Mount Kosciuszko is mainland Australia’s highest mountain at 2,228 meters (7,310 ft) above sea level. It’s located within the Kosciuszko National Park, and from the ski town in Thredbo Village it’s only a 13 km return walk to the summit.
I say “walk” because it cannot really be considered a hike. There is a really nice path and a great summit rock at the top.
It’s on the Bass version of the 7 Summits list, therefore I had to do it.
My husband Steve and I combined it with a short visit to Australia. We first stopped in Sydney, took in the sites, and explored the city. We then drove to Thredbo where we stayed a night in the ski village, so I could “climb” Kosciuszko.
Early on November 16, 2019, local time, I got ready. I prepared my water bottle, snack, camera, phone, and my flags, and headed up the empty ski hill.
You can also take the chairlift, making the summit day even shorter but the lift didn’t start operating until 8:30 am and I honestly wanted to hike/walk all of Kosciuszko. Afterall, it’s the only peak in the 7 Summits series you can do within a few short hours, and without the need for acclimatization!
On my way to the Summit, I could see no one was on the peak. It felt great. It is not everyday that you can have a Summit peak to yourself or can complete a solo “climb” of one of the 7 Summits!
When I reached the top, I set-up my tripod, took selfies and then facetimed my grandkids – Ethan and Julia. Again, it’s not everyday you can facetime your grandkids from the summit of one of the 7 Summits.
Twenty (20) minutes later, on my way down, Steve was coming up and he too went for his solo summit of Kosciuszko. Steve had taken the chairlift up and then, since he was there, decided to go to the Summit on his own as well!
This was my 7th Summit. Mr. Bass believes this is one of the 7 Summits in the 7 Summits of the World. Mr. Messner on the other hand, believes it’s the Carstensz Pyramid.
To avoid any question that I completed the 7 Summits, I have done both versions. For the record though, Carstensz and Kosciuszko do not have similarities!
Well on to Everest now for my last Peak. At least everyone agrees about Everest.
We climb from our 14,000 feet camp up to 17,000 feet.
I can’t lie… it was hard. The fixed lines were surprisingly the easiest to do, but there were high stretches and really thin walking sections along the ridges.
Luckily I felt Jesus had me through this climb. My lead guide had a rope closer to me and brought it in closer on more exposed sections to help me out. Bless him. Made all the difference in the world with my anxiety.
I will have to go back down though, a fact that has not escaped me.
Once we reach the 17,000 feet camp, or camp 4, it’s like a scene from a movie in the wild snowy dessert. There are ice walls everywhere and very few tents.
It’s cold (colder) up here.
There is no kitchen tent here. Ryan and Jason bring us hot water in thermoses to make our food-hydrated meals, noodles and oatmeal.
I have been peeing in my pee bottle and going out to empty it or using the big green bucket.
Summit morning we get up, get ready and are on our way at about 8:30 A.M. The sky is blue with not a cloud in sight.
I am wearing my puffy pants, but I have my parka in my backpack, along with snacks, my thermos of hot water, my inReach, my cell phone in the pocket of my light weight puffy jacket, and of course mittens, goggles, and sunscreen to re-apply constantly.
We set out towards the Autobahn and no, it is not the German highway – it is a steep climb on the side of a mountain, which is slow going. So slow it took us about 2 hours, and my lead guide, Jason was not too happy about it.
I found this section hard. The ingrained steps on the snow, set from the hundreds of climbers throughout the season, were big “risers” in certain sections for my short legs. When I took a higher, longer step, I felt out of breath. I felt we were moving fast, which did not allow me to breath properly during my rest steps. The harder I breathed, the harder it became to climb and thus I became slower.
“Well, let’s continue and re-evaluate at top of Zebra rocks, and we can go from there. We evaluate at every point.” Jason says.
I say nothing and just move. I self talk to myself to pick up my pace, as I do not want to come back here. The huge expense is one thing, but I know mentally I cannot repeat this challenge.
I concentrate on my deep breathing, and keep focus. I beg Jesus to stay with me and push me up, with each step.
When we reach Zebra rocks, Jason announces, “Great push guys. We made great time. Ema, great work. We are back on track.”
I respond with “Ok.”
I know I am the client and I can push back if I wanted to, but I don’t. I hired them to help me and guide me. I am more determined than ever to reach the Summit.
We continue to the next stage, then the next, until we are at the Summit Ridge. Its tall, well obviously – but it is also thin and exposed.
Jason reassures me that Ryan has my rope closer to him and if I feel unsure to let him know and Ryan will guide me. I am not going to sugar coat it – I am anxious. Ryan is a wonderful guide and he constantly reassures me that I am ok and that I am not going to fall. I finally start believing him.
I take a deep breath. I feel as if I am having an out of body experience.
As we are on the summit ridge a couple of other groups are coming down. One is a large group from Alpine Ascents and the other is an RMI group. We stop, and let them pass us on the left hand side. Ryan tries to talk to me about trivial things to distract me as the other climbers pass us.
One of the groups has a female guide among them and she looks at me as she passes, with annoyance and superiority. I don’t care. I am a few feet away from the Summit of Denali and she is inconsequential.
When we reach the summit, the area itself is larger than I anticipated. I take my cell phone out of my pocket to tell the world that I am at the summit. I am so excited and I want it documented. My InReach message is sent with a GPS recorded location. I just became the first Portuguese woman to have summited Denali. I am also the first Portuguese-Canadian woman to have done so.
We have time to take group pictures, individual pictures and with my 6 flags. We are allowed to attempt to call from the satellite phone 3 times, as the call keeps dropping.
Kaylee does a short run and jumps over the summit marker. It’s fun at the Summit!
There is no wind. It’s sunny and so clear you can see all the smaller mountains below you. I was elated. It’s time to descend, as we need to make our way back down.
Jason explains that I am going to be in front, with the 3 of them behind me. His rational and assurance is that if I were to fall, I would have 3 guides holding me and I would not go anywhere. I understand his reasoning and begin to descend.
Ryan is directly behind me and talks to me, “Slowly Ema. Take your time. You got this!” I walk slowly, but somehow confident. I stop when Ryan tells me, so he can secure his share of the rope to the fixed anchors. Then as he shouts back, “Climbing”, we continue.
Before I know it, we are out of the ridge and are making our way down. Amazingly we are going at a pretty good pace. So good in fact, that even with our generous standard breaks, we reach high camp at about 7:00 P.M. This signifies we took about 10.5 hours to summit and back.
I overhear Jason’s delight in his voice, “10.5 hours puts us on the top 30% of top ascents. This is nuts!”
Kaylee giggles, but in a humble voice, says,” Well yeah, but these are abnormal conditions. Usually the weather isn’t this great!”
I think to myself, “Yeah, so?” We did it, regardless of the weather.
The next morning, we start our decent back to basecamp.
We leave early morning to get to 14,000 feet before it’s too hot. We take a long rest at 14,000 feet until the temperature cools down, making easier to walk on the snow.
At camp 2 or 11,000 feet, we put our snowshoes back on replacing our crampons. The descent from here on is not easy. It is about 11:00 P.M. or just passed it.
The snow in some areas is mushy still, even though it’s in the middle of the night. I trip several times. Jason is leading; I am in second position, with Kaylee behind me and Ryan in the back. He has the hardest job, trying to keep all our slides inline.
I keep stumbling, and take a few falls, especially when Jason’s sled pulls me forward. Each stumble I shout. “Stop.” Everyone does. And each time as gracefully as possible, I get up again and we all continue.
Ski Hill is especially hard, as the snow feels slippery. During one of our brief breaks, I ask what time it is, and when Jason says, “It’s 1:30 A.M.” I say to Kaylee, “ It’s your birthday already – Happy Birthday!” The 3 of us make a small attempt to sing Happy Birthday to Kaylee. The sun is rising again behind us, even though it had only set a couple of hours before.
When we finally reach camp one there are several tents set-up, another set of Mountain Trip guides are escorting a group of several Russian climbers.
Jason says, “We are going to take a longer break here, once they retrieved the cache that we had left on the way up.” Ryan asks “Why?” and Jason replies with, “Let’s take our time. We are an hour ahead of schedule.”
I am silently happy we are moving fast, and think that falling so many times is not embarrassing. I actually take it as symbolism of why I am even climbing– you can fall, but you just need to get back up on your feet and keep moving. Is that not what we deal everyday with mental health?
And so we do. The walk out from camp 1 towards basecamp seems endless.
I tried to recall in my memory of walking up 12 days ago, and can’t remember. I know I made it, but with all the snow, I don’t remember the route.
