I Dare you
Look around you, the fast food industry has won. Political correctness has crept ever more invasively into our society as the norm. Smart devices and electronics have consumed us. Fancy is cool and expensive is better. Where did our spirit of ‘personal best’, passion for adventure, and ‘go for it’ go? Of course, learning how to mastermind the latest iPhone or computer software is an adventure but, can you take it to the Doctor’s office with you? Internet wonderfully shows the world but, does it replace the real thing? Are we so overworked and overwhelmed by the pressures of family and life that the trees are more vivid than the forest? Where is the robustness in our kids? Reality check: we need something more than entertainment, politics, jobs, and paying the mortgage to realize the extraordinary side of ourselves. I could talk about the high rates of obesity, cancer, mental illness but we all know this picture and haven’t we grown a bit half-hearted toward them. I mean – what can we do?
One thing we can do is dream a bit bigger, and start drawing a picture in our hearts and minds about what a great life is and how we can find personal challenge that drives our passions and feeds our hopes and aspirations. If you don’t take some control over the road you follow in life ultimately you drift and years later wonder where time and opportunity went. It went nowhere but you didn’t seize the moment, realize your potential, follow your gut. We are living in a great age of mostly world peace, easy living through the exciting revolution in electronics, information technology, medical innovation, etc. but we have become lazy with setting personal goals and paying attention to the single biggest assets we have: a healthy strong body and daring mind. A mind is healthier and more creative with a strong body and by the same token the body needs that vibrant mind. A recent Facebook post said it so succinctly “Nature. Cheaper than therapy.”
Science is clear, physical activity is essential for a healthy body. It may be a cliché but we only have one life, one shot to get it right. Health is of course about body, but it is also about mind and especially spirit. And frankly, spirit may be the most important of the three. Spirit is the dynamic to help you achieve the impossible, to reach where you never expected you could go. To get up at five in the morning week after week to train to compete, to believe in yourself to overcome injury or illness through daily physical training, to attempt to climb the highest mountain in the world at 63, to start jogging at 300lbs to realize your first half-marathon. Each and every one of us has enormous capacity to dream and reach big, but it takes a decision to get started, passion will then follow, and determination will get you over the hurdle. There is no secret or special DNA we need to reach a goal, it is simply called resolve and love of life. Henry Ford once said “If you think you can do something or you think you can’t do it, you are right.”
Perhaps I have been very lucky in my life to be motivated to push my limits on so many endeavours. I have certainly failed on some, but I wasn’t crushed only inspired to try again with more vigor, experience and know how. From having a love of art and painting in my youth to travelling around the world in my twenties, to building a business in my thirties and forties and then becoming an athlete and mountaineer in my fifties and sixties. One thing I am certain of, with the possible exception of art, I had no exceptional qualities on any of those pursuits. I believe that almost everything we do in life is learned. It is about the lifestyle we choose: who we want to be, what we expect of ourselves and where we want to live and build them.
Regardless of the season, now is the perfect time to get outside and explore, to make that decision to fire up those passions to reach goals you never imagined you could be capable of. They sit just below the surface if you really want to find them. It is never too soon or too late in anyone’s life to stick your chest out knowing you are proud of yourself for having the courage to draw a line in the sand and say: It is now I will bust out of my ‘comfort zone’ and start climbing that mountain one step at a time. Look around you, there are plenty of hills to start skiing, jogging and biking. Not to mention a world of great adventure with your name on it. You can be sure of one thing: Nothing comes easy in life. But that is the beauty of it all. You get out of life what you are willing to put into it.
I Dare You to Dream Big.
Cho Oyu expedition 2008
I sort of became a mountain climber in 1969. While travelling around the world, I stumbled into Nepal and got whip-lashed by a story from a New Zealand climber who had just returned to Kathmandu from trekking about 300 miles to Everest Base Camp and back. His account so inspired me, I immediately decided to try to do it too. Alone, without mountaineering experience, not even a tent, I spent 32 days backpacking in the most spectacular mountains on Earth, the Himalayas, and succeeded to make it up the Khumbu Glacier to the base of Everest at about 19,000’.
Many years later in 2008, after having climbed some of the highest mountains in South America, North America and Europe, I set my sights to return to where it had begun, the Himalayas and an 8000m mountain. There are only 14 mountains in the world over 8000m, and it is the ultimate for any mountain climber to attempt one. No one knows how they will do at such high-altitude and extreme conditions.
