Monday, March 11, 2013

Antarctica - Part 3

Vinson Massif's summit
Parts 1 and 2

We soon hit the steep wall, climbing very slowly. The headwall is similar to Denali’s steep wall going up camp 17,000.

The headwall has fixed lines. Good! I never liked roped up travel as I couldn’t properly pace myself. With fixed lines, although a lot harder – at least I’m on my own.

As usual, the 2 racing Americans switched to high gear and move fast. Rick slowed down as usual, and slower even. Levi and I were just around Rick either pretending to be a good responsible, considerate team mate, OR were just secretly resting following Rick’s slower pace.

We soon arrived in the rest stop and after several hard deep breathes, Rick gave a thumbs down – he said he had enough and wanted to go down. Mark radioed the first team and told them and Levi and I were to go up, but Rick and Mark himself would cut the trip short. The challenge was – Levi and I needed to carry a bit of Rick’s stuff and bring them up higher. The stronger guys should be playing this role, but they were miles away!

Levi and I continued our VERY-STEEP climb, silently cursing Rick and the fast-guys on our added-weight agony. Levi shared that he was having a hard time cramponing in the steep section – and got worried about a possible blister.

Soon we reached the big rock – the end of the head wall. I was ready to give up just like Rick to preserve my strength for the final go-up.

Jacob asked everyone if we were ok to proceed to the high camp, a distance of around one hour of gradually inclined hike. Everyone but me said “ok”. No choice!

We continued the gentler-slope approach to high-camp with some considerable winds. Towards the end and in my near-wreck state, I shouted “I need a breather, I need a drink!” We stopped and I quickly gulped the ice-chunky liquid I have in my Nalgene bottle. Then one guy shouted “How far is it?” – then the guide answered that high camp was just over the nearest crest. A distance of like 100yards!

Omar and I looked at each other and LAUGHED! I asked for a pre-empted stop very near the end-point!

We soon arrived and cached our gears and extra supplies then head down fast. That was the easier part.

We zoomed down and soon, after a total of seven hours of up and down effort - we finally arrived safely in the comforts of our tents – with hot drinks waiting for us! Thanks to Mark who arrived earlier and had enough time to boil water.

Rick was worried seeing us exhausted. He has to muster all his energy and will power to get up that headwall the next time around.

Dinner soon followed and we prepared to retire soon.

To sleep when tired is an easy thing to do. I quickly fall into deep sleep inside my very comfortable -40C sleeping bag. No place like a warm, cozy and soft sleeping bag in a frozen world of the Antarctic. Zzzz…

High Camp 12,400ft

We rested for another day and start assembling our gears for our final go-up.

Next day - we sluggishly came out of our sleeping bags not knowing if we’d push through given visibly low dark clouds above the headwall and light snowing in our camp.

After a quick breakfast – it was announced that we’d go for the high camp. I was tempted to argue about the gloomy weather fearing another Denali-like storm, but seeing the eager team to move up, I just kept silent. I thought Jacob was in a hurry, we were not even at the half-time of the trip so I thought we can wait for a perfect weather. On the other hand, things may get worse and more days lost - and we may suddenly lose our chance to summit – an experience I had in Aconcagua. I just hoped that the decision was right.

We soon roped up and move slowly towards the base of the headwall, almost an hour away. We were the first team to go up the high camp, at least for this batch of climbers. Meanwhile, the Russians were still finishing up their vodka and stayed behind for a couple more days.

The going was expectedly tough, and I was deliberately taking small steps to pace myself. The first team whooshed up again and quickly got ‘smaller’ and smaller in our view as they relentlessly trudged their way up.

I went ahead of Levi, Rick, while Mark kept the tail. I felt ok doing my normal pace, of course.  I arrive early in the rest-stop and waited for the guys, while eating what was left in my snack-arsenal, adobong mani!

Levi soon joined me, looking more tired than the previous climb - asking in weird tone “Lakas mo ah, and that’s your only source of energy?” pointing at my peanut snack. I said yes, and lamented that I didn’t have his trusted gu and gels.

I continued my walk up with aching ankles. It seemed like another never-ending climb, but we finally got up the top of the headwall – but with worse weather. I was panting, Levi coughing hard, and Rick dying far below us. We tried to shield ourselves from the Antarctic wind as we wait for Rick and Mark to reach our point.

Rick soon made it, alive, or at least barely. He still talked so I concluded he’d be ok.

The last section was way lot easier, gentler – but the strong wind made it presence seemingly shooing us away from the mountain.

We quickly fixed our stuff, while the old boys helped Ricky. Omar was nowhere in sight.

When I got in my tent – Omar was just comfortably sitting there in his downsuit, half body inside his down sleeping bag, covered head to toe with everything in his arsenal. Hahaha! “The guy from the desert is feeling the cold!” :)

Envying Omar and the rest of the guys - I soon switched to my new downsuit to keep warm.