I am careful to keep following Jason’s footsteps, as we walk around crevasses. I pull my trekking poles up, careful not to stab the snow where Jason has just walked over a crevasse wall and move as quickly as a can past it, until the next one.
I kept thinking of Richard Parks, when he was doing a 737 Challenge, and was on Denali in 2011, about the same time of year, when he punched through a crevasse and fell really deep. He had to use his ice axe on the lip of the crevasse to get himself out. So, stabbing the snow was out of the question.
We were back at basecamp at about 5:30 A.M on June 30, hoping to get on a plane to fly out back to Talkheeta, 12 days after we had arrived.
It’s February 15th, the day after Valentine’s day.
I remember yesterday that the Canuck Matt had a large selection of Toblerone chocolate bars, which I found ironic, since a) they are quite heavy to carry, each bar weighs 360g, and b) the logo is a mountain. Maybe that is why he had them. Anyhow, on Valentine’s Day morning, he went to Sequioa’s tent and said “Happy Valentine’s day” and gave her a large chocolate bar. That was nice I thought
Today we moved to Camp 2, Nido de Condores, which stands at 5560 metres. There are mountains all around us, yet it seems we are above them all.
Unfortunately we are down one team member – Sequoia, reported a bad headache on the way down yesterday after our carry to Nido, and once we reached Plaza Canada again to sleep low again, since her headache was not better, Carole, one of our guides, accompanied her back to basecamp.
But today, our porters once again set-up our tents, and my personal porter brought my stuff up. I thought I had been over my weight but I was not – all my stuff was less then 12 kilos. My allotment is 20kg. I was very proud of myself. I am learning weight management.
When we arrived at camp, with Vern guiding us alone at this point, there was a group coming down with a person on a stretcher. I did not take any pictures; it simply seemed bad taste. The person was clearly in distress and very sick. Shortly after the yellow park helicopter hovered over us, landed and took the individual away. He looked gravely ill.
We learned after that the person had fallen ill the day before at 7:00pm…. And was only rescued today…. About 3:00pm. He had to be brought up from higher than high camp. I guess attempting to Summit. My heart went out to him.
Today we woke up to cold, frigid cold, until the sun hit the mountain. I regretted that I had not brought my other sleeping bag with me. The plan for today was to do a group carry to the 3rd and final camp, Camp Colera. It was high. We reached an altitude of 19,580 feet and we are planning to move there tomorrow.
I got really cold in the early hours of the morning. So I put my red Canada Goose jacket on. I also used the #coldavenger mask over my face to be able to be breathe more easily. The air is so dry here – feels like a desert, but a cold desert.
We made the move to Camp Colera, or camp 3. It was a long way up. One of our teammates had diarrhoea and was really slow and tired.
Camp Colera was given the name by the guides because people vomit so much and ‘poop’ so much. An ugly fact, but true.
The camp is on an enclave of a huge rock, with a view of the Aconcagua Summit. Usually people just stay here no more than a couple of nights, but it seems we will spend 3 in total, as we will have a rest day tomorrow and then attempt the Summit on Tuesday the 19th.
Today I had a really hard time sleeping for the first time in the mountain. It’s very high to sleep here; we are at 5851 meters in altitude.
It was not just the cold. Around 1:45am I woke-up as I could not breathe. I was gasping for air. I peed in my pee bottle, drank some hot drink from my Thermos to try and sort myself out. I lay down again and I still could not breathe. My nose was stuffy and I could not catch my breath. I began pressure breathing, and it helped, but I still could not get enough breath. Then I put on my #coldavenger mask and I took another quarter of my Diamox pill. After a little bit, I was finally able to feel some relief.
It was the scariest experience I have had thus far. I did not understand what was going on. I really thought I might suffocate.
Later in the morning I was surprised to receive a text message from Emmanuel, that simply read: “How did you sleep?”. Tears filled my eyes as I responded. “Ok, but I woke up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I mean really couldn’t breathe. I took more Diamox”.
Emmanuel reassured me when he said, “It’s normal. You are up high. It’s sleep apnea. Try sleeping more upright; put all your clothes’ under your sleeping pad to sleep more upright.”
“Ok.” I typed back. But I felt emotional and scared from remembering I had been gasping for air the night before. I felt so alone.
“It’s the altitude.” “You are doing great!” “And you will be ok,” he responded. He is a man of few words, but surprised me that he knew how I may be feeling – I guess having been there himself several times helped. Thank you Emmanuel; I needed to hear that!
Then, I also decided to lay in my parka inside my sleeping bag – huge difference in warmth!
Feb 18th We did have the day as a rest day. It is cold. Early this morning we heard another group get up for their summit bid. They were a little noisy. A couple of hours later, I heard a guide bring back one of their clients. I guess she had turned around. I could only imagine her disappointment.
We start our Summit bid at 6:00am. It is freezing. But we are ready. Lynn, one of our teammates whom is 70 – which is a perfect example that age is only relative of how you feel, is ready and we start our summit bid, when all I hear is something about sunglasses and then he is no longer going up with us. I was confused but just kept moving.
We go up slowly, and it takes us about 9 and a half hours to reach the Summit. The last 30 minutes are hard. Every step I take it seams harder to breathe.
I am puffing my cheeks out (like a chipmunk, live Vern had taught us) and exhaling. I am also straightening my body in combination with my rest step, to allow more air to fill my lungs. But I still struggle.
Vern climbs in front of me and says: “You can do this Ema. We are almost there”. I simply reply. “These rocks are hard; there are so many rocks”. To which Vern says in a very Vern like tone of voice: “No shit, you are climbing a mountain!” It made me laugh.
I had read that to reach the Summit, we had to go through the ‘La Canaleta’ which is a scramble up some rocks. I think that would be more true if we could truly scramble up rock, but since there was enough snow to wear crampons on certain sections, I am not sure if this qualifies as a scramble.
To the base of the so-called “La Canaleta”, there is a rocky, concave-base wall somewhat in the shape of a cave, “La Cueva”. Here we are at 6650m.
We Summited at 3:40pm local time.
It is windy up at the summit, and in my first couple of pictures, my flag is upside down. Then I correct it, but the wind makes it hard. Vern offers to hold the flag on one of the corners. It works – kinda.
Then it is time to come down – just like that. All that effort and strain and it’s over in a few minutes. But I did it. I did it.
It was a long way down. It took us maybe close to 5 hours. I was so tired, that I kept slipping and falling on my behind. There is a ridge right after Independencia Refuge… which is the world’s tallest refuge. One must make it across this ridge to make it to the La Canaleta section and then back.
The wind is generally very high here, since it’s exposed. A slip here could mean you fall thousands of meters down the face of the mountain. It is here that many expeditions turn around on the way to the Summit and do not proceed to the summit when the weather is bad. We were told it is usually very windy and on previous days Carole had even showed us how we should climb and brace ourselves when we came to this point on Summit day. However, we had great weather. Hardly any wind in this section. Unusual. I know Jesus had me.
About an hour left in our descent I started seeing what I thought was a fly, or a flying spider on the right hand side of my eye. Because I was wearing my goggles, I thought there were bugs outside, since the sun was also starting to set. But the site of this ‘bug’ was actually something I was only seeing on my right eye. I continued to see the ‘bug’ until the day after we left the mountain. I know now according to my daughter Nicole, an RN, that they are “floaters”, and I am fortunate that they have since disappeared.
We make our descent from camp 3 all the way to basecamp. It was a long day.
When we reached basecamp we are treated to hamburgers. I had a veggie burger. The team shared a bottle of champagne, courtesy of Alpine Ascents, and our generous guides Vern, Carole and Diego. It was a much needed celebration!
A couple of our teammates, including our Canuck friend has a few beers. I no longer have of an interest in drinking at high altitude and it still amazes me how some can. But I am me and everyone is different.
We take the long journey trek from basecamp, to exit the park.
This in itself was a wonderful experience – because how often can one say they trekked on a riverbed?
After we exit the Park, we pick up our stuff we had left in storage, and then proceed to continue by bus to Mendoza.
That evening I took my “first” shower in 3 weeks. I had never been so dirty in my 51 years of my life! Kudos to the Hyatt staff that checked me in and never showed in their expression how dirty my face was – which shocked me when I looked at myself in the mirror in the bathroom. No, I had not looked at my face in the mirror while in the mountain! ☺
Back to hygiene. Back to cleanliness. I’m going home!
Only two (well 3) more to go… 7 (8) Summits for Mental Health.
