Flying out from Vinson Base Camp, you are often treated to a halo of cloud over Antarctica’s tallest peak. As the Twin Otter rushes up through the clouds and then into a clearing in the pure blue sky, the immense expanse of Vinson’s south-west Face is revealed, framed on the right by The Rolex Ridge.
Though I ascended Vinson solo many years ago, the memories of the time alone on the ridge, of my long and lonely traverse across the remote summit plateau, and of my direct finish up the final summit pyramid to the top, are still remarkably clear, etched on my memory.
Perhaps it was just the aloneness of climbing solo in Antarctica. Perhaps it was doing the entire mountain, from its lower glacier to the summit in one non-stop 12 hour ascent, covering more vertical than most do using the two camps and often 5 or more days on the normal route, ascending over 3,000 vertical metres in one go. And then of course, even more rapidly, coming down again.
Thé Rolex Ridge, a single elegant sweep with over 3,000 vertical mètres of climbing to the summit plateau. Joe Blackburn took the photo from our low camp and you can just see me starting out on the climb, a black dot, lower left, leading up to the col before I started up the ridge above toward the summit.
I had written up a chapter in my book – and the Rolex TV commercial my photographer Joe Blackburn had shot would run for over ten years. As opposed to rewriting the story, my original version in the book still rings true.
I had already soloed Vinson on the Sunshine Face by one route, as part of my 7 Summits Solo project, and was very well acclimatized. With this experience I wanted to sneak in a quick final ascent before we were due to fly out in 4 days time.
Chapter 26, From To Everest via Antarctica, The Rolex Ridge
At our Base Camp where the plane dropped us off, the reserve food bags held the flash-frozen tuna, the parmesan cheese, the sun-dried tomatoes , the elephant garlic, the extra litre of olive oil and a sip of single malt to welcome my photographer Joe Blackburn and I back to civilisation. The sleds had been left in a heap, the tent was slotted into the igloo walls we had built on landing, as if we had never left.
We were alone, Conrad Anker and Jay Smith and the team whom we had flown in with still on the hill and yet to return from their first ascent of Mt. Craddock.
Our stove had cracked in the cold, which had taken to disconcertingly fizzing and flaring on start-up. In a small tent with a small alcove, with our only water coming from melted ice, it was making us just a bit nervous.
However, Joe’s ability to fix anything with a few simple tools came in handy, a talent adopted from days underwater working on the electrical systems of nuclear submarines, where, like Antarctica, another place you can’t just nip out for a spare part.
A new gasket and a jury-rigged valve later, the store roared back to life and the pancakes flowed off the pan like a fast-food diner, the maple syrup melting into frothy crystals and then dissolving in the heat.
Vinson loomed in the background, dwarfing all around it. The plane was due to pick us up in four days, barely time for one more climb if everything went perfectly. The day started with the bristles falling out of my toothbrush into my mouth, too many extremes of heat and cold stressing the different plastics of the bristles and the handle. Yet more incentive to get up, down and off the ice quickly.
The south-west face of Vinson had always been my primary goal, ever since the first view of the mountain, a few grainy photographs supplied by the late Mugs Stump to Jay Smith.
The face rose from our lowly camp over 10,000 vertical feet (3,048 meters) in a single swoop from the glacier to the summit plateau. A single ridge framed its right side, separating two immense faces. I’d already named it the Rolex Ridge, as they had been instrumental in a host of my Everest expeditions and had now ensured I was able to get to Antarctica.
All the climb lacked now was an ascent.
Having never ascended that much vertical in a day before, getting up and down had a lot of question marks attached to it. While it was certainly possible on established routes or where a chance of escape existed, attempting a new route in the depths of Antarctica, could well turn me into a snowman before I finished.
Turning back was always a possibility, but climbing with no sleeping bag, tent, stove, or rope, if I stopped, any problems would be quickly solved when I froze. The supply of chocolate, crackers and water were only designed to keep me moving. Having extra weight would only slow me down, so it would have to be up, summit, and down, in one single push.
Climbing solo was much faster, with no extra gear to take, no decisions to be made, climbing quickly at my own pace the whole way.
Soloing creates a direct relationship with the mountain, with yourself, and there is rarely loneliness or fear. Good solos are far too all encompassing for anything but the need to flow up the mountain, and flow down again. And in Antarctica, the extreme cold, the remoteness and the newness of a first ascent, left nothing to chance. The cold was brittle in the extreme, it made the air hard and raw.
Joe and I moved camp up the glacier under leaden skies, skiing up an unexplored glacier through the icefall, threading ice rivers and feeling smaller and smaller the closer to the mountain we got. The glacier had never been explored before, and though the slog through the snow was less than exciting, the feeling of treading new ground, seeing vistas never seen before, kept our eyes wide, children on a school holiday.
In the centre of the glacier, a shallow hidden crevasse opened up, its lip dipping exactly a tent level deep, providing the perfect camp site, sheltered from all sides and protected from the elements. It felt like a home and would provide Joe a safe haven to photograph from while I hopefully scampered up the mountain.
After sleeping through the day, a voluminous dinner feast of fettuccine bubbled over the sides of the pot before there was even a chance to wake up properly. At midnight I left the tent, hoping to time the ascent to be on the summit plateau during the marginally warmer midday hours. The sun hid above a dense pack of low clouds that obscured the peak.
The tent receded behind me quickly, soon it was only a tiny dot of civilisation in the centre of the huge white expanse. The light was so flat only my crampons defined the ups and downs of the glacier. The hanging valley, without a human footstep, floated airily, suspended between the ridges that rose steeply into the clouds on both sides of me.
I had not time to worry about the weather and marginal conditions, the plane would be coming for us soon, it was to be up and down or not at all.
