Major rescue on Vinson - stranded climbers safely back

Posted: Dec 05, 2006 09:30 am EST

( "We are under the tent, we have no stove, we have some with frostbite. Our situation is desperate, please, please come and get us. I can't move them by myself. If we try to leave here we will go into another crevasse and we are all finished."

Bad weather hit mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica, last Friday - trapping climbers on summit push. A full storm followed, resulting in an entire team stranded on the upper sections and a major rescue operation launched from BC on Saturday night.

Here goes an account of the events by Adventure Consultants team leader Guy Cotter:

[Saturday] had been one of those pleasant 'post climb' days of packing and sorting and eating wed had steak for dinner and a cup of Chilean wine so it didn't take long for me to fall into a deep sleep, reported Guy Cotter. Only 15 minutes later I was woken by Dan Griffith who had been climbing with the IMG team. He unzipped my tent door:

'Guy, Steve (Jones, camp manager for ALE) sent me over to get you. The Jagged Globe team is stuck at the top of the headwall (at 3600m, just below the top camp) They are in trouble and need immediate assistance.'

We need help NOW

As I dressed the implications were dawning on me like a mortar attack. Up so high on the mountain in stormy weather, probably as cold as minus 40°C, not including wind chill, at least 12 hours for us to get there. It doesn't look good.

As I entered the BC tent set up by ALE, another sat phone call came through from the trapped party. Even from the other side of the tent we could hear how distressed the caller was. They had frostbite, hypothermia and caught in a vicious Antarctic storm and needed help, now.

Caught in a crevasse field

The group of 4 clients and 1 guide had made a summit attempt the day before along with IMG and Alpine Ascents. They had been unsuccessful due to deteriorating weather and had come down to their top camp at 3765m for the night. In the morning they had all packed up to leave as the weather was cold and windy overnight and had eased some by morning. The JG group was last to leave and it was cold and windy. About 30 minutes down the hill they entered the notorious crevasse field at the top of the headwall, a steep slope that leads to the head of the Branscomb glacier and access route to the mountain.

With the blowing snow the tracks of the previous groups were gone and they made their way through the crevasse field. Suddenly one member took a fall into a large crevasse and luckily he was held by the others on the rope but still went down about 10 m. They must have taken some time to extract him as he was frozen when they hauled him out and others were also suffering from exposure to the elements. The Guide, Ian Barker, decided to take cover to ensure everyone did not slide further into a hypothermic state. They sat on a tent and mats inside a small trench they dug, then pulled another tent over the top of them. That was when the calls to us started.

Six men to the rescue

In the ALE tent Steve coordinated a response. For some reason none of the other guided groups had made any contact with base that day so we couldn't turn anyone around to assist those behind, so it was up to us to travel the 10-12km journey back up the mountain to try to help them.

We left in groups of two from BC at midnight: Olof and Martin, the two fast Swedish guys on skis, then ALE staff David Hamilton and Tim Hewett, followed by myself and fellow AC guide Paul Aubrey.

Ian: If we move we are finished

We came into radio contact with the stranded group as we ascended the glacier. Ian was speaking:

We are under the tent, we have no stove, we have some with frostbite. Our situation is desperate, please, please come and get us. I can't move them by myself. If we try to leave here we will go into another crevasse and we are all finished.'

As we climbed higher the winds got worse. We were frequently hit by very strong wind gusts and occasionally blown flat on the snow. I navigated using GPS and my knowledge of the terrain. At one stage we saw two of the guided groups coming down, but off in the distance and not on the marked trail and they were close to some big crevasses. Paul and I went over and met IMG guide Mark who was having GPS faults. We steered them towards the better route and checked each member on the rope and helped a few of them with their gear. They were all exhausted and mostly disoriented. We finally made camp 1 at 5am, slower than we would have liked - but conditions were atrocious.

Swedes stopped at the bottom of the headwall

Eric from Alpine Ascents and Mike from IMG had stayed at C1 to assist. They made brews and food and set up a tent for us. David and Tim decided to push on and followed the Swedes, who had made it to the bottom of the headwall but had been forced to set up camp due to extreme winds and zero visibility. Paul and I rested so we could follow up in support of the two forward teams once the weather allowed them to ascend the headwall to the stranded group.