After the Air Canada fiasco, and those of you that follow me on Instagram know about the ordeal and the inconvenience caused by Air Canada when they only decided to turn around a flight after 3 and a half hours into the flight, all the way back to Toronto – when we were already over the Bahamas. REALLY?!? Getting myself to Penitentes , Argentina, after more than 24 hours delay was not easy, especially when you have a 10 hour flight and then a connecting flight which I had missed. The next connecting flight would have delayed me yet another day. Such a frustrating start. On February 5th I was finally able to get to Argentina, after driving from Santiago, Chile and crossing the border by car. I felt somewhat flustered, as I had missed gear check scheduled the day before in Mendonza, and of course, I had missed valuable information on the expected climb, schedules, etc.
The Alyen hotel in Penitentes, had a room which was pretty dismal, but maybe it was intentional to get us used to the tent and dirt in Aconcagua. It worked! The green carpet in the room was worn and underneath the radiator, it was down to its last fibres. The bed was only a mattress against the wall on a cheap metal frame. Thin sheets. In short, it was one of the worst hotels I have ever stayed in.
Penitentes is an old ski resort town, that now is only open for the short season that the Aconcagua National Park is open, and welcomes climbers, or the occasional person that is passing through and needs a room. It doesn’t even have WIFI and from the reviews on Expedia, it has not had WIFI for a long time – even though every guest is simply told that the antenna is broken, as if it just happened.
But the next day, thankfully, on Wednesday, Feb 6th, we make our way to the entrance of the Aconcagua National Park, to climb the normal route of the mountain. We stop at the park ranger’s office and our guides pick up our park permits that cost each of us $610.00US. Was that $61.00US? No, it was $610.00US. Whoa! Then we are required to show our passports as ID, before gaining entrance.
The trek from the beginning of the trail to the Confluência Camp was about 3 hours. Our group gear was being carried by mules, who on this particular day were very slow. I know. I know. Mules are supposed to be slow. But these ones were sedated slow. We only got our duffle bags around 9 pm!
While we waited, we had dinner. Some of us went for a short walk to the top of the hill to see the whole camp, from “above”, and Vern and Carole our guides, taught us how to build a tent “Aconcagua” style. So that our tents would have the best chance to resist the high winds and not blow away. This training would come in very handy!
CONFLÊNCIA CAMP- is at 3,421 metres
The camp has a medical office, staffed with a doctor employed by the park and whom we all have to go see the following day on Thursday, Feb 7th, to get the ‘green light’ to move up the mountain to basecamp the following day, Friday, February 8th. This would be one of two visits with the park’s doctor. The park authorities want to ensure climbers are not experiencing altitude related illness, which cuts down on emergency rescues.
Our tents for this expedition are a 3 person tent, but really only 2 people fit, and in very close quarters. My tent mate is Jenny, a young lady from Chicago in her mid 20’s.
There are only 3 women on the team, and I had been asked the previous day before we left for the trail, whom I preferred to share a tent with. Two male teammates were given to me as my choices; I said no to both. I was utterly surprised this was an option – pair teammates with teammates of the opposite sex!? When I expressed my displeasure, I was assured they would find a solution. They did. Yesterday during our tent building lesson, the guides asked one of the other females if she would mind sharing a tent with one of the other males. She said no. And so the situation was resolved. I still find this presumption uncomfortable and somewhat surprising.
Thursday the 7th, we went for a 7 hour acclimatization hike towards Camp Francia, for a view of the south face of the mountain. The colours of all the rock faces on our way there were spectacular!
First it was hot, and then got very windy and much colder when we reach about 14,000 feet, which is about 4,000 metres.
Friday, Feb 8th, we made our way to Plaza de Las Mulas, Basecamp for the Normal Route. It took us “8 hours plus 1”, as Vern said. For a long period of time we hiked on flat terrain and then slowly we gained altitude. The mules carried our group gear. Slowly …
What can I say about Plaza de Las Mulas? It’s a tent city on a plateau of the mountains. We had to select our campsite and build our tent and that’s ALL that was interesting.
Alpine Ascents local contractors are Aconcagua Mountain Guides, which is actually a subsidiary of Alpine Ascents. Inca, another outfitter at the camp, is clearly the prominent provider here. Their tents and facilities are at the entrance of the camp. I couldn’t help but notice they are shinier and seem new.
Our campsite was on the opposite end of basecamp, and it had its benefits. It was closer to the trail to go up the mountain, and after all, that was the goal – to go up the mountain. Plus it was quieter.
It was a long day. I don’t get cell service even though many people seem to – but I was able to buy WIFI for the days we are here, so I can talk to my husband Steve, my daughters Nicole and Patricia and of course, my grandchildren Ethan and Julia. My family. My lifeline.
Feb 9th, we tried our crampons on, and went for a short exercise wearing them on some dirty snow. Afterwards, we went for a short 90 minute hike, over lots of rock, to ice sticking out of the mountain like icicles, which are called penitents. It was pretty cool. But also, I never realized that so much dirt can be on top of an actual glacier – the primary reason why it’s so dusty and a little disgusting here.
This outing was followed by a group meeting, to discuss the game plan for the next few days. Acclimatization is an important part of climbing, especially at this height, to have the best chance of success. The following day it was decided we would do a carry up to Camp Canada, and the next day it would be the repeat of the same.
A ‘carry’ is done to carry a small amount of supplies to a higher camp, and leave them there to be used once we move up to that camp. This exercise serves to acclimatize and also to lessen the weight of carrying the supplies we need, in our backpacks.
Porters are now available on the mountain and I have taken advantage of them. So I will not do a ‘carry’ of group gear or supplies, but only take my daypack and simply enjoy the acclimatization climb. The porters will carry my portion of the group gear and my own personal supplies, on ‘move’ day. The plan is to do the same the next day and then move up the following day. The theory is to climb high, sleep low.
On the second carry day the winds are extremely high and we get hit with a snowstorm. The snow is small round ice pellets, not beautiful snowflakes. This is jarring and difficult.
We were offered a free shower because the mules had been late when we came into Confluencia, the previous camp and we all take advantage of it here at basecamp. But the word ‘shower’ is used loosely. The water only served to rinse the dust off and it was cold! Unfortunately no one shared a vital piece of information – I only had to move the lever a very short space to get warm water!
Camp Canada is at 4947 metres but surprisingly, my Sunto watch showed 5001 metres as a measurement. Feb 12th was a rest day. We did nothing, just ate and stayed in our tents actually. Pretty boring. One of the other female teammates went for a swim in one of the lakes nearby, apparently skinny dipping. I passed.
Feb 13th, we moved up to Camp Canada. The camp sits on a hill, and if you take a wrong step, you might just fall off, but the view is amazing. “Ahhhhhh” had two meanings!
The porter assigned to me moved everything, I just kept my emergency gear in my back pack and also a bottle of water and my personal documents like passport, insurance and money. That was very nice.
At camp Canada the group had all opted to use the services of the porters to set-up our tents. It was so much easier to reach camp and have a place to get comfortable in, sheltered from the cold and wind.
Once again, my tent mate and I, have a tent that has something wrong with it. Ugh.
The tents are NorthFace and spacious, but they are beaten up or they just don’t hold up. This time we are stuck with a vestibule zipper that is broken, so we literally crawl in and out of our tent.
Feb 14th, we do a carry to what will be our second camp, Nido de Condores. It was a 3 hour hike up and then we left some personal gear there. It is a huge camp and the 360 degree views are just amazing! Mountainous peaks and vast sky as far as the eye can see. Spectacular. There is also a rangers’ station here and a helipad.
Coming down it took us only an hour.
One of our teammates, Sequoia reported a headache and Diego, one of the guides raced down the mountain with her. The rest of us followed. My feet were sweating with the socks I had chosen and I got two blisters. Not much to complain about in the grand scheme.
When we got back to camp Canada, there was hardly walking space between tents. There are tents everywhere around us. Seems everyone at basecamp is moving up. There are climbers galore.
Sequoia is not feeling well. She is the 3rd female of our team. She is still reporting headaches and Carole accompanies her down to Basecamp to see the doctor.
It’s Wednesday morning – Summit day – and the sun is out! I have gotten used to it being daylight 24 hours a day, but somehow the sun shining over high camp is particularly special.
Getting ready to go to the Summit, was the same as with all other climbs: our guides wake us up early – well, in Vinson its 8:30am and bright daylight – so no need for a headlamp! We get ready, have breakfast and start moving.
Tre-C suggested we put hand warmers inside our mittens, accessible in our backpacks, ready to be used as it gets cold on the Summit Ridge. I do as she suggested.
We continue our climb roped in our teams of 4, and we gain another 1000m by the time we reached the Summit.
Unlike Elbrus where we dropped our backpacks for the last Summit push, here we keep our backpacks and I am happy we did, as it ensured I had all my flags!