Drifted show cut away in tiny avalanches underfoot, forming monster footprints sliding down the slope onto the glacier as I headed up towards the ridge crest. Hanging ice towers loomed overhead, cascading off of the ridge above. I threaded through them, sneaking around their heights, the second ice tool coming out for the final ice cliff looming below the entrance to the ridge.
A front-point, ice tool dance ensued. It wasn’t supposed to be this steep, and getting down would be interesting. I was glad I’d sharpened my front points between climbs. But the ice was perfect, hard, crisp, not brittle, just super compact snow built up and wind blasted over the ages.
Mist rose up in a flat floor underneath, the sun shooting across its surface, the clouds spread before me as if the snow floated straight out across the clouds. The ridge stretched above, the ice, the snow and the rock in endless patterns. Ice crystals were set in the rock since the beginning of time, crystals so big they were like miniature hands in the snow, their fingers a million filigrees of white, the sun reflected through them like glass. I felt a trespasser disturbing them.
The ridge loomed ominously large as my mind worked on a section at a time, a footstep at a time. The halfway point came and went, the ridge looking as far above as below, both distances too far too think about. The climbing was hard enough to be interesting and keep me thinking, not so hard as to ever question forward movement or the descent.
How many footsteps in a kilometre of vertical, how many in three? Ice cliffs rose out of the face, unseen from below and suddenly towering large in reality. Real climbing was required, ice going blue hard, ice tools bouncing like it was steel, with a detour back onto the rock, steep but exhilarating with steps and shattered pinnacles to ascend.
Fatigue brought questions. Would the body keep taking these endless steps? The scale was too large to think about, the mind creeping off to see the body alone on the face, ant-like but slower, sitting, waiting to see if it would keep moving.
The ridge eventually slid out onto the summit plateau and wind swept the snow in rivers over the ice between my crampon points. The cold was frightening, just a change of jacket had to be thought out to the last move. Pack off, outer mittens off, pack open, climb 100 metres to warm up. Jacket out and on, mittens on, the fingers already burning with cold. Pack on, climbing, the crampons skittering on the flat but brick-hard ice. Don’t stop, don’t pause, don’t freeze. It was all so simple.
The final summit pyramid loomed in a wave of cloud, an angry grey monster whipping over the highest exposed point on the continent. The exposed summit ridge boiled in ice 150 metres above.
The only alternative was a steep face leading directly to the top, shielded from the winds. Failure was whipping through the air. Movement calmed the fears, the familiar pattern of the ice tools swinging, snow flying, points leading the feet towards the summit. A rock flew through the air, torn from the ridge above.
The summit loomed and approached, the body moving automatically.
A final footstep, a seat a foot wide on the top of Antarctica, the cold setting in immediatly, the wind suddenly dying completely, leaving a vacuum of cold air that felt colder than the wind.
The top: the continent stretched out below, the world’s loneliest continent, the highest point, no sign of humanity in sight. The mountains marched in single file to east and west. Far out on the horizon, mini-peaks rose from the ice plateau, like shadows sailing in a sea of white, cruising with the winds.
Clouds wreathed up the face below, throwing ice crystals heavenward.
The South Pole seemed visible over the horizon. The continent with no people had yielded up the best summit, the purest climb. I felt no longer myself but a piece of humanity balanced against a continent without.
I was just aware enough of my elevated condition to realise it was a very dangerous world, thoughts connected to the crampons on the ice, the ice axe at the ready. It had been a 12 hour climb to the summit – a few minutes on top and a quick photo was all that was allowed in the cold. I knew it would be a very long way down.
Automatically I turned and headed for camp.
Thighs burned on the descent, the view looking down the face and across the glacier so far below, it appeared far longer looking down than the view coming up had been. The route became steeper with my fatigue, every step placed on the ice demanding perfection, the possibility of steel-on-ice security being turned into a roller-skate ride in the changing conditions. Ice chunks broke loose, rolling and tumbling out to blow up on the glacier fall below.
The final descent to the glacier off the ridge was a leg-shaking endurance test, the points of the feet kicking into the ice, every tool carefully set as a back-up to a body overstrung and overstretched. The ice was perfect though, the points setting in like they were at home. But 3,000 vertical metres up and 2,500 down wasn’t leaving much in the legs to push with.
Hallucinations crept into the white reality, climbers appeared around me, followed me down. The clouds hummed and bells rang from behind the rocks on the ridge. It had been too far and too high for too long.
Part of me watched my body, part of me watched my mind at work, and then there was another part keeping track of everything, a new part that hadn’t been there before.
I need this I thought, I need a lot of looking after right now.
The dot of our camp finally appeared, then drew closer. Every step was hard, even the last one to the tent. Joe had tea and soup and a frozen roll left over from the Antarctic deep freeze.
Hours later, waking from the depths of the sleeping bag, barely able to remember the arrival at camp, the final descent of the face blending into dreams of the night, dreaming it was dark, waking to another endless day, the twenty-eighth day in Antarctica.
The ice continent finally, really, felt like home.
The Rolex Ridge marked, and another first ascent marked to the left which tackles the direct center of the face, completed 10 years later with teammates Chris Heintz, Intesar Haider, Peggy Foster and Robert Guthrie.
Antarctica is now more easily accessed and open every season from November – January. For mountains, the South Pole or even visiting the Penguins, you can fly with Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions from Punta Arenas, Chile.
The full story of my Seven Summits Solo project (still one to go I’m afraid!) is recounted in two books, To Everest Via Antarctica and Seven Summits Solo.
My most recent book, on Everest is Nine Lives, in English (paperback and digital) and in French, Neuf Vies – Expeditions A L’Everest, also available in paperback with photos and in a digital edition for immediate download.