Fairhurst’s Caper

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We pull up to a sandy beach at 3:30 in the afternoon June 8 2013. Our 2nd day rafting down the Tuolumne River in California, just outside the limits of Yosemite National Park. It is a 110 degrees and the sun is in baking mode. We have been running rapids all day – class 5 first thing this morning and everything else in between since. We found our spit of sand to camp the night but I feel restless.

Directly opposite us across the river is a somewhat steep, rocky, barren sun-drenched mountain that is enticing me to climb. On its false summit is a sizable rocky outcrop that appears to have a magnificent view of the Tuolumne River and its valley both east and west. I search out a line that I think I could climb up and down in about 2 1/2 hours. Lacking common sense, I am reminded of the blasting heat, still I decide to ‘go for it’.

Hal tells me to bring a second liter of water but I don’t listen and strike off with 1 liter, a small pack, headlight and jacket. I intend to be back for hors d’oeuvres before dinner and certainly long before dark. It is 4:30pm as I head up this unnamed mountain. The going is good but I notice the earth is quite sandy, super dry and crumbly. Only dead straw-like weeds have grown on this sun-baked slope and there is no root system to hold it all together. This is rattlesnake country and I tell myself to beware every step. I make good progress and foolishly get sucked-in to a new line straight up the mountain instead of my original traverse.

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Sometime after half way up I am starting to doubt my direct route to the summit. It has got a lot steeper to about 55° and the ground even more unstable. Fortunately on the rocky sections I can make fast progress because the footings are solid and there are many hand-holds, but elsewhere the ground breaks up underfoot. I soon realize I need to conserve my water realizing ¾ is already gone.

I am now probably 2/3rd up and I can clearly see the summit rock. However, I realize I’m in trouble. The slope is nearly 60° and I am definitely dehydrated. It has become way too dangerous to down climb on this sandy soil since any slide would be unstoppable to the river hundreds of feet below. I see a lot of what I imagine to be rattlesnake dens. I need to use my bare hands grabbing earth full of thorns to move up. I am horribly dehydrated and my mouth feels like the Sahara desert. The sun is still belting down hard. I can feel my heart racing to pump thick blood through my veins. I need to calculate every step to stay alive. One miss-step and I am gone.

At about 7/8’s up I see what appears to be a great line to a traverse left under the rocky summit outcrop and then on a steep but manageable ridge to the top. Several times in the last ½ hour I’ve found myself on dicey sections partially trapped but always maneuvered somehow to figure a way out. I was already jaded enough to know picking a line can be deceiving and you better get it right because down climbing is no-go. Perhaps blurred by dehydration, 110° F heat, approaching darkness, this line looked right and fast. I tediously scrambled up a short earthy section to a narrow ridge expecting to traverse left to solid rock and my safe final passage to the upper easy ridge. To my wretched astonishment, the 1st four feet of the ledge traversing over to rock was only 4 to 5 inches wide on unsupportable earth. After that it was about a foot wide and likely ok. I had to plant a foot on the sandy earth to cross but the risk was outrageously high. What else? On my right hugging the rock wall I could squeeze up a narrow section to a 90° slab. If I could find hand-holds I could possibly get one foot up about 2 ½ feet onto some rock and then pull myself up and over the top to a flatter section. Four times I tried but I lacked one extra rock hold to twist myself up and over. There was only flakey earth that pulled away by the handful.

I dropped back down to the ledge and wedged myself behind a protrusion of rock to stay safe. I saw no way out. I would have to spent the night here and hope for helicopter rescue tomorrow. I was trapped. I was dehydrated. I was overheated. I had to think straight and focus. At least the sun was going down. In all my climbing and outdoor adventures over the years, I have never needed rescue. It was not a happy moment.

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All of a sudden I saw the obvious. There was a 3rd angle. Not left, not right, but in the middle. In my clouded judgement I simply didn’t see it. What a relief. I got up, over and to the summit. I figured the safest way down was on the north side of the mountain that had trees. There was perhaps another half hour or so of daylight so I hurriedly tried to find a way down. It was really steep but I could hold on to the branches and trunks and scramble down. The lower I got the more vines and thick vegetation I needed to push through. I knew I was encountering poison oak, but I had no option. You only saw it after the fact. This side of the mountain was the total opposite of the other barren desert sun-baked side.

