Sunday, March 29, 2015

Vinson Summit Report

Antarctic Adventure: Vinson Massif Trip Report

This is a summary of Randy and Anders Christofferson’s expedition to climb the Vinson Massif in Antarctica.  We departed Los Angeles on the day after Christmas and returned on Sunday, January 11th.

The Mountaineers

I (Randy) am a 57 year-old and Anders is my first son of 28 years.  Over the last 10 years we have travelled around the world to train for and participate in various endurance athletic events.  Our earliest focus was on triathlons and the three related component sports.  Together, we have competed close to 50 different triathlons including 4 Ironman races in three continents (individually, I have finished a total of 13 Ironman races and close to 150 triathlons).  We’ve participated in several multi-week training sessions in the US and Europe.  We’ve raced bikes (Anders collegiately and I a number of individual efforts including being part of a RAAM relay team).  Through the years we have enjoyed modest collective success, winning our AG over 70 times and in Anders case, an overall win in a Half-Ironman.  I’ve even managed to race at Kona three times.

In 2009, Anders suggested that we use our hard earned endurance fitness and try our hand at alpine mountaineering.  I agreed and we signed up and successfully summited Rainier and Shasta that summer.  We became hooked (especially Anders) and began to set our sights on more challenging climbs.  Anders eventually decided that he would like to climb the Seven Summits (the highest mountain on each of the seven continents) and prior to this expedition, he had completed three: Aconcagua (South America: 22,841 feet), Denali (North America: 20,322 feet) and Kilimanjaro (Africa: 19,341).  I had completed Aconcagua and Kosciuszko (Australia: 7,310 feet).

Anders was in reasonably good shape given that he was working (literally) 70+ hour weeks at a consulting firm.  Anders is a talented athlete (he did a 10:11 IM) and at 28 was at the peak of his capabilities.  He would have liked to train more for this climb (and had done so before big climbs in the past) but he was reasonably confident that he was in good enough shape to give it a shot.

Post Kona 2014, I had a lingering calf problem that even with a lot of physical therapy, eventually caused me to basically stop training the final five weeks before the climb.  Normally, in preparation for a climb like Vinson, I would head into the mountains in Shenandoah National Park for 10+ 5-8 hour hikes with 50+ pounds on my back.  I was concerned both about this lack of training and about my calf’s capability to handle the stresses that come with the big loads and long climbs that are hallmarks of alpine mountaineering.  Still, there was no way I was going to miss an adventure like this with my son and I was hopeful that my 15-year base of triathlon/mountaineering training would be enough to see me through.

The Continent and the Mountain

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent on our planet.  It’s bigger than Europe and almost twice as big as Australia (including the attached floating plains of ice, Antarctica is about 50% larger than the US).  It’s also the coldest, windiest and driest continent.  The coldest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth was recorded there in July of 1983—minus 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Winds on the continent frequently reach a steady velocity of 200 mph.  The dry valleys of Antarctica are the driest places on Earth with almost no snow or ice cover.  In many of these areas, we don’t believe it has snowed for more than 2 million years.

Antarctica is the continent with both the highest average elevation and the lowest.  This seeming contradiction is due to the ice that covers the bedrock in most places.  On average, the ice is 6,000-8,000 feet thick and in some places it is over 16,000 feet thick.  Most of the bedrock in Antarctica lies below sea level (on average more than 2,000 feet below sea-level) and the Bentley Subglacial Trench is 8,383 feet below sea level.  This is the lowest point on Earth that is not covered by water—at least in its liquid form.  If the ice were somehow magically removed the land would “spring” upward through an isostatic rebound over 3,000 feet on average!  98% of Antarctica is covered by ice and almost 60% of Earth’s freshwater ice is here.

The Transantarctic Mountains divide the continent into the East and West sections.  At 2,175 miles in length, it is one of the longest mountain ranges in the world.  Our objective, the summit of the Vinson Massif is not in that mountain range but rather in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, about 650 miles north (not surprisingly) of the South Pole.  In 2006, the governing bodies decided to designate the summit as Mount Vinson, although most folks in the mountaineering community still call it the Vinson Massif.

The highest point of the Vinson Massif is 16,050 feet above sea level, although the reduced air pressure at the poles makes it feel 2000-3000 feet higher.  It was first climbed in 1966 (and not again until 1979) and about 1500 people have climbed it since.  Dick Bass was the third to summit in 1983 and this in part kicked off the notion of the Seven Summits as a mountaineering objective.  Vinson has the lowest number of summits of the Seven Summits.  In contrast for example, 658 people summited Everest in 2013 alone.

The Massif itself is huge, reaching almost 13 miles in length and 8 miles in width.  The summit has the 8th highest topographic prominence on the planet (Everest is first, Aconcagua second and Denali third).  Among the Seven Summits, both Everest and Denali are considered more challenging objectives.  Vinson is most often compared to Denali and frequently labeled as a colder, but smaller Denali.

The annual snowfall on Mount Vinson is quite low, but high winds can cause accumulations of a foot or two on the approaches to the summit.   During the summer (November through January) there are 24 hours of sunlight and during these months the average temperature on the summit is 20 degrees below Fahrenheit.

December 26-29: Getting Almost There

We spent Christmas at Anders’ home in Santa Monica, where my wife Judy and I and our four kids had a great family visit.  Anders and I spent time sorting, packing and repacking our voluminous mountaineering gear.  We finally found ourselves, the day after Christmas, on the way to LAX for the beginning of our great adventure.  Judy escorted us and soon we said our goodbyes and Anders and I proceeded through an uneventful check-in process.

Our first flight to Panama City, Panama on Copa Airlines (which turned out to be a great carrier), covered a little over 3,000 miles and about six and a half hours.  We had an uneventful flight, and since we departed in the mid-morning from LAX, both of us made sure we stayed awake by reading, chatting and generally wasting time in the way one can only do when one has a surplus of it—very pleasant!

We were disappointed to arrive in Panama after dark as we had hoped to see the “Big Ditch”.  We spent a little time discovering that there wasn’t much to see in that city’s Tocumen Airport.  Soon we were on our way to destination number two, Santiago, Chile, which was also a journey of around 3,000 miles and another six and a half hours.  This was my third consecutive Dec/Jan trip to Santiago as the previous two winters I had made this pilgrimage in my attempts to summit Aconcagua—the highest mountain in South America.

We hit an airport lounge and cleaned up a bit after our overnight flight where we each had slept an hour or two.  We had some weird pastries and a bit of Java and soon were boarding our LAN flight for Punta Arenas, Chile.  This last flight of our air triathlon was a bit shorter at 3:30 and about 1350 miles.  During the flight, we were treated to views of the magnificent Andes as we flew ever south along the Chilean coast.

