Seventh Summit – On Top of the Bottom of the World

When the lead guide Jacob told our team that we had about three hours to go to get to the summit of Mount Vinson, it seemed like I would not be able to make it.  We had been climbing on summit day for about five hours and I had a headache that was getting worse, not better.  Words like AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and Cerebral Edema were flowing through my hurting head and I could not believe that my quest was going to end in such an unceremonious way.  I knew that the only cure for AMS was going down and quickly, and the rest of my rope-team would have to go down with me, thus jeopardizing their own summit attempts.

There were a few levers that I knew that I could pull to attempt to ease the pain.  On the break, I drank as much water as I could, ate a granola bar, gobbled down some Gu, and took an Excedrin.  I readjusted my goggles away from the throbbing veins, took off my parka, and took a few tenuous steps with the team and hoped and prayed that the pain would go away.

Just then I saw something glittering in the snow and ice at my feet and though it looked like an illusion, it turned out to be a rock far from any formation, and I quickly bent down and put it in my pocket for a hoped-for medicinal lucky charm.

After about fifteen minutes of climbing in the gathering light snowstorm, and temperatures hovering around -15c with a brisk wind, the pain started to subside and I felt better about the chance to stand on the top of the bottom of the world.

We took another break about an hour later and Jacob asked me if I was excited yet.  I told him “not yet”, that I was waiting to get a little closer, where the summit would be even more achievable.  I did not want to jinx the last part by doing something stupid like breaking an ankle or falling in a crevasse.  I drank some of the chai tea I had in a thermos inside my jacket, ate a frozen Snickers bar and pulled on the gloves tight to keep my hands warm and frostbite-free.

As we kept going up the glacier, I just tried to focus on ‘making every step count’ and keeping the rope in position and with mindless, thought thoughtful climbing.  We turned right to come around the back side of the mountain and the wind started whipping up and chilling us to the bone.  I pulled the woolen hat tight, put the hood up, and concentrated to getting to the final pause before the last steps to the top.

My fellow rope-mates were strong and their strength carried me along.  Every step was a step closer – and away from the high-camp that we would still have to return to that evening.  Time dragged on and then accelerated as the ultimate goal slowly came into my mental view.

Suddenly, we were taking the final break. I turned to Jacob and said, ‘now I’m excited!’ It took some time to open our packs, put on our -40 parkas and -40 Alti-mitts, get the cold ice-axes into our hands and prepare ourselves for the final thirty minutes to an unknown summit.  As we started out again on the final journey, I was then overcome by emotion.  I could hear involuntary mini-sobs coming from my parched throat as I thought about the last six years and everything it took to get to this moment.  I was holding back tears for fear they would freeze beneath my goggles, and really trying to concentrate on somehow enjoying this part of the climb, embed the images in my brain while doing everything technically right for myself and my roped-up team-members.

By now we were in a mini-whiteout and could not see more than 50-100 meters ahead of us.  There were some technical sections that involved maneuvering around rocks, clipping in on a running-belay and straddling a ridge that seemed to never end.  I kept thinking that it was one of those optical illusions where we would turn a corner and I would expect to see the final ascent and peak ahead only to find more climbing and more ground to cover.  How funny I thought, that the closer you get to your goal, the farther it sometimes seems.

And suddenly, we were there!  I could see the rest of our group reaching the top and starting to un-rope and take the ceremonious inevitable pictures.   By know, I was fighting all of the joyous and mixed emotions that were so long in the making.

We took a team picture and then some small group pictures and ate and drank a little for we knew that we were just halfway there, needing to descend safely as that is where many of the accidents occur.  We gathered some small stones from the top and put them in our pockets, mine joining the most important rock from several hours ago.  I retrieved my satellite phone and made two calls from the summit.  One call was to Michelle for being with me these past eight plus months and providing strength and wisdom when most needed.  For my second call, I phoned Gerri, the leader from our company that had hired me over two and a half years ago and I thanked her and the company for their support and encouragement.

Six years of climbing to reach this seventh summit, thirty minutes on the top and it was time to go.  We all hugged each other and we knew it was time to move on.  We roped up and hurried our way back down as fast as we could go before the storm that was coming in would hit us.

As we pulled into high camp, exhausted and exhilarated, the winds started to really howl, for what we estimated was 20-25 mph gusts.  We had been lucky with the weather, Jacob estimated from the forecasts that it was around -25c at the summit, compared to -35c the previous week and for what can be -50c.  We quickly took off our wet-from-sweat socks and clothes and put on warm and dry layers and the tents whipped in the winds and we huddled in our sleeping bags trying to warm up.  We felt good, but not as good as when we could get all the way down to base camp and really enjoy the summit.