I left Montreal on the 29thAugust 2008 and arrived several flights later in Kathmandu, Nepal on the 31stwhere I met my team of nine international climbers. Our plans were to climb Cho Oyu from Tibet’s north side and to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa where we would begin our overland journey to the mountain. Since the summer’s Olympics in Beijing, China had closed the Tibet border to everyone. After arriving in Kathmandu, the Chinese embassy told us to leave our passports with them for 5 days and that maybe we would be granted our visa’s to cross into Tibet en route direct to the mountain. To fill-in time, we flew to Pokhara for 4 days of hiking in the Annapurna Hill District. Saturday, September 5thwe were on our way overland to the Tibet border and Cho Oyu. The first night we stayed in the border town of Zhangmu just inside Tibet. Next day our small bus slowly zigzagged for hours up a very winding, often washed-out mountainous dirt road. We bounced over rock fall, crossed rushing mountain streams, peered-down within inches of thousand foot cliffs, and banged our heads on the roof of the jolting bus. Finally we arrived in the dusty, windy one street town of Nyalam, 12,000’, high on the perimeter of the Tibetan plateau.
After two nights of acclimatizing and hiking, we pushed on over this vast, elevated plain and crossed Lalunga-la (pass) at 5050m heading toward Tingri. Tibet is the highest region on Earth and is commonly referred to as the “Roof of the World”. We ambled along this barren hilly landscape devoid of much visible life, occasionally passing a small yet colorful walled-in village that would usually sit next to a cold glaciated stream or river.
The town of Tingri, situated at over 14,000’, overlooks a sweeping broad plain bordered by the great Himalayan peaks. Old and new customs and lifestyles mingle seamlessly in what appears like an old wild western Tibetan town. Packs of dogs yelp all night long. Pigs and livestock roam at will. Butchered goat carcasses hang for sale in open stalls on the street. Horse drawn wagons stand beside modern motorcycles in the dusty, unpaved road. We get our first full views of the towering snowy giants of Cho Oyu and Everest, seemingly so near now. It is a wake-up call that we are almost there.
The bus drops us off far up the broad barren river valley at a desolate Chinese military post we call Base Camp, 16,500’. Manned by kids in military uniform, a red flag hangs near a Chinese/ Tibetan expedition group also attempting Cho Oyu. Yaks grazing nearby on very marginal pickings, are waiting to porter all our gear and provisions up to Advanced Base Camp. We leave a few minor clothes behind and hike further up this bleak moonscape to interim camp, then continue up over long glacier moraine ridges, heaped-up rock hills, always moving parallel to a several kilometer-wide winding glacier until we arrive at ABC in light snow and gray visibility.
Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 18,500 feet sits on loose rock-fall high above the twisted and choked-up Nangpa Glacier, and in the long mighty shadow of Cho Oyu, the ‘Turquoise Goddess’. Directly opposite us lies Nangpa-la pass, the traditional trading route between Nepal and Tibet. For several hundred years Tibetan and Sherpa porters have struggled over this high pass trading salt and barley with each other. Recently, it has also become an escape route for Tibetan refugees and on September 30, 2006 the Chinese Border Security Police shot and killed 2 unarmed Tibetan pilgrims attempting to leave Tibet, 18 others went missing and are presumed dead. The victims were shot from a considerable distance by the Security Police as they moved slowly away through chest-high snow. In the early morning when the sun is rising over the summit of Cho Oyu, its rays create an amazingly picturesque canvas of long curved shadows over Nangpa-la that are so beautifully framed by the shaded and brightly reflecting mountains on either side.
After establishing ourselves at ABC, the first item of business was to perform the important ‘Puja’ ceremony. We have a team of Sherpa’s and Tibetans coordinating and assisting our expedition, and according to Buddhist tradition and faith, we must request approval from the Mountain Goddess to climb Cho Oyu. Before a man-made altar, with Buddhist prayer flags streaming out in all directions, our technical climbing gear placed at its base, we chant for hours asking the ‘Turquoise Goddess’ to bless and protect us up high. Ringsing, our cook assistant who is also a Lama, performs the colorful and captivating ceremony. It is a moment and experience never to be forgotten.
Using ABC as home base for the next month, we will gradually be acclimatizing to the high-altitude here (18,500’) and by progressively climbing higher on the mountain, we will further increase our red blood cells. The key is the body needs time to adapt to low oxygen to avoid hypoxia and acute mountain sickness. High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) are a climber’s worst nightmare since they can rob him very quickly of the summit and his life. Generally, there is a 3% loss of air pressure per thousand foot gain in altitude. Effectively, at ABC we have only 50% of oxygen that is available at sea level and on the summit at 27,000’ there will be only about 25% or less oxygen. The sun’s radiation is another serious issue as well.