Upon arriving in the diminutive Pres. Ibanez airport (named after Presidente Carlos Ibáñez, a Chilean Army officer and twice president of Chile), we were very relieved to find that all four of our electric blue First Assent duffle bags, containing everything we needed to stay alive in Antarctica, had indeed arrived.  This was no small deal, as that does not always happen after a journey like the one we had just completed—indeed, last year my bags were delayed for 36 hours when I flew to Mendoza, Argentina for my second Aconcagua expedition.

It was exciting to be near the bottom of South America and we marveled that on the way to the hotel we could look out to our left and see the Straight of Magellan.  The Straight, or Straights as it is sometimes called, was for us a mystical place that no doubt was important to both of us at some point for some high school history test, but was not something, back in high school, that either of us would have ever predicted seeing.  Here it was, named after the great Ferdinand Magellan and separating mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego to the South—it is the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

On the drive to the hotel, we were struck by the bleakness of Punta Arenas, a working port of some 120,000 souls.  Its climate is governed by its proximity to the chilly waters around it and average temperatures range from lows of 32 degrees in the winter to highs of just 57 in the summer.  It was about 45 degrees and quite windy when we arrived—indeed, it’s windy all the time, especially in the summer, when ropes are sometimes installed between buildings to help pedestrians walk around downtown—yikes!

Anyways, we were “treated” to views of working marinas, sparse grass and other vegetation and small, modest homes—we concluded it was not a place we would ever plan to live in.  After the 20-minute (and $20 taxi ride) we arrived at our hotel: Hotel Diego De Almagro (named after the Spanish conquistador credited as the first European to discover Chile).  This turned out to be a clean, tidy and well-run place to call home for a few days.

We had settled into our room for just 15 minutes when our lead guide, Greg Vernovage stopped in to “visit” us.  Greg is an accomplished mountaineer (among other things, he is the Expedition Leader for International Mountain Guides (IMG) Everest programs—the largest on Everest) and he won a gold medal in Beach Volleyball at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.  Anders and I had previously met Greg down in Mendoza and we were thrilled to have him as our lead guide!

After a few minutes of small talk, Greg got right down to business and asked us to run through a gear check for him.  This entails emptying each of our four 150L duffels of their combined 150 pounds of mountaineering stuff and comparing that to a checklist that Greg had designed to ensure we could safely visit Antarctica and return with all of our body parts in good working order.  One of the many advantageous that a triathlete brings to high altitude mountaineering is familiarity with building and managing a detailed checklist of all of the equipment, clothing, and fuel necessary for success.  Not surprisingly, Anders and I passed our equipment check with flying colors and managed to each identify 5-10 pounds of stuff we could leave behind in Punta Arenas.  Greg told us we were the first two of the six climbers on our team to arrive and ran through the agenda for the next couple of days.  He soon went off to attend to his many tasks as our expedition leader.

Anders and I went out to stroll around downtown Punta Arenas, which turned out to be a relatively modest metropolis.  We each had Chilean versions of hamburgers and went back to hang in our rooms and generally organize for the coming trip.

We went down to the hotel lobby around 8:30 pm to meet our team and head out for an “early” dinner.  All of the team was there with the exception of our "junior" guide, who was waiting for us down in Antarctica, having already led a successful expedition to the summit of Vinson.  More about this superstar later.  The other four members of our team were:

-Stefan: an experienced, late-30s Swiss mountaineer who is now a biology teacher at Emory University in Atlanta.  Stefan turned out to be a very strong climber who is well on his way to bagging the Seven Summits and is climbing with IMG on Everest in 2016.

-Rich: Stefan’s friend (they met on Aconcagua) who ironically is a Brit who now lives in Switzerland where he is a MD for UBS.  Rich is 45, and is also on a quest to climb the Seven Summits, and possesses one of the most infectious and wicked senses of humor I have ever encountered.

-Steve: an early 40s, DOD cartographer from Virginia, who is also working his way through the Seven Summits.  Steve is an accomplished cyclist and has the demeanor of a goofy kid—always saying funny things with a big grin on his face.

-Van: a 56 year-old (one year younger than I), experienced mountaineer who was a senior technology guy in Virginia (although he head not met Steve before).  Van was a taciturn man whose sense of humor was sometimes hard to fathom.

We had a pleasant, talkative dinner, lubricated by some Chilean Red and both Anders and I were excited by our team mates—they seemed like they were competent, serious mountaineers and at the same time, guys that were always looking to laugh and have a good time.  We didn’t realize yet just how lucky we were with this team.

On Sunday, December 28th, we awoke to a beautiful (somewhat rare) day in Punta Arenas.  We had breakfast with the team and were told to do our final duffel packing and have all of our Antarctic gear in the hotel lobby by 11 am where Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE)-- the company which manages logistics to and from the Big Ice as well as manages facilities down there—would cart them off in preparation for a potential Sunday evening departure southward.

We then killed time in Punta Arenas together as a team, discovering that our personalities seemed to mesh well.  We had lunch and bought some supplies at the grocery store, generally killing time in front of a meeting with ALE where we would learn if we were on to depart that evening.

At 5 we gathered with the other 60 or so people, who would be joining us on the flight to Antarctica (about half of these folks were intending to climb and the other half were mostly trekking, skiing or flying to the South Pole).  Finally the big moment arrived and the ALE meteorologist briefed us on conditions at Union Glacier—the place where we were to fly to in Antarctica.  Unfortunately, we soon learned that the wind was too high to leave that evening and further (and ironically), the weather might be too warm (mid teens) so that the ice runway might be too slippery, and that we might be delayed until Wednesday (three days hence) or perhaps longer.

This news was rather deflating but not unexpected—flying to Antarctica and landing on an ice runway in a big Russian Ilyushin cargo plane was no simple affair and the weather conditions had to be just right to make it work.  We decamped for another team dinner at an Italian restaurant that I had identified and which turned out to be not the best of choices, as we almost OD’ed on sodium.  We crashed and hoped to awake to better news on Monday.

On Monday the 28th we were told to be ready for a 3:00 pm decision/up-date on our departure plans.  Being ready means, we needed to be in a bus on the way to the airport just 20 minutes after getting the green light.  We spent the early part of the day eating and killing more time in Punta Arenas, including touring the Magellan museum, which turned out to have nothing to do whatsoever with Magellan.  At 3 we got the word that we should be ready for a 7 pm evaluation of a potential evening departure.  This news seemed encouraging, but we tried to not let our hopes get to high given the fickle nature of Antarctic weather.

At 6:50, Greg excitedly knocked on our door and said it was on!  We were to be packed up and on the bus by 7:10.  Yikes!  We looked at each other with shit-eating grins and were ready just 10 minutes later having prepared for just this moment.  We called Judy on the Sat phone and told her: “Its on!”.  She replied: “Oh my God” and I felt a bit of a pit in my stomach because while I was excited, I also shared a bit of her apprehension about the adventure ahead.  We said our goodbyes and I-Love-Yous and were on the bus by 7:10.  We promptly departed and stopped at 5-6 other hotels on the way to the airport, picking up the rest of the crew heading south.

