Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday on Ice

Just in time for Christmas, my story on climbing Vinson in this week's issue of the Santa Cruz Weekly:
http://www.santacruz.com/news/2011/12/20/holiday_on_ice

“This does not feel like Christmas,” I thought between forced gulps of hot chocolate. I looked over at my teammate Doug, hunkered next to me in our kitchenette dug out of the snow, nursing his frostbitten hands. My dad and the other climbers in our group, Wim and our guide Victor, huddled in our shelter trying to warm themselves.
We were at the base of Mt. Vinson-Massif, at 16,050 feet the highest point in Antarctica. In December 2005, in the middle of my senior year of high school, between the anxieties of college applications and prom drama, my dad and I had somehow decided to journey down as far away from holiday cheer as we could possibly be to climb this peak. 
I was a 17-year-old girl amongst middle-aged men, and while it wasn’t the first time I’d played that role—Mt. Vinson would become the sixth of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the continents, that my dad and I would climb—I still felt an underlying compulsion to prove I was good enough to be there.
The team had leisurely awoken that morning thinking we would follow a relatively easy plan. The goal was to tag High Camp and then come back down for the night, following the mountaineer’s maxim of acclimatization, “climb high, sleep low.” While normally it’s best get a pre-dawn start for a day of mountaineering, both in order to get the most out of daylight hours and to leave when it’s the coldest so that the ice is more solidly frozen in place, neither of those considerations mattered as much here: It never gets dark in December in Antarctica, and with the mercury hovering between 0 and –20 degrees Fahrenheit, we weren’t too worried about things thawing out.
Still, when the sun was shining and the wind was calm it could feel deceptively warm. Even though it looked like we would have good weather for the day, I casually threw some extra mitts and my fluffiest down jacket into my pack, just in case, along with the bag of food I was carrying up to leave for when we returned for our summit bid.
We rolled out of camp with the sun gleaming against the pristine snow that crunched underfoot as we made our way toward the base of the headwall. Once there, we made a stop to put on our crampons, spikes that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots to help gain traction in the ice, and then began to ascend the face that would lead us to High Camp, situated in the col between Mt. Vinson and its neighbor, Mt. Shinn.
Planting my ice axe into the incline ahead of me every couple of steps, I followed the slow but steady pace Victor set at the lead of the rope. I was giddy at the thought of being surrounded by the untouched peaks of this mystic land. Unconventional, perhaps, but not a bad way to spend Christmas day, I thought.
 
Cold Hard Tracks
Christmas back home was, of course, much different. The holiday season in Long Beach was announced by the appearance of colorful, tree-shaped light decorations floating out on the bay. Sometimes after the boat parade that went around Naples Island—for which we would deck out our kayaks, and ourselves, with festive strings of lights—I would paddle out to one of the platforms, just for the novelty of sitting on a floating Christmas decoration.
My brother and I often spent Christmas in Brooklyn with my mom and grandma, where the holiday fixation was on appetizing fowl. Be it pheasant, quail or duck, my mom would spend the better part of a day strategizing the sequence of events that would yield the best feast. Though we always ended up with a delicious meal, things rarely went according to plan.
Back on Vinson that dynamic was in full effect. After a couple of hours of climbing on Christmas morning, a smattering of clouds invaded the sky, blocking the warmth of the sun. We made a quick stop to adjust our layers to the lower temperature; while Victor and Wim each added a jacket, Doug and my dad said they thought they would be fine with what they had on. Feeling lazy about digging through my pack and readjusting, I convinced myself that my current garb would also suffice.
Yet as we began to climb again, the wind picked up and I soon realized that the thin gloves I had on wouldn’t be enough after all. I tried to shake off the burning cold by whirling my arms around, hoping that increasing the blood flow would be sufficient. It wasn’t. Because we were traveling in standard glacial travel style, with a single rope connecting the team, if I stopped to get my thicker mitts out of my pack, everyone else would have to stop with me. I knew that in this sport, seemingly small errors like this could result in dire consequences. If I made everyone stop, they could grow cold themselves due to the lack of movement, starting a chain of events that could end with frostbite or a fall. As part of a small team whose members were out to push their limits, I agonized that there wasn’t room for my previous laziness.
But my mind flashed on all of the things I wouldn’t be able to do, or at least not as well, if I lost my fingertips to frostbite. I may be a mountain climber here, I thought to myself, but back at home I needed those fingers if I wanted to keep playing the piano or the oboe or even be able to instant message with my friends. I convinced myself it was worth it to protect my hands.
Completely embarrassed, I called out to Victor.
“Why didn’t you change your gloves when I gave you the chance before?” he asked, clearly cross. But he stopped so I could throw off my pack and get out my mitts.
However, my punishment wasn’t complete; they weren’t at the top of my pack as I’d been hoping. I grew increasingly frustrated as I rummaged for the elusive mitts while the rest of the team waited impatiently. Victor gruffly marched up to me to aid my search by holding the bag of food and the jacket that had been obstructing my path to the gloves. By the time I finally found them I was almost to the point of tears. I apologized but still felt I would have to do something to make up for my mistake. 
As we climbed on, the weather worsened. Once we got to High Camp we hastily made a cache for the gear we would leave up there and then started back down. Now in near-whiteout conditions, we were thoroughly miserable. A layer of the freshly blown snow accumulated in between some of our boots and crampons, reducing the purchase of our feet on the slope and causing us to stumble from time to time, pulling and catching each other by the rope that served as our lifeline.
 