September 18 we left ABC at 8am on our first rotation to Camp 1. Light snow was falling and the winds gusty. Falling rock from adjacent mountains cover most of the glacier as we headed up its flank. Huge penitentes, many 5 to 10 stories tall, suddenly appeared like ancient frozen behemoths in the foggy, misty conditions. After hours of crossing up and down over rocky ridges and circumventing icy obstacles, we came to the foot of a steep scree slope. After a brief break we started climbing this loose rocky hill, two steps up, slipping one down. Finally, about 1500’ up and near C1 in strong winds, we returned back down to ABC.
Although a thousand miles away, huge storms brewing in the Bay of Bengal regularly slam Cho Oyu with hurricane force winds. From ABC, we would regularly witness the upper reaches of the mountain in absolute chaos. Sitting on the north, leeward side we were spared much heavy snow. Our route above Camp 2 avalanched early in September, thus making it safer before we tackled it. However, on our next 2 rotations up to C1 and attempting C2, we were forced to retreat by these very gale force winds. Several other expeditions at C1 and C2 literally lost over 30 of their bullet-proof tents, being shredded or physically blown off the mountain. We were experiencing the full consequences of climbing an 8000m mountain.
October 4, Nathan and I climb together. Starting right out of C2 is a somewhat steep 450slope. The air is thin, the views magnificent. Just above C2 you can see both camps below and far to the right following the arcing flow of the glacier, ABC. We both feel lethargic. About 1500’ above camp, there is a long ridge I hope high camp is situated. I have needed a little psychology today to inch myself up one step at a time. Just below the ridge it begins to snow heavily and visibility is cut sharply. On the ridge we realize C3 is still somewhat higher. There is already about a foot of new snow on the ground. We push up the last few hundred feet to C3 (25,000’) and arrive around 3:30pm. We have only about 7 hours to rest and eat before striking out in the dead of night for the summit.
I tent with Mike Hamill and Greg Vernovage. We start using supplemental oxygen for the first time to keep our bodies warm and charged for the climb. Packed three to a two-man tent, resting is the best one can do. At 10pm, I light my stove to boil water and prepare porridge. About 11:30pm, after the difficult task of putting on boots and crampons in this extreme cold, I am the last one out of camp. Right above camp begins the near vertical rock face called the ‘Yellow Band’. In the absolute dark of night, with only a small headlight as your visual compass, but with the millions of stars above keeping you company, you anxiously climb focusing on every detail. This is an altitude with so little oxygen that it is known as the ‘death zone’. Your body is physically breaking down and dying.
Over the years I have personally observed that our minds at high-altitude work like a pyramid. The more extreme and difficult the environment, the more focused we are on basic survival. You forget about fingers and toes and concentrate only on your next step, and staying alive. It must be in your arsenal of experience to remember, from time to time, to check the feelings in your extremities.
I was climbing with Tseten Gyurme, a Tibetan who had fixed the lines to the top of Everest for the Tibetan/ Chinese team that carried the Olympic Torch to the summit in early May, 2008. He is an amazingly strong climber and he kept his eyes on me in case I messed up. I overheard that Al Schumer had decided to return to C3. We passed several other members of our team. Over the years I usually get a runny nose in cold temperatures. It is not normally a problem since I generally have a hanky nearby or use a more elementary method. Today however, it was a much more miserable dilemma. I was wearing an oxygen mask. It was like Chinese water torture. It kept dripping and dripping and there was no easy way to deal with it. Somehow, psychologically, I told myself that this was the most important climb of my life and I would not let a little snot stop me. It was mind over matter and I won. We pushed on up in the dark. We had this whole great mountain to ourselves. I had no idea of time. I felt energized on the oxygen. I felt a serenity I have never known before in my life.
The night seemed to pass so quickly. I suddenly realized that it was getting light. The slope had begun to mellow considerably. The huge tooth just below the summit was now so near. We were almost there. Suddenly the ‘divine shadow’ of Cho Oyu appeared in the distant sky above the peaks. I knew I was going to make it. Mike Hamill was just in front of me. We slowly rounded the crest and saw the rising sun just edging up behind Mount Everest and Lhotse. Nathan Dolbeare had arrived first, followed by Karel Masek and Chris Bergum. We stood there in awe. We hugged. We took pictures. We all tried to absorb this momentous moment.
