A diary of Henry's 10 day climb in Antarctica...
Where to begin? In short - I went up a novice and came down a mountaineer.
Prior to this trip I was sent on a 5-day course. Stupidly I talked the guide into reducing it down to 2.5 days so I could get home early. A very, very, silly mistake when attempting to climb the tallest Peak in Antarctica. You need all the skills on offer.
I was up at 5am Wednesday to get the plane. All around the hotel there is a real buzz as everyone gathers for the coach. I decide to take a bottle of Jack Daniels to Mount Vinson to open should I successfully reach the Summit. Once at the airport I had expected to go straight on the plane, but they put us through security.
The security stopped me, but thankfully they don’t mention the bottle of JD. They stopped me and took away my brand new Swiss Army knife though. There is real irony here when you bear in mind, I am doing this challenge for a knife and gun charity!
At this point I still haven’t met my team members (feeling a bit like Larry no mates) as I stand around, I observe these experienced mountaineers. If I am honest with myself, I am anxious. I feel like I have been put out to play in Manchester City’s premier team but haven’t got a clue. Being on my own gives me a lot of time to think about the challenge ahead and the benefits for the Wickers Charity. We board a 45-year-old Russian x-military Ilyushin Jet which is designed to carry large pay loads IE tanks soldiers etc. The senior Pilot we are told is well experienced and has landed over 200 times on the ice.
We fly 4.5 hours to land at Union Glacier on Antarctica. The runway is solid ice and cannot be landed on if it shows any signs of even slightly melting. There is a temporary camp/station set up for 3/4 months a year. There are only 1 or 2 flights per week here and it is extremely weather reliant. It is not uncommon to wait 7-10 days for a return flight out they tell me. The nearest hospital is 2,000 miles in Punto Arenas. Once landed we are taken to an area and loaded onto a Twin prop Otter with skis fitted on and flown to Vinson base camp. The flight takes 40 minutes. The temperature on landing is a -25.
We land on the side of a glacier into Vinson base camp. The camp is made up of a kitchen/dining tent and various 2-man tents. It is a pleasant surprise to not have to cook in your sleeping tent.
Stuart my guide introduces himself; he is a 49-year-old ex-military man and lacks a lot of personal skills!! I explain to Stuart I am a novice and require lots of direction. I am then introduced to Nick, he is in our team - 45-year-old Englishman who is a complete eccentric and he has his own adventure company along with being a qualified guide. Nick comes across as a lovely man. Curt is the final member of my team, a 39-year-old American fireman who is doing his Final climb of the 7 Summits. Only 500 people have ever achieved this. Curt is quite clearly - an “outdoorsy” man.
We spend the next day in the camp. Stuart the guide is very unhelpful from the start. He finds my questions irritating and my lack of mountaineering skills troubling. He also doesn't want to listen to Nick and Curt. If I am going to succeed this mountain I can’t start arguing with the guide. Normally I would have it out with him, but this is no normal environment and I need him onside. So, for now it’s head down and get on with it. I will deal with this on my terms.
Unfortunately for Curt I have to share a tent with him. When in the tent he informs me a lot more about the technical side of what we are doing and the risks. Frost bite is massive. The temperature in this camp is -30 degrees plus any wind chill factor. All metal that we will be having direct contact with has to be covered; as metal will conduct through the gloves. It’s incredible even with specialist gloves on the cold from the metal comes through.
The toilets are Alfresco style, you sit on a cut out block of ice with a pan of a toilet sitting on top of it looking out over the Antarctic continent. It is truly mind blowing. It’s so calm and tranquil. It’s cold even with the sun out.
Now the serious stuff, going to Low Camp…
After a bad night’s sleep, I wake up with my pee bottle in my sleeping bag so it doesn’t freeze in the tent. We get prepared to drag a sledge, a duffle bag and a rucksack each. We walk with crampons on. I have not yet mastered walking in crampons but it’s not difficult on the flat, you just have to walk like John Wayne! When going uphill it’s a lot more difficult.
