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Climbing with Alex Lowe
Rock and Ice in Antarctica

Editor's Note: Dave Hahn, whose eloquent dispatches from the slopes of Everest the past two seasons have earned him a worldwide following, has joined MountainZone.com as a regular columnist. Hahn, who works ski patrol in Taos, routinely guides on Mount Everest, Antarctica's Vinson Massif, Alaska's Denali and the Cascades' Mount Rainier, will write about his life in the mountains.

This, his first column, tells the story of last winter's adventure to Antarctica, where Dave Hahn spends the austral summer guiding on Vinson. Last summer, he was joined for a few days by Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker and Gordon Wiltsie for an ascent of Mount Tyree, which rises out of the Patton Glacier a few miles from Vinson.

Lowe in Antarctica
Lowe in Antarctica
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When I caught up to Alex and Conrad, they were perched on a rock in the sun, eating, drinking, laughing and wishing. They'd have brought some skis had they known it was going be such a simple climb. I thrust my ice axe through a few inches of hoar-frost and then into the steep ice of Mount Tyree before carefully moving my cramponed feet another increment closer to their rock of safety. I knew it was easy, too; all the same, I just didn't want to fall down such an easy mountain.

We'd begun climbing the Great Eastern Couloir of the second highest mountain in Antarctica just an hour earlier. Personally, I wasn't wishing for my skis... but I was grateful that this part of Mount Tyree was far easier than it had appeared during our early morning approach. As we'd skied across the gently rolling Patton Glacier in the shadowy early morning, I'd glanced with trepidation at the 9,000 feet of steep ice and rock defying gravity above our 7,000-foot approach glacier.

I could only manage a little trepidation, however, because I was limited to brief, furtive glances. I had needed to keep my eyes trained on my partners in climb. Conrad Anker hadn't been so hard to watch as I skied just 40 feet back in his track. But Alex Lowe had given me a run for my money. I watched one of the climbing skins pop off his ski as he worked up a rise. That was not surprising, it was about 25° below zero and the glue on our equipment had figured that out and was into taking the day off.

"Now, there will be some who will question the decisions Alex Lowe made. Now, there will be some that will say that his death was a terrible waste..."

Selfishly, I saw Alex's predicament as a good thing. I had duct-taped my skins on that morning to deal with the cold. Since he would have to stop and somehow get that glue to work if he was to get any purchase on the snow, and if mine kept sticking, I at least had a ghost of a chance at keeping with him during the dash to the base of our climb. But no! He'd merely reached down, scooped up the departing strip of material and kept on firing up the slope, splaying that right ski out in half a herringbone formation.

I had pressed on, my heart pounding and my lungs heaving; great clouds of frost billowing from my frozen beard. I'd known then that I was having a good day —, all systems were working just fine as I'd hissed and crunched across the sugary surface. When Alex's other skin came away, I'd seen that as fair game, too. I don't remember being troubled by the thought that I meant to get to the base of the wall fresher than my partner who'd now have to struggle a good deal for the final 40 minutes of travel. But Alex didn't hesitate to grab that offending skin up and just go into full herringbone mode on the left ski as well.

My sympathy for his plight had been lessened by the way he'd then extended his lead, despite the handicap. Sure enough, Alex had beat the stuffing out of me during that little race. Conrad had, too, in the end. My only consolation had been that nobody had actually labeled it a race (as then they'd have truly whupped me) and that adrenaline for the task at hand was surging into my amped body and mind.

Alex and Conrad
Anker and Lowe

Now, as we got close to that rock in the sun, we were coming to grips with the task. Alex suggested we ought to leave the rope he'd lugged up the first 1,500 feet of mountain. After all, we were going to do this thing light and fast, we were pretty darn good climbers, and the route was turning out to be easier than expected. I was nodding my head, even as I looked down the smooth, steep, white slope to the dot that our cached skis had become at the foot of the wall.

I was nodding some more as I gazed across the valley to the imposing ridge we'd climbed a few days earlier. My mind sorted through that all-night, vertical mile of rock and ice to somewhere at its outset when Alex had also said "We ought to leave the rope here... this is easy." Easy. Not in my memory, but "easy" is a relative term...for Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker, these were just hikes; I was playing with the big boys.

"Had we just been able to get out in the couloir, rather than having to traverse the upper edge of its dogleg, I reasoned, I'd have been fine..."
As I pulled awkwardly onto the Tyree sunshine boulder, I said, "Sure, let's leave the rope." And I didn't regret it for a few hours, at least. I didn't regret it when we reached our targeted couloir and found a light slab of snow ready to avalanche down over a humongous ice cliff and down onto the Patton Glacier. A rope wouldn't have helped that situation. Only Conrad and Alex's painstaking work kicking free the slab as we traversed a tad awkwardly within reach of the rocks made that situation workable. I say awkwardly, but of course, neither of them was very awkward on a 60° ice slope with massive exposure using one ice tool and an arrest grip ski pole. It was me again, kicking my front points in for all they were worth and swinging two tools hard into the ice for every move I made.

I was aware that Alex and Conrad were gaining ground ahead of me as I kept looking down the chute to the ice cliff lurking a thousand feet beneath my heels. Had we just been able to get out in the couloir, rather than having to traverse the upper edge of its dogleg, I reasoned, I'd have been fine. But this was a little much, and I was slowing down to enjoy it thoroughly. I figured I'd be in tall clover when we hit the upper, straight-on couloir that Alex had been moving toward. Just no more of this traversing without a net.

Finally, I finished up a little draw onto a small saddle between the rocks of the dogleg and the main gully. Small is truly what that flat spot was — just about three or four square feet of flat at about 13,000 feet. But my relief in reaching such a spot was huge. I turned away from Tyree for the first time in hours and looked out at the frozen planet of Antarctica. Ice stretched dependably to the eastern horizon. Mountains stretched outrageously up and down the length of the Ellsworth chain. I scanned the Patton, eventually catching sight of the ski tracks our airplane had left when it dropped us off five days back. These I followed to the little dot that was our camp. I was on the radio to Gordon Wiltsie then, assuring him that I was okay and having a hell of a day. Then I turned back to the mountain and started off again in the tracks of my partners.

Continued On Next Page

—Dave Hahn, MountainZone.com Correspondent

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