Just before the Summit, for about 15-20 minutes we had to walk on a thin ridge, snow iced and snow covered, with rocks, and a few boulders thrown into the path. This was daunting, but the excitement inside was mounting.
Because we are roped together, each team, the fellow climber that is in front of me keeps pulling me forward, no doubt in his own anxiety. But that increased my anxiety and I am surprised to find the thin ridge, where I find I have to ‘self talk’ myself to, “Keep moving Ema!” “Don’t look down.” I kept thinking that the Summit of Vinson Massif was just in front of mw. Just in front of me.
And then we are there! When we reach the Summit, it is clear. It’s beautiful!
There is a larger area, like a small plateau. It’s wider than I ever imagined and we are allowed to unclip from each other, and take our backpacks off.
I am elated. I feel like I am on top of the world. Wait a sec, I AM on top of the world! Or some will argue the bottom of the World! Its Antartica!
Lakpa Sherpa and his rope team are still there, as they were just ahead of us, and he graciously becomes my photographer for all my flags.
Sebastian mentions to me that this is the first Summit ever for him to have anyone wear such thin gloves, as he gestures to me just wearing my liner gloves. I don’t need my mittens and hand warmers inside my backpack today. Our parkas are also accessible in our backpacks, but there is no need for them at the top of the Summit on this particular day. I can’t believe I am at the Summit of Vinson Massif.
Then it’s time to leave and make our way back, so we can make room for other climbers that are making their way as well to the Summit.
It’s a long way back to high camp and we don’t arrive until 8:30pm. We are tired. I welcome the comfort of my sleeping bag in a way I can’t describe. We are planning to get an early start down the next day as the weather is promising to turn.
The next morning, the plan was to descend from high camp, with a quick stop at low camp, all the way to basecamp – it was going to be a long day.
The next day it was not the hiking on the snow, or the wind that had picked up exactly as our ALE guides had read the weather, that fazed me or scared me, it is was getting on and coming down the fixed lines.
My fear of heights got the best of me, for the first 2 to 3 ropes. I was scared as I saw a chocolate bar fall from David’s’, one of our fellow climber’s pockets or backpack into the abyss as he was getting on the fixed ropes.
The first rope is so tight, with tension that it is hard to clip in.
At the first rope, Emmanuel was going backwards and told me to go backwards, while our guide told me to turn around and face forward. And I listened to Sebastian of course, he was our guide, but turning around in an upright angle, in such a small space of snow only served to increase my anxiety. I know Emmanuel was trying to get me not to see how high we were – but my mind knew!
I have a mini panic attack in the second line, as I need to transfer from one rope to another, and as I see my feet needing to be precise in their positioning, or I fall. I know I am tied in and our guide has the line secure on his prusik, but I also know if I fall it will be a big deal for me mentally to get up again. I panic and it is hard to breathe. I feel my airways suffocating me.
Emmanuel tells me to focus and relax, and breathe and that I can do it and that I am ok and I am not going to fall. It was kind of him to say so. He knew I needed help in that moment.
I relax after a few breaths and we continue down, slowly, line after line.
I know I need to calm myself down and moving forward to other mountains, believe more in myself. I got this. And Jesus has me!
Once at basecamp a celebratory dinner awaits us, with 3 bottles of champagne to celebrate our successful summit the day before. I have a glass, but somehow alcohol does not taste the same in the mountains, its kind of anti-climatic.
We were hoping the next day we could fly to Union Glacier and get on the scheduled flight back to Punta Arenas, so we can fly home as planned on December 10th.
But the weather does not cooperate and we wait. The next day is the same thing, more waiting.
But unlike in Carstensz Pyramide I am not ill, the food is amazing and the pure silence and beauty that surrounds us, relaxes me and fills me with awe.
On December 9th we finally had a break in the weather and we fly back to Union Glacier. As ALE clients we are on the first flight from base camp to Union Glacier.
It is disappointing we missed the Ilyushin, even though it had not flown into Union as scheduled. Its delay was not enough for us to catch it. At this point, we get scheduled to leave Union back to Punta Arenas on the 12th.
When we arrive back at Union Glacier, we line up for a shower! Ahhhhh …. clean again. I am reminded of life’s simple blessings.
Afterwards we get a behind the scenes tour of Union Glacier.
We also meet Richard Parks, who was the first person to do a grand slam – complete the 7 summits and ski the North and South Poles – in less than 1 year. Is that humanly possible? Apparently so!
He was trying to beat his solo record from the Hercules Inlet to the South Pole, a distance of 1140 km. He had been trying to do it in 25 days. However, due to illness, his solo attempt ended prematurely, early in the New Year.
We spoke for a bit during the couple of days we were waiting, and in one of our conversations he commented: “Courage is how you act and face your fears and learn from it”.
My fear of heights is still present. I need to learn how to control it more. I am learning.
Not only am I meeting amazing people on these climbs, I am facing things and growing in ways that surprise and delight me. I am becoming a climber!
Four down; three (well hour) to go – after all the 7 Summits are 8!
After dinner at Union Glacier, there was talk about the possibility to have us flown to base camp that evening, there was even a person from ALE walking around with a flight scheduled. But the weather did not co-operate, and we spent the night at Union Glacier.
However the next morning though, On November 27, after breakfast, we boarded one of the twin otter planes, which are planes operated by Ken Borek Air, a Calgary based airline, on service for the season for ALE in Antarctica. I was on the first flight. Lakpa and Sebastian also flew with us to base camp, as we were the first group of the season.
ALE ultra-qualified guides are assigned a rotation schedule of working as guides and rangers. Rangers are ALE guides available to assist other climbers with their expeditions in case of an emergency.
Our flight to base camp was about 20 minutes, and all we can see out the frosted windows is snow-covered peaks. Of course, we are in Antarctica.
Once we land, we are greeted by a smiling, happy head guide name Tre-C (pronounced Tracy). She knew our names, greeted us all like old friends and then proceeded to give us the most important tour – how to pee in Antarctica.
Number “2” is flown out of Antarctica, back to Chile, but ‘pee’ remains in Antarctica and as per the Antarctic Treaty, its Environmental Protocol has set guidelines to deal with Waste Disposal and Management, which essentially directs that “ as far as practicable so as to minimize impacts on the Antarctic environment and to minimize interference with the natural values of Antarctica”, read more about it (https://www.ats.aq/e/ep_waste.htm).
Our sleeping quarters here at base camp are huge dome shape tents, that could accommodated at least 4 people inside each, and which I was able to stand in. Yes, I am a short person. But even my friend Emmanuel when he refuted at my comment, that he could “not relate” to standing up inside the tent – just assuming I could because I was short, had to say to me: “ I stand corrected, I CAN relate”. This only after I politely had asked him to stand in the middle of the tent himself, and he obliged cynically. ☺
Our group tent, which was also ALE’s basecamp office and the kitchen was heated, had chairs and tables for all of us to hang out at, with hot water at our disposal for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, etc. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served here, along with an array of soft drinks, beer, red and white wine, as well as champagne for celebrations and sangria for treats.
This was just for ALE’s clients.
At base camp, there were other groups from different companies. They set-up their own tents, including their own kitchen and dining tents, etc. I realize there is an argument to be made for those that call themselves “purists” that this is the best way to experience the mountains and its true mountaineering. That the comforts and attention to detail and may I venture to say, the touch of luxury (in the mountaineering realm) that ALE provides in Vinson is not true mountaineering, then I argue to disagree.
In Everest no one complains for using the services of Sherpas, and in Killimanjaro the use of porters. Well, in Vinson, I am of the opinion, one should climb directly with ALE.Why can’t one enjoy climbing the tallest mountain in Antarctica in more comfort? I see no reason.
We still carried our own personal equipment to the other two camps. We still climbed up the same fixed rope from low to high camp. We still ‘trekked’ the same distance from high camp to the Summit. But we enjoyed a little more comfort. I know some of the other mountaineering companies and they are wonderful of course, but I am just saying, ALE has the right idea. I want to climb the 7 Summits, but I do not see any reason why I can’t enjoy it as much as possible. After all is ‘mountaineering’ not just the act of climbing mountains?
The next day, on November 28th, 2018, our three assigned guides, Lakpa, Seba and Tre-C divided our team of nine, into three rope teams, randomly selected. Each rope team has three climbers and one guide. At all times when outside the camps areas, we are roped in together, because of the existence of crevasses.
Myself, Emmanuel and Christian are in Seba’s rope team.
On Lakpa’s team is David, Matt, and Nicolas, and Tre-C has Jenny, her husband Matt and Steve. This last one became the British connection rope team!
