sleds which they had drawn up. As we trekked downwards we were able to look back at the angry monster of the headwall that had held us captive & it did indeed seem angry because it was once again enveloped in a dark swirling tempest of driving winds & spindrift, whilst where we now were was relatively calm in comparison. Thank you dear God for whatever deal you struck with Antarctica’s Mother Nature that allowed us mere mortals to walk free once again.
Ian led us into camp 1 to be greeted by one of the IMG teams who had volunteered to stay there & assist us if & when we were to arrive. Good men all of them because they could have opted for the relative comfort of VBC which was still some hours down below us but would not be reached by us in our condition tonight. This I believe was part of the rescue ‘deal’ & we were to find out that there was still some discomfort to come in the days ahead, but nothing compared to what we had already experienced. Ian was truly exhausted & on his last legs & as we hugged & shared tears together I said to him, ‘Thank you Ian & always remember this… Ian Barker always brings his men home & don’t you ever forget that. Thank you!’

All was calm around us here but we could see the devastation that the Katabatics had caused here in the past 2 days. The entire glacier surface had been stripped of the 30cm of loose lying snow & blown to heaven knows where. As we settled into tents loaned to us by ALE, little did we know of the imminent return of the fearful Katabatics that would once again pin us down here at camp 1 for a further 2 days. Within an hour of getting into a warm sleeping bag loaned to me by Eric, the winds struck with their mighty power to serve on us a warning that this was Mother Nature’s back yard we were playing in & that She would decide when we would be free to leave this now desolate place. We discovered that 2 days of this battering was part of the freedom deal & we accepted that gladly for it was a mild discomfort to go through when we had the knowledge that we were safe & all of our lives spared. What was another 2 days without any nourishment, apart from a few bars & hot drinks! I was in a one-man tent on my own & on the first day I left the tent just once to relieve the boredom & survey my surroundings, but I didn’t stay out long because it was truly wild out there. Mother Nature may have agreed to set us free but it seemed like the Katabatics didn’t agree with the deal & now wanted to have their say & battered us relentlessly making sleep impossible. Which meant another 2 days without sleep but this was certainly better than the eternal sleep that we had faced just a few short hours ago.

I managed to phone Joyce on the satellite phone after I got down & it was once again an emotional relief to hear her voice. Simon Lowe from Jagged-Globe had phoned & informed her in a very considerate & compassionate manner about the problem whilst it was still unfolding but thankfully I think she didn’t quite realise just how bad things were for & this was probably a good thing.