The check-in process was somewhat comical as we were issued commemorative “boarding passes” and asked to bring our passports, even though Antarctica is not a country and lacks a border control.  Soon we boarded the big Ilyushin jet for the flight South.

The Ilyushin 76 is a large Russian four engine jet cargo plane.  It first flew in 1971 and was designed by the Soviets to take large and very heavy loads to remote underserved and frequently unpaved airstrips.  It was explicitly designed with the harsh conditions of the Arctic and Antarctic regions in mind.  Some 860 of these monsters were built up through the late 90s.  Through the 70s, 80s and 90s the big Ilyushin was the Soviet’s main military cargo and troop carrier.

Up close and personal, the plane is quite impressive and your main impression is of its spartan, industrial utility.  There were exposed airplane surface control pulleys and hydraulics and bare plywood with Russian stenciled on the sidewalls of the plane, which had no windows.  Up front and bolted to the floor were some 60 or so surprisingly comfortable passenger seats, six to a row and three to each side.  The back had a lot of sand colored cargo webbing and piles of mountaineering and other equipment of uncertain origin.

We all settled in for our nearly 1900-mile and 4.5-hour flight.  The engines once fired up were very loud, even through the earplugs we were issued upon sitting.  We began hurtling down the runway, which we watched thanks to a nose-mounted camera and soon were lumbering skyward through the leaded cloudscape.  A few minutes later we punched through the cloud tops and witnessed a dazzling sun and endless clouds to the south.

The passage southward was relatively routine and we were able to gauge our progress on the split screen display—one side the camera and the other a map that increasingly revealed the great continent of Antarctica.  The clouds disappeared and as we neared landfall we could clearly see large icebergs in the chilly waters of the Bellingshausen Sea some 35,000 feet below us.

Anders, Greg and I all caught some shut-eye as our body clocks wound past midnight.  The camera up front showed a never-ending expanse of white with textures whose scale was impossible to discern.  It also showed an intense Sun that would have been at home during the middle part of the day in summer back where I come from.  This never ending Sun was to become an ever-present characteristic of our experience over most of the next two weeks.

At last, the GPS map showed us nearing our destination—a place called the Union Glacier, which dissects the Heritage (Southern) Range of the Ellsworth Mountains—just 91 miles (as the crow flies—if there were crows down here) from the our objective, the Vinson Massif.  All eyes were riveted on the camera at the front.  It was hard to interpret what we were seeing.  We were flying into a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains—that much was clear.  What was not clear was the size of the mountains, our altitude, or the size of surface ripples.

Finally, the ground began to rise up towards us discernably faster and the surface features began to resolve themselves.  Our rapid approach velocity became apparent and then the blue ice runway became visible and shortly after we touched down the 140,000 pounds of thrust from the four giant turbofans was directed backward by the clamshell thrush reversal systems.  The roar was very impressive and the big aircraft sped down the ice hardly seeming to scrub any velocity away at all.  We could see the mountains at the far end of the runway coming ever closer and my mind couldn’t help but do a mental “Hmmm”.  But at last our speed became dramatically slower and then we rolled to a gentle stop.  The big turbines began to spool down and it seemed like there was a collective exhale before a robust round of applause—we were in Antarctica!  I remember thinking—this is so cool!

Without much ado, we all donned our arctic gear and filed out in orderly fashion towards the open front door and the noticeably cooler air streaming in.  Soon it was my turn and I stiffly navigated the awkward exit, ambled down the stairs and then I was standing on the blue ice of the Union Glacier, which is in some places 4500 feet deep.

As an aside, the Union Glacier was chosen as the landing sight for ALE operations and the big Ilyushins due to the alignment of the predominant katabatic winds (the tendency of colder, denser air to flow via gravity down the slopes of mountains and heat-up and become less dense) and the runway.  This alignment meant the wind was seldom crossing the runway and the frequently continuous wind naturally scoured the snow from the ice inhibiting drifting and other runway hazards.

We all stood outside gawking and taking pictures and smiling like the awed creatures we were.  I was aware of the cold but I just couldn’t get enough of looking around at the new and amazing vistas around us.  We boarded several SUVs with some of the largest tires I have ever seen and we proceeded out across the ice and blowing snow for the 20 or so minute ride to the Union Glacier camp.  Our truck conked out several times and the mind naturally drifted to the relatively unattractive option of hoofing it.  But we persevered and soon we were tumbling out into a mini-village with several temporary Quonset Hut type structures, a couple of pre-fab buildings, and a goodly number of tents pitched around the central area in surprisingly good order.

We all walked into the central hut hardly registering that it was 2 am.  It was very pleasant inside and the smell of tasty food reminded me that I had not had dinner.  Shortly thereafter I found myself consuming 2 fairly large bowls of mash potatoes and beef stew—yum.  I like this Antarctica so far!

In walked Mike Hamill and he went around and introduced himself to the team.  Mike was to be our “other” guide—it would be wrong to call him the junior guide if we call Greg the senior guide.  Mike is anything but junior.  Mike literally wrote the book on climbing the Seven Summits.  In fact, it’s called: “Climbing the Seven Summits, A Comprehensive Guide to Climbing the Continents' Highest Peaks”.  This is a must read for any one seriously considering pursuing this challenge.  Mike has completed 5 complete circuits of the Seven Summits, which obviously includes 5 summits of Everest.  This was to be his 9th attempt at Vinson.  He had stayed on the ice after successfully guiding a team to the summit (his 8th time) a few days before we arrived.  We were blessed to have two of the best professional guides in the world leading the way for our team.  I did not yet really realize how lucky I was soon to be—personally--to have Mike on the team.  More on that later.

We made short shift of talking to Mike as we had a lot of work to do.  We scurried off and found the 4 tents that Mike previously had set up for us.  We had to dig them out of the drifted snow a bit but at about 3:30 am Anders and I were in our tent, in broad daylight realizing we needed to get some sleep as we were all supposed to rendezvous at 8 am for breakfast.  Surprisingly it seemed quite warm in the tents in the sunlight, but sleep came relatively easily.

December 30: On to Base Camp

We had our first taste of the “endless sunlight” that is a fact of life here during the Antarctic summer.  Eye shades helped a bit and we both were able to get a couple of hours of sleep.  The sun warmed the tent and it was surprisingly comfortable during the “night”.  It had also been quite windy during the night and we found drifted snow packed around our tent and covering our duffle bags, which we had left outside of the tiny tent we slept in.

We met up with the rest of the team around 8 am and had a tasty hot breakfast.  We learned we were to fly out to Vinson Base Camp at 11:30 am—apparently there was a storm coming to Union Glacier and the camp manager wanted to get us up to Vinson before the weather window closed.  We quickly organized our personal and team gear and reported to the “runway” for our flight.