We practiced putting our crampons on. And we go for a small acclimatization hike, training, to get used to being roped in, the team’s pace, the weather and of course ensuring our crampons are working well in our boots and also our clothing layering system is working for us.
The next day, the weather reports are not favorable for the next few days, and our guides explain to us, that we will continue to acclimatize in base camp.
However, to keep us ‘prepared’ we get a lesson on how to rig and attach the sleds to our backpacks. We will use the sleds to take supplies to low camp. In each rope team, only three sleds will be used, meaning the last person on the rope team will not have a sled.
November 30th, 2018, we are still hanging out at base camp, but we get our food planned for when we start to move to the low and high camps. We get to select breakfasts, dinners, and snacks from the ALE supply store. These are all meals that can be made by only adding hot water. We also have a going to the ‘bathroom’ lecture for low and high camps.
Here we will be using the disposal toilet method, which we will use with the help of a empty bucket for our seating comfort. The ‘portable’ toilets are personal of course and we will need to carry them with us, until our return to base camp, so they can be ‘packaged’ with the other entire bathroom ‘matters’.
We also do ‘arts and crafts’ and build the VINSON sign from snow. The sign is created once every season. Our lead guide Tre-C and I spearhead the undertaking of this task. Some of my teammates also got some exercise filling the hole of the previous seasons’ ‘freezer’ tent. Every year when ALE staff opens the camp, the location of the tent needs to move back a few feet. The old hole then needs to be filled again with snow, and because we were the first group of the season, and weather kept us just lazing around and enjoying great food, we needed to burn some calories!
December 1st, 2018, the weather became promising and our guides make the decision for us to move to low camp. We pack our gear into our backpacks, and some supplies get on the sleds. The suggested ratio was 70/30, on backpacks to sleds.
The hiking time from base camp to low camp was about 5-6 hours. We took a break about every 60 to 90 minutes. Breaks are used to catch our breath, eat a couple of snacks, drink some water and pee.
Once we got to low camp, the area is more rudimentary. We have to set-up our own tents, which ALE maintains stored on-site, but due to high winds, they cannot be left up when not in use, like in base camp.
The kitchen tent is also more basic. It is not artificially heated, but with 2 separated seating areas, with benches carved out of snow and a middle section for the cooking area, the double wall clam tent is pretty nice!
From here we can see the ridge of where the ropes start and go as high as 1200m (close to 4000 feet) that we will have to climb to move to low camp. We can also see Vinson Summit peak and we can see the wind blowing the snow, at the top of the ropes and on the Summit. We need to wait for a break in the weather to move to high camp.
Two other groups are also here, having moved from base camp to low camp with us.
The next day, we do a small hike to the start of the fixed ropes and we practice ascending the rope until about the third switch and then practice our descending.
December 2nd, 2018, weather is still bad up at high camp, however, because we are also a little restless of not doing much, except eating great food and sleeping, some of us go on a hike to nearby peaks.
Steve and Seba go on their own. Tre-C and Lakpa take five of us for a view of the pyramid. Three of our colleagues had decided that they prefer to stay back at camp and “chill”.
It was a 2 to 3-hour return hike but what can I say, the view was amazing. The Pyramid was the actual location of the old base camp. At the top of the small peak that we climbed to, we took a break, ate a snack and took pictures. Tre-C had some dress-up articles in her backpack, which give us the opportunity to take funny pics! Purple was Emmanuel’s color!
December 3rd, 2018; winds still prevailed up top. We rest, read, sleep.
December 4th, 2018; and our guides rally our team up to move up to high camp, as they are confident with a predicted 2 day window break in the weather.
We only pack our sleeping bags, water bottles, food, snacks, medication, and our clothing layers necessary into our backpacks. Our sleds also stay behind. We take down our tents. We leave any supplies and any equipment that we do not need up in high camp inside our duffle bags, and ALE stores them by the kitchen tent.
Another advantage of climbing with ALE in Vinson, is that the group does not have to carry up group gear, like fuel, tents, and even sleeping pads. ALE has all that at each camp. Each season ALE’s guides and rangers, in anticipation of the climbing season, for each team, restock supplies. Other companies must do “carries” and “cache” supplies. All climber teams with these other companies do this by taking supplies to a camp one-day and returning to the previous camp. They then move up to the next camp the following day.
The climb up to high camp includes a climb of about 1,200 meters, with an approximately 45 degree angle on the side of a mountain, aided by fixed ropes. We had to use our ascenders’ and cows’ tails to move on the fixed ropes and for safety. We took breaks, some just beside rocks but still roped in together.
I found the climb ok, with the exemption of the last transfer point. I had looked up and had seen Seba, our guide, positioning his feet, with each step on a very narrow part of the terrain. My fear of heights rose immediately with my heart rate threatening to deafen me, but I tried to concentrate in following his footsteps, completely aware I would have to climb down. I forced those thoughts out of my mind and concentrated in continuing the ascent. I would deal with descending another day.
When we reached high camp, both Wes and Nate, two of ALE’s rangers that had gone up ahead of us, to “open” camp”, had our tents set-up and ready for us to go inside and rest, after we removed our crampons of course and made sure that our other ‘sharpies’ were a safe distance from our tents.
We were the Vinson 1 team, and therefore the first set of climbers of the season, so the pee hole was still being done, as was the placement of the ‘toilet’ bucket.
We were able to admire the surroundings and the view from this height. Dinner was served inside our tents, after our guides’ boiled water for our drinking pleasure and our dehydrated food preparation. I enjoyed my oatmeal. Emmanuel complained about his Spicy Pad Thai and repeated a few times to me how he hated dehydrated meals; this after he had lectured me previously that I needed to eat more than just oatmeal. But my oatmeal looked pretty good now!
Personally I don’t like dehydrated food! It upsets my stomach. I have tried it and tasted various commercially available brands. I don’t like any of them. And I was not going to risk an upset stomach in a continent made of white snow! Even energy bars cause me issues. That is why I had only chosen oatmeal for breakfast and dinners and for snacks I stuck with my Suzie’s Good Fats Peanut Butter Chocolate Snack Bars.
Other teams shortly arrived after us and got busy setting up their own camp. Although, one of the teams had just come up to drop a cache and then they went back down to low camp. They would not be attempting the summit with us, and I personally found this to be a mistake since the weather was predicted to change shortly.
After ‘dinner’, Tre-C discussed with us our plan for the next day and suggested we go to sleep as the next day we were hoping it to be our Summit day, as we only had a two day of predicted good weather, so we would not be spending the following day acclimatizing and resting in high camp, as sometimes happens. I was honestly rested enough I must admit. Aside from 7 blisters total on both my feet, I was fine and looking forward to moving.
The next morning, we would have an early start – before 10:00 am. So, as usual, I pulled my hat around my ears and over my eyes to ‘shut the blinds’ form the Sun and I went to sleep. The next day was the Summit day.
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Climbing Mount Vinson and going to Antarctica was nerve wracking. I felt there was a lot riding on the success of the expedition, and not just monetarily – the degree of coldness added a whole new level of potential challenges as well as danger.
Climbing Mt Vinson is the most expensive of the 7 Summits, after Everest. The remoteness of Antarctica and the time constraint on being able to access the mountain plays a huge role in the cost. There is a short season to climb Vinson, from late November to mid-January.
We were one of the first groups of the 2018-2019 season. I had researched this very well, and then preceded to convince my friend Emmanuel of my choice and we chose ALE (Antarctic Logistics Expeditions) as our expedition guiding company. Actually, ALE is the only operator with flights to access Vinson. The company has operated continuously in Antarctica since 1987. They were the 1st land-based tour operator using wheeled aircraft on blue-ice runways. They have safely executed hundreds of roundtrip intercontinental flights from Chile to the interior of Antarctica and have supported virtually every private expedition that has skied, flown or driven across Antarctica.
The extra few hundred dollars in cost was worth it in my opinion, and I think you will agree with me, as you follow my journey.
As I sat in Punta Arenas inside the restaurant of the hotel Rey Don Philippe, looking out into the street, it’s sunny, but the wind is blowing. Seems it is always windy here and cold, and this is their summer.
ALE was supposed to come and pick up our duffels in a couple of hours. I felt ok and confident and ready. At this point I had not decided if I wanted to pack my running shoes. I was actually wearing them this morning, since I had started feeling a little of out of place wearing my Valentino blue boots. I had been wearing my boots for the last 4 or 5 days, going out to eat and while site seeing. I still don’t understand the logic behind wearing hiking shoes and activity specific clothing when not doing the activity! Oh well. I decided to give in that morning, since technically our expedition was about to start.