We leave for Low Camp…
Low Camp is 8.9 miles away uphill the whole way hauling your stuff. 8.9 miles does not sound too far but it still takes us 6.5 hours to get there. The weight I am hauling is far too much. I am sweating most of the way and knackered at the end of the day. I am seriously having a conversation with myself right now – I mean, who takes an IPAD up to the summit and various changes of clothing, only me!
I learn a lot quickly... You can’t remove your glasses/goggle’s for very long for fear of snow blindness. You must keep hydrated and govern your body temperature. All extremities need to be covered. The frostbite gets you very quickly.
We spend the night at Low Camp. I, Curt & Nick are bonding. They recognise my lack of experience but as a team we are really working well together and offering help/advice. Stuart the guide is becoming an awkward character and I can see if I lock horns with him, it could be he gets me removed from the mountain. His a man who appears to have missed the personality/social gene! So I have two challenges; one not to have conflict with Stuart and the other to summit...there is a lot of money at stake here for the Wickers Charity. At Low Camp you can leave the sledge and duffel bag. I leave the excess clothing. I do this although I still have not lightened the load enough in my rucksack.
No luxury toilets here, you get to sit on a bin, line the bucket with a plastic bag you are given for the next few days. Gives a whole new meaning to “Take Away”! Dried food with hot water added into a packet is all we now have. I can’t recommend it.
The next day we head up to High Camp…
It is now a serious ascend. We walk to the fixed lines, they run for approx 1200 meters. To ascend you hook in a descender and you slide it in front of you then you lift yourself up. By doing this when you fall back it locks into place. This stops you taking out other team members if you were to fall. Lots of exertion on your upper body and quads. Every 150/200 meters you have to reattach yourself. It takes us unbelievably 4.5 hours to ascend the fix lines. And we are not slow. This is an awakening... These mountaineers have a level of fitness I have never experienced. I am soaking with sweat when coming off the fixed lines. I look up this mountain and it just goes on forever. I ask how much further, and we have a 2.5 hour walk to High Camp. You don't actually walk you put one foot in front of the other. It takes every effort in you to do this. Before this I would have bet you, it can’t take this long to walk circa 2 miles going uphill.
This whole time I am thinking - None of the team members are talking to each other, you need to be focused and not waste the energy. It gives you a lot of time to concentrate and reflect. We finally get into camp. To me it’s like seeing The Savoy. I have never been so happy to see a tent. My shoulders and legs are throbbing. I have used up all my energy. I have no more to give today. I am thinking to myself please let’s have a rest day tomorrow but don’t say anything. I am perked up by seeing Curt totally exhausted and I am 18 years his senior 😊 I am not the only one knocked out. You can’t get away from the cold. Of course, I told him that I am old enough to be his dad. Sleep does not come easy. Every hour I am awake. Even to unzip the sleeping bag to have a pee is such a chore because of the cold. Why these mountaineers do this is beyond me. The cold, danger, physical exertion along with the mental drainage.
Rest day in High Camp…
Stuart decides we all need this day. I am delighted. The forecast looks good for tomorrow. In these high altitude climbs it’s not uncommon to wait 5-7 days for a window to ascend. I honestly thought that the final day to ascend was going to be the easier part from looking at the route map.
During rest day we discuss the climb, the danger zones. It gets reiterated the importance of not taking gloves and glasses off. Losing an item can cause the whole team to descend. The final ridgeway that we are going along has a drop of 3,000 odd feet. You have to be sure where you tread. Underneath the ice is rock and should you slip on this and you go over the side and you will take the other three you are tied to with you! You are told at all times watch the man in front and be prepared to hit the floor! All I have on my mind is to be foot perfect tomorrow. I don't want to let down Nick and Curt. Curt needs to summit this to complete the 7 summits.
An Italian gent Sergio who came on this trip with his two personal guides and another approved one went up with his team today. This trip without flights has cost him £128,000 plus his guides salary.
Every day, we receive weather reports, but they are not always accurate. It can be fine in camp but a thousand feet up it can drop by a further minus 10-20 degrees plus the wind chill factor. Hanging around this day gives me a lot of time to ponder on the enormity of the summit. Nick, Curt and I have really bonded. I am getting great support from them. I try to sleep, it’s useless. Morning comes and I am pretty knackered from sleep deprivation. How hard can this ascend be?
