Omega High Antarctic GPS Expedition 2005
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Saturday, January 21st, 2006
So we didn't have to wait long to be picked up from our base camp beneath Tyree and flown back to Patriot Hills. There we waited another day or two for the flight out, while the wind blew too hard, especially from the direction of the returning Vinson climbers.
Then a few days in Punta, cleaning and packing up all our gear. Camilo and Manuel departed for their girlfriends and a new university year. Steve and I helped Dean Staples keep the beer taps flowing at Santinos before a 6am dash for the plane to Santiago. The familiar bus journey across the Andes has us in Mendoza, the land of steak, wine, salad, sun and swimming pools that diverts our thoughts while stuck in Antarctic blizzards.
Now our attention turns toward making our new map - a topographical map of Vinson and the high peaks of the Sentinel Range, incorporating our new height measurements obtained over the last few years of Omega expeditions. Not only the summits of Vinson, Shinn, Gardner and Craddock, but many sub-peaks, outlying peaks, camp sites and outcrops have been re-measured. We use these points to georeference a very high resolution IKONOS satellite image that we had collected specially for us in recent months.
Combined with lower resolution Aster imagery we can generate contour lines to place on this image, at 100m intervals, thus creating a more accurate map than previously exists, that gives a better idea of how these mountains really are. That new map will be printed large and distributed worldwide free to all, in the interests of promoting knowledge of Antarctica and Antarctic science.
Once again the Antarctic community knows more about the mountains of Antarctica than before Omega went there, and we return home safe and well, so once again we've been fortunate to be successful in our main objectives.
Yes, it would have been better to summit and measure Tyree, but the risk, at least at that particular time, was not worth it. The summits and new heights of Craddock, Gardner and others were success enough for one trip.
People keep asking us, 'was it hard?'. Hard? None of this is really hard. You can't choose to do something like this then blather on about how hard it is.
Going to Antarctica and doing what we do is a privilege, a joy, and we're incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do it. There are plenty of people around the world, fighting just to survive the day, doing it hard right now, but we're not among them.
We get to walk across the roof of the planet's wildest continent, we see the peaks change in the sunlight and the storms, we push ourselves physically while practicing our craft in a magnificent arena and we learn more every week about one of the most beautiful and unknown places on earth.
Sunday, January 8th, 2006
We didn't climb Tyree. After establishing a camp at the bottom of the route we started up the NE ridge to gain access to the East couloir, thus avoiding the very large, and growing, ice cliffs at the bottom. Unfortunately, what looked to be steep snow, as on our previous routes, turned out to be 2cm of snow over constant rock hard ice, so the climbing was slow and unsteady and we used the rope for a bit.
We cut back on to the ridge, climbed some rock, mostly just exposed scrambling unroped and finally put a tent at 3250m to go for the top from there. However, having looked at the couloir from below for some time, and seeing lots of bare, often blue, ice, I decided that we could not realistically climb that ice upwards for 1600m then safely and quickly climb down it again, without spending time roping up or rapelling, then have Camilo and Manuel do the same 24hrs later, at least not as safely and quickly as I think we need to climb in this place. So I decided to call it off there, a decision helped by incoming weather, high winds and cloud, which came in just after we all got down. Sitting around in bad weather for 8 days beforehand didn't help us much either.
Yesterday (Sat) we descended in whiteout back to BC and are now sitting, waiting, in more poor weather, to be picked up and flown back to Patriot Hills. A somewhat disappointing, but mostly just frustrating, end to a great and successful trip. The route is good, just not right now.
Last time I looked outside, Tyree is still there ....
More photos later, but for now:
Wednesday, December 28th, 2005
So we're just sitting here in the fog, with light snow pattering on the tent for most of today. When the weather clears, it's a magnificent place, but right now we can't see much.
We've taken 7 days food, fuel and gear up to a point beneath the route where we'll make a camp before starting the route, but we need the weather to improve before we can do that. There's no wind here, not a breath for the 5 days we've been here, and deep snow all around, a real contrast to the other (western) side of the range and the Vinson area.