The guides quickly brought over hot water for drinks and soup as soon as they could melt snow blocks and we ate a quick meal of freeze dried food while we stayed in our tents.

The wind blew all night and I had dreams of never getting down or at least being stuck up here for days.  I out on as many layers as I could and put on some calming music from my near frozen iPod to fall asleep and awaited the new day.

It had been a Christmas Eve to remember but when we woke up that Christmas Day, there were no stockings, no family members to surround us, no presents to open, just the promise of returning to life as we knew it and the self-satisfaction of accomplishing something that all of us had dreamed about for a very long time.

The next morning the winds finally died down and we slowly went through the process of breaking down the tents, packing up the sleeping bags and pads, and using the toilet as best as we could.  We took in oatmeal and dried flakes and drank what coffee or tea we could knowing we would need all of our strength for the long climb down.

I led our team on the first section of the down-climb until we got to the fixed roped section.  We un-roped and wrapped the down-rope around our arm as we made sure we were always clipped in one or two ways with our carabineers.  The snow was deep and slushy in places and in others it was cold blue slippery ice that the crampons loved to bite into.

As we rolled into our mid-camp, we knew there was one final long section that separated us from what promised to be a great celebration.  We gathered our caches from this camp and lashed up our tricky sleds that we knew would fight us and our team-mates all the way down.  Which they did.

With only about 500 meters to go, the sled ahead of me had a life of its own and was attacking my team-mate Vanessa.  I finally got control, while Steven behind me looked after mine and we just kept going down, leaving the mountain behind us.  Finally, our base camp appeared into view and every step brought it closer to reality.

I remember pulling in, pulling off my crampons, stowing my ice-axe in the ground, stashing the ski-poles and focused on getting our tents set up so we could get into warmer clothes and start the process of eventually getting off the continent if the Twin Otter could reach us and ultimately the Ilyushin big-plane to Union Glacier.

As we rolled into the mess-tent, Jacob and Sebastian were already cooking up a meal for kings and queens, or at least for returning summiteers.  Frozen steaks were sizzling, mashed potatoes were boiling and vegetables were steaming, all of which had been waiting their turn in the snow for our return.  They pulled out a couple of small boxes of red wine to which we took a few sips and started feeling a small return to civilization, though that would be a number of days off.

I’ve had some good steaks before, but maybe none as good as this one.  The smell had started to permeate our tents and our mouths were watering before we even tasted the first bite.  At the end of the meal, the team toasted me on my seventh (for others this was their fourth, fifth or sixth) and I passed out cigars that had been carried to this place for my fellow travelers.

At this point, Sebastian pulled out a gift-wrapped box and a piece of paper that he handed to Steven to read.  It was a congratulatory note from my colleague Fred and inside the box was a bottle of Macallan 18 year old Scotch whisky – to which we would all ultimately enjoy before the trip was done.

Being as it was still Christmas, the ANI/ALE team had started a small party in their logistics/communication tent where they had imported beer, wine and champagne.  We all headed over there and toasted each other to our accomplishments, while we wished out loved ones were there to celebrate with us.

As I headed the short distance to the tent that Steven and I were sharing, I stopped to look around and take in my surroundings.   Even though it was 2am by now, the light shined brightly from the sun that was always in the sky while we were there, even if hidden by clouds or snow.  I could hear laughter faintly coming from the tent I had just come from and my sleeping bag and pads lying on the frozen ground were just steps away.

At that moment, I wasn’t thinking that I was now around the 350th person that had ever accomplished the seven summits or just one of several that had done the summits and the seven continents marathons.

I was filled with gratefulness and peace and thankfulness.

As I gazed at the mountains and icefalls and glaciers that surrounded us, I thought about the loved ones that had been with me on this decade long expedition.  I thought about the trade-offs and sacrifices, the joys and hardships along the way.  I thought about the original dream and how the straight-line that I had imagined it would be, turned out to be a long and winding road.  In that moment surrounded in my heart by my parents, grandparents, brothers, sons and girlfriend, I was incredibly thankful for their support and for my various colleagues and friends that were roped up during these past many years.  The deaths that I had witnessed on Denali and Everest gave perspective to the non-guaranteed safe summit that we all strived for.

I vowed again to never take anything or anyone for granted and to enjoy each and every moment of this short life that we have been given to make a difference in other people’s lives and the chance to be a better person each and every day.

As I opened the tent zipper, I took one last look around and smiling through tears, it finally became real.  When you are lucky enough to reach one dream, you celebrate.  And then you start thinking about the next one.  I closed the tent door, zipped it up, and laid my head down on my parka pillow and started thinking about the life left to live as I closed my eyes and felt nothing by love and gratefulness.