The first leg was aboard a DC3 as ALE wanted to move several teams up to base camp this morning.  This particular DC-3 had first flow in WWII, so it was even older than I am!  It was a mesmerizing 45-minute flight that had us all glued to the windows and gawking at the views of the Ellsworth Mountain Range.  We landed on a big snowfield not too far from Base Camp.  Apparently, the runway at Base Camp is too short for the DC-3.

We transferred all of our equipment from the DC-3 to two ski Otter planes and soon we made the short, 10-minute flight over to the Base Camp itself.  Once again we unloaded all the stuff and dragged it on sleds over to the area where we would set-up camp.  The guides had contemplated moving straight to Camp 1 but there was a deteriorating weather forecast and we had arrived at Base Camp around 2:30 pm so they decided we would spend a night at Base Camp.

We cleared and leveled an area for our tents and set them up.  We also took turns digging a five-foot deep hole in the snow for our “Posh” or dining tent.  That evening Mike cooked some pretty passable cheeseburgers and fries and by 9 we were all comfortably nestled in our sleeping bags.  The clouds had rolled in and the wind picked up quite a bit.  It felt like the temperature had fallen 30-40 degrees in a short time frame.  I had been wearing five layers on top and I kept three of them on during the night.

December 31st, 2015

We were up at 9 am after a sound 12-hour sleep.  We broke camp down and rigged and loaded up the sleds that each of us would drag the 5.5 miles up to Camp 1.  I left some stuff in a duffel bag at base camp (some things I would later regret not bringing like my roll of duct tape—I was destined to develop a nasty blister on my foot).  With my own personal stuff and my share of the group gear, I had about 50 pounds on my back and another 35 or so on my sled.  It was pretty overcast, which was a blessing as the sun, I’m sure, would have made it quite warm to move that much weight.

I left camp with just my base layer, a very light wind jacket and my down vest.  Even with this limited amount of clothes, I found myself sweating quite a bit as we climbed the first big rise that leads directly out of Base Camp.  Our course took us right up the middle of the Branscomb Glacier, which flows directly below the Vinson Massif.  The Massif dominated the view in front of us and early on we could clearly see the summit of Mount Vinson itself—impossibly high above us.

I felt very good and was happy to note that my calf felt just fine.  I had little trouble pulling and guiding my sled and found myself really enjoying the climb.  The weather was fairly ominous looking and as we continued to progress it began to snow or at least the snow on the ground was being blown about by a freshening wind.  The views, none-the-less, were spectacular and we were reminded many times that we were on an active glacier as we saw large crevasses and indeed crossed over several of them on snow bridges.  Of course, we were traveling roped together--in two teams of 4.

We stopped a couple of times and I took great care to drink and eat quite a bit.  We made a sweeping left turn as we ascended the glacier with the huge wall of the Massif climbing skyward to our right.  After just 5 hours we cruised into Camp One at 9,200 feet, some 2,200 feet higher than Base Camp.  We all felt great and quickly set up our campsite—near a sprawling group of tents that a large Russian team had set-up.  (Apparently, this team included one of Vladimir Putin’s chief economic advisors and they had talked directly to Putin the night before via a videoconference linkage!)

We had some mini-pizzas, which were once again surprisingly tasty.  The weather cleared a bit and the guides were optimistic that we might be able to get a carry up towards C2 the next day.  We were in our tent at 11 pm and heard a fair amount of partying going on in the Russian camp as they ushered in the new year of 2015.  At first, it was surprisingly warm in our tent and I found myself soon drifting off into a comfortable sleep.

January 1, 2015: Fixed Lines-1, RC-0

While the sun shines 24X7 in Antarctica this time of year, the geography at C1 is such that the sun sits behind the massive wall of Vinson until about 11 am.  Without the radiant energy of the sun it was very cold in our tents during the late morning hours.  As a consequence, we didn’t move until 11 and found the whole camp pretty much followed the same plan—maybe for some it was also the New Year’s celebrations of the night before.

In any event, when we awoke it was cloudy, windy and snowing!  (Mike told us that in his previous 8 trips he had never before seen it snow).  The forecast from down at Union Glacier was for a lot of nastiness so it seemed like we would not be moving this day.  We had a leisurely breakfast and everyone seemed content to waste time.

However, around 1:30 or so the weather improved pretty dramatically and Greg ordered us to gear up for a carry.  We spent about 30 minutes practicing fixed rope techniques and I had my first practice session with a Jumar, or mechanical ascender.  (BTW, its called a Jumar for the two Swiss dudes who invented it: Jurgen (Ju) and Walter Marti (Mar)—shouldn’t it really be called a Juwal?).  The Jumar has a cam in it that allows one to slide the Jumar on the rope freely in one direction (typically the direction of travel) and then locks when pulled the other way.  It is both a safety device, as it is attached to one’s climbing harness and a device that assists in climbing—you can pull on the rope and take some of the load off of your legs.

By 3 pm we were all set to attempt a carry.  I was to carry a pack that had about 50 pounds in it—some personal and some group gear.  The first 20 minutes or so were a relatively easy, roped climb up the glacier above C1.  And then we reached the bottom of the fixed ropes.  Rut Roh!

We stood at the base of the steep slope that led up to and disappeared behind a ridgeline far above us.  I knew that this section entailed 2,000 vertical feet over the course of about a mile (a little less than an average of 40 degrees) but as I starred at the physical reality of it, I realized that I had no idea that this climb included something this “technical” and challenging.  Now, I’m not saying that this would intimidate a real mountaineer, but it sure intimidated me!

This was to be my first time on fixed ropes and the guides decided we would be both faster and safer if we did not rope together.  The way this works is you first clip a short rope with a carabineer to the fixed rope above an anchor point.  Below the safety carabineer, you attach your Jumar to the rope and you slide the Jumar up an arms length and pull back on the rope, the Jumar locks and you pull with your arm and step with your legs.  Then you repeat.  Again, and again, and again.

Until you reach the next anchor point.  Now you have several issues.  As you get closer to the anchor point, you have to increasingly bend down as the fixed rope essentially reaches the snow.  This can be surprisingly difficult with the weight on your back and perched on a 40-degree slope.  Next you yell out: “anchor”, which lets the rest of your team know that you are at an anchor point and preparing to pass it.  You want to let the rest of the team know so they don’t unexpectedly yank on the rope as you are unclipping and re-clipping to get past the anchor.  Next you unclip the safety and reattached it to the fixed rope above the anchor point.  Then you undo the Jumar (which I found somewhat challenging with gloves and everything else I was trying to keep track of).  Once unclipped, you reattach the Jumar above the anchor point and below the safety and you’re good to go.  At that point you yell: “climbing” and continue on your journey.

As predicted, I quickly fell quite a ways behind the rest of the team.  I was really struggling to find the right rhythm.  The weight, the altitude, the slope, my unfamiliarity with fixed rope climbing, and my fitness all seemed to be conspiring to make it very challenging.  Mike patiently climbed behind me and kept offering encouragement and tips on how to be more efficient.  At times I would climb better, but I was finding this climbing extraordinarily difficult.  The rest of my team became tiny specs as they ascended above me.  Occasionally, I’d stop and glance around and realize the precariousness of my perch on this very steep pitch.  This didn’t seem to bother me as the snow was excellent and my crampons gripped it like Velcro.