So until then ...
Manuel and Camilo avoiding looking at Mount Tyree, as seen from base camp (when we can see it)
Thursday, December 22nd, 2005
Just a quick one. We're having some computer problems so if you don't get any more dispatches, we're not dead, just offline. Camilo has currently worked around it, but we'll be a bit short on power from now until the end.
The weather held long enough for Manuel and Camilo to race up Gardner and bring down the GPS. It had been running for 11hrs, a good performance and today we processed the results via AUSPOS.
The answer ? Mount Gardner is 4573.4m, making it currently the 5th highest in Antarctica.
Now we move on to Mount Tyree, the 2nd highest and hardest, so we're off over to the Patton Glacier.
Camilo & Manuel on their return to camp at 1am after summiting Gardner and retrieving the GPS.
Wednesday, December 21st, 2005
Yesterday Steve and I summited Mount Gardner! The 6th ascent in 39yrs, the first for 6yrs.
We decided, rather than placing an intermediate camp, we would try a blast to the summit in one go from our ABC. We'd lost our acclimatisation from the Craddock ascent (now two weeks ago) but figured we would be OK. It meant 2100m up in one go. The initial couloir was in the sun and ridiculously hot, making slow going, but once higher things cooled down. However the couloir turned out longer than we thought, and the map showed, about 1300m high rather than 800m. There's also the remnants of fixed rope from the 1966-67 first ascent expedition. We found an exit from the couloir onto the summit ridge OK and headed south, knowing the summit was around 5km way horizontally and another 800m higher. If you saw how slowly we were moving at that point you'd say we'd never make it. We just kept going. And going. Climbing along the left (east) of the very broad ridge meant we were in the shade, but it was such a beautiful day it didn't matter too much. Making the most of this great weather was one of the main reasons for the single-push attempt.
Steve reached the summit ridge about 20 minutes before me and got the rope out. We had not expected any real difficulty on Gardner, but the final stretch to the summit was a narrow corniced ridge, finishing in an outrageously soft, fragile and exposed summit block, hollow-sounding and
overhanging the 2000m high southwest face of Gardner. Steve part climbed, part dug up this last bit, plunging his axe shafts in full length to try and gain purchase before kicking huge steps in the unconsolidated sugar snow. It was too unstable to belay on so he moved further around and belayed me up. I gingerly reached up onto the highest point to place the GPS, started it around half-past midnight, ten hours after leaving camp, then we got the hell off. The descent was actually a pleasure, good weather and all downhill. The final couloir had frozen somewhat so made better going underfoot, but after 13hrs continuously on the go, it was slow work.
As I type this Camilo and Manuel are headed up to retrieve the Trimble GPS and should be back down in the early hours of Thursday.
Going by the altitudes on our watches and small GPS, neither terribly accurate, but an indicator, we think Gardner is quite high, not overestimated like Craddock was. It's currently 4th on the list at 4587m.We should know more in a day or two.
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Merry Xmas to all.
Steve under the giant serac at the top of the couloir
Steve climbing the crumbling summit cornice. Damien & Steve climbed over this and
put the GPS on the rounded snow dome to the right, the highest point of Gardner
Damien on the way down from Gardner, about 1:30am, looking north along the Sentinel Range
Sunday, December 18th, 2005
A beautiful sunny day beneath one of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges. That was our day, this Sunday. Yesterday we were picked up from our BC beneath Mt Craddock, where we spent so many bad weather days, and flew to our new BC out from Mt Gardner - with a quick stop at Vinson BC to change planes, re-stock fuel and food and even have a quick chat with Dave Hahn, who ( in addition to summiting Vinson 25 times) was the last person to stand on the summit of Gardner, back in 1999 with Conrad Anker.
