It’s little over a month since we returned home, thrown back into the midst of the Christmas festivities and dealing with the realities of life and work. We haven’t really begun to process what was an incredible adventure; it feels like a distant dream. Reflecting on, and reviewing our diaries, I’ve tried to provide a more detailed account of our time in the remotest part of the world, without it becoming a chapter of a book. What we achieved as a team has yet to sink in …
As I stepped off the old Russian Ilyushin aircraft onto the blue ice runway at Union Glacier, the wind and cold air hit me hard, taking my breath away. Nothing like I’d ever experienced before. After 3 years of planning, organising and fundraising, I had to keep pinching myself to check that this was really happening. ‘Welcome to Antarctica’ said one of the ground crew. We had finally arrived after 4 hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile.
Union Glacier is a small hub of relative luxury in this vast continent, serving as gateway for adventurers and climbers alike, wishing to explore this magical place in the limited months available. We had planned to push straight on to the mountains, taking the 50-minute Twin Otter aircraft flight to Vinson Base Camp, but the weather had other ideas. The Antarctica Logistics and Expedition Staff at Union Glacier were pretty surprised the Russian pilot had landed – with poor snow contrast and visibility issues, we were lucky to be there!
We were to quickly learn that you are at the mercy of the elements in Antarctica, with patience being a key factor. We spent the next six days adjusting to the alien environment, preparing our kit, discussing the route, and taking the opportunity to explore the local area. The weeks leading up to departing the UK had been extremely busy for all of us, a blur almost, and the delay was somewhat welcomed to adjust and take stock of where we were.
Finally, on 2nd December, seven days after arriving, the clouds lifted and a notice to move within 2 hours was given from the Twin Otter pilots. The atmosphere of excitement was palpable. The 50 minute flight was simply breath-taking, taking off and heading west towards the Ellsworth Mountain range. We drank in the amazing views of pristine untouched peaks and glaciers out of every window available; it was surreal to think that no man had explored these parts. The Twin Otter landed on the snow slope by Base Camp, located at 2200m on the Branscomb Glacier. It was a dramatic descent over ice walls and ridge lines, before landing uphill on a short snowy runway. We met our ALE climbing guide Tre-C Dumais at Base Camp, a highly experienced climber from Alaska, on her fifth season working in Antarctica. Unless you join an international commercial expedition, it’s rare to be able to climb Mt Vinson unsupported without ALE leading, due to the remoteness and risks involved. ALE provide guides and logistical support to accompany small teams and Tre-C was the perfect fit for our team. We decided to capitalise on the good weather conditions, so after aquick bite to eat, and re-organisation of kit, we set off on the 6-hour climb (10km route) to Low Camp at 2700m, pulling packed sledges.
The route itself followed the glacier up and then to the left, passing under the remains of an avalanche and precarious looking seracs. You could sense the condition of the ice beneath with each step, particularly when you strayed onto a crevasse snow bridge, with a distinct change in hollowness of the sound as your feet crunched on the ice below. A pleasant, but tiring sledge pull, adjusting how to operate efficiently within these conditions. You could not avoid sweating when the sun was directly on you, even though it’s -18ºC! The sun block was constantly reapplied! Not ideal, as sweating poses many issues and risks in Antarctica.
Arriving at Low Camp, we quickly established our tent positions and ensured these would be protected by building snow walls around them. The wind is so variable in this area and it is not uncommon for winds to suddenly hit, gusting at 50-70 knots. I personally feared the potential for katabatic winds, where sudden gusts can reach 120 knots, so you have to be on your guard!
Although there is 24-hour daylight in Antarctica, Low Camp is in the shade from about midnight until 11am; a great opportunity to enjoy a much-needed lie-in the next morning. I woke at 9am to find ice crystals covering the tent walls and my outer sleeping bag completely frozen,even with the precaution of leaving a ventilation channel through the tent. I’d learnt from previous trips that anything you didn’t want to freeze overnight, including water, wet wipes, sun block, camera batteries, and clothing, needed to be stored with me in my sleeping bag, leaving little room for fitting my broad, 6’3″, frame! It was amazing the difference the sun made – once it was shining directly on the tent, temperatures went from -26ºC to a balmy +20ºC inside! After a rest day to acclimatise and re-organise our kit, we set off for High Camp at 3700m. This section of route included a steep climb up 1.2km of fixed ropes, stepping up 45 to >50 degree ice sections with crampons and ice axes. Hard going with heavy backpacks weighing over 20kg! I kept my focus upwards and tried to avoid thinking about some of the exposure we were positioned in. We pulled together as a team, taking each step at a time, almost in perfect synchrony, determined to reach High Camp before the temperatures started to drop again.
I distracted myself from the discomfort with thoughts of family and friends, and the purpose of why we were here. It undoubtedly kept the motivation going. Stunning views were another way to forget about aching legs and shoulders. Foot placement technique was key to avoiding lactic acid build up; to prevent sore leg muscles the next day, you had to focus on step placement. We arrived at High Camp after 11 hours of solid climbing, greeted by the ALE mountain ranger Wesley Bunch, an American mountain guide from Wyoming, who’d been waiting for us to arrive for 5 days. His role was to prepare and place some of the fixed lines on the route.