In the minus 400temperature, with a light wind rising up the mountain from the west side twirling the snow into miniature tornadoes, I managed only a few photos before my camera batteries froze. I had really wanted to do a short video tribute to my aging mother and to the Tibetan people, but it was not possible. Standing there, on the ‘roof of the world’, probably higher than any other human being at that moment, I stood fixated with my mind numb in awe. So many weeks on the mountain, so many years of training, reaching a goal that sometimes seemed impossible. This moment would be way to short.
Without fully acclimatizing as we had wished, not being able to get to or sleep at C2 over the last several weeks, and also being forced to act before the Jet Stream started to return south over the mountains, we had to make a decision. We received a weather report that there would be a narrow 3 day window of opportunity with low winds. October 2ndwe would leave for the top.
I prepared my pack for our summit bid. An error of judgment at this point can cost you the summit and/ or your life. Seven upper layers, five lower, double plastic boots with overboots, goggles, glacier glasses, multi-layer mitts and gloves, balaclava, tuques, medical bag, crampons, ice ax, pee bottle, water bottles, and very important- food. You can burn 5,000 to 10,000 calories a day. You need to eat, period. Also, a lot of sun protection; at this altitude with so little ozone, you will be burned. Prepare.
Thursday, October 2ndafter breakfast, we took a group photo and I made my ‘peace’ with the ‘Turquoise Goddess’. Five grueling days lay ahead. Our day of reckoning was here. The Chinese/ Tibetans, Koreans and another international group were already a day or two in front of us. It was sunny. We were hyped.
First night at C1. Mike Chapman feels unwell at daybreak and decides to go down. Climbing between C1 and C2 is tough and technical. Negotiating several ice cliffs, backing-up your protection, staying alert and very focused. Himalayan climbing is climbing alone, not roped-up as a team. There are crevasses but they are usually very large and visible. Anyways, roped-up is usually too dangerous on the steeps. It is a 9+ hour day to C2, (23,622’). We are now above the clouds, above almost every other mountain in view. At C2 we are sitting on about 18 feet of recently avalanched ice.
Before I knew it, I was on my way down. Did I leave to soon? Christ, stay focused, descending is the most deadly part. I struggled to get my crampon points to bite the near vertical rock down-climbing through the Yellow Band. At C3 I packed-up and was the 1stone out to C2. At C2, we all gathered to rest for awhile and snack. We decided we would continue down to C1 to sleep. Just below C2, crossing a steep slope and misjudging the snow my left foot found air and I fell maybe 30’. Fortunately, I had attached protection and the rope held my fall. Being very steep with soft new snow, I had to angle side-slope to get back on track. The first rappel was over blue ice and a bergschrund (crevasse). The 2ndrappel was over a sheer 15+ story drop. My heart raced so fast I had to stop to rest for a minute half way down. Only later did I hear that a Slovenian climber, Miha Valic, had fallen exactly here yesterday and died. I finally got into camp 1 around 5pm after a 17 hour day.
News soon surfaced that 2 climbers had died and another had fallen but survived. Guy Leveille, a Canadian policeman from Winnipeg turned around 60m from the summit exhausted. He was climbing with the FTA Team led by Stu Remensnyder. Apparently Stu, after summiting had found Guy on his way down and spent the next 40 hours with him above 7500m trying to help get him down. Guy fell and was gone, Stu barely made it back to camp himself. Another climber had to be resuscitated with CPR after collapsing. Miha Valic, a Slovenian guide fell in the ropes on rappelling the icefall above C1, landed on his head and died. He was a great climber who succeeded to climb 82 of the 4,000m peaks in the Alps in only 102 days in early 2007. It is thought he was suffering from HAPE. When I got to C1 at 5pm, Miha was already wrapped-up and laying just outside of camp. Both deaths were a great tragedy.
We arrived back at ABC late morning on the 6thOctober exhausted but content after 5 long days. We had luckily managed to summit before the Jet Stream hit. Coming down below C1 I saw behind me sitting right above Cho Oyu a large Lenticular Cloud, which usually means very powerful winds circling the peak. We were actually the last ones to summit for the season. Next day the yaks arrived to carry out all our gear and the rest of the supplies and garbage. It was finally great to be getting off the mountain and going back home to our families and lives. A washed-out road delayed our return by a day. We managed to get back to Kathmandu at night October 9th, and the following morning I called home and received bad news from Rosanna that my Mum had passed away September 29th.