I reached the river bank in the dark. I could hear its roar as I approached. It was such a relief. I immediately washed my arms and shirt to remove any poison oak oil. It felt so good and cool. I thought my ordeal was practically over.

I followed up the river in the direction of camp. The last bend before arriving opposite camp was a rock wall blocking passage. The strong current of the river passed right up to it. In the dark there seemed no way around. I decided to try climbing up and over and around to get back to the shore. The higher I got the steeper it became and once again I was on this mushy sandy earth. In the black darkness I just could not see where it started and ended. Going forward or going back was risky, but going back at least I already knew. Again I was resolved to spend the night, but this time in a safer and more comfortable setting on the shoreline.

At last, I decided to try one last thing to get around the wall by plunging into the river current and finding any rock handholds for balance. It worked and the distance around the wall was less than I had expected. Soon Jordan met me with the raft and ferried me back over the river to camp. Wow, water (drinking liters of it) food, a beer, campfire, friends, tent. It was 10:30pm, 6 hours later, a little discombobulated but alive and ready to sleep it off.

Fairhurst's Caper

Tuolumne River Gorge
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Friends: Hal Myers, Steve Sideroff, Al Darbonne, Jordan: guide.

PS: Poison Oak reaction 9 days later.

Fairhurst’s Caper termed by Huntington Beach friend John Dahlem

 

Biking Across the Alps

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Lago di Garda (Italy) to Bludenz (Austria)

 

When my windsurfing buddy Hartmut Duerholt from Karlsruhe, Germany invited me to bike south to north across the Alps with him to celebrate his 70th birthday, little did I know what I was getting myself into. Granted, I do hate road biking but love mountain biking – nevertheless the chance to see the Alps by pedal power overcame my sane senses. I’m fit ‘right’. Those high mountain passes can’t be that bad, ‘can they’?

Hartmut may be 70, but try catching him on a windsurfer. Now I can frankly confess, try catching him climbing up a 1800 metre mountain pass. The man has carbon fibre for muscles. His heart rate averages 30 beats per minute lower than mine, and my resting heart rate is 50. What the hell? He is a machine!

Rosanna and I flew into Milan on the 28th September and immediately went to Lake Garda just south of the Italian Alps to meet Hartmut and Brigitte. After a brief couple of days of R & R, October 2 we biked out of Limone sur Garda/ Riva and headed up – way up. The road zigzagged and snaked up forever over beautiful countryside and through tiny ancient villages to a pass that never seemed to come. But finally success and relief, Passo Ballino emerged. We jacketed up, and all that sweat and tears climbing at 8- 10% got blown dry whizzing back down the other side. Of course it all started again and again and again as we climbed each mountain pass only to fly down the switchbacks on the other side.

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This is a must challenge for any insane/ sane biker, traveller, outdoor lover who wants to see the Alps ‘the real way’. The cows and goats with their dangling bells clanging, the expansive rolling green hills and pastures, the medieval colourful villages with their exquisite churches and tall pointed steeples, the rushing streams and cascading waterfalls, the incredible beauty of the magnificant Alps. And at a pace you can digest it all.

Remembering a funny expression a friend once told me years ago while he was overcoming personal hardship, I looked at Hartmut over dinner one night and said: “Life is Tough, eh”?

A short word of advice when you go. I suggest you get really fit before you invite Hartmut to join you… CHEERS.

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Lenin Peak, Kyrgyzstan

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Lenin from Yurts (Copy)

 

Where do I start.

 

I just came off the mountain and I am resting in a small city called Osh in Kyrgyzstan. I pulled the plug 2 days ago (August 18) at Camp 2 (5300m) and decided to follow my gut and not to continue climbing Lenin Peak (7134m), one of the famous Snow Leopards. Why? It was not an easy decision.

Two days before leaving Montreal August 3rd for Russia to first climb Mount Elbrus, I heard from my teammate Mayk Schega from Germany that he had to cancel out of our planned climb together of Lenin Peak for medical purposes. I was to meet him right after Elbrus in Bishkek and we were to go to the Pamirs together. My 1st inclination was also to cancel. It was Mayk’s idea and planning that started this expedition. After checking with our Russian agency TopTravel I found out it was too late to cancel since payments had been made and all the wheels were in motion. With personal reservations I decided I would ‘go for it’ and play it by ear.