This continued on and on.  I felt really stretched and my heart rate was certainly well into the 160s—not what I wanted.  Also, I had developed a painful hot spot on the inside of my right heel—I suspected I was developing a nasty blister.  After about 1:45 of this I could see the rest of the team had veered to the left and were resting under some rocks (know as the “Lunch Rocks”).  They still seemed quite a ways above me but all I could do was focus on climbing safely and putting one foot slowly above and in front of the other.

 Finally, I drew near the rocks and switched off the main rope to a traverse rope to the left.  Greg came down and asked to take my pack to make the last bit easier.  He also said that he’d decided to stop me here and send me down after I rested because he didn’t want to “blow me out” on this second climbing day.  He assured me that this had no impact on his view of my ability to summit—he told me he was confident I would.  Then he asked me if I was OK with it.  What went through my mind in very short order was:

1. I always do what the guides say—this is a big part of what we pay them for.
2. I was more than willing to give up my pack and to turn around—frankly I was cooked.
3. I was not so confident about the whole summit thing, but I’ve learned in my mountaineering experiences to not worry about the future until it arrives (at least not too much so).

I passed my pack on to Greg and he scurried up ahead of me.  I tried to focus on the very intimidating side slope that dropped rapidly and some 1000 vertical feet to my left.  My teammates asked how I was doing and shouted words of encouragement.  I gave the thumbs up.

I finally reached the Lunch Rocks and sat down next to my teammates.  Anders was concerned about my calf but I reassured him that I was having no problems with it.  I told him I had found the climb to be pretty challenging but I felt like I was beginning to get the hang of it.  Maybe with a recharge I would find it easier going come the next time we climbed it.

Greg removed all of the group and personal stuff I had planned to cache at the top of the fixed ropes and distributed them to the rest of the team.  He explained why Mike and I were going to head back to camp.  Richard asked if he could join me, which was met with a lot of laughter—in fact, my whole team was very supportive.

Soon we went our separate ways, Greg and the other five clients continued up the fixed ropes, while Mike led me down.  On the way down (which seemed considerably easier than going up) we passed 3 groups of 6 Russians, all in matching climbing gear and looking very fit to me—I couldn’t help but think that they belonged here and maybe I didn’t.  (However, fate is a funny thing and the weather and their schedule would conspire against them and none of the 18 Russians would make the summit.)

When the Russian teams would pass by, because they were roped together, Mike asked me to unclip my safety and stand (with both crampons firmly planted) to the side.  This was a little unnerving as I had nothing to arrest a fall, not even an ice axe, but soon enough we were by them and continued down to the base of the fixed ropes without any drama.

Mike and I walked back into Camp 1 and we each repaired to our separate tents.  My climb was 4 hours round-trip and I probably climbed to about 10,500 feet or so—still a good 1,900 below Camp 2.  I had managed just 1,300 feet of net vertical ascent on this day.

The first thing I tended to was to remove my climbing boots and socks to see how bad my right heel was—it was pretty bad.  I had a popped blister about the size of a quarter and a big flap of skin was hanging on by the half that was still attached.  Hmmm—this was going to be a challenge in the days ahead.  Wish I had brought my duct tape!  I put some Neosporin on it and decided that I would find a way to manage through it.

I made myself some nice salami and cheese crackers and drank a liter of water.  Once restocked, I lay down and fell asleep in a relatively warm tent, awaiting the return of the rest of my team.  It turned out that they made it to the top of the fixed ropes, cached our equipment and supplies, and returned with no problems.  The rest of the day was relatively uneventful and after dinner, we climbed into our sleeping bags and were soon asleep.

That night it got considerably colder.  So much so, that around 2 am both Anders and I were awakened and found ourselves shivering—this despite each having 3 layers of clothes on and laying in a 30 below rated sleeping bag.  Anders got up and put on his expedition 850 fill jacket and his wool hat.  He climbed back in his bag and zipped the mummy top over him so just his nose and eyes were showing.  I resisted unzipping for a few minutes but realized I was just too cold and I soon repeated his actions.  I continued to shiver for a bit and even thought about if Anders and I should zip our sleeping bags together, but soon I warmed and the rest of the night was uneventful.

January 2nd, 2015: Time To Reflect And Recharge

Today was both as mundane as it gets in mountaineering, and at the same time probably the most important day of this climb for me….

On the mundane front, we awoke to really challenging weather: cold, overcast and blowing hard higher up on the mountain.  Not a day to try to go higher. (Latter we would learn that the Russians left Camp 2 in their summit attempt only to have to turn around due to the life-threatening conditions.)  We all stayed in bed until 11 am when the sun at last emerged from behind the shadow of the Massif—still pretty cold but definitely more tolerable.  We ate, rested, managed our gear, rested, shot videos, rested, played cards, and rested.  A typical high alpine rest day—mundane.

On the important front, I was able to process and consolidate the events of the prior day and to build on that a view of what the next few days would likely bring.  My two trips to Aconcagua—the first a failure and the second a success--combined with the guidance and positive leadership that my son Anders always provides, put me in a place where I could best prepare myself for success on this climb.  Anders taught me, and I learned for myself in South America, that on a big climb like this there are a number of important things that you just can’t control:  the weather, the guides’ decisions, how your fellow climbers behave, and importantly and to a large extent, how your body responds to the stress that the climb puts on it.

The fixed lines yesterday kicked my ass.  Now the question was how was I going to deal with it?  I decided to not let it bother me.  I concluded I needed to take comfort in the fact that I did manage to get halfway up the fixed lines, and back down safely.  I now had a rest day to consolidate that training stress and to further acclimatize to the altitude.  I was in one of the most amazing places on Earth with my son and tomorrow was likely to be one of the great adventures of my life.  There was a lot of positive here and I decided I would be very positive and just get up and give it my very best.  Plus I knew there would be a bit of HTFU needed and I was confident I could bring that.

All in all, this was a very good day spent with my son and a bunch of folks I had come to enjoy and respect, all in a truly extraordinary place.  I went to bed with a smile on my face and a quiet determination to rise to the occasion and deal with whatever challenges that were to come my way.

January 3rd, 2005— Fixed Lines-1, RC-1

We were all up and moving as the sun cleared the Massif and by noon we were on our way.  I knew that today was likely to be the crux of my climb.  Despite this, I felt apprehension free and more confident than I had any right to feel.  I was very focused on all of the positives and tried not to let any of the worriers creep into my mind.

It was a beautiful day and I elected to climb with just two light layers.  I felt very good (in my mind better than on the 1st attempt) on the approach to the bottom of the fixed lines.  Soon enough we were there and Mike and I were the last to clip into the fixed ropes and begin the ascent.  I felt much more coordinated and settled into a nice rhythm right from the start.  I wasn’t fighting the slope as much as I did on my first attempt and while I was still the slowest, I was considerably more efficient.