It was really strange because on the 29thI had repeatedly tried calling home but was unable to make a connection using the SAT phone. I did manage to reach her October 1st, the day before we left ABC for the summit. I had asked her about Mum but she was reluctant to say much. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t expect that. I very much appreciate that she held back the heartbreaking news. I would not have been able to do anything and I definitely needed all of my energy and concentration for the mountain. This essay and my summit is dedicated to my mother; Kathleen Armstrong Stewart Fairhurst, 95. Besides being a very loving mother, she was a real trouper.
I have a great deal of respect for every member of my team. Nathan Dolbeare, Louis Carstens, Paul Garry, Karel Masek, Mike Chapman, Al Schumer, Chris Bergum, Greg Vernovage, Mike Hamill.
EVEREST Final Update (Expedition 2010)
It has taken me a little longer than expected to summarize my Everest adventure. Returning home after more than 2 months away to family and business, not to mention trying to organize all the photos and videos from the climb, has been rather demanding in itself.
The Everest challenge was everything and more than my original expectations. Heading back up the Khumbu Valley after 40 years (December 1969) and especially arriving in Namche Bazaar, was a moving moment for me. That original experience of trekking to Everest Base Camp alone 40 years ago and having a dream, even if it was in a distant recess of my mind, to go back and climb this great mountain some day, was a fulfilling and huge life experience. It made me realize that I am exactly the same guy now as I was then, needing adventure, needing challenges, living life with passion. I had no idea if I would make it, but I knew that nothing, at least under my control, would stop me from giving it my best shot. There are some things in life you just have to do.
The climb itself was unique. The time duration was long. Everest Base Camp is a small international community that is a ‘one of a kind’ in the world. I think there is no other comparison to any other sport or adventure that resembles those 2 months every year so many diverse people assemble with one purpose to test themselves and risk everything on this Himalayan icon of mountaineering. The friendship one develops spending literally day and night together with a small group who depend on each other for support and safety. The absolute decisiveness and clarity of mind one must have to hang in there and succeed. The significant cost involved that one is prepared to spend just to have a ‘go’ at it.
The rewards are many. Climbing through the dangerous Ice Fall crossing ladders and crevasses teaches managing fear. Getting up at 2am in the cold, day after day, teaches diligence and strength of character. The long hours of physical endurance teaches fortitude and determination. The passion to want to do it at all teaches spirit and love of life. The beauty, albeit stark, teaches appreciation of life at the extreme end.
Hemingway once said something like this: there are only 2 sports in the world – race car driving and mountaineering, and everything else is entertainment. Last week having dinner with my good friend Martin Husar who formerly was a race car driver in Europe, asked me if I had experienced any truly profound life moments climbing Everest. He had a serious crash in France some years ago and wondered how my recent scary moment descending the Hillary Step may have impacted me. Certainly, over time and through the filters of life, the hues in your personality must get richer. Our experiences either weaken us or strengthen us. I think the more we experiment, attempt, ‘go for’, especially when we dare our limits, broaden our characters more than we can imagine. Picasso late in his career had a period where he painted like a child, yet no child could paint or fathom to the depths of a Picasso. I feel stronger psychologically as a result of all parts of this Everest challenge.
During the climb and sending the updates, I avoided mention of deaths and casualties. At camp 2 some of my team discovered a body emerging from the glacier. A Russian died on Lhotse. At least 3 more deaths occurred on the north side. A lady fell into a crevasse in the Ice Fall and broke her back. The medical tent at Base Camp was usually very busy. I am pointing out this simply because it is the reality of an Everest season. The risks are clear. I read some time ago that 1 in 4 climbers over 60 who have summited Everest will die descending.
Some funny and not so funny moments. Getting a hemorrhoid on our last rotation before our summit bid and wondering how I would explain not summiting because of it. Leaving Base Camp at 2am on our final six day summit push and near the bottom of the Ice Fall breaking through some thin ice up to my knees. I had to remove my plastic boots and pour out the ice cold water and climb the rest of the night up to C1 with cold soggy feet. High on the mountain on summit day and desperate to pee wearing down pants that had no zipper and a waist harness leaving no access, but really having to find a way. Seeing a sparrow size bird alive on Everest’s summit. Waking up the morning after summiting with my face all puffed-up from peripheral edema (probably lack of oxygen during the night) and my finger black from frostbite.