First, I was bumped off my flight from Moscow to Bishkek August 12th. However, the next day I did get there. Another short flight to Osh and a 6 hour drive to Lenin Base Camp and wow I was there. Stunningly beautiful snow-covered mountain range. I met my Russian guide Sergey Filatov and next day we were off hiking in to ABC (Advanced Base Camp) 4300m.

Before leaving home and after receiving the bad news that Mayk had cancelled, Rosanna had expressed grave reservations for me going to Lenin Peak. She had not been overly concerned on my other climbs, even Everest, however this time she did not want me to go.

Lying in my tent the first morning at ABC I heard that unmistakably crack – avalanche. Poking my nose and camera out the tent door, I saw it coming down right over our route to Camp 2. Over the years I have heard hundreds of them, yet they still raise the hair on the back of my neck. That day we did an acclimatization hike up a nearby steep slope for another 400m.

Six-thirty next morning we left camp and crossed over onto Lenin Glacier to the foot where 1000 vertical meters of solid glacier climbing begins. We put on our crampons, shedded layers and climbed. I realized that the whole route above that point to where Camp 2 is crammed onto the rocks and crevassed ice hugging a steep rock wall was avalanche prone. Although distracted with the focus of climbing and the sweat from muscle pain in low oxygen and hard breathing, avalanche was never too distant in my thoughts. One hour after arriving at Camp 2 another avalanche came down over the route we had just crossed.

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Nothing was working in my mind on this climb. I have never experienced this before while climbing. My heart was not into it. I was not having fun . My gut told me to stop. I don’t like quitting but I believe in listening to your ‘gut’. Your gut tells the truth without bias.

It was really not easy to make this decision. I labored over it for hours. I went into Sergey’s tent at dinner and tried to explain to him my decision. He speaks very little English. He knew I was climbing strong. Why? I think he eventually understood. Although relieved, it was really really hard doing this. It is not my character.

The next day we climbed down. It was a strange learning experience for me but it was the right decision.

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Kilimanjaro

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My 5th mountain of the ‘Seven Summits’ challenge.

Mid-January to mid-February 2012 I spent a month in Tanzania first hiking Kibo (Kilimanjaro)

Immediately after Kili I went on safari in the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara. It was simply extraordinary. I could never have imagined that suddenly I would be plunged into such an amazing world of wildlife on the African plains and savannah. It was a National Geographic TV series but in real life. Witness the incredible footage and imagery I took with my small G9 Canon. Literally I was only 1 1/2 m from a lion using our vehicule as camouflage concentrating on making a kill. Maasai Warriors jumping, hippos charging, lions mating, etc, etc. At night I heard hyenas in our camp. I was truly in awe.

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Success!

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Success on Everest!
May 28, 2010, Kathmandu

Great news!!!! I still am trying to believe it. I summited Mount Everest at 8:15am on the 23rd May. It was certainly one of the most difficult challenges of my life, and it was definitely the most technical and dangerous climb I have ever done. Fortunately, I am suffering only a little frostbite on one finger (I may lose it) and some peripheral edema on my face. Considering everything, I am very lucky.

May 18th we left Everest Base Camp at 2:30am on our 4th rotation, climbed up through the treacherous Khumbu Ice Fall to C1. We hung out at Camp1 for several hours in our tents to escape the mid-day sun that heats up the glacier valley like a fish bowl with temperatures soaring over 100° F. Totally surrounded by huge glacier mountains (Nupse, Lhotse and Everest) the sun reflects on all those icy walls so the temperature has nowhere to go but up. The moment the sun gets blocked behind cloud or peak, the temperature plunges back down below freezing. At 3pm we moved up the Western Cwm to C2. Next morning at 3am the winds were howling so we decided to hold and rest.

Everest BC to Camp 1 (201)

 May 20 we left C2 for C3 at 2:30am. It was still windy but our weather report called for decreasing winds. Once past the Lhotse Bergschrund and climbing up the steep Lhotse Face the winds increased dramatically. We had about 3000 vertical feet (1000m) to climb to reach C3. The winds kept getting stronger and probably were gusting at 70mph (120kph). It was hell, especially the last 500 feet when the slope gets steeper at 60° on black/ blue cement hard ice.
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Camp 3, 24,500’ (7500m) is carved out of the icy steep slope. The tents are stepped-up from each other. You must use crampons even to go out to pee. If you slip you are gone. It has extraordinary views but the geography is deadly.