My throat was hurting a little this particular morning. Maybe Steve’s cold finally had caught up to me. I am hoping I am ok in Antarctica because it’s not good being sick while attempting to climb a freezing cold mountain! I have been taking lots of Vitamin C, actually downing it, and decided to take some more.
After our luggage is picked up at 11:00am, we have a group lunch at 12:30pm, where we meet some of the other people that will be climbing with us. I quickly realize that the group is comprised of some incredible people.
Following this, we have an information session at the ALE office at 4:00pm, where we also pick up our boarding passes for the next days’ scheduled flight to Antarctica.
Robert Anderson, our local ALE representative, gives everyone an overall presentation of what to expect in Antarctica. Those present are those of us climbing Vinson, those guests going to visit the Emperor Penguins, those skiing the last degree, those going on solo expeditions to the South Pole, and even a Dutch couple that would be driving a solar-powered 3D-printed vehicle, made of plastic waste across Antarctica. I am not joking, check out their website: https://www.clean2antarctica.nl/en . This was not your everyday information session attendees!
Robert Madds Anderson is an author, speaker, creative director and mountaineer who has climbed the 7 Summits solo. But above all, I found him to be a man that exemplifies humility. And it awed me. I knew from meeting him, that this trip would be a great learning experience for me and very special.
During the ALE briefing I also met Lakpa Rita Sherpa, who was going to be one of our guides. Lakpa was the first Sherpa to climb the 7 Summits, and of course he has climbed Everest 17 times. Yes, I said 17. I was a little starstruck I have to admit.
The next morning, November 26th, right on schedule, we go to the airport and board the Ilyushin. The Ilyushin Il-76 is a Russian, multi-purpose four-engine plane first planned as a commercial freighter in 1967. It was designed to deliver heavy machinery to remote, poorly served areas. Military versions of the Il-76 have been widely used in Europe, Asia and Africa.
ALE leases one of these planes for the season. The Ilyushin takes enough fuel for a return trip from Punta Arenas, Chile to Union Glacier, Antarctica. The plane comes with its own Russian crew. It has been modified inside with some seats and since there are no windows, a large screen TV has been installed in front of the plane, so we can watch the plane being guided onto the runway, take off and land. The TV receives the feed from a camera outside the front of the plane and helps us with orientation.
ALE also has its own flight attendant on every flight, to give us earplugs, a beverage or two and a couple of snacks. All of this felt a little surreal to say the least.
When we arrive at Union Glacier, the plane lands on a blue ice runway and even though the IIyushin does not have any trouble stopping, the passengers slip and slide on the ice. It was no surprise that our arrival was met with wind and it’s cold! Very cold.! But nothing can dampen our excitement of arriving. We stop to pose for many pictures in front of the plane before we board the trucks that will take us to Union Glacier, and camp.
The ride from the runway to the camp is about 25 minutes, even though the distance is only about 5-6 km. When we reach Union Glacier, we are given a tour of the camp, the facilities, the do’s and don’t’s And did I mention it was cold?! However the views and the air are so clear and clean, that I have to keep blinking to adjust – both my eyes and my heart! This place is spectacular. The expanse – the brilliant whites and fresh blues are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I needed to keep reminding myself not to take my sunglasses off!
We are assigned a tent, which is a double walled clam shaped tent with carpet on the floor and cots. This is very much my style of ‘camping’. Our bags are delivered by ski doo! Wow! I feel spoiled!
Afterwards, we are invited to the heated communal dinning tent. Here ALE serves not your average cafeteria food. There are vegan and gluten free choices, fresh baked goods and meals made fresh – breakfast, lunch and dinner. They even serve mid-morning and afternoon snacks – freshly baked! Hot water, tea and coffee is always available and during meals white and red wine. This is a giant improvement from other experiences. I am impressed and relieved.
The Union Glacier camp itself and facilities, which get set-up for business in November and taken down for protection of the weather at the end of January, every year, was our first clue that climbing Mt Vinson was not going to be your average Summit attempt.
Help us in raising funds for CAMH, by donating $5.00 now.
Stigma or discrimination attached to mental illnesses presents a serious barrier, not only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community. *
This is a fact, and coupled with the holidays where people can feel more stress and anxiety, it is perhaps the reason I personally came home from climbing Vinson Massif about 2 weeks ago, to feelings of confusion that if what I am doing will matter at all and even to some resentment.
7 Summits for Mental Health, is a hard task at hand and just like anything in life, there are moments of doubt.
When I started this endeavour for Peaks for Change, I had hope to make an impact, but I did not anticipate that it could be hard on my personal life or me.
However I have come to believe that Jesus put me in this path and he keeps me there for a reason. There are little signs. Just as I was feeling overwhelmed on the morning of Christmas Eve, I receive a personal note on our Facebook messenger, which I have permission to share it here in its entirety, in hope that it can help someone else, and also further ‘our’ goals to end the stigma on mental health.
2018 The Trillium Trauma.
On December 12th, 2018 I found myself at the back of a Peel Police car as people stared with curiosity at the Family Services of Peel. Not that I had committed any crime, but the Officers were there to support and service and transport me to the Trillium Hospital. After consulting with a Clinician, 911 was called for assistance.
I do not recall three of the first ten days of this cruel crisis! However, for whatever reason in-comprehensive to me, I recall the main Police Officer’s number, 2482. I might be mistaking during my crisis, but I will have to follow up with Division 11 and send the four officers my genuine appreciation.
During the transit, admittance and those three disoriented days of my life, I felt absolutely nothing! I had no feelings, no lucidity. I was a blank canvass for the further infliction I was to combat. Every single personal item was taken from me, I was left with my underclothing on and locked up in a room at Emergency for my own safety. The Police officers remained outside the restraint until the Doctor was available to attend me with the Hospital Security.
And so, I was a formalized as a Mental Patient in Crisis. I simply cannot account the frightful sorrow I experienced at this place that exists to help people. I also have to remember the utmost challenging employed Nurses and other individuals that handle multiple unwell people every day. My admiration for them as I could never endure an environment such as the one I experienced.
I had a many breakdowns during this period. More often than not, with my Peer Patients and we nourished and supported each other regardless of gender, age or race. People of all walks of life share one thing in common, Mental illness.
Under this umbrella within, they have various levels or a different diagnosis. When I was able to actually convey a reasonable conversation, I spoke to staff and patients of a friend, Emma Dantas. She climbs tall mountains around the world to change the ‘stigma’ about Mental Health.
I am in some ways distressed by Governments, society, and companies such as the one that triggered my PTS. Lack of awareness and education. Personally, I feel it is simply ignorance.
I requested to be discharged earlier. I could not manage my emotions watching my roommate undergoing his own horrible crisis, a handsome, early 20’s year old male having horrifying episodes.
Returning home and to the welcoming of my Cat, Ronaldo, I have not been able to stop weeping. He also went through this trauma with me.
I am uncertain if I made the appropriate decision. At present, I am doubtful what the future brings. With PTS, the many years of Panic Attacks, Depression and now I also have Social Anxiety.
This is a soul who performed on stage, TV, Radio and loved music, now long foregone, as it has for years. I feel that the place to heal my trauma, has brought me other traumas and I still break down in weeping for not only me, but others. The different individuals and the sadness I lived through would altogether destroy me further.
I was coached by the Staff that my empathy for others was not healthy, but how can One not feel.? Fortunately I am blessed with the support of my sister, nephews, and nieces.
It has only been about 10 hours since I arrived home and some would think that now am fully cured. That would be a miracle, but not even on Christmas that will materialize for me and others suffering and being stigmatized.
John Neves “I read this several times and wept. It brought me to a place when I could hear my own mothers’ turmoil of feelings. It brought me to a time, I just did not want to deal with it. It spoke to my own present thoughts of tiredness and emotional ache. Climbing mountains may be difficult, but way easier than living with any form of Mental Illness. Easier than feeling lost, broken and hopeless.
As we come to a close of 2018, please join us in our commitment to raise funds for CAMH’s new Acute Care Center, to open its doors soon, with your one time donation of $5.00. Lets together build a future without at least the Stigma on Mental health.
With gratitude, wishing you a Happy New Year,
Chairwoman of the Board
Peaks for Change Foundation
It is Sunday, July 29th, 2018 and to the ‘Putin on the Ritz’ team, day 9 of our adventure.
My alarm is set for 2:00am for breakfast, but I, like several of my teammates, was already up. Vern turns on the electrical kettle for hot water, to warm our first batch of water bottles, and we are ready to go.