I have been asked repeatedly over the years how I manage to suffer and endure these climbs. The simple answer is ‘one step in front of the nextwill get you to the top’.
Last, I was very lucky to be part of such a strong, experienced and focused team. We encouraged and supported each other. That all of us were able to summit is an extraordinary occurrence and achievement on such a difficult mountain as Everest. My congratulations again to: Mike Hamill, Eben Reckord, Louis Carstens, Sandhosh Kumar, Jason Vandalen, Tim Igo and Mayk Schega.
ANTARCTICA - WOW, what an Awesome World!
January 5, 2009, I received an email from Phil Ershler at IMG offering me to join an expedition to climb Mount Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica. I was to replace another climber who was unable to go. The only trouble was – I had to leave in 36 hours. IMPOSSIBLE!!! Well just maybe… I’m coming.
I have wanted to go to the Arctic and Antarctic for a long time. It is just so hard and expensive to get there. The notion of being in such an inhospitable and extreme climate and landscape has always appealed to me. So few people have ever ventured there. It has so much history and culture of extreme survival and exploration.
I had just got back from climbing Cho Oyu in Tibet last September & October, and I had frankly been very lazy with my training. Was I fit enough to climb Vinson at 4897m (16,067ft) in extreme cold?
The Vinson Massif is at 78olatitude and only 1190km (700 miles) from the South Pole. It is in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains. It is also one of the Seven Summits being the highest on the icecap continent. Getting there is difficult and expensive. You need to fly to the most southern tip of Chile – Punta Arenas – then cross your fingers and wait for good weather at both ends before boarding a Russian-built cargo plane, an Ilyushin, to fly you almost 5 hours across the Antarctic Ocean to a desolate, windswept place called Patriot Hills. This place is well chosen to land the Ilyushin because it has a naturally formed runway. Crosswinds descend over the Patriot’s leeward side creating a perfectly flat and icy landing strip parallel to the hills. The big problem is the winds need to be very low before the ‘Big Bird’ can land.
On-call to fly anytime, we get word after 2 ½ days to prepare to leave in 1 hour. It is Monday at 9pm, January 12. We board the Ilyushin decked out in our mountaineering gear – double plastic boots, down pants and parkas, many layers – and one duffel bag full of crampons, ice ax, harness, glacier goggles, food, tents, etc. We step into a big open cargo hold without windows, with some seats, and full of supplies and gear. Thirty-seven adventurers from all over the world to challenge themselves to ski to the South Pole, to climb Vinson, retrace Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 epic of endurance, etc. I am captivated by the rare abundant energy and circumstance emanating in that cargo hold. I have never experienced anything like this before. This is an adventure of a lifetime.
My team is multi-national. Two Czechs, 1 Mexican, 1 German, 5 Americans and myself, Canadian. We are all pumped. We land at Patriot hills at 3 am. It is sunny and bitterly cold. We eat in the Camp dining tent and put up our own 2 man tents and sleep to 11 am. At 1:30 pm we are packed and climbing into a Twin Otter en route to Vinson base-camp about 1 hour away. Don’t ask me about the views- just look at the pictures. Simply marvelous and pristine.
The Sentinel Range stretches for more than 130 km (80 miles) and is drawn up like pieces on a chessboard against the edge of the greatest sweep of ice in the world – a vast barren dry desert plain, bigger than North America. Antarctica is the coldest, most windswept continent on Earth. Its mean altitude of 2290m (7,500ft) is three times greater than that of any other landmass, and it holds 90 % of the world’s ice, which at its deepest lies up to 4776m (15,700ft) thick. This ice covers the whole continent – only a few mountain tops poke through it. Winds that blow normally at 10-15 knots, can often reach up to 100 knots. And now, during the Antarctic summer when there are 24 hours of daylight, the sun simply rotates in the sky 360o just above the horizon.
At about 2:30 pm we land on the Branscomb Glacier at 2100m (6900 ft) and make camp. Next morning we saddle up the sleds and haul up to intermediate camp, cache and return to base-camp for the 2nd night. Thursday morning the 15th January, again we load-up all the sleds with the rest of our gear and provisions, pick-up our upper cache, and move to camp 1 at 2700m (8800ft). It is situated on a broad flat plateau covered in sastrugi – furrows or irregularities formed on a snow surface by the wind. We set up our camp and saw out ice blocks from the surface to build walls around our tents in case the weather gets nasty. Friday, we load up backpacks with gear and provisions we need at high camp and climb a fairly steep headwall on fixed ropes for about 1200m (4000ft) and cache at a rocky outcrop, then drop back down to C1 for the night. Saturday is a rest day.
