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Experience of a Lifetime
Monday, December 13, 1999

Editor's Note: This dispatch from Wade McKoy was received on Monday, Dec. 13 but was written before the team left Vinson Base Camp on Dec. 10.

Wade McKoy

Howdy Mountain Zone, this is Wade McKoy reporting for the Antarctica 99 Ski & Snowboard Expedition.

On summit day, as the American Team trekked, climbed, and skied Vinson, my stamina proved adequate to document this team of strongmen — a great relief to the question that has dogged me for some months now. The following day, however, with my resting pulse at 92, a headache, and some dizziness, my mild case of AMS prevented me from following Newcombs' track up Mt. Shinn, an uncomfortable blessing in that the solo climb up the 60-degree, sugar-snow-and-rock chute exceeding my non-roped comfort level.

The descent of Vinson's technical summit pyramid began with a short, 50-degree slope of neve (French word for old, hard snow) and several hundred feet of low-angled neve, all exposed to dangerous rocks protruding from the snow as Newc described, "like primordial shark teeth." We managed a few photos, but the safety imperative to descend quickly overrode the moment. (Such sound mountaineering decisions on this trip have occasionally prevented filming.) The 40-degree bowl of funky wind slab we skied cautiously, on the chance that the newly deposited slab could avalanche, and further protected ourselves by carrying Pieps transceivers and Lifelink shovels. The skiing improved to boot-top powder down the sun-swept glacial basin leading to Camp III, but during the final minutes of my journey, I lapsed into frozen exhaustion from the mental and physical fatigue and sudden drop in temperature to a shaded, breezy, 30 below.

The Greeks had begun their climb and we skied past them not far from Camp. They summited during the night, experiencing temperatures of 45 below. One team member frostbit his thumb, but it should completely recover. The leader and his strongest client remained at Camp III to climb Shinn, having been inspired by the Americans, who achieved a first ski and snowboard descent.

The British Team, strong, middle-agers Martin and Vicki lead by guide Tim Berg, summited the next day, enjoying as each team had, clean-blue skies and stunning peaks rising above the whimsical ice fog that often blankets this frozen place.

Our retreat from Camp III was hasty. "I think Vinson is done being gentle with us," said Newc, as we all scrambled to break camp under a strengthening easterly wind. The powder on the headwall was lovely skiing, even with the oppressive weight of our backpacks. Then, the warm and sunny tour from Camp II to Base Camp included hiking and skiing the powder at the bottom of the Slovenian route.

I skied into Base at 10pm, just as Coombs levered his ice ax into a tin of smoked oysters. The smelly delicacies incited a gorge-fest, and soon the dining Quonset filled with Greek, British, and Americans sharing each other's remaining stores of food and swapping stories of adventures present, past, and yet to come. ANI guide Dave Hahn joined in with boxes of Chilean red wine and six packs of Austral (a Chilean beer).

But there is business to consider. We learn of our potential departure to Patriot Hills in 12 hours, and we'd like to ski and film on the serac-covered ridgelines above camp. Personally, I wanted nothing more than what I had this moment: to recline comfortably in a large, warm tent engaged in pleasant conversation with the international company at hand, the heartfelt bunch of British, Scottish, Greek, and American climbers and trekkers.

It is my observation that Mark Newcomb, more often than not, winds up the leader of these core skiers and snowboarders. And though he rejects this notion, it is, nonetheless the team consensus, too. But Newc is steadfast in his self awareness: thrilled to be here, looking for every available opportunity to climb and ski in Antarctica. And in truth, as evidenced at several crucial junctures, the leadership for this group of creative and stubborn mountaineers lies within them all.

But observe this: after dinner with red wine, and then more red wine, at 3am Newc announced that it was time to go skiing. "Don't you guys be diving in your bags. If I'm going to go over there, you'd better stay up (and film because that had been the expressed need)." So it was in the pearly, soft-white light of 5am, Dirk, Doug Stoup and I were the sole witnesses to the Newcomb/Coombs duel of routes up and down the powdery seracs.

The skiers finished their day with 8am beer slushies and hot soup. The cameramen, at long last, dove into their bags. I snored loudly for 10 hrs, so I'm told. I know I woke up from a James Bond dream to the sound of Collins' voice coming from outside. "Happy Birthday, McKoy. You and Coombs are the last to get up. The rest of us are having a major international feast in the dining tent."

And so it is my 48th birthday. And in all my life—a lucky-most-of-the-time, often-blessed, and in the past 10 years a well-traveled life—this birthday is most unique: longitude, 79 degrees; a sun that never sets; a cold that never yields; and, friends that never waver. My heartfelt thank you to this team: five friends from Jackson Hole and two new ones from L.A. This has truly been the experience of my lifetime.

Wade McKoy, Correspondent


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