So we're now set up 5km out to the west of Mt Gardner, in a great flat spot with amazing views of the Sentinel Range. Today we sledged 20 days of food and fuel, plus our climbing hardware, over to a site for our ABC right beneath the gully we will climb, at the northern (left) end of the west face. Tomorrow, weather permitting, we move camp over there and start to climb. Not far from our site is the cache from the 1966-67 American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition, led by Nick Clinch (Hi Nick!) that made the first ascents of so many of these peaks back then. 40 year old chewing gum (Wrigley's Juicy Fruit), chocolate (Cadbury's Energy), matches (Beehive - and yes, they still work!), freeze dried meals (Alliance) and peanut butter, all bought in Christchurch, New Zealand back in 1966.
We've also found the USGS plate from the 1979-80 survey expedition, on a small knoll between our camp and the west face, that is marked on the map as a geodetic satellite station of 2316m. Camilo is currently over there running the GPS to see eventually how it's data compares to theirs. Finding these little bits of history really adds something to being here.
So we're just hoping for this great weather to hold a few more days so we can get ABC established and then up that gully to the summit ridge. We're expecting Gardner to be much closer in height to its published figure of 4587m, not a lot lower, like Craddock was (282m lower!). At the moment, after the Craddock re-measuring, Gardner is 4th on the list, but Mt Kirkpatrick, way over in the Transantarctics, is supposedly 4582m, so Gardner can't afford to lose much if it wants to retain 4th place!
Tuesday, December 13th, 2005
So we're still getting hammered after four days. Winds up to 60 knots (c.110km/h) from the east and lots of blowing snow. People on Vinson are getting the same apparently. Sometimes it eases off and you think it's clearing, then it comes in again.
But we're fine in the tent, plenty of food. We're due to be picked up by ALE on the 16th or 17th to fly on to a new base camp for Mount Gardner and Tyree.
So, waiting, eating, sleeping, digging, phoning Steve's dad for his birthday, waiting, eating, sleeping ...
Saturday, December 10th, 2005
We climbed Craddock! A bit delayed, I know. Steve and I had to wait out 3 days/ 4 nights of bad weather at our exposed perch on the ridge at C1. But the 7th dawned beautifully and we set off in the afternoon once the sun hit. A bit of a slog, but not too cold or windy and we climbed about 1200m in just under 5hrs. Topping out on the face was a big relief and the walk across the summit plateau sheer joy. Steve and I stepped on to the little summit at 8pm, taking care not to step off the huge 2500m south face beneath us. There are a few summits up there, all very similar in height, but we put the GPS on the highest rock summit, another nearby dome was a few metres higher but all snow (but we went over and climbed it anyway!).
Descending the face was nerve-wracking, not technically hard, but hard snow and variable surface conditions on a slope from 40-50 degrees, with massive exposure - no place to trip and fall. The whole face is remarkably sustained at more than 40 degrees, so it is almost impossible to ever get a decent rest, either up or down - you just keep going. We arrived back at the tent at C1 to find Manuel and Camilo in residence. They went up the next day, also in great weather and retrieved the Trimble receiver. They also went and climbed another snow peak to the north of Craddock which is a little higher, making its first ascent, and running the GPS for just one hour there.
Steve and I returned to ABC, more tiring downclimbing on the same slope, but now with heavier packs. Manuel and Camilo stayed the night at C1 and returned to ABC yesterday, Fri 9th. We all packed up and made our way down the glacier in poor weather, hard work with big packs and full sleds. Turns out the two days we summited were the only two good days in a week or so.
Just after we set up here at BC again, it started to snow ... and snow .... and snow. Then, during the night it stopped snowing, and started to blow ... and blow .... and blow. It's still blowing. The tent wall is pushed in on my face as I type this. The tent shakes like Apollo 13 re-entering the
atmosphere and the noise is maddening. Antarctica, just like in the stories ...
But, we know this. Mount Craddock is no longer Antarctica's 4th highest mountain. Last night we submitted our data to AUSPOS via Iridium phone and got the answer back an hour later.
Craddock was supposed to be 4650m. It is only 4368m (or 4367.885m to be exact). This puts it into 7th place!