Peak Experience
Mountaineering started for my dad, and thus for me, when he climbed Mt. Whitney with a friend from work. I can imagine my dad taking his last few steps to the summit: euphoric from the endorphins, adrenaline and altitude, hardly able to believe how far he had come since that morning as he looked down at the valleys below. Standing on top of a summit triggers just the right emotional cocktail to make it the most addictive experience I have known. 
After Whitney and some other California peaks, he felt ready to take on something bigger. He suggested climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to his friends, but they couldn’t take the time off. So he brought it to the family dinner table one night. 
My older brother and my stepmom both reasonably declined. But, more than climbing a mountain, the thought of going to Africa seemed incredibly exotic and exciting to me. As an animal-lover, I reasoned that if I climbed Kilimanjaro with him, which I knew nothing about, I could probably convince him to take me on a short safari afterward.
“Yeah, I’ll go!” It came out without much thought, unknowingly launching the biggest obsession of my teenage years. 
Eventually, that obsession would turn into a world record. After success on Vinson, my dad and I only had one peak left to complete our Seven Summits quest: Mt. Everest. I took a gap year before college to train and prepare, and we reached the summit of Everest that spring, making me, at the age of 18, the youngest person at that time to have climbed the Seven Summits, and the first to climb them all with her dad.
I felt depleted when we got back to camp after our long Christmas day on Vinson; it took all of my willpower to help out with the chores of collecting snow to melt for water and cooking the dinner I was too tired to eat. As I laboriously cut up garlic with my pocketknife to throw in with the frozen salmon patties—our holiday dinner—Victor looked at me and said, “I bet you’ve never had a Christmas like that before, have you?” I wearily shook my head. Smirking, he added, “Somehow I don’t think it’ll be the last, either.”
After dinner I used the satellite phone to call my mom and brother. I was so exhausted, and there was such a lag in the connection between us, that it was hard to communicate anything at all. Even if I didn’t really know what I was supposed to say, how I could possibly describe what it was like to be there right then, I liked the thought of them being able to hear me. I tried to imagine them sitting cozily around a tree, well fed and warm and protected from the chilly streets of New York, as I looked across the expanse of ice in front of me that led to the bottom of the earth.
My dad and I then called my stepmom, younger brother and sister back in California. She asked how we liked our presents—we’d forgotten! Before she’d left us at the airport, she had handed my dad and me each a small package, which we’d stashed away in our sleeping bags. We hung up the phone, got into our tent and opened them. I uncovered a pair of earrings, two small silver hoops. They seemed so out of place here, but I looked forward to going back to my other life, where I could envision wearing them.
 
Mountain High
A day or two later we returned to High Camp, the point of departure for our summit bid. I had still not recovered from our hard Christmas day and was nauseated from the altitude. After we’d set up a tent, but before we’d finished all the chores of setting up camp—most importantly, cutting out blocks of ice to build into a wall for protection from the wind—Victor suggested I get inside my sleeping bag to boil some water for tea while the rest of the team continued working. A bit surprised at getting out of the dirty work but not about to complain, I obeyed. I had never loved my sleeping bag more than I did when I crawled into it then.
“You were moving quite slowly—I think you were getting a bit hypothermic,” Victor said later, explaining why he had let me off easy.
When we woke up the next morning, Victor suggested we start up toward the summit: The weather was good, for now, and we had increasingly little time before we had to be back at basecamp in order to get our ride back out. If we missed it, we would most likely have to stay an extra two weeks. He promised that if we felt we weren’t strong enough, we would turn around and rest and try again the next day.
I thought maybe I would feel better once we’d gotten started, but pretty quickly I became sure that I wasn’t going to make it. I felt on the verge of vomiting with every step. But I kept marching along, distracting myself with an internal debate over whether I had yet reached the point at which I should just tell the team I needed to turn back around. I would pick out an objective just within sight—some distinctive rock or feature of ice—and tell myself that all I needed to do was make it there, that then I could decide whether or not I wanted to keep going. But upon reaching every target, I would just decide to postpone the decision again by picking out a new one. My whole existence was pared down to figuring out ways to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t really sure right then why it was actually so important that I did, but I figured that if a previous self had been willing to go through all of the pain and effort this mountain had required so far, then it wasn’t something I should give up on easily.
Far sooner than I expected, Victor told us that we were probably halfway there. We continued on.
We did make it to the summit that day. I trudged up, planted my ice axe into the ground, and rested my forehead on it. My dad came over and let me lean on him to rest instead.
"Good job, honey-bear," was all he could say as I quietly cried into his shoulder.