The Italian team have had a successful summit. No pressure on us then! We kit up and go over the tactics. I can’t make my mind up weather to take my hard shell outer clothes and/or insulated padded trousers. Thank god I remembered to buy these in Punto Arenas. I discuss this with Chris a doctor who says you have to take them. It can be -60 and the difference between giving you the ability to carry on climbing or having to come down. We had a “warm day” at -55!!! Decision made - everything is packed and coming. More weight in the rucksack!
We start out with our walking poles. My mind is spinning, don't let the team down, don't expose your extremities, don't drop your rucksack, don’t trip over your crampons. Any of these things occur and the team is off the mountain at a minimum for that day. How can putting one foot in front of the other be so exhausting?
It is hour after hour we do this with only one water break. Stuart the guide does not read his audience very well and doesn’t give us the breaks we need. After around 5 hours I am blowing, my energy levels are very very low. I keep resting my head on my pole to rest. I take my rucksack off and it slides away. Stuart has a fit! But fortunately, it stops about 100 foot away. A travelling rucksack could take out a climber below and cause serious problems. Curt is exhausted but his strong and solid. Nick is built of stronger stuff and is eating this up. It’s Nick that is coming up to me asking if I am ok and checking me over. To have Nick in this team for me has been a massive bit of luck. He is a good man.
We keep ascending, all I am doing is looking up and it goes on and on and on and on. It is becoming colder and colder!
I finally see the summit it looks close and I ask how long? 90 mins I am told, really 90 mins!! Have I got 90 mins in me and another 3.5 hours to get back. I consider throwing the towel in. In fact I justify it to myself because I can see the summit. I look around me, I can’t throw the towel in - Curt has cashed in his house policy to get the funds for this trip, so it’s not for me to end his trip. Nick needs this so he can put it down as a reference on his company website and I know I won’t be able to live with myself. On we trudge and trudge. Curt calls over Stuart and says his hands have gone, he has a cold injury- very dangerous. Stuart grabs them and says “right all of us are off the mountain!” I cant believe we have come this far but if the man is ill we have no choice. Nick comes over and puts two hand warmers in the gloves. Stuart allows us to march on. If we had had a break, put some sugar and carbs in ourselves we would have got to the top in a fit state. But Mr Military hadn’t allowed us and now we are so exposed on the mountain we can’t just stop. On we shuffle.
We come to the start of the ice and rocks. I follow Stuart and head on to the ridgeway walking up. My glasses are iced up and I can hardly see or take in any views has I am so focused on where my feet are positioned and brutally aware of the 3000 foot drop besides me.
Nick comes over to me and spins me round from behind, he takes one look at me and says “your going down!” Why I say, “your nose - it’s gone!” Shit!! I am now not concerned about being on a precipice all I can think about is the end of my nose having to be cut off. Not reaching the top would be a disaster but my nose must come first. Stuart comes up and grabs me from Nick, now Nick and Stu are arguing whether we go on or not. Stu grabs a buff and tightens it so tight around my mouth and nose I cannot breathe. Now I am arguing with him. Release it I can’ t breath. He needs the buff on me to get the blood to the nose and I also need it off to breath! All this is happening on the edge.!
Stu literally grabs me again like a child and we march to the top. I look around but cannot I take it all in. My glasses are full of ice and my thoughts / concerns are with the condition of my nose. It’s far too windy for photos or banners. We are there for less than a minute.
We start our descent and all I can hear being said to other climbers in front is Nick saying “Man with cold injury coming down make way!” The whole situation has been for no more than 10 minutes, it just seems now so unreal. I can see how quick disaster happens in these climbs. There is no space for amateurs.
We descend but don't stop for 30 minutes until its safe. I am desperate to know how bad my nose is. I am told keep it covered to try and get the blood back. It had gone white and waxy – which is a sign of frostbite.
It’s a long hard walk back to camp. Walking down in crampons is difficult and uses muscles you don't normally exercise. We enter camp and I throw off my rucksack, I had to take the extra clothes but did not using them. I am elated to have summited and now the enormity is sinking in. In camp we have boiling water. If I lay down my whole body will lock up. Curt just lays out over his sleeping bag and is out in a few minutes. I go to the kitchen tent. Blood is coming back to my nose and it is tingling.