I made steady progress up the fixed lines and didn’t fall as far behind as I had on my first attempt.  My HR was in the mid 150s so I felt well within myself.  After about 1:45 I made it to the top of the first section with little drama.  My team offered a lot of positive support.  I could see a bit of relief in Anders’ face as I told him “no problem”.  Also, my ego was pleased with the fact that no one asked to help with my load.

We sat on our airy perch, looking out over the incredible vista and focused on fueling up.  Greg checked in with me and told me that he was so psyched that we had a father and son climb of this magnitude going on.  He shared with me that his father had died when he was young and he would have given anything to do what Anders and I were doing.  I sensed that for him, it was personally important for me to get up this mountain.

After about 20-30 minutes, we were on our way again.  This was new territory for me and was about the same vertical rise of 1000 feet or so as the lower section.  If anything, parts of this pitch were even steeper.  Also, it seemed like the snow was less consolidated so in places the footing was a bit more challenging.  Still, I continued to experience good climbing form and in workman-like fashion progressed steadily up the upper fixed line.

I was filled with confidence and optimism.  I now absolutely knew I was going to get to Camp 2.  This is not to say it was easy.  This was a very taxing climb and as we ascended above 11,000 feet I could feel the effects of diminished oxygen pressure.  Finally, I reached the top of the fixed lines and Anders was there to hug and congratulate me.   I hugged him pretty hard and I won’t deny that there might have been a tear or two.

The weather was spectacular and the mood amongst the team was one of relaxed competence.  We all had made it through arguably the most difficult part of the climb and we were privileged to gaze upon one of the most stunning vistas on our planet.

We still had work to do, and I think all of us were surprised at how challenging the 90 minute ascent above the fixed lines turned out to be.  After 6:20, we rolled into Camp 2 at around 12,500 feet—we had ascended over 3,300 feet in relatively brisk fashion—most teams are in the 6-10 hour range for this climb.  We immediately busied ourselves sitting up our tents.

Around 7 pm, Anders and I crawled into our tent and rested our weary bodies.  It was hard for me to imagine, as I lay there, that we were going to get up and go 9-12 hours the next day—a rest day sure seemed like a good idea.  However, I put that out of my mind, as I knew the guides would be focused on the weather and if we had a window tomorrow then I was sure we would get the green light.  We called home to Judy and she was elated that we had both made it this far.  She thought we should have a rest day the next day but we said we’d let her know what the guides decided.

We gathered in our cook tent at 8 and I found I had a great appetite.  I devoured 12 chicken nuggets, a couple bowls of instant mashed potatoes, and a liter and a half of water.  BTW, having a good appetite at altitude doesn’t always happen and it’s a real positive when it does.  Greg confirmed that the weather looked good—clear but cold, with a chance of high winds up by the summit.  Anyways, it was good enough to take a shot at the summit and Greg told us to be up by 7 am so that we could get a relatively early start to the day.  We let Judy know the plan and then collapsed for what turned out to be 8 hours of deep sleep.

January 4th, 2015—Our Summit Attempt

We awoke around 6:30 to the noise of folks stirring in camp.  We lingered in our sleeping bags for a bit, delaying for a few moments the inevitable.  We rolled out of the tent around 7 and surveyed the scene.  From the looks of it there were 3 teams fixing to go for the summit and another 3-4 that looked to be staying put.   We had some tepid cream of wheat, which was marginally edible.  Despite the challenges of the day before, a quick survey of my aging and achy body seemed to indicate that I was good to go.

I talked over a strategy with Mike for lightening my load on this summit climb.  Normally, one doesn’t bring very much anyways—a couple of liters of water, 2000-3000 calories worth of high density food, and the extra and spare clothes you want to bring with you when you are likely to face potentially deadly weather conditions.  I elected to forgo bringing a backpack and cram all of my food and drink into the inner pockets of my big down parka or hooked around my climbing harness.  Mike agreed to carry the parka down low (for the first couple of hours) and Anders pitched in and carried my ice axe.  It doesn’t seem like much, but being able to climb with 12-15 less pounds was definitely helpful—my backpack weighs about 7 pounds by itself.

It was a brilliant new day with the sun blasting down on the pristine terrain around us.  It was well below zero but with the radiant energy, we all climbed in just 3-4 light layers on top.  We were the first to leave camp shortly before 9 am.  The initial pitch out of camp was quite modest and we made good progress.  I felt very good right from the get-go and I was quietly confident in my ability to make the summit.

The summit day climb involves an extended traverse over 3-4 miles around the backside of the Massif and under the summit itself.  This leads to a steep pitch of 30-40 degrees that brings one to the summit ridge.  The summit is reached by crossing a half-mile or so on the ridge with substantial exposure on both sides.  The net elevation gain from Camp 2 to the summit is about 3600 feet.

The early climbing was uneventful as we trekked upward, roped together in groups of four (we were still on glaciers).  We’d go for about an hour and then rest for 10 minutes or so.  I’d grab my parka from Mike and quickly eat and drink as much as I could.  On the third pitch we began to gain altitude more quickly and the climbing became more challenging.  One of the teams behind us elected to vector right and take the more direct, but steeper route to the summit.  We continued the longer route to the far left side of the summit ridge.

The wind picked up during our 3rd pitch and it became very cold—certainly at least 20 degrees below zero.  We all dawned our large expedition down jackets.  I had to constantly swing and shake my gloves to keep my fingers from getting too cold.  They were definitely numb from time to time and I was focused on monitoring them to ensure I avoided frostbite.

After 4.5 hours we reached the bottom of the steep 30-40 degree pitch.  This section was in places as steep as parts of the fixed rope section between Camp 1 and 2.  However, it was much shorter and there were no fixed lines.  The snow was excellent and we elected to climb with just trekking poles (we never did use our ice axes on this climb).  We all were pretty tired (and Van was having a particularly tough time).  However, at this point I could feel the pull of the summit and I was very locked in on doing the work necessary to get there.

The climb up the steep pitch took around 45 minutes and I found it quite challenging.  The wind was blowing very hard and the temperature was now more than 30 degrees below zero.  It was a constant struggle to keep one’s fingers from freezing while using the trekking poles.  Further, my goggles froze over and I was trying to use my glacier glasses in their place.  I had a balaclava pulled up over my nose and it was important to minimize any exposure of one’s skin to the elements.

Finally we reached the beginning of the summit ridge itself.  Mike’s team, which Anders and I were on, was about 10 minutes in front of Greg’s team as Van was increasingly having difficulties and Greg had elected to short-rope him to better protect against a fall on the steep slopes.  We waited for Greg’s team to arrive and I used the time to try to clear my goggles and glacier glasses.  When Greg’s team arrived we stashed everything but some drinks, food and our cameras and headed for the summit.