We had frequent radio communications with Ian who sounded more desperate as the day wore on:
We can only last a few more hours, if you don't come soon I'm afraid it will be too late, please God come and get us out of here.

David took the brunt of the calls and tried to encourage Ian to at least send the strong climbers down the headwall to the waiting rescuers below but he was adamant the crevasses would swallow them and that the only option was help from below. Even at camp 1 our tent was being hammered by gusts all day that were at least 80km. The Swedes called to say that they were getting snow forced through the zippers of their tent by the wind and were slowly getting wet and may have to bail out.

"We hoped like hell this wasn't one of those 10 day-long monster storms"

What was an even greater act of commitment by the Swedes and the ALE rescuers was that their tents were pitched directly in the run-out of 3 different ice cliff avalanche paths that would be big enough to destroy a small village.

I think we all felt that the situation was dire, that the best result would be a couple of survivors, or possibly none at all. The risk to the rescuers was immense and the scale of the catastrophe could escalate as rescuers also became victims. Holding these thoughts back we waited for the storm to abate and hoped like hell this wasn't one of those 10 day-long monster storms we get down here.

Now or never

Late in the day, David decided it was now or never and prepared to leave the tents to climb the headwall to at least make a serious attempt at saving the group. As they left the tents, the wind eased slightly and visibility improved. At the same time Paul and I left camp 1 to come in back-up support to help drag the injured and ailing back down the mountain. As they got higher, the radio calls indicated that they could well make it and I think we were all very moved when Ian called to say the Swedes had arrived. I could hear him crying.

Soon David and Tim had also arrived and as we climbed higher up the valley we watched the group descend the steep slopes of the headwall down to the tents. As they reached us there was another wave of emotion and relief and we gave them their first hot water for 24 hours.

We all descended back to camp 1 and Eric and Mike ran around giving food and drinks and generally helping them out. The Swedes, Paul and I skied back to base camp arriving almost exactly 24 hours after this little epic began.

Today the rescued and rescuers will all descend to base camp happy to be alive.

Swedes: Stranded climbers OK

The Swedes too posted an update confirming the story. No major injuries but some frostbites and of course tired and cold. The organization and communication in between the rescue parties worked fine and we hope for everyone to be back safe in Punta Arenas in a couple of days, write Olof and Martin.

BAI reported from Vinson yesterday after their failed summit attempt. They reached BC safely despite the storm conditions. As soon as weather conditions improve, the team expects a twin otter to airlift them back to Patriot Hills. Alpine Ascents were still in C1 yesterday, but hoped to descend back to BC that same day. They attempted the summit on Friday, but got caught by the storm.

Swedes Martin Letzter and Olof Sundström summited Vinson on November 26, after a 26 non-stop push to the summit. They skied all the way back to BC. (The Swedes also made a partial ski descent from Everest via the north side last spring.)

Adventure Consultant commercial team led by Guy Cotter succeeded on Vinson last Tuesday when Slovenian team members Davo Karnicar and Franc Oderlap made a midnight ascent (and ski descent) of Vinson. "For Franc this was his 7th Summit and also for Davo with the distinction of being the first person to ski the 7 Summits without taking his skis off until he has reached the base of the mountain or the snow runs out," reported guide Guy Cotter (Davo is the only person to have a complete ski descent of Mount Everest). Also AC team members Marijana Lihtneker and Franci Rupnik from Slovenia, and Guy Cotter summited Vinson Wednesday in perfect conditions. Member Beth and guide Paul turned around shortly before the summit.

#Mountaineering #Polar

AC leader Guy Cotter in the kitchen tent yesterday, Vinson BC (click to enlarge).
Vinson BC in whiteout Saturday, hours before the alert went out (click to enlarge).
AC climbers heading for High Camp on Vinson. All images sent live over Contact 4.0, courtesy of Adventure Consultants (click to enlarge).

Visit our new website