New Millennium New Year's Eve Antarctic Style
December 31, 1999
by Dave Hahn
Not much time left in this day...month...century...or millennium either (depending on how you like to count them). It is afternoon on the 31st of December, 1999. The view, if one could see it through the cumulous clouds, has not changed in any number of "people years."
I'm in a place where time seems a little arbitrary, where one day becomes the next without the moon and stars intervening. A book lover's dream - it never gets too dark to read at Vinson Base Camp on the Branscomb Glacier in Antarctica. Not during the climbing season, at least, which is why we are all here. But that should be rephrased under the current circumstances... since I'm the only one here.
The last batch of climbers left on Christmas Day. That was Willi and his Alpine Ascents gang, Skip Horner and his folks, and the three fine companions that I guided through a storm and a summit day. When the Twin Otter flew them all to Patriot Hills (about 120 miles away) we had high hopes of getting the next batch of climbers in the following day, including some of my best friends, fellow Rainier guides Paul Maier, Brent Okita and Heather MacDonald.
I was anxious to get them in and hear all the news and laugh over all of their old mistakes again. It didn't happen that way, despite our good intentions. The weather has been uncooperative; some would call it unfair... but that puts too much of a human spin on a place where humans don't get much done on schedule. (See also the modified schedule of Ernest Shackleton and crew back in 1914, 1915 and 1916) Lots and lots of clouds is the way I see it. Which means I can't call the airplane in.
It is "visual flight rules" in most parts of Antarctica, but particularly for a flight through the Ellsworth Mountains and an attempted uphill ski landing on a glacier at 7,000 feet, some clarity is required. The company I work for (ANI) wouldn't think much of me blowing the call when fuel costs about a billion dollars a barrel in these parts. Neither would the Canadian Twin Otter crew look too favorably on me trying to wreck their plane in such conditions. So it is just me in camp, looking out of the tent every 30 minutes or so to see what the inside of a cloud looks like.
I can usually make good use of time, even if it comes at the end of a millennium... washing socks, melting snow and packing food for future trips. That isn't such a bad life anyway in this beautiful place. I'm never opposed to a little time for reading a good book or napping a good nap on such days. There is very little adult supervision down this way... I can choose to eat a dozen big chocolate bars for breakfast, lunch and dinner in my glacier hideout.
Or I could go out skiing and climbing in the fog. But figuratively, I remember that I live in the middle of a great "candy store" in which eating too much will be fatal. This place has a heck of a lot of glaciers lurking about. Make too many new footprints without a rope and eventually you will become an extremely well-preserved crevasse researcher. Adventure Network didn't hire me for that particular position (although there were many openings) and so I need to be a little conservative in my wanderings.
The normal route on the highest mountain in Antarctica is often my best choice since I'm fairly familiar with it and since it starts at my tent door. I do like "highest" mountains, although I resist trying to rank their worth against anybody else's geographic obsessions. The "rules" of the Seven Summits game are a frequent topic of conversation down this way... someday, I intend to write them in snow (in bright yellow) so as to end all debate.
I like this particular mountain for its beauty, its setting, and its difficulty, but also because of my own history with it. Not all of that history has been happy or worth repeating though, I keep trying to sort it out so as not to make the same mistakes more than 20 or 30 times.
The clouds out on my glacier right now are just clouds, they don't mean to hurt anybody. What hit us last trip up the hill was a real wind-driven, snow-tossing, time-consuming storm. I'm sobered by the memory that I almost died during that storm. A little reality that I was not so proud of at the time but one that I figured I should do my best to remember. We had been hunkered down behind thick snow walls for about four days near Camp II when I decided that more food and fuel would be a good thing.
Skip was camped in a little snow fortress just out of sight, Willi in another, a little farther away. We'd been trading weather observations for a few days; "Windy over your way?" "Yeah." And we'd been fretting over what we supposed was a growing avalanche hazard. And I guess I was worrying over food and fuel just for the hell of it. We had more of the stuff, and when I mentioned that I was thinking of going down for still more, Skip and Willi had both said they'd be happy to share what they had.
I hadn't even entertained that thought for an instant though. Part of the weirdness of big dollar guiding I suppose. Not many people get down to Vinson without burning through the better part of $30,000, their own or someone else's...it doesn't much matter, it is a big stack of cabbage. Luckily, it is not placed in my hand for a summit bid, or else I'd be reporting a lot more near-death experiences (for a short time, anyway). It goes for airplanes and fuel and aircrews and logistical things involved with running tourism in a strange place far from other places. I have no qualms about whether it is money well-spent, it is just the cost of doing business down here... but I am aware that it is about the same as a big shiny new four-wheel drive truck... a heap of money.
And I don't easily forget that most climbers I get to work with here have made some sort of once-in-a-lifetime promise to spouses and/or employers back on the hot part of the globe. There are plenty of times when I would stand on my little soapbox (gained by 15 years as a professional guide) and say that no amount of money would get me to make mistakes in the mountains. And that is true...mostly. If somebody shows up without fitness or the proper equipment or respect for the mountain, then I don't really have much problem ending that guide-client relationship before it gets somebody hurt.
