After moving to C2 (high camp) on Wednesday and seeing the CTSS team come down from the summit in what appeared to be as good conditions as anyone was likely to get this go round, we were champing at the bit – and getting increasingly nervous with the now closing weather window. The plan was to rest Thursday and go for the summit Friday. After our first night at high camp, Thursday came, and with it, more cloudy & overcast weather – a far cry from the day before. To make matters worse, the forecast wasn’t improving. What should be a slam-dunk summit was rapidly turning into more of a maybe. I started wondering if my notoriously checkered luck in the mountains had followed me all the way to Antarctica?!? After seeing several friends summit this peak earlier in the season in perfect conditions, was I going to return unsuccessful, hampered by the weather this time? I pushed this thought out of my mind for now, but I still felt it gnawing away quietly in the background of my subconscious.
Given the worsening weather, two other small teams decided to make a push for the summit on Friday, and we could only watch longingly as they disappeared into the cloud, wondering what might be – for them, and us. Much (MUCH) later that day, both teams returned to high camp after making the summit in what had been both a very long day and really bad (cold, cloudy, windy) conditions. They were chilled to the bone and fatigued – but – the uncertainty and doubt was gone from their minds and their faces. They had made the summit, and all remained now was to get back to VBC and wait for the first flight out. An enviable position. By contrast – our fate, and that of the one other team (MountainTrip) that had mirrored our schedule – still hung in the balance. Would Friday be more of the same weather – or worse? We dare not dream of the alternative – i.e. better weather – fore surely, that was setting oneself up for nothing but disappointment.
Friday morning arrived, and with it, unfortunately, a sick tent mate that had somehow contracted a stomach bug (even on a relatively short climb such as this, all the major personal mountain issues and risks are prevalent) and started his day off unceremoniously by throwing up last night’s dinner just outside our tent door. After some time recovering and cleaning up, he roped up and we prepared to go. My biggest concern today was the cold. This summit is typically very cold – even in perfect conditions, and we were heading up in far from perfect conditions. That said, the sky seemed just that bit clearer than the day before – which did lend some hope to our endeavor.
I was particularly concerned about my extremities (hands, feet) as I do have a tendency for them to get cold – and today was certainly going to be cold, if nothing else. I wiggled my feet and toes and everything felt pretty comfortable, between my fresh socks worn overnight and my Everest boots. A good start! Typically, something had to go not as planned – and today, it was that the batteries to electronically heat my big summit gloves had died in the cold, despite been tucked in with me in my -40F sleeping bag overnight (bit of a major design flaw I’d say!!) – so they were now out of the running. Thankfully, I had on-hand good old fashioned chemical hand-warmer packs which heated up and did a perfect job on my gloves instead. So far, so good – and with both feet and hands in good shape, a major concern now off my mind.
Roped up, we finally headed out of high camp around 10AM, heading for the summit. This could be anywhere from 7-10hr+ day depending on conditions, our pace, etc. and we were hoping for the lower end of that range – but pretty quickly we discovered that being roped up has both its advantages and disadvantages. My tent-mate was clearly quite ill – both nauseous and light-headed – certainly far more so than he was admitting to, as less than two hours out of camp, his pace ground almost to a halt. Add to that, various team-mates repeatedly stopping to layer up or down, and it seemed like this was going to be a much longer day than any of us had hoped. That was the bad news. The good news was that while far from perfect, the worst of the predicted weather conditions were holding off, and making our ascent not so bad, so far.
We slowly would our way up the mountain, stopping every 1-1.5hrs and so far, were out of the worst of the wind (which was definitely there, in the higher and more exposed parts of the mountain). That was going to change – and we could see exactly where. The next rest point lay sheltered, just below the beginning of the summit approach, and beyond (and above) it, we could see the wind hurtling the clouds by at great pace. This was the point where we would layer up into our heaviest battle gear – full Everest parka, switching from ski gloves to mitts, and switching from glacier glasses to ski googles, buff, etc. to cover every centimeter of our faces, leaving absolutely nothing exposed. At this point, any mistake – by any one on the rope team – would mean that everyone would likely have to descend.