Our plan was to be ready and mobile at 3:00am and be by the ‘cats’ to put our crampons on at 3:30am. Plan accomplished. Yes! Off to a good start.
We have a large group and need two ‘snow cats’ and awkwardly get on board, with all our equipment. We sit excitedly, knowing what’s to come and hold on tight as it brings us up to just past the Provesky Rocks on Mount Elbrus. We all jump off. The moment has come. At last, we are about to attempt to summit Mount Elbrus. For me, mountain number three!
We remove our down jackets, because we always ‘start cold’; our bodies start heating up fast. Snow googles on next, with our face buffs securely underneath its strap, so we don’t have any of our face exposed. My buff has a Canadian flag print. Yes, I am proud to be Canadian!
It’s windy and cold as we start out. And we all knew that as we gained altitude, the temperature would decrease and the winds would increase. The clear blue skies we had been seeing the previous days as we glanced up the mountain from base camp were merely a rouse. Clearly, this is NOT going to be easy.
The previous day, when we were informed by Vern that we would attempt our Summit today, it was with the expectation that the weather would be similar to the previous day. The report brought back from the climbers that had reached the Summit, was that they had to literally ‘crawl’ to the Peak. I had visualized the ‘crawling’ action myself and yet only believed Vern 50%. I thought he was simply exaggerating. In a few short hours, I learned first hand, that ‘crawling’ was the right adjective. A daunting exercise; but the only way…
However, with our backpacks securely buckled on our backs, our headlamps turned on, we get to business. We ensure our ice axe is deployable and both our trekking poles are at the appropriate climbing length. These two skills we learned and reviewed with Carole and Vern until we were proficient.
In a single file, one step at a time, practicing both our rest-step and pressure breathing, we start to climb. I concentrate on both, and at the same time, ensure each of my steps are careful ones, so as to not get my crampons tangled on each other. I try to only concentrate on my rhythm and nothing else. ‘One, two, whooof…. one, two, whooof…’
I know to others looking at us from below or even from behind, we look like fireflies, slowly moving up the mountain, as only the light from our headlamps is visible. Fireflies in a string, moving upward in the extreme cold and wind.
Daylight is breaking and we reach our first stop. Vern directs us, “Keep warm people.” “Ten minute break.” “Remember to pee, drink and eat – in that order.” “You do not want to be caught with your pants down when we are ready to go!” His sense of humor lifts our spirits. We need to smile.
This first rest stop is by a broke -down, red, snow caterpillar. It is now a fixture on its ridge, and I doubt it will ever be removed. Just another piece of ‘garbage’ on Elbrus. I wonder how long it will remain here.
Modesty in the mountain does not exist. Men and women simply accept our basic nature needs, and simply that. And all are respectful. We ‘go’ when told, like in grade school.
“Two minutes people!” Vern commands and we know its time to rap it up and get going. We all respond as quickly as possible.
We continue our ascent as the sun slowly slides past the fluffy white clouds, painting a a golden hallow around them, as it rises to set its place against the blue sky. For a brief moment, both sun and moon share the same space. It’s magical what God has created. And from this vantage point, even more so.
Anatoli, the ‘official’ mountain photographer is going around from group to group, capturing special moments, which he will sell to us in a couple of days. Vern tells us at one point to simply pull our buffs down for a brief smile into the camera as we pass him at a certain point and time. We do. It records our red, frost faces that are hiding under our buffs. And also relieves us. There are some civilized moments up here! Plus we are not alone. We are having this adventure together.
Our second break is on the vertical face of the mountain, just off the narrow trekking path. As we follow our break routine I try not to think of the height which we are at, and also the fact that one slip, would have any one of us demonstrating our ice axe arrest techniques. Better not to think of that possibility. None of us wants to practice that. I try not to look back because of my fear of heights and simply tell myself I am on solid footing. It helps.
As we continue in single file, we come upon another group, which after a few moments, our guides and theirs, negotiate our passing ahead of them. All of our group secretly feels good about this maneuver. We seem to be moving at a decent pace!
I can see that we are entering ‘the saddle’. The saddle is termed as such because it’s a ‘dip’ between both mountain peaks, resembling an actual saddle.
While we enter the saddle, the wind is not prevalent and I foolishly think that Vern was exaggerating about the wind speed we were to expect. Never doubt Vern!
As I look ahead I can see snow blowing and creating dust clouds against and around other fellow climbers, already at the base of the saddle and also making their way up the other side towards the Summit. The brief stillness we feel was very much like the proverbial ‘calm before the storm’. Brace yourself Ema.
As we reach the saddle base, the wind is demonstrating its superiority. It pushes us like a bully, demanding we push back and fight to keep ourselves vertical.
Vern commands and guides us efficiently to get our down jackets on. We need to pee, drink and eat like on any other break, plus we need to put our harnesses on. We are securing all our backpacks and trekking poles in a pile and leaving them behind here. This is both to facilitate our final push up to the Summit, but also to save space – there is not much room up there!
Our guides help us with getting our harnesses on, without taking our crampons off. As Irina and ‘Jason’ (nicknamed by us, because of his white mask) help us, I make a mental note that I need to get a better harness for when I repeat this task in a future climb. It’s just not smooth enough for crucial times like this.
And we are off, for the final leg.
Again, we are soon feeling the wind’s defiant tease to ‘take him on’ with only our ice axe in hand as if to threaten the wind to ‘back off’. Just as we clip on the static line, the wind retreats teasingly, giving us a false sense of hope. Then it comes gusting against us with speeds of about 50km an hour. At moments, it takes a deep breath and then when it exhales, it spits out ice pellets that hit our faces and bodies, with demanding threats against us. I have never experienced wind like this. Truly, if we break our attention from it, it will and can toss us into the abyss. I briefly wonder if this is what Denali or Vinson will feel like, but I don’t have much time to ponder this thought, as all my energy is spent concentrating on each step, bracing myself with my ice axe and also guiding my leach on the fixed rope.
And suddenly it dawns on me, we ARE ‘crawling’ up to the Peak. The roar of the wind, the stinging of the ice, and the concentration required, are all very real. We are indeed crawling to the top.
Then as we leave the fixed rope section, we continue slowly, hunched down, up the glacier ridge towards the summit point. It’s in sight and that encourages us. But we move very slowly and carefully, because even though wind has given up throwing snow dust at us, it continues to push us defiantly.
And then suddenly – we are there! We are at the top of Mount Elbrus! We did it!
The Summit space is maybe a 10×12 foot small, cramped space. Our group alone fills it, as others also compete to share it.
At the same time, I realize and feel like, the wind is going to blow me away. This is not a good feeling; despite the relief at being successful, I still need to concentrate. I hunch down and secure my axe ice on its floor. I start to pull out my first flag, the Portuguese and Canada flags. I have sewn them together and realize the wind is blowing it like an out of control boat sail. Another climber sees me struggle and helps me hold an end, while Andrey, takes a picture. I know that it will not be possible to take pics of all my flags: the Language Marketplace flag, the Peaks for Change flag, CAMH, and why I climb. I will also not be able to take a pic of #JesusRocks flag and my heart tugs in sadness. However, I quickly stuff the flag into my jacket and try to hold up my ‘Julia and Ethan’ flag, for my beloved grandchildren. Unfortunately, the wind crumples it in response as Andrey snaps a quick picture for me.
Then I join the rest of the group for a group summit photo and just like that, it’s over.
It reminds me of a wedding – it takes so much time and preparation and you look forward to it with great anticipation, then it’s over so quickly. And today, there is no time to savor the moment.
It’s time to move on. Others are waiting to take our place and want us to move along.
However, I do have time to take a deep breath and look around in a 360 degree motion and memorize the true beauty that scourged us below. Peaks adoring the horizon around us, like a crown, as we stand on the top of Europe. Thank you God for allowing me to see this; to have this moment. Your mountain tops are truly awesome and You brought me here safely.
As we start our decent from the peak I feel disappointed I was not able to take more pictures and fly all my flags in celebration. But the goal of my trip was realized. I summited Mount Elbrus. Another successful climb and a resounding exclamation to the world that the stigma of mental health must change. That brings a smile. Now comes a well needed rest with my family before starting to prepare for Antarctica.
I left Toronto on Friday July 20th early in the evening. That was day 1 and a necessary part of this adventure – long flights! I arrived at Moscow Airport late on Saturday afternoon, July 21st and instantly marveled at the sight of Russia. It didn’t look at all like it’s portrayed in the movies. It just looks like any other country. Clearly, the stereo type is not very correct. Incorrect stereotypes; hmm … where have I heard that concern before?