We rested and ‘toured’ our nice camp. High Camp is THE BEST camp in Vinson. A PERFECT view of Mt. Shin – one of the continent’s tallest mountains, a partial view of Vinson and mesmerizing view of the Ronne Ice Shelf in a far away distance!

There where good nooks and corner with visible rocks offering spectacular Antarctic views. We took time taking videos and pictures – and simply cherished that moment. It was a rare opportunity to see first-hand the vast landscape of the Ice!

Seeing the beauty of this world from somewhere high above was never a missed opportunity for me. And I’ll forever climb high mountains for as long as I could and continually be awed by this lovely planet.

We rested and regained our strength quickly including Rick who by then was again loud, talkative and endlessly cracking jokes! Except for Levi who seemed exhausted, coughing here and there.

After a good rest in the camp, followed by a good dinner, it was time to really rest and sleep our troubles away.


In the middle of a bright night, I zipped out of my sleeping bag and observed that Levi was severely coughing, seated ‘Indian-style’. He said that he couldn’t sleep lying down as the fluid in his lungs was giving him a coughing problem – so he tried to sit out the night, literally - while trying to doze off from time to time. I got worried! My immediate thought was his worsening health and his dwindling chance to summit. I silently hoped that he’d be ok and recover soon, and reluctantly crept inside my sleeping bag.

Day came and we prepared for our breakfast.

The guides announced that if the weather holds, we’d be attempting the summit the next day. Meanwhile – we heard that the Russian team was finally making their way up, and we figured that their vodka supply was probably very low by then. The other teams are also trudging their way up the high camp. My team and the park rangers would be doing the first ascent for this big batch of climbers.

Late morning – Levi finally approached our guides, shared what was troubling him and asked for a cough medicine. He’d need a lot more than just cough medicine… Mark, who initially didn’t mind the coughing noise – even if our tents were just pitched side-by-side, was suddenly attentive on Levi’s short tale. Just a few sentences with loud coughs in between - was enough to convince him that our dear friend was in deeper trouble.

He quietly ‘sounded’ the alarm bell, notifying the ALE doctors and Union Glacier of a possible emergency scenario. Soon the ALE doctor-climber in the camp arrived and did a quick check up. Her advice – Get down fast!

Our guides soon planned and executed Levi’s evacuation. After a few hurried minutes of preparation, Jacob and our dear friend were on their way down.

My team just helplessly watched, silently wishing our dear team mate to be safe and to recover soon. There was really nothing we could do.

We spent the rest of the day quietly relaxing, loading on food and preparing our gears. “It’s our Big day tomorrow!”


That night – it was quiet. No loud coughing, or late-night talking, just a little hiss of wind - and silent thoughts from everyone on how the summit day would go.

As I try to ‘worry’ myself about the summit – it slowly dawned on me that one of the big risk and fear factors was no longer there… -- Jacob’s probable plan to push fast!

With only Mark guiding the whole team – all of us we’d be in one rope team. A fact that the two strong dude clearly would not desire, but a welcome news for us weaklings. It meant we all have to move at the pace of the slowest climber.

I reckoned Mark would do everything possible to reach the summit especially since this was his first Vinson trip – and he needed success if he were to have a ‘next trip’.

The only probable reasons not to succeed would be extreme bad weather. Or alien invasion…. :)

Early morning came and we quickly devoured our instant meals and prepped for the big climb ahead. The two power guys were eager and efficient and were already waiting in the rope line while Omar, Rick and I were still hovering around camp searching for last minute items or some lost gear or tools.

I was almost wearing everything in my winter-battle arsenal, except for my mittens (I only used 2 fleece gloves through-out and felt ok).

We soon started our then better-paced walk towards the summit. In the first couple of hours – I felt strong and asked Rick to give me his 1Li bottle and jacket to lighten his load. See, I was being kind. And didn’t want Mr. Slow-man to die out here, and have another unwanted Denali-like ‘team-mate rescue’ ordeal. It would be a risk for all of us if our guy got exhausted so soon and far away from our objective.

The first five hours was ok – until we reached the last half of our climb.

There were two other teams worming their way up the summit and all of us were taking the same direct approach, and I could see one strong team, the park ranger team and the pretty doctor - taking the shortest, most direct and most difficult route.

I’ve learned in Geometry and the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And that was exactly what we were all trying to do.

We soon reached a treacherous ice field. A few steps on hard ice told me that we were not on safety mode. Our ice axes were strapped in our back, meant to be used on steeper sections. But a false move or one slip on a broad ice field could easily send my ENTIRE team down to oblivion. Mark noticed this and asked everyone to start using ice axe for extra support and standby safety tool.

Another couple of hours and I soon realized that I too was near bonking. In one of our rests, I called to Rick to get his stuff back and said that I was tiring. He didn’t like it, but had no choice so he reluctantly took his stuff back and said (with his perfect American accent) “Thanks Rowmi..” My pro bono porter service has ended. A weight of little below 2kg is a HEAVY mental burden to carry!