Those high winds literally blasted and imprisoned us in our tents for the next 30 straight hours. Sometimes it felt like our tent would get ripped up and blown off the mountain. The gusts sounded like a freight train as it came over the South Col and careened down the Lhotse Face at us. The South Col is famous among Everest climbers as it is the perilous pass or col between Mt. Everest and Mt. Lhotse at 26,000’ (8000m). Camp 4 is situated there and it is in the ‘death zone’ where the body cannot sustain itself. Effectively the body is breaking down and dying at this altitude. The idea is to make your visit short.

Finally early evening May 21 the winds calmed so we prepared to leave at first light the next morning. May 22nd we started out before 6am and climbed another 500 feet up the Lhotse Face, then precipitously traversed across its face to a steep rocky vertical section called the Yellow Band. It is a famous band of dolomite rock clearly visible from a distance. Next we got to the Geneva Spur and using our ascenders (jumars) climbed up and over this large rock buttress to the South Col, also known as Camp 4. I arrived around noon.

We rested in our tents all afternoon at C4, trying to eat and drink a bit, and mentally preparing for our ‘summit bid’ that night. It was cold, sunny with light winds. We were all intense and psyched. After two months on the mountain acclimatizing, 4 full rotations, getting up at 2 or 3am in the freezing cold mornings, the moment had finally arrived. Each climber was facing his own destiny. There will be no second shots; we will blow all our energy (15,000 calories) on this attempt. Every member of the team has already lost a lot of weight, up to 35 pounds. Tonight is do or die.

I am the first out of high camp at 8pm. It is black darkness but my headlight opens my path on the rock and ice. The winds are stronger now but still ok. I start climbing a 1,500 vertical foot slope up to the only flat patch on the mountain called the ‘Balcony’, where we will change oxygen bottles, drink and snack a little. We are soon climbing on a 45°+ pitch. Mingma Sherpa is buddying up with me. Step by arduous step we move up. I am sucking on a relatively low oxygen flow rate of 2 litres per minute. It makes my body furnace fire-up and helps keep me warm. The O² tank weighs about 8+kg and is in my backpack.

Hours later we arrive at the Balcony at 27,600’ (8400m). It is still in the middle of the night and very cold around 40° below. You must avoid resting long here since your body will quickly freeze up and mentally shut you down. Many climbers don’t get past this point. I change my Oz bottle and immediately start traversing a narrow ridge with black voids on both sides.

Although we are clipped in to a fixed rope with our safety line, the prospect of falling even 50 or 100’ and banging against rock and ice would definitely cause serious damage to life and limb. Rescue above the Balcony is practically impossible. The climbing route up the mountain is technical and unforgiving. Clipping-in temporarily to an anchor is possible but on a steep slope you are very exposed and if you drop or lose anything (glove, pack, goggles, jacket) you are doomed. Loss of a single mitt means instant frostbite and loss of fingers and hand. The room for error is razor thin.

I arrive at a rocky section where the 1st seven feet is a 90° cliff face. Another climber who is unknown to me is already there. He repeatedly try’s to jumar himself up but fails each time. I stand waiting behind him for what feels like a half hour literally freezing until he finally manages to get up. There was absolutely no way around him. I just hopped from foot to foot to keep my feet from freezing.

Honestly, a lot of the next few hours I do not remember clearly. It was dark and I was so focused on every step and detail. It was really one step in front of the next. When I would need to climb over a really hard section or a very intimidating rock ledge, my heart rate would jump exponentially. Frankly, I was on a mission, I didn’t question myself, I had total blind confidence I would make it. I just had to remember from time to time to keep track of my toes and fingers, and make sure my crampon points bit into the ice. Focus! Focus! Concentrate on your every move!!!

Then I saw it. A slither of a band of reddish glow suddenly appeared across the far distant eastern horizon. After more than 8 hours in the black frigid night, a new day was dawning. It meant warmth, hope, and somehow the possibility of success. Next I saw the extraordinary magical ‘pyramid shadow’ of Everest glow in the distant sky. It was like a ghost appearing out of nowhere. I could also see Everest’s true triangular summit far above me, yet I was already higher than every other mountain in the whole Himalayan Range and world. From Base Camp all these mountains appear so huge towering above you, but now I looked down on them as if they were just snowy hill tops. Only Mount Lhotse and Mount Makalu vied for status in this phenomenal panorama.