For me WOW - what a personal journey this has been to get to the summit. It has been tough but well worth all the physical and mental challenges. I don't celebrate yet, as we have to get down first.
Day of Descending…
We are now 6 days without a shower.
To say I am pissed off with Stu is an understatement, he could have made this trip a pleasure but after tomorrow I don't need him. I still decide to keep my tongue until Vinson base camp. It is hard but I have come this far.
Next day I am expecting us to walk quickly down to Low Camp then onto Base Camp. It should be easy - wrong again!
Walking downwards on fixed lines is difficult - especially on ice. On top of that there are the blisters on the bottom of my feet that keep getting pressed backwards. The effort and concentration to do this is utterly immense! 3.5 hours later we finally reach the bottom of the fixed lines and I am soaking in sweat and need to get these clothes off! It is clear Curt has a issue with his knee. His struggling to walk. Now we are contemplating making camp at Low Camp and possibly missing a flight back to Union Glacier, which in turn delays us by 4 days. Curt is having none of it and says he will walk on the best he can. So we decide to let him set the pace.
When we get to Low Camp I remember that I had left clothes behind – they are dry ! What a result - I change. It takes us around 9 hours to get to Vinson Base instead of 6 hours but we do it.
It feels amazing to get here and kindly the cook Michelle has stayed up to give us dinner. I am now itching to have it out with Stuart, I cannot wait to get him in a corner.
We are all exhausted and happy. The Rangers come and dine with us congratulating us. In the tent is a guy from Argentina having every finger bandaged up. His in a mess.
He had taken his gloves on at the summit which was over minus 60. His struggling to feed himself. He will need hospital treatment.
I go and get the Jack Daniels from my bag. I pour Stuart a large glass.... “You know you could have ruined this trip for me” I say, “That had I been a weak man or even a woman your lack of help, guidance and concern would have caused others to give up this trip.” I explain to him if it were not for the help from Nick and Curt, I would not have been successful. I explain to him the effect of him not wanting to help me or show me was massive. I asked him why you would do that to someone who clearly needed guidance. He says it is his way. I pour him more Jack Daniels. Then I explain to him how unhelpful and how difficult it has been for me to row with him; and ask him why has he made things so difficult. He accepts my points (I am hugely surprised) then emotionally cracks. Literally folds in front of me. This so-called strong man opens up about his problems at home with his wife and children. He then proceeds to tell me about all of his issues. He has been adopted, his wife and children hate him being at home and that they think of him ‘As a Black cloud’ in the home. A stranger in his own house. I have gone quickly from wanting him in a corner to now feeling sorry for him and explaining to him the problems he is facing and advising what he needs to change. You honestly couldn’t make it up. We actually end the evening totally cool and friends.
The Jack Daniels hangover is big. I go into the kitchen tent and my new mate Stu could not be nicer. You couldn’t write it. I have conquered two challenges. mount Vinson And Stuart 😊 Also, I have made two great friends. I now understand the bonds that are made with these challenges. Curt has a bed in London whenever he needs it and I am going to help Nick with his business start up. It’s the least I can do in lieu of what the pair of them have done for me.
We say our goodbyes to the staff and fly to Union Glacier. The weather upon landing is awful and how the young pilot lands is just exceptional. He does state that it is the worse condition his ever landed in. We get a tent and a good meal here. We have to wait till 5pm for the showers to open. The shower is amazing, it has been a whole week since I had a proper shower. It is the best I have ever had. Now we have to wait for the rest of the teams to return to Union Glacier from various trips in the Antarctica before the Jet can come. We are sitting here not knowing how long we to wait, possibly 5 days – now that’s going to be hard work. I have had no internet for over a week, I can’t remember being so long removed from contact with the outside world. Internet comes back on board when we get back to Punto Arenas.
On our way back to Union Glacier…
Another day of waiting then Sunday fly up to Santiago on to home for Monday 21st and my birthday hopefully.
It was a great adventure pushing me mentally and physically. Now I am forgetting the bad stuff and it’s sinking in. Raised over £150,000 all thanks to you and people like you. Have I got another in me? I think from here on I will leave these challenges to the younger guys.