The summit ridge was a relatively flat run that maybe gained a net 200 feet or so over a half mile.  There was a mix of snow and bare rocks and there was a fair amount of scrambling where you used your hands as well as your feet to climb.  We were all on very short ropes as there were thousands of feet of exposure on either side of the ridge.  A fall here would have been quite problematic.

The climbing was easy and under most circumstances would have been real fun but unfortunately, my goggles and glasses once again fogged up.  I had to take them off at times so I could see where to put my feet or hands in the trickier sections.  I was worried about snow blindness (it was very bright) and freezing my corneas (it was very cold and windy) so I’d put them back on for the easier sections.  Mike helped me a bit here by letting me know when I had to take the goggles off so I could clearly see the tricky parts.  (We did not take any pics here but below our pics from another expedition to give you an idea):

I was completely absorbed in what I was doing so I can’t really say how long we were at it, but we came around one corner of rocks and Mike bent down and grabbed a small rock and put it in his pocket.  Then he stepped up onto the lip of a cornice and raised his hands and shouted.  It took me a second to realize that Mike was now standing on the Summit of Mount Vinson.  Mike stepped down and motioned me to do the same and I repeated his summit move.  I smiled and looked around and then back at Mike—he motioned me to quickly step down (as it turned out, the highest point on the ridge on this day was a cornice lip that curled out over a couple thousand foot drop off—not a good place to linger).  I watched first Steve and then Anders summit as well.  It took us 6:30 to make the summit.

The four of us were alone on the summit and we hugged and congratulated each other.  I had an extra big hug for Anders and my tears soon added to the frozen liquid on the inside of my goggles.

What happened next was a bit of a whirlwind.  It was very cold and windy but otherwise a perfect day—brilliant sunshine and practically unlimited visibility.  Greg’s team soon joined us and we took 100s of pictures, high-fived, and excitedly laughed and yelled.  All eight of us had made it!

After about 30 minutes, we decided we had better move before we got too cold.  We retraced our steps along the ridge and on the way down, my goggles were much clearer and I could more clearly see the dramatic terrain all around us.  Even with the exposure I felt very comfortable and in control.  I wasn’t having any trouble with the altitude and I knew I had a lot left in the tank.

We retrieved our stash, extended the ropes and headed down the steep slope that lead away from the ridge.  With the residual euphoria of our summit success this downslope seemed like a lot of fun.  We found a place out of the wind and rested and refueled.  I called Judy on our Sat Phone and the whole team yelled hi to her.  Judy recorded the following exchange with me:

“We made it!  We made it to the summit.  I'm calling from just below the summit, at 15,800 ft.  The views are just unbelievable, so incredible you can't even imagine. It was spectacular.  The guides were amazing, they are so amazing.  We all made it together.  We left at 9 am today and got up to the top at 3:30.  It was hard, so hard.  But the guides are the best guides in the world.  They got us up here. We did it as a team.”

I (Judy) asked: You mean you and Anders stood on the summit together?

Randy got very choked up and said, "Yes, we did. It was just incredible.  And the sun is out so the views are just unbelievable.  The most beautiful I've ever seen.  I'm sitting here talking to you right now looking at God's view."

The climb down was also stunning but all of us were tired and dehydrated by this point.  We stopped briefly, just twice, and after only 2:30 (9:30 door-to-door) we walked back into camp.  A dozen or so other mountaineers came over to congratulate us.  Lakpa Rita was one of the guys that came over and shook my hand—which was pretty special (he is the Everest Sirdar for Alpine Ascents and was on the cover of Outside magazine this past summer after the Everest disaster.  Lakpa is one of the most accomplished mountaineers in the world.  He has summited Everest 17 times and has led 253 other climbers to the summit of Everest).

Given our weariness, we didn’t spend a lot of time celebrating or talking about the climb.  I called home again and we prepared our camp/equipment so that we could leave the next day.  We had a couple of pretty pathetic hot dogs and gratefully hit the sack.  We knew we had another big day ahead of us.

January 5th, 2015—Back to Union Glacier

We were up and 7 and had delicious bacon bagels!  We broke camp and were on our way at 9:30 am.  We quickly made our way down to the top of the fixed lines.  Once again, I was at the rear, closely followed by Mike.  This was very demanding climbing.  No Jumars.  We were each clipped in with our single safety line and used a pressure wrap/grip on the rope with our up-hill arm to slow our descent and take pressure off of our legs.  I was climbing on the left of the rope facing downhill (looking directly at a 2000 foot fall).  My left leg was generally downhill and the rope was wrapped around my right arm.

This down climbing was physically demanding and I was pressure breathing and resting on just about every step.  I was tired and slow but felt like I just needed to focus and I would get through it.  About 1/3 of the way down my right leg, without warning just gave out (Mike would later describe it as like a sniper shot my leg).  I fell to the snow with just my left crampon engaged with the snow.  This was a precarious situation for sure and Mike urged me to stand back up immediately so that I had both crampons engaged with the snow.  He asked me if I was tired and I said yes, but I didn’t think that was why my leg gave out.  He asked if I was good to go and I said yes, definitely.

We continued on down and about 15 minutes late it happened again.  After I stood back up Mike said: “let’s stop and think about this…I’m worried about your knee giving out (he incorrectly assumed that my right leg was giving out due to my bad left knee) and then we’ll have a dicey rescue situation on our hands.  Give me your pack and I’ll carry it the rest of the way down.”  I said (and this is the only time I questioned my guides): “Are you sure?”.  Mike replied: “I know you can do this, but I don’t think we should risk injuring your knee—I can definitely carry you pack.”

Now, at this point Mike was carrying about 60 pounds and I about 50.  It seemed impossible to me that he could carry 110, let alone that I could figure out how to get my pack off my back and onto his—all on this 40 degree slope.  But that is what we did.  It took us a while and when we had attached my pack to the back of his, it looked ridiculous—probably sticking 3-4 feet behind him.  Words cannot describe Mike’s skill and strength as a mountaineer—I was thankful I trusted my life to him.

We were about 10 minutes of climbing above the Lunch Rocks and I yelled down to Greg to wait for Mike.  When Mike got there they split up my weight and shared the extra load.  I was off on my own and without the 50 pounds on my back I found the down climbing very easy.  I moved quickly and my leg did not give out again.  Soon Greg and Mike reached the bottom as well.  I reclaimed my pack and weight and we walked the short 20 minutes or so back into Camp 1.

We wasted little time and after just 30 minutes collected the rest of our belongings and loaded up the sleds for the 5+ mile descent back to Vinson base.  I felt strangely invigorated and perhaps because of the carry down the fixed-lines that I was sparred, I felt like I was one of the strongest on this part of the climb.  It took us 2½ hours with the sleds (we stopped just once) and a little over 5 for the whole climb down.