Step by tentative step my dream came closer. First the South Summit at 28,707’ (8750m), next the unnerving Cornice Traverse, and finally the famous Hillary Step. The Hillary Step is an imposing 47 foot nearly vertical rock wall. You have to jumar yourself up finding tiny footholds as leverage. It is very precarious to scale considering on your right is the 11,000 foot Kangshung Face dropping straight down onto the Tibetan Plateau and on your left lies the 8,000’ Southwest Wall of Everest.

Above the Hilary Step at 28,750’ the slope starts to become gentler as it rises to the real summit. Almost before you know it, you are standing beside Buddhist Prayer Flags left behind by Sherpa’s and summiteers over the years. You are standing on a small oval slanted rock-hard icy stage the size of a big sundeck. You realize that you have climbed to the very ‘Top of the World’. There is nothing anywhere higher than you on the planet. You have, against all odds, accomplished your goal. It has been years of training, preparing, learning. You risked it all. You did it.

Oddly enough, it didn’t really totally sink in. You know it is 40° below. You know that you are standing on the most hostile, extreme geography, on the planet. You know that if you trip you die. But somehow you are only consumed with the simple job at hand – trying to take photos and video. My camera freezes up; my fingers turn to rigid sticks when I remove my gloves to click the shutter. I must go down soon. I just want to hang here a little longer. I know it never was just about the summit; it was about what I was capable of, how far could I push myself? I did however sense a certain feeling I have had from other big climbs: a warm inner glow really deep inside. But, I also knew this was not the place to celebrate. I must be focused to stay alive and get down.

The hardest and most dangerous part of any climb is the descent. Down-climbing the Hillary Step I slipped and found myself hanging precariously over 8000’ of empty space. I recovered but not without seeing my heart almost arrest. “Just because you’re finished with the mountain, doesn’t mean the mountain is finished with you.” You must refocus on the bare reality – one false step may be your last.

I arrived back to C4 (South Col) sometime around 4pm. I was held up by an attempted rescue operation lowering a climber with cerebral edema just above the Balcony. It was a 20 hour day and I was totally exhausted. I crawled into my tent and sleeping bag and passed out. I desperately needed sleep to recover.

May 24th I woke up realizing I had frostbite on my index finger and ‘peripheral edema’ on my face. My eyes and cheeks were all puffed-up and my finger black. I packed up quickly and descended with Mingma down the dangerous and technical terrain of the Yellow Band and Lhotse Face. We arrived at C2 sometime in the afternoon and slept there that night. Next morning the 25th we all descended together as a team down the Western Cwm to C1 and then continued down through the Ice Fall to basecamp. What a relief to finally be finished going through the hazardous Ice Fall. So many climbers have died or been seriously injured there.

After 60 days living on ice and rock the whole team was desperate to get going off the glacier. We packed-up early the next morning the 26th and started our long hike out down the Khumbu Valley. It is about 45 miles (65 km) of trekking over scree and every type of terrain to Lukla and then a short 1 hour flight to Kathmandu. We covered it in 2 days and arrived this morning in Kathmandu skeletons of our previous selves and physically exhausted. However, we were joyously awarded to real showers, real food and a real bed.

T.S. Eliot once said: “Only those who risk going too far will know how far they can go.” Dare to reach, dare to dream, dare to go after your goals. If you don’t try you will never know how far you can go!

Theodore Fairhurst

(One final note, by lucky coincidence I summited Everest on my stepson’s 18th birthday, David Gordon. Wow.)

Success

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On our way to the summit

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Good news. We are on our way to the summit very soon, tomorrow at 3am is the plan. The weather forecast is promising. It is just a question of team planning and final weather analysis. The Jet Stream is moving north and the window is opening. The final dynamics are unfolding and we will all know within a week or do how we will do. It is both scary and thrilling.

The summit of Everest has only about 25% air pressure (likewise 25% oxygen) as exists at sea level. At Camp 4 (26,000’) we will probably be there for only hours before leaving to climb around 9pm to the summit. Summit day is usually 18 hours. The hope is to arrive at the summit at sunrise.