Sunday we pack up camp and climb up the headwall again to our cache, load up and continue climbing up to a small flat patch thousands of feet directly above our lower camp with outrageous views of Mount Shinn on our right and far below the broad white desert that seems to go to infinity. My breath is taken away. This is living. Whatever happens tomorrow on our summit push, I feel very lucky to be here.
Monday, 19th January, 7:45 am we rope up in 2 teams of three and 1 of four. The weather is perfect, sunny and warm. We head out of high camp on a long curving slope until finally over a rise Vinson towers in the distance. It is still kilometers away and yet you feel you can run to it. We are in the broad valley of the massif, the intense reflection of the sun on the glacier is unnaturally overheating us in this high altitude polar world. I am supposed to be wearing everything I brought including down, yet I have on only two layers. There is barely any wind. It is so quiet, so peaceful.
We push on hour after hour. At 3 pm, we are just below the final long ridge to the summit. The mountain had looked rounded from below, but now it has become one of the most beautiful summits and ridges I have ever seen. You have to snake up and down and around over rock outcrops and icy ledges to advance forward. This is the fun part. We are so close.
We are finally standing on a small tabletop summit. It is rocky, icy and corniced. We all made it. It is 4 pm, January 19th, 2009. We hug, take group photos, laugh, congratulate. We have made it to the top of this incredible continent. The views have just got even better. It is probably more than minus 40oC with the 5 to 10-knot wind-chill. Yet in this dry cold, it does not feel it. We have not only climbed a very special mountain, but this is also Antarctica – the most unknown and untouched land on the planet. We are very privileged. I want this moment to last forever.
On the long descent back to high camp I got lost in my thoughts about this extraordinary trip and climb. It is definitely not one of the most spectacular and difficult mountains I have climbed. But the mountain is only one part of this great experience. Being here in a land so few have traveled or spoiled. Making your own tracts in the snow. Standing on ice a hundred thousand years old. Sleeping in daylight 24 hours long. Flying in the open cargo hold of the Ilyushin with so many other excited souls. This is what life is about. This will go down as one of my most treasured adventures.
Our luck held with the weather. Back at base-camp on Tuesday, there was a heavy cloud cover. No planes could fly. The next morning the skies were perfectly clear. The Twin Otter was coming for us. At Patriot Hills, the news was good and bad. The Ilyushin may leave Punta Arenas at 3 pm if the winds decreased a bit more here, but if not, there was a large bank of clouds moving in and we would be stuck here at least for days. At 3 pm we heard that ‘Big Bird’ was in the air. What a sigh. At 9:30 pm we took off probably forever leaving this remarkable land behind. The trip may be over but it will never be forgotten.
Team members: Dan Garst, American; Mayk Schega, German; Mike Boaz, American; Milos Burysek, Czech; Petr Leidl, Czech; Walt Elrod, American; Moises Nava, Mexican; & myself Theodore Fairhurst, Canadian.
Special acknowledgment to guides: Mike Hamill, American; & Greg Vernovage, American.
Mike has a third sense in the mountains. I have known him for years and he has an uncanny ability to pull off the right moment for summit day. But more importantly, I trust his mountain judgment totally.
Greg has a committed determination to make you succeed. Even though he won a gold medal as a ‘player’ of beach volleyball at Sydney, his eyes shine when he reflects back as a ‘coach’ of the game. He brings that same energy to mountaineering.
Special gratitude to IMG: Phil Ershler & Eric Simonson for their leadership.
Scotland coast to coast
Wow, just back from another great challenge: mountain biking coast to coast across the Highlands and mountains of Scotland. Marc-Antoine and I met our team (predetermined) at the train station in Aberdeen Saturday morning 22nd August at 11 AM. Our guide Mark Cox from Wilderness Scotland got us sorted out and shuttled the group just out of town to a lighthouse and huge red ‘foghorn’ above the lapping waves of the North Sea to begin our adventure across hills and mountains, single track and double, bog, river beds, glacier valleys, rock, root, sand and shrub, and some connecting roads, to the most western point on the mainland of Britain; Ardnamurchan Point.
Day 1 we followed the Royal Deeside, the route of the old railway line built for Queen Victoria. We then climbed up into the hills and descended some decent singletrack to Glen Tanar, and on to the village of Dinnet just inside Cairngorms National Park(64km).