What's more, the little snow peak Camilo and Manuel climbed north of Craddock, on the ridge to Vinson, is 4402m - higher than Craddock! Is it another sub-peak of Vinson, part of Craddock, or something else entirely? Whatever, Craddock is Craddock and it's not as high as everybody thought.
So, the second ascent of Mt Craddock, by a new route on the west face, all safe back in BC. One down. Two to go. Gardner and Tyree next.
Sunday, December 4th, 2005
We're about to leave camp to climb Craddock. Yesterday Steve and I scouted
our route, it will go up the right side of the face, a rising traverse
above most of the seracs, just down from the ridge.
We hope to find a flat piece of ground around 3100m to put a tent where Steve and I will stay
there for a day to acclimatise. Camilo and Manuel will go down then come up
the next day with more gear, after that Steve and I will go for the summit
and hopefully place the GPS, with Manuel and Camilo coming up 12hrs
later to retrieve it.
So we need about 4 days of good weather - it's beautiful right now, just hope it holds. If all goes well we should all be
back in ABC by Wednesday morning - with all the data for a new height of Mount Craddock, currently Antarctica's 4th highest mountain at 4650m.
Steve on the way to recce the route yesterday Manuel Bugueno after a trip down to BC yesterday
Friday, December 2nd, 2005
Here are a few images from last week.
The view out our front porch
So the first few days last week were great weather, but since we moved up to ABC it's nothing but cloud, snow, wind and cold. Wednesday night it cleared briefly around midnight, giving us some hope, but we woke again Thursday morning to complete whiteout and snow swirling around. Those who have followed past expeditions will know this is par for the course and we just have to sit it out and go when we can.
In the meantime we just sit around, eating through our snack bags, talking, sleeping and wishing we brought more than one book (schoolboy error, that one !). Steve, never known for his domestic enthusiasm, has even resorted to making fresh bread. Camilo and Manuel, as usual, have no problem sleeping most of the day and doing strange things on the laptop for the rest of it :-)
So we're waiting for a break in the weather to move some gear up to a camp a bit higher on the mountain. When we arrived the west face looked more broken, with more hard blue ice patches, than in previous years, so a direct route up it is not on. Instead we will work up one side, place a camp, then traverse higher onto the face and eventually to the summit ridge. At the moment the whole face (on the odd occasion we can actually see it !) is plastered with new snow - we need a day of sun to burn some of that off. No big avalanches seen yet, just the odd little serac fall.
But for the moment it's just light snow, mist and wind.
Steve making bread The 2000m high west face of Craddock, right behind our tent What it really looks like right now as I type this
Friday, November 25th, 2005
So after several days delay in Punta Arenas we finally hit the ice on Nov 22nd and after spending a night at Patriot Hills flew into our base camp
(via Vinson BC) beneath Mt Craddock - a small but beautiful spot where no one has been until now. We had to circle around three times and swoop in low
to see if there were any crevasses big enough to swallow a plane. We set up camp right where the plane dropped us.
That afternoon Steve and I did a short ski up the valley to recce the route to Craddock, then next day all four of us continued up this route and into
the basin beneath Mt Craddock. We're lower down than we planned, due to it being the best landing site, so it was a 3hr ski with packs just to reach
the edge of the basin, where we made a cache of 10 days food and fuel at 2110m. The 2000m high west face of Craddock, our intended route, looks big
and icy, more broken with seracs and blue ice than in photos from previous years.
Today (Fri 25th) we all made the first ascent of a small peak above BC, around 2313m, nothing too technical, but some icy slopes up high and amazing
views. Tomorrow we might have a rest and then after that take all our gear up to the cache and camp there, or possibly attempt Mt Atkinson, weather
allowing. We need to acclimatise before Craddock and get our gear up closer to the climbing.
Attached is a photo of our BC on the glacier, Craddock in the background (see top photo on this web page).
© Damien Gildea / The Omega Foundation