My next post will be when we’re back to BC around the 25th, weather deciding.

This is it. My turn to practice what I preach and ‘go for it’ !

 

Mount Vinson

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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. 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 78o latitude 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 natural formed runway. Cross winds descend over the Patriot’s leeward side creating a perfectly flat and icy landing strip parallel to the hills. 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 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 3am. It is sunny and bitterly cold. We eat in the Camp dining tent and put up our own 2 man tents and sleep to 11am. At 1:30pm 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 130km (80 miles) and is drawn up like pieces on a chess board 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 land mass, 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 is 24 hours of daylight, the sun simply rotates in the sky 360o just above the horizon.

At about 2:30pm we land on the Branscomb Glacier at 2100m (6900ft) and make camp. Next morning we saddle up the sleds and haul up to intermediate camp, cache and return to base-camp for a 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, 7:45am 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 3pm, 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 table top summit. It is rocky, icy and corniced. We all made it. It is 4pm, 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, this is Antarctica – the most unknown and untouched land on the planet. We are very privileged. I want this moment to last forever.

Mount Vinson

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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 travelled 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 weather. Back at base-camp on Tuesday, there was heavy cloud cover. No planes could fly. 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 3pm 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 3pm we heard that ‘Big Bird’ was in the air. What a sigh. At 9:30pm 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 important, 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.

 

Mount Denali

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For some non apparent reason my sub-conscious restlessness drives me to challenge myself physically and emotionally and usually in faraway places. This time it was the acclaimed and magnificent mountain Denali (Mount McKinley) 20,320′ in Alaska. At 63 degrees north bordering the Arctic Circle, it is light for almost 24 hours a day this time of the year. It was cold, weather extreme, excessively glaciated and unpredictable.

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My climb began on the 8th May 2007 as 7 of us plus guides boarded 3 Beaver prop planes equipped with snow landing pads to land us with a huge amount of gear and food onto the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet. 30 minutes after take-off from Talkeetna airfield as we approached the mountains word came via Base-camp that weather had closed in so we did a 180o and returned to Talkeetna. Four hours later we re-boarded and this time succeeded to land on the glacier around 6:30 pm. By 10 pm we had established Base Camp, eaten and climbed into our sleeping bags.

May 9 we practiced crevasse rescue techniques and discussed strategy.

May 10 we set off for Camp 1 descending from the Southeast Fork to the main Kahiltna Glacier each one of us pulling a sled weighing about 90 lbs (40 kg) of gear, food, fuel, etc. and also carrying a backpack of 50- 60 lbs mostly of personal and technical gear and clothes. The initial descent and the long ascent were gradual but grueling. Six long hours later exhausted, we arrived at our Camp 1 position. The lower Kahiltna Glacier is laced with crevasses so travelling on it requires zigzagging around large open cracks and tediously stepping over snow-bridged ones. They are everywhere and your travel is precipitous.

May 11 we hauled up to 10,300′, cached food and gear in a dug-out snow hole, and then returned to Camp 1 to sleep. The idea is to separate the weight into 2 halves when moving up on steeper slopes and also to acclimatize by climbing high but sleeping low. This was a 9 hour day and at least 5,000 burned calories later.

May 12 & 13 it snowed 3 feet. We were buried in our tents and had to regularly dig out.

May 14 one member of our expedition Tim from Florida decided to throw in the towel and return to Base-camp and fly-out. Together with Jason our guide and 2 other climbers from another expedition they started out roped up trudging through the deep snow. Later we learned that Jason fell 20′ into a crevasse almost yanking 2 other climbers with him. He got out unharmed. We on our part, trudged in the opposite direction up the glacier to 9,800′ and made camp. That night it snowed another 2 feet.

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May 15. Late in the day when the snow stopped, we moved up to 11,200′- Camp 2. Immediately after arriving, we then dropped down to our cache at 10,300′ and dragged it up to our new Camp 2. By midnight we were ready for our bags.

May 16 we moved up some steep and long slopes this time carrying only heavy backpacks ( probably 65- 70 lbs ) and cached at 13,800′. Once again we descended to Camp 2 at 11,200′ to sleep. Sleds and snowshoes now would stay at Camp 2 and crampons would be the order of the day above this point. This day was 8 1/2 long tough hours.