We collected the gear we had stashed at Base Camp and loaded up our duffels.  The Camp Manager came by and gave us a beer and we all dozed off in the sun waiting for the arrivals of the Ski Otters that were to take us back to Union Glacier.  They came about 90 minutes later and after another spectacular 60 minute flight over countless unnamed and unclimbed peaks, we touched back down on the blue ice at Union Glacier—the climbing part of our journey now successfully completed!

 We quickly integrated back into life at Union Glacier.  We ate 2-3 helpings of some type of stew thing and washed it down with some surprisingly tasty box wine.  There was salad and veggies and desert as well.  Many of the folks there came by and congratulated us and wanted to hear about the climbing.  I had a big smile on my face and I felt proud to be able to say that I was part of the team that had summited.  It was a wonderful first step back towards civilization.

January 6th-9th, 2015: Chillin’ on the Big Ice

I awoke to a new physical reality.  My right quad was extremely sore, stiff and swollen—or at least it felt that way.  It was so extreme that I had a great deal of trouble walking around.  Wow!  I talked to Judy and she was playing Dr. Goggle and we concluded that I must have torn my right quad some how.  While, this sorta’ explained my mysterious leg symptoms on the descent, I was confused because I would have thought if I tore my quad it would have been something that I would have noticed when it happened.

Since we climbed so quickly, we had to wait for the Ilyushin to return (which it did 4 days later).  During this time I gradually adapted to the challenges that my leg presented.  I had trouble sleeping at night and had to lay on my right side with my legs bent to manage the pain down.  I found that if I put ice/snow on it for 15 minutes or so my pain was quite diminished so I did this several times a day (fortunately there was a lot of snow and ice around).  However, during this time at Union my leg didn’t seem to get any better.

Despite this, life in Camp was very enjoyable.  We ate and drank and spent time talking to a wide range of very interesting mountaineers and other adventuresome types.  We participated in the lighting of the International Peace Flame—the first time for Antarctica.  There were also several quite enjoyable lectures on various obscure arctic explorers.  We watched movies, read selections from their extensive library of books about Antarctica, and played numerous games of Hearts and Gin.  I even managed to join Anders in a one-hour, very slow, fat-tire bike ride out onto the glacier—my first bike miles of 2015!  We also took advantage of the great facilities including indoor restrooms and even a hot shower every other day—very luxurious (for mountaineering) indeed!

Mostly, our time was spent talking with each other and soaking in the views, which never did cease to amaze.  One “evening” the most spectacular set of Lenticular Clouds formed reminding us that external conditions were still quite challenging once one moved away from the comforts of Camp.

After four days it was time to say goodbye to many of our new friends.  Amazingly, one of the teams that had left Union Glacier with us eleven days earlier was still on the mountain trying to summit!  This underscored both the importance of moving when the weather permitted and the great management job of our two guides.  After the big Russian jet landed, we drove out to the end of the runway and took some final pictures before boarding for the flight back to Punta Arenas.

 We buzzed camp on the way out and 4.5 hours later landed back in Chile.  We returned to the Almagro and went out for one last team dinner.  Lots of mediocre food and pretty good wine was consumed and we all reminisced about our remarkable time together.  We headed to a bar in the “Dream” Hotel and toasted our accomplishments and our friendship.  I lagged well behind on the walk back to the hotel and Anders stayed with me as we finally returned to our hotel in the early hours of the 10th.

There and Back Again (what happened next)

Later that day, we all headed back to the airport for our return to “normal life”.  Anders and I flew together to Santiago and then he headed west for LA and I north for Philly via Houston.  My trip took 34 hours in total (with various delays) and my leg did not fair well during the trip.

Back in Philly I went through 3 weeks of PT on my quad and it slowly seemed to get better.  Still it was completely outside of my prior experience the time it was taking for it to heal—I just concluded that I really had pushed it too hard on this climb.

At the end of January, Judy and I drove to Santa Monica in 2½ days as we had rented a place for a couple of months away from the cold and dreariness of wintertime Delaware.  On the 3rd morning I awoke to painful cramping in my quad—apparently the drive had re-aggravated my injury.  Fortunately, we only had about 8 hours of driving left and Judy did most of it.  Even with this, we had to stop every hour or so for me to get out and stretch and move my leg.

The first night in Santa Monica I awoke to the most excruciating pain I have ever felt—it was so extreme I literally was screaming, as my leg would go into uncontrolled spasms.  This pain was truly unbearable and I found that I could only lay on my right side and in one precise position or the cramps and spasms would return with full force.

After an exhausting and sleepless night we headed to the emergency room where the doctor ruled out Deep Vein Thrombosis, prescribed some heavy-duty pain-killers and set me off to see a sports orthopedic.  Over the next four days I saw a number of specialists, had several tentative diagnosis (including a broken hip), had 3 MRIs and half a dozen X-rays and an Ultrasound.  I was reduced to moving on crutches (for very short distances) and spent the rest of time in bed trying to endure the most extraordinary pain I’ve ever felt.  My narcotic dosage was increased by a factor of 6 and I had a pee bottle next to the bed because it was too painful to move the 15 feet to get to the bathroom.

The pain became increasingly severe and by February 4th it felt like my leg was literally on fire.  On more than one occasion I told Judy that if we if couldn’t figure out how to make the pain stop I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to live with it.

Finally, we found the right diagnosis.  I had Degenerative Disc Disease/Lumbar Stenosis.  Specifically, my L2/L3 disc was compressing my right side femoral nerve root and this was causing pain to radiate down my upper right leg (Radiculopathy).  The solution was a spinal epidural that immediately eliminated the pain.  It was miraculous!  When I went under anesthesia I wasn’t sure I could bear the pain anymore and when I awoke I was symptom free—never in my life has there been such a profound change in my sense of well-being.

Post treatment, my doctor recommended that I no longer run or climb and that I also give up twisting activities such as golf.  He told me it might be necessary for me to get another epidural in the ensuing few weeks and that it was highly likely that I’d need back surgery at some point down the road.

After thinking about these sobering words and then consulting with other experts, I’ve concluded that I’m not going to give up what I love to do.  I will take a year “off” and not aggressively pursue triathlon racing and I opted out of my Long Course races I had previously planned (an Ironman, 3 70.3s, and the ITU LC World Championship).  I’ve begun running again and have gone on several longer bike rides including a very aggressive ride up the PCH with Anders this past weekend (mid March).  My leg pain has stayed away and my leg strength has gradually returned.  I’ve so far not needed another epidural.

I also, in an unrelated issue, have been diagnosed with Cubital Tunnel Syndrome and will be having elbow surgery in early April so 2015 will definitely be my recovery and rebuild year.  I’m not sure what the future will bring, but I do hope to make 2016 my comeback year.  Whatever happens, I don’t take anything for granted and I’m immensely thankful for all of the great athletic experiences that I’ve enjoyed in all my multisport and mountaineering adventures.  I’m especially thankful for my time on the Big Ice with my son and a bunch of teammates who I now count as friends!

Thanks for taking the time to read this and letting me share with you my most excellent Antarctic adventure!


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