Having said that, the people DO seem different. They don’t smile a lot. They are polite and do their jobs, but there are no smiles offered.
As I met the group, I was relieved that everyone seems nice. Another part of this adventure – you have to make friends with and rely on all sorts of people. I am happy to see two other females in the group in addition to our guide Carole. She and her husband Vern are highly experienced and rank among the best in the mountaineering circles. Yet they exude politeness and happiness – like they really like their jobs.
The hotel is OK. It has a bed and a bathroom – just a functional space. No smiles here either.
Day 3. Sunday July 22nd. Heavy sigh. The jet-lag is affecting me. I had a very hard time sleeping beyond the hour I slept around 11:30pm local time. I fell asleep again around 3:30am, but it was not deep, just resting in a semi aware state.
Still, I was excited to be here. I am actually in Russia! The day was spent touring Moscow: Red Square, the Kremlin and the cemetery where politicians and famous Russian socialites are buried. I found the tombstones fascinating and disturbing, as well as quite pretentious. Statues serve as headstones for the deceased, for example Boris Yeltsin’s is an abstract piece of art.
The architecture is wonderful and fascinating. The details that show Persian, Portuguese and even Spanish influences were wonderful to see. The city is extremely clean, perhaps the cleanest city I have ever visited. Certainly, Moscow puts to shame the dirty, smelling streets of New York City.
I enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard, an English monarchy influence.
Still, the lack of smiles of Russian residents is something that I kept noticing. There was an emptiness to it. Though never rude to anyone, their presence is never inviting, warm or happy. It seems strange to me …
We believe that if one smiles to another person, and are polite and cheerful, it will evoke similar feelings in return. Not here. I have tried, but to no avail. No response. None.
Our team of fellow climbers seem like a wonderful group and we have been easily bonding. Our #AlpineAscents guides, Carole and Vern, are not only professional, but warm, caring and so far excellent hosts and guides. They share not only their guidance and leadership, but their own friendship and love for mountaineering.
I was privileged to learn from Carole that she and Vern actually got married on the summit of Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Vern proposed on their way to the summit, as they both were climbing alone, roped together, him shouting down to her – “So, do you want to get married?” and Carole simply answering back, “Sure!” Vern is not a man that waits to get things done. He saw another guide on his way down from the summit, guiding a client, that he knew was licensed to officiate marriages. On the spot he asked if he could marry him and Carole.
And so it was, with the other client in tow, the officiant guide turned around and married Vern and Carole at the top of the Summit. Both bride and groom wearing climate warming outfits and with routes and carrabiners hanging from their harnesses. Now THAT was a mountain top marriage! Haha.
That was a decade ago. However, as Carole told me the story, I can see in her eyes the love and romance of the gesture her husband made. Not many people can say they got proposed to and married in Antarctica and on the highest mountain of that continent! #Priceless.
For what would be our day 4, again, I managed to sleep only an hour and then around 1:30am I am wide awake. Not a problem if I didn’t have to wake up at 5:00am, shower, and get ready to get myself checked out to be ready in the hotel lobby at 5:50am, so we could head out to the airport. Some how I made it.
We were finally headed to Mineralyne Vody, on our way to Elbrus. The highest peak of Europe.
The flight was about 2 hours and then we a had a bus ride of over 3 ahead of us. Shortly after we landed, my first real test and my fear of huge bags and weight was presented to me. “Ok team!” Vern states. “We have about a kilometer to walk over to where our ride is. Put your duffels on your back and carry your backpacks on the front.” Easy. No really Ema, easy. I was trying to talk myself into it. I was quite nervous. There were 12 other team mates, 10 of them guys and let’s be realistic, even cutting down, my duffel still weighed 55 pounds! Fortunately, one of the guys helped me just with securing one of the straps as it slid down my arm. I walked awkwardly – mainly because the duffel bag was ¾ of my size – the weight did not bother me very much. ‘I can do this’, I kept silently telling myself. After about 100 meters we arrived at our location. I was happy! Phew. Test one – check.
After a few minutes we stopped for lunch and the group had chicken, lamb and beef. Myself, I had some salad, grilled vegetables, fresh bread with butter and tea. I learned that this part of Russia enjoys lots of Persian influences and the restaurant where we ate lunch reflected it.
After a 3 hour bus ride, we arrived in Tersol, which is at the base of Mt Elbrus. Here we are at last. The lodge where we stayed, was not luxurious, but clean and we were the only residents. There are 15 of us in total. Vern and Carole introduce us to two Angelas, who would be taking care of us during our stay.
The following day, which is day 5 in the itinerary, was our first acclimatization day. We hiked for about 5 to 6 hours. We hike up tall grass and a steep hill towards the Observatory.
It was on this first day that Vern and Carole taught us about pressure breathing. Some of my teammates seemed to have theirs already down pat, but I am always out of breath. When I had learned it in Mt Rainier, I found it complicated and it made me light headed and actually short of breath more. Breathing should not be complicated. And it isn’t. Their method was to blow the stale air out of your lungs, by filling your mouth with air until you get cheeks like a chipmunk and blow it out like to are exasperated with someone. Bingo! Feels great.
On day 6 we climbed a different side of the valley. We went very close to the Georgian border and the majority of my team joke about crossing the border illegally- like the fact we were all going to attempt to climb Elbrus was not dangerous enough! We still needed the prospect of getting shot or detained either by Georgian authorities or the Russia police to be added in to the mix?! Fortunately, no casualties to report.
Each day we climbed up to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. We also learned to pace ourselves and I kept practicing my new breathing technique.
Both days we saw Mount Elbrus towering over the valley. Spectacular sight.
Day 7. We repack our duffel bags, leave what is not necessary in the mountain in our second small duffle bag, and lock it. It will be stored for us in a room, and will await our descent from the mountain.
We load our duffel bags, our backpacks and 40 litres of water – 4 bottles of 5 litres each per climber. From the van, which brings us to the tram, we go up to the last stop. Its official, there is no turning back and I am nervous. Again.
Basecamp at Mount Elbrus is a dirty place. Let me explain. There is garbage everywhere, the toilets are 3 walls and a door and a hole in the bottom, which means that each time anyone goes to use the ‘facilities’, urine and feces just free fall in the air and lands on rocks that lie underneath. Yuck.
Our accommodation is one of the nicer ones. Inside accommodation was hostel style – 8 of us shared one room, with 4 pairs of bunk beds. The staff was always washing the floors and our hiking boots were always contained to a designated area. But it is hard to clean inside, when no one cleans outside.
We were not there for a vacation and I set aside my dismissal of my surroundings and concentrate on training as directed. Vern and Carole don’t let us waste any time and right after lunch we go on a short hike on the glacier. They take the opportunity to teach us hiking roped as a group, as a review. Even though we would not be roped into to each other on summit day, this exercise is great to practice.
On day seven we take a longer hike, in altitude. We climb up to the
Pastukhov rocks area, even though on summit day, we take a ‘Cat’ up to this point and start our accent here. We use our crampons for the first time, get them properly fitted to our boots and I was pleased that Vern helped fit mine flawlessly, his experienced hands helping me with a couple of adjustments (stretching and bending). They now fit my #SportivaSpantik boots like a glove! Thank you Vern.
Our altitude gain was about 15,000 feet.
Later in the afternoon, we review the intricacies of anchor building. There are crevasses on the glacier and being armed with more knowledge and skills is nothing but a benefit.
Day 8. July 28th. This is supposed to be a rest day, as the following day we will attempt to summit the tallest Peak in Europe. However, we are athletes. We can’t just laze around all day and we need to practice our ice axe skills. Self confidence and readiness for emergencies, in case of an accidental fall or slip is crucial.
Therefore, we spend a couple of hours in the morning practicing just that. We replicate, on purpose, several ways we can fall and how to use our iced axe, to stop us from sliding down the glacier from the possible reach of our teammates. This is a potential life saving maneuver. Very important.
Although we did not anticipate traversing over any crevasses during our summit accent, Vern and Carole generously set up a couple of stations for self-extraction out of a crevasse, so we can refresh the theory and practice the skill, for other mountains. Learning from the man that currently holds the title of 70 Summits, meaning, he has climbed all 7 Summits, 10 times each, is a privilege and treat.
And we are then instructed to rest for the next day.
Rest is not easy. Several of our teammates are suffering from intestinal problems and lots of trips to the “facilities” are necessary. We all worry about what we are eating. The last thing we need on Summit day is to need to run to the bathroom with diarrhea or vomiting.
And as is the normal routine, we each take turns for privacy during the afternoon and put on our Summit day clothes we have packed for the occasion, and get our backpacks ready. The time has come. Here we go …
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