For the first time, I felt pretty rough during our night at High Camp with a mild headache and a racing heart, as if my brain hadn’t caught up with my body. The weather was ok the following day and we could have made a summit attempt, but I knew we needed to rest and acclimatise. Liz was feeling in a worse state than Joel and I, suffering from mild altitude sickness. The forecast that morning over the radio from Base Camp sounded good for the next day, so we jointly decided to rest and wait. By the afternoon, Liz was feeling stronger, so we re-packed our kit in excited anticipation of heading to the summit the following morning. However, that evening the elements once again decided to show us who was boss and the wind started to pick up. We woke next morning to the wind roaring around our tents, with gusts over 40 knots. Hoping the storm would eventually pass over quickly, we remained on ‘aggressive stand-by’, as Wesley put it, knowing that due to the 24-hour daylight we could set off at anytime.
However, the wind continued to pick up and the 40-50 knot (50mph) winds caused temperatures to drop below -40ºC, meaning we couldn’t be outside the tent for more than 5 minutes without risking serious cold injury. Tent fever ensued at times, it was a mental mind game of resilience. Thankfully we had one or two books to read, and I was distracted with writing a best man’s speech. After a sleepless night during which I tried to reassure Liz that the tents weren’t going to break, morale was boosted by a forecast for better weather in 2 days’ time. Fortunately, we had enough food and fuel in the emergency cache to wait it out and just hoped that the forecast was correct this time -there is still research being carried out into the Antarctic weather systems and they can be difficult to accurately predict. It’s heavily reliant on modelling with limited data and satellite imagery provided only four times a day.
We woke on Saturday 9th December to perfect conditions – the wind had finally died down and it was a benign -25ºC! After 4 days in a tent, it was a relief to get moving again. The delay had given us plenty of time to acclimatise and we felt strong and enjoyed the incredible views on the tough climb up. After thinking at times that our opportunity was slowly slipping away, it was a huge relief to start the scramble along the final ridge to reach the summit. With crystal clear conditions and little wind, it was certainly worth the wait. I had started to truly believe our moment was here; we were in touching distance of the summit.
The last few steps from the ridge line, to join Liz at the summit, are something I’ll never truly be able to describe. We were able to spend half an hour on the summit, trying to take in an unforgettable view -the vast never-ending ice landscape, pristine snowy peaks surrounding the distant polar ice cap and the curvature of the earth visible – words simply cannot do it justice. It was emotional to stand there as a team, thinking what we accomplished and how JT would have found this Hoofing! Sharing that summit with my wife Liz and great friend Joel, concluding my Seven Summits Journey, the highest mountain on each continent – it was pure joy! I was also so proud of Liz too and what this would have meant to her mum Kirsty, unbelievable. It was a very special moment to be gifted with the opportunity to stand on the top of the bottom of the world!
However, as Ed Viesturs says “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory” and the adventure wasn’t over yet. After a 10 hour climb we returned exhausted to High Camp and decided to spend another night there. Too risky to descend further, down the fixed lines as the wind was picking up. The next morning, we set out focused, but elated, and had a smooth descent back to Base Camp, motivated by the thought of a well-deserved cold beer. We believed the weather would hold out to allow the Twin Otter to return and collect us, however, the weather had other ideas. The last part of our descent down to Base Camp revealed a bank of fog had drifted in to cover the Branscomb Glacier valley, which proceeded to linger for the next three days. No plane could land due to lack of visibility and contrast conditions with the snow.
The mood was lightened upon arriving at Base Camp, by being greeted with a bottle of champagne that had been flown out especially in anticipation of our successful ascent. We savoured what had been an interesting time higher up the mountain. I was somewhat disappointed to learn we missed out on the record for spending the longest time at High Camp by 1 night, but we did set a new record for the longest ALE Vinson expedition. Every cloud.
Some of the time waiting at Base Camp was spent constructing a huge snow sculpture of letters, spelling out Vinson! Due to the delays and flight logistics, we wouldn’t return home in time for our good friend’s wedding, so a special message was crafted for them. Once the cloud lifted, we were greeted with incredible views of the ridge line and our route. It was hard to say goodbye to such an inspiring place. It’s difficult to describe the sheer scale of this region and the effect this has on you. It certainly makes you feel very small and puts life into perspective.
Back in the relative comfort of Union Glacier, we could finally take a rudimentary shower after spending nearly three weeks on the ice. However, watching the Russian Ilyushin jet land on the blue ice runway to take us back to Chile was filled with mixed emotions. Relief that we had successfully achieved our mission without injury and looking forward to seeing family and friends, but sadness to leave such an incredible place and knowing this journey was almost over; I hoped that one day we would return.
After arriving in the UK, Liz was thrown straight back into medical work and dealing with the NHS winter pressures. A month later I’m still trying to process the trip. A lot changes in over three weeks, particularly with a digital detox and how quickly life carries on. We have been completely overwhelmed by the support we have had. Even now I’m hearing from people I never met, who have followed our adventure. A huge thank you to everyone who has followed our progress, read the blogs, and donated. I’d also like to thank our friends and family, who’ve supported and encouraged us every step of the way. A special thanks to Tom Mountney and Laura Dakin, who ran the show whilst we had limited satellite comms.
Last month we achieved something we had been working hard towards for the last three years, and for me, seven years. There are countless reasons and excuses that could be used as to why this should not have been possible, but the purpose of this adventure never once left us. We overcame adversity and failure on many fronts and turned the dream into a reality. We’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished for the JTYAF and the Alzheimer’s Society, and the work with our local schools. It’s an honour to have completed the Seven Summits in memory of John, something I’m unable to put into words for this blog. Perhaps I might be tempted to write a book to do the story justice. From summiting Mount Everest with my best friend Matt Snook in May 2010, the journey continued and drew to a close in Antarctica; I feel very lucky and privileged to have had the chance to experience such a unique and precious environment.
Thank you once again for being a part of our Venture Antarctica mission and the generous donations – it has made the challenge all the more rewarding.
Until the next adventure…