May 17 we moved up to Camp 3 at 14,250′ with the rest of our loads. Camp 3 is advanced base camp in so much that you are within striking distance of Camp 4 and the summit and the weather is still moderate. 14,000 feet is considered a sort of threshold where one must manage carefully acclimatization to prevent AMS – acute mountain sickness. At 14,000′ oxygen pressure decreases to 58% from sea level. Ultraviolet sunlight increases 5% per 1000 foot gain. Since oxygen pressure decreases 3% per 1000′ gain the summit will have only 40% of the oxygen pressure we get down below. Also weather becomes considerably more severe above Camp 3 on the ridge and higher. It will be preferable to spent as little time as possible at camp 4. On our way up the mountain we encountered several international parties who had all been defeated by the severe temperatures at camp 4. They told me that the high daytime temperature was 37o below.

May 18 we retrieved our cache at 13,800 and rested.

May 19 we moved up to 16,430′ into a col and cached. We had to climb a steep headwall using ascenders so travel was slow and difficult. It took us 8 hours to get back to Camp 3.

May 20 to 24 we were held hostage by the weather at Camp 4. Our weather at Camp 3 was up and down but higher on the ridge it was nasty. It started to seem like our summit bid was rapidly dissolving. Food was getting low and our flight dates out were fast arriving. It was demoralizing to think that all our excruciating work of dragging such heavy loads higher and higher up the mountain was in vain. Would we be denied our chance to try for the summit. We were reduced to lying in our tents and waiting.

May 25. The sun shines. We break camp and start climbing up. The slope is moderate but consistent. We stop before the headwall 1400 feet up to take a break and prepare our gear. Above the headwall at the col we collect our cache and start climbing the narrow ridge. It is circuitous and steep. No place for errors. Finally after many hours we arrive at 17,200′ Camp 4. The winds are sharp & cold. Using an ice saw we cut out blocks from the snow packed ground and build 3 foot high walls around a radius big enough to fit 3 three man tents. The day is 11 1/2 hours long before we start dinner. We are totally exhausted.

May 26. Summit day. Again it is sunny. Strange, two good days in a row. This is our chance. Eric Larsen and I start off roped together. We move up diagonally across a steep slope known as the Autobahn for about 1000 feet of altitude or so to Denali Pass. Above this pass we start climbing a steep ridge. We are far above all other mountains in the range. Even Mount Foraker is way below us now. The views are spectacular. All of North America is below us. We push on one foot in front of the next. Jeff Garvin switches teams to join us since we are moving quicker. We continue up & up until we arrive at what is called the Football Field. It is a huge expanse of relatively flat area separating the summit ridge from the Archdeacon’s Tower. We drop our packs and push up a moderate headwall. We are finally on the summit ridge. The worst is over. The summit is almost in view. 45 minutes later, after crossing up and down a knife-edged ledge often not wider than a foot with cliffs 600′ on your left & thousands of feet down on the right we set foot on a irregularly shaped spoon sized summit. It is 6:15 pm. We have beaten the odds. It is one of those rare moments in life, however brief, that you feel a pride of numbness. You forget the anticipation, the physical and emotional sweat, it is not even glory, it is just a little tear in the eye. No one would even notice. We did it.

Few minutes later reality sets in. The weather is closing in. Their is a hint of wind and clouds are thickening all around us. We start back along that cutting-edge ridge to what is called Pig Hill and down to the Football Field and our packs. The wind is now more than 25 miles per hour, the temperature has dropped and the visibility has considerably worsened. We wait for the others. After 15 minutes or so we are freezing and begin moving on. Conditions now are much different than before. Winds are getting stronger and stronger, the snow deeper and visibility difficult. It becomes hard to spot the wands. The wind knocks us down at times. It is hard to get a footing in the loose deep snow on this steep slope.

Finally we arrive at Denali Pass. There is only 1000 feet more of altitude. That exhausting 1000 feet down the steep Autobahn is intense and we fall many times. Finally, we make it down to camp. It has been 13 hours for us and it will be 2 more hours before the rest of the group shows up. Mark Walsh from England arrives almost delirious with exhaustion. He had pushed well outside of his energy threshold to just get to the summit ridge and descend. Nick Cole also from England had summitted shortly after us with Jason and on their descent came across Mark. We were all given our summit chance. Some made it- some didn’t. We gave it our all

May 27. Winds are raging all night. Half a foot of snow has fallen and visibility is poor. We stay in our tents all day resting and recovering.