Despite our forward progress, the thought we might yet have to turn around through no fault of my own still weighed very heavily on my mind – as my tent-mate, immediately behind me on the rope could now barely make it 30 feet at a snails pace without having to stop and had spent the last few hours dragging off the back of my rope. Meanwhile another team member had just set his mitt down unprotected and untethered on an ice slope in howling wind and risked losing it. This simple act of carelessness could easily end the trip for all of us – our guide repeatedly shouting at the top of his lungs, finally got his attention and he snatched it before the wind did. I was growing increasingly agitated inside – knowing that all the preparation in the world would make no difference in the event either of these climbers had a mishap – and this resulted in me barking more than a few words to the rope behind. One way or the other, I was not coming back here – so having come this far, we damn well better make the summit.
Despite this agitation, step by step, we were still progressing – now, above the sheltered part of the climb – being blasted by the wind, which dropped the temperature into a whole other realm (we later heard from Union Glacier report that with windchill, the temperature hit almost -60F that day on the summit ridge). Still, 5 layers on top and 3 layers on the bottom meant that while uncomfortable, it was most definitely manageable. The miracle of modern technology! As on Everest, I couldn’t help but think of those who came before me – and in this case, not just those that climbed Mt. Vinson, but anyone who had spent time in Antarctica, particularly in the early years of voyage and discovery. Dear god, that’s when people were tough! No synthetic down suits, no triple boots, no chemical hand-warmers, and on and on. I smiled under my buff, laughed even – what did I have to complain about. Step, breathe, rest, step – and repeat.
The final approach involves a short ascent below the summit ridge itself, followed by a u-around and up on to the ridge proper, where after a short, steeper ascent, you then follow the ridge back to the iconic summit of Vinson itself. By now, we had pushed our way through the wind, made it to the u-turn, and it was finally at this point that I figured, short of a full-on storm, from here, we are likely to make it to the top. I could finally breathe a small sigh of relief – at least from here, for now – it looked like we wouldn’t be the only team not to summit.
The MountainTrip team had started out of high camp after us, but were making good time and with all of our stopping & starting lower down that day, had passed us leading into this final stretch. As we made it up to the summit ridge proper, the clouds parted somewhat, and I could make out the summit, approximately 20-30 mins further (given our pace), and could also see the MountainTrip guys making their way back towards us. Good for them – they were all great guys and we were delighted for them and exchanged congratulations as we passed them.
This was all the encouragement we needed and with the weather clearing, at least at our altitude – you still couldn’t see much below us, we followed Jon with new vigor and renewed energy in our legs, making our way to the summit. After all was said and done, despite unforeseen difficulties and doubts, we made it – as a team – to the summit. Full (and incredible) credit goes to Jon Schrock for getting us, again, as a full team, to the summit – as without him, I expect things would have gone differently – for some or all of us.
My eyes welled up as I got to the top, thinking of Dad – it had been a while – his memory comes and goes these days – as we are now 4+ years since his passing, and life both continues and gets in the way – and I don’t always get to reconnect with my memories as much as I would like. These last few hours, as the uncertainty had built up in my head, I had recited Invictus over and over in my head, and thought of Dad and what he would have made of all of this. And after the tears, that brought a smile to my face too (you’ll notice the big beaming grin in the photo with Jon at the summit!). I suppose you shouldn’t necessarily have to go to the literal ends of the earth to free your mind and reconnect with loved ones and cherished memories – but sometimes that’s just what it takes. And here, at the arse-end of the world, on summit number six of my seven summits quest, I was able to do just that, and boy did it feel good! We didn’t get the bluebird weather that you usually see in summit photos, but we did get a split in the clouds to at least see the summit itself, and we were here – and were made to work for it a little – always a good thing.
So after 15 minutes or so on the summit, photos taken, hugs exchanged and some food & water consumed, we turned tail and headed back down the mountain as fast as we could. Just below the summit was nigh-on whiteout conditions and Jon led our rope team from wand to wand, every 30-40 feet to mark the way, until eventually we made it back down below the final summit approach and into calmer weather. We still pressed on as the forecast had been for the weather window to snap shut – and with the summit now attained, we had no desire to be caught out in the pending conditions. And true to form (if a little later than expected), we were only back in high camp and zipping into our tents when the wind picked up significantly and with it, the snow and we were all silently thankful to be back down and out of the worst of it. Nothing left to do now but hope for decent weather tomorrow and get back down to VBC ASAP and begin the long trek home.