I continued our VERY slow way up. I initially thought that our headwall climb was steep, but given our point-to-point, direct approach to the summit – it was S-T-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-P from 40degress to 60 to 80 and almost 90 on the last couple of meters.

Near the last section, Mark and the two strong dudes were now noisily urging Rick to go faster, while I silently prayed that Rick would go slower! Hahaha!

There was one occasion when I heard Mark shouting at Rick “C’mon, just a little more!” and slow boy answered back “I caaaan’t, I cann’t do thiiis anymhoooore…” HAHAHAHA! It was not funny back then, but when I remember that time – it was just hilarious!!!

Soon we tackled the ‘last approach’, a very steep snowy wall! I was 3rd on rope, Mark led the way, zig-zagging towards the ridge. I looked up and I couldn’t tell where the exact summit was, but somehow knew that getting up that ridge was the last hurdle.

On the last couple of meters, Mark powerfully climbed vertically and soon reached the top! He then shouted Rick, second on our rope, to muster all his energy and finish the last section. Now if you could imagine a wounded, dying animal trying to get up a small gorge escaping from a crocodile’s toothed grip – slowly and helplessly crawling its way up to freedom - that would be how I saw our guy! Haha!

Everyone but me were chanting “Go Rick, go Rick, go Rick - you can do it!” Still wounded and slow, he desperately try to climbed the last vertical section, his boots and crampons clawing whatever snow or ice that got its way! On his last meter – it was just so funny seeing him trying hard to kick his way up. And not having enough traction for a crampon grip, he stayed hanging while clinging on his dear life holding on the rope. Mark pulled the rope and we could see Rick’s legs dangling uselessly just below the ridge’s edge. As the guys would later say – “it was like pulling a struggling crocodile out of the water!” haha! A funny scene indeed, though I was too tired to appreciate it properly. And because I was the next in line.

I paced myself, ensuring I have enough oxygen in my system. The first half of that last vertical hurdle was difficult as my crampons could not get grip on thin layers of crumbling snow. The second half was more difficult, it was almost 90 degrees in incline. On that latter part - I started “front pointing’ my crampons as if ice climbing, then used my ice axe to ‘dig’ the wall to pull myself up. This exercise when done at 16,000ft is TIRING! I could feel fatigue all over! I could hear the loud shouting from my team mates “Go Romi, Go Romi!!” and worried that I could be like the comic Rick if I don’t tackle this last part properly.

Slowly and deliberately, with a continuous climbing motion, I crawled up summoning all of my remaining strength! “Never mind what happens next – I needed to climb this now!!” came my adrenalin-induced motto! One kick! Two kicks, Slam the Ice axe, Move up!

Finally my torso was halfway above the ridge-edge and I could see Rick splattered on the ground beyond the edge – like a dying fish! It was supposed to be a funny sight but I still have a few feet to go to let myself be entertained!

Up! Up! I used all my arm muscles’ strength to haul myself up and FINALLY – I WAS UP THE SUMMIT RIDGE! Instead of jumping in celebration – I envied Rick and collapsed on his side – like another dying fish! “Haah, (breathing hard) haah, haah!” I was breathing very hard, my heart was pumping wild, my mouth open gulping all the air I could suck in!

A few seconds later, I pulled out my cam and took a video of myself lying down and recall saying -with pause of gasps – “I am now on top of Vinson (pause, inhale, exhale), Tapos na ang 7 Summits…” then I went on and said “Pati ako, tapos na rin!” (I’m also finished). HAHAHA! I amused myself of my own style and timing of humor - while still in misery!”

Soon all the guys made it on top of the ridge, and so I have to get up and walk the last 20meters to the highest point of the ridge. In the last meter, I walked slowly and deliberately, wearing a big smile, stopped then stand on Antarctica’s highest point!


It took us around 9 hours to reach the highest point ‘Not bad!” I thought. Omar did a fist-to-fist bro greeting with me and said “7 SUMMITS!” - I smiled and nodded and said “Congrats, one last for you….”

Then we all high fived, hugged and tapped each others’ shoulders. Mark was visibly very happy as well, and I heard him calling the office to announce our success. The inevitable photo session soon took place. The weather was still somewhat cooperative so we took a bit of more time to ‘capture our moment’. The wind was just probably 10-15kph, and temperatures at -26C. Not bad for a high peak in a feared cold continent.

We started to relax and ‘settle down’ and simply cherish our summit experience… For a few memorable minutes – we were just sitting down, quiet, contented, smiling proudly – and just enjoying our ‘moment’….



“All good things must come to an end” – was my predominant thought when I have to leave a treasured place. Vinson’s summit was not just a summit for me – it marked the conclusion of a journey that took me 10 years to complete. The 7 Summits!

With much reluctance – we said our good-byes to Vinson’s summit with a high probability of not getting back to her arms again! And just like someone who you dearly love but wanted to walk away, it was hard to say good bye knowing that you may never see her or him again.

(the end)

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