Day 2 we started on some cool singletrack on the Deeside through birch and pine forest. From Ballater, the route climbs into the heart of the Cairngorms and through Glens Gairn and Avon. This is a beautiful wild country and we continued climbing to Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands (60km).
Day 3 was my absolute favorite but the most difficult day of our trip. We started in rain climbing up some back roads winding up to pastures and grazing fields to a rocky snaking river bed that we continually crossed that led to a steep double-track that rose to a hilltop with stunning views of rolling hills and long valleys. We dropped down to another river crossing, and then spent the next few hours climbing, dropping or flat out on the best singletrack I have ever been on. It was rocky surrounded by Heather, earth, and roots choked by shrubs, it snaked and surprized you at every turn. We crossed barren exposed countryside and beautiful ancient forests to the village of Newtonmore (80km).
Day 4we followed an old military road into Laggan Wolftrax – one of Scotland’s best mountain bike trail centers. Next, we head up into a remote glacial valley that passes through the heart of the mountains on double and single track which leads us into the West Highlands. We spend the night in Spean Bridge (64km).
Day 5 we follow a man-made canal to Fort William where we take a short ferry ride across Loch Linnhe and arrive on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. We then head south and west to ride through (what they call) “one of the Highlands finest glens – remote, wild and dramatic.” We follow the shores of Loch Shiel to the historic village of Glenfinnan and then charge up and down a dirt road bordering this narrow 30 km long loch to a ‘middle of nowhere’ wharf where the coolest ferry piloted by an even more cool captain suddenly arrives to collect 9 weary but happy ‘crazy’ bikers. We motor up the extraordinarily beautiful Loch Shiel to Acharacle (60km).
Day 6 was another truly awesome day as we headed past a sandy inlet straight up the double-track into the hills to some of the most challenging singletrack of the entire trip. We had breathtaking views of Skye, Outer Hebrides and the Small Isles. It was a bit cold, windy and rainy but that added substance and character to the remarkable exposed and astonishing landscape. I was in ‘seventh heaven’ on those rocky, slanted, wet singletracks cramped full of scrubs and low lying bushes. The views of the ocean and layered distant hills, the smell of pure misty air, the thrilling apprehension of the gang mountain biking on the real stuff we had come all this way for, was a pure unabashed delight (52km).
Finally we pushed on following the coastline and eventually went inland climbing and descending through some villages on road to an epic finish at Ardnamurchan Point – the most westerly point on the UK mainland.
A vital part of any challenge or expedition is the team – or more specifically the team dynamic. Over the years I have experienced many different types of teams and of durations of 2 to 65 days. When a team gels it is magic. It is fun, inspiring, and productive.
Mostly unknown to each other, diversified from New Zealand to Spain to Canada, we rolled right into the spirit from day 1. We knew ‘why we were there’ and that we were going to have a good time. We certainly did and now it is called the ‘whiskey coast to coast mountain run’.
Team:Guide and mentor extraordinaire Mark Cox; Mark Leadbitter, New Zealand; Marc-Antoine Laporte, Canada; Shelagh Munday, Scotland; Jose Luis Fernandez, Spain; Max Cadonna, Italy; William Neville, England; Craig Little, Scotland; Theodore Fairhurst, Canada.
Back-up, bike repair and support: Paul McCaffrey
Wilderness Scotland organized and delivered an excellent program managing logistics to a tee. Cheers.
BIKING across the ALPS south to north from Lago di Garda
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Rafting the Tuolumne River, California
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Esprit de corps foundation
December 1 2013
I have the honour and good fortune to serve as a director on Esprit de Corps Foundation in Montreal. We have a program to help struggling working single family parents reach their goal of hiking up Mount Washington in New Hampshire in blustery winter conditions. I have immensely enjoyed helping and being a team member on two such groups March 8-10 2013 and November 29-30, Dec 1 2013. Although they are trained weekly by Esprit de Corp for 4 months, this challenge is way out of their ‘confort zone’ in terms of mountain experience, physical and psychological difficulty in cold icy conditions. They have shown amazing inner strength and fortitude as a team and individually and I believe have reached a new plateau in their lives.
April 6, 2015 ·
Proud to have climbed Mount Washington Saturday April 3 & 4 with Foundation Esprit de Corps Single Parent program Team Cohort 9. Hurricane force winds 75-100mph (120-150km) forced us to turn around just before the summit. The team showed such strength of will and determination under very difficult conditions and they are a brilliant example and inspiration to their kids and families alike. Bravo.