May 28 we break Camp 4. The wind has decreased but visibility is poor. We slowly descend the steep, narrow ridge to the headwall. Descending the headwall on the fixed lines is always a feat. At Camp 3 we eat and continue down to Camp 2.

May 29. We want out. It has already been 23 days on the mountain. We are dreaming of showers, real food , families and comforts. Saddled again this time with lighter sleds and backpacks, we wearily descend onto the Kahiltna glacier and finally at 6pm to Basecamp. To our huge disappointment, snow starts falling and the Beavers are grounded. Next morning our worst fears are realized. Visibility is horrible and it is snowing hard. Will we be socked in here for days? Almost everyone has already missed their flights home anyways. We wait.

Around noon the sky starts clearing and we hear that the planes are coming for us. You cannot imagine what a sigh of relief that overcomes you. Before I know it I am in a 3 seater plane banking around the awesome mountains of Foraker and Hunter with massive tongues of glaciated ice flowing like rivers below me. I know this moment is so special. This whole experience will be over in seconds and I will have only my memoires to savour. I know that each climb I do takes me out of my Comfort Zone in many ways. The lessons you learn are the great lessons of life. I know I have been lucky on this climb. I also know, even with my success, I have been humbled..

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Aconcagua

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The exciting thing about high altitude climbing is not really the details from day to day, like the raging river crossings, moving up and down from camp to camp, radical weather changes, equipment issues, etc., etc. These details are, of course, the wonderful stuff that fill up your memory box and photo albums. In my opinion, however, it is the senses, especially anticipation — that aspect of living on the cutting edge of new experiences, that weighs in as the real adventure. Of course, all the camp stories, the phenomenal vistas, the blizzards, thunderstorms, high winds come to mind first after a climb. But during the climb it is “anticipation” and all those other senses that keep you fine-tuned to the moment, and motivates you as nothing in normal daily life can come close to. The river crossings become moments of high drama wondering if a missed foothold will plunge you into the fast current. The anticipation of hoping to find a horseshoe on the long march in to Base Camp to add a little extra luck to your summit bid. Wondering if you can manage hauling the heavy loads of gear and food to higher and higher camps in thinner and thinner air. Praying you won’t come down with some virus. High altitude acclimatizing. Managing to twist yourself through the penitentes. It is exciting stuff living every moment on the edge. Perhaps it can be compared to that first teenage date when all your senses are in overdrive trying to look and be your best. Afraid something will go wrong regardless how much you have perfected yourself. Those are the important memories from then and likewise these moments of anticipation put you at your best now. And so it goes, at camp 3 at 18,000 feet, hearing thunderstorms during the nite below you on the mountain, hoping three days of snowfall will finally stop for summit day, worrying about not getting enough sleep at nite. These are not negative fears. Believe me, they are all your senses coming alive and on fire. Moving up to camp 4 at 19,500 feet and getting into position for the summit. Suddenly, the stormy snow laden clouds open and the last rays of a setting sun slam into the golden rock around your tents. Regardless how exhausted you are at the end of the day, seeing such brilliant firery reds and oranges and almost being able to see the Pacific ocean over the tops of all those snowy peaks below you energizes you as nothing else can. You feel emotions and feelings you never knew you had. It is 4 am the next morning, the sky is dark but clear, the wind low—- today is the day—- ‘ we are going for it ‘. You wolf down some cold cereal, step into your crampons, worry about getting your clothes right. Can you make it? You are prepared. You are trained. You know it is 50% physical, but also 50% mental. One foot in front of the next. It is 3,500 feet straight up in thin air today. This is your day. This is judgement day. The world is spectacular all around you. Your senses are bursting inside you. You are alive like never before. This is a drug. And all you have taken is the decision to challenge yourself on a very big hill. The hours go by. There are moments. They pass. It is 4:15 in the afternoon. You have taken your last step up. You are standing on top of the hemisphere. You are the happiest eight people in the world. Goddamn it, you made it. You trusted those senses, you lived on the edge. Every cell in your body is alive. All that “anticipation” sharpened you like a knife…

Aconcagua

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