The trouble is when just the opposite situation is in place, when some good person has done everything they can to reasonably get up this mountain and there is some reason to fear that they won't... and I desperately don't want it to have been my fault. It is just mountaineering, of course... you don't always get up mountains, no matter who or what is at fault, guided or unguided. I've said it over and over and I've lived it over and over...but I'll admit that there is just the smallest bit of room for error, too (without which, the "bestseller" lists would not include climbing literature).
And sure enough, last week I found that space again. Yes we had enough fuel and food for living... yes, Willi and Skip could be imposed upon to give up some of theirs... but no we weren't going to use up ours or theirs and have somebody say at a later point that they'd spent a truck's worth of money and not made the summit because they hadn't really had enough food on the trip. And no, I wasn't even going to take my climbers up on their wise offer to accompany me back down to base camp for more supplies.
Sure enough, going down and back would mean that the weather would instantly be fine the next day and I didn't want one of my climbers trashed and unready to move up in that event (thereby missing out on the top...my fault). And that is one way you find yourself getting your boots, goggles and Gore-tex on in the night in a storm to go out alone on glaciers that you've warned a hundred people not to underestimate. You wouldn't do all that without the other half of the problem though... too much faith in your own strength and invincibility (an illusion that most males see through by age 21 if they live that long).
Anyway, on that night, I could barely see the glacier surface under my feet due to the blowing snow, but I knew I'd be okay if I could just get over to the marked climbing route without stepping in one of the crevasses I'd probed out just a few days before. I was halfway through one of those "It must be around here somewhere" thoughts when my legs busted through the snow and all at once I was sinking fast... and diving forward.
I got my elbows on the surface and did some quick wiggling and knew I was alright. Quick as anything, I squirmed around and lay on my belly to look at what I'd stepped in. I had to look. I had to know. I wanted it to be a crevasse that wasn't all that big a deal... something I couldn't really have fit in or feared dying in, but no...one look, with snow blowing around my face and over my prone body was enough to make a liar and a fool of me.
It was a plenty big crevasse, no floor in sight, wider than me and my pack and a couple of outstretched arms, vertical walls of worthless frost crystals. I got up then, found my way over to the climbing route, proceeded with my self-assigned mission and pondered how it would have been... down in a crevasse, a hundred feet from my camp, talking on the radio until the batteries ran out (since I hadn't asked anybody to listen) colder and colder and certain of the end...
That was a long night of slogging around in snow and wind, and when I'd finally returned with plenty of food and fuel, I didn't feel anywhere near as satisfied with my accomplishments as I'd hoped to.
Everything turned out just fine on that climb, we lucked out on the snow conditions and we seized a break in the weather for a few more days push to the top. During my wait for the next folks, I've gone out just a bit between radio calls and worked my muscles and blistered my feet here and there, but I've tried hard not to get hurt. It is cold down here, which makes getting hurt a tricky proposition. Warmth in these mountains is maintained largely by being able to move. Getting hurt means getting cold quickly and finally. I don't pay much attention to the thermometer readings, not nearly as much as to the 10 sensors I carry at the end of my arms. The little fingers going numb calls for one response, the thumbs fading, another.
I often think of Jack London's great story To Build A Fire that I read as a teenager. In it, this Alaskan hard-man goes out and about his business as usual one winter day without a whole lot of fear of his surroundings. He knows it is cold out, but, pretty much, he figures that it would kill a lesser man...not himself. He spits and sees that the spit freezes before it hits the ground. That gets his attention, but again, he knows his stuff. He breaks through the ice into a river and climbs out. Now things are critical and if not for his great experience, he would not be able to get a fire started before freezing to death. But he does it... with his last match even. The fire is going, it is generating some crucial heat... which causes a branch above the fire to lose its load of snow into the fire, extinguishing it...end of story.
Now the evening has come on and it is obvious that the flight will not come in tonight. I can remember as a child doing the math for the coming of the year 2000 and plotting how old I'd be then. I don't think that in my wildest dreams I ever imagined that I'd be completely alone in Antarctica for the event. I look over now at the case of Champagne flown in when the last climbers went out, and I'm filled with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy (I don't think I can drink that much Champagne in one night without help).
I am not filled with loneliness. The gang over at Patriot Hills will give a call on the fancy sat-phone near midnight because they'll be a little worried for me. Nobody knows just how Y2K will effect the motion of these big glaciers, after all. I appreciate their concern, but I'll get by and I'll see them when the weather gets nice.
I get lonely at big parties, and I get lonely driving around suburbia... but I don't get lonely in a place where there aren't any people, that would be stupid. And my New Year's resolutions involve not being stupid again. Gotta keep moving, don't build that last fire under a tree...