Twenty-Hour Epperly Push For New Route, GPS Height

Posted on: January 3, 2008


The south face of Mt. Epperly (ca. 4512m), a peak in the Sentinel Range regarded as one of Antarctica's most difficult, showing the Omega Foundation's new 2100-meter mixed line. Theirs was the third ascent of the peak. Using a GPS device, the team discovered that Epperly is about 150 meters taller than previously believed. [Photo] Damien Gildea

Editor's Note: In the December 25, 2007 NewsWire we reported that the Omega Foundation team, headed by Alpinist correspondent Damien Gildea, climbed a new mixed route on the west face of Mt. Vinson. That route now has a name: The Chilena-Slovak Route. Below, Gildea reports on their most recent success—the third ascent of Mt. Epperly via a new mixed line on the peak's south face. He considers it "the longest, hardest, most sustained and most exhausting of all Omega GPS expeditions in Antarctica to date."

"He Kept Regular Hours." Imagine having that on your gravestone? Not ours.

Camilo Rada and I left our camp around 3:30 p.m. on December 27 and reached the summit of Mt. Epperly (ca. 4512m) just before midday on the 28th, after climbing continuously for twenty hours up a new 2100-meter route on its south face. We spent almost as long descending, while Maria Paz "Pachi" Ibarra and Jarmila Tyrril repeated the route a bit quicker to retrieve the GPS. Everyone was back safe in the tents at camp at 1:45 a.m. on the 29th. The route was the longest, hardest, most sustained and most exhausting of all Omega GPS expeditions in Antarctica to date.

The peak has no easy way up. It was first climbed via the obvious thin couloir left of our line in 1994, solo, by Erhard Loretan (who returned the next year and summited again for a film). Conrad Anker and Jim Donini made it halfway up the west ridge in 1999 but turned back. No other attempts, besides our climb, have been made.

We began the route at 2400 meters and finished around 4510 meters, with a few pitches of moderate technical rock climbing at the top and lots of sustained ice, snow and mixed terrain below. There wasn't a single remotely flat spot to rest, from the bottom to the summit plateau. Deep, soft snow in the upper couloir made progress even slower, but really the whole face was not in good condition, with a layer of loose, slippery snow over much of the slope.

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Camilo and I had looked at photos of the mountain and this face for years and wondered if the route would go. The key was the top end of the obvious big couloir. It didn't seem to continue up to the summit plateau and would thus require an exit and some technical climbing over rock right at the top to escape—but really we couldn't tell, we just had to go up and see. When we got up there it looked like the couloir did choke to nothing, so we climbed left up out of the couloir and wasted (as it turned out) at least two hours stuffing around with dangerous climbing over terrible snow and bad rock along a small ridge. In the end this only got us to a point at the top of the couloir that we could now see was in fact continuous; after rising nearly 2000 meters the snow and ice narrowed into a short gully just over body width to finish (the girls went straight up this, avoiding the ridge).

We then did two roped pitches with some rock moves to finish the face and step onto the summit plateau. From there it was a short walk over a hump or two to confront the final summit tower, not as bad as it looked but still a sting in the tail. Or the first sting, at least. We roped up for more rock moves up the tower and headed to the highest of the three cornices we could see up high. Climbing up and around, into the sun on the east face, we were on top. But not quite. As we knew, the highest point of Epperly is actually a short, steep rock pinnacle, and this was now right in front of us—close enough to spit on and only a few meters above. Though the ice on it looked OK, the rock moves to get up on it were bulgy and awkward-looking, sort of overhanging and all wildly exposed over a 2000-meter drop. So we didn't climb it. We had neither the hardware nor the energy.

The top of this rock was about 3 meters above us, so we didn't quite stand on top of Epperly. We put the GPS on the highest point of the hollow-sounding cornice and left it. I did try to cross part of the cornice to gain the base of the rock pinnacle but my foot punched through one of Camilo's steps into air and my axe did the same when I tried to steady myself. Not worth it. We could see a piton with a sling on it sticking out of a crack at the base of the pinnacle, no doubt from Erhard Loretan, the only other person ever to have been up here. We assume he stood on top, or at least tried to.

Having ascended 2100 meters of a new route, missing the last three, we feel we "climbed Epperly" but remain frustrated: the summit is the highest point. There is only one. We weren't on it.

The preliminary (still unconfirmed) height of 4512m means that Epperly is significantly higher than anyone thought—the old height was 4359m—which means it shoots from around tenth highest in Antarctica to sixth. It might even be the fifth tallest, depending how accurate is the current recorded height of Mt. Kirkpatrick, in the Transantarctics, over 1000 miles away. Could the continent's five highest mountains all be right here in the Sentinel Range?

The whole climb was quite a mental trip. In the upper couloir there seemed to be three of us: Me, Camilo and some "other." This sense of other is common in extreme situations and high altitude but I'd never experienced it so strongly before. It wasn't even that I was convinced there was someone else with us; I accepted it so automatically there was no question of his presence. As I approached the three crevasses that constitute the bergschrund at the base, I'd been going around forty hours with no sleep, very little food and very little fluid. At this stage we're thinking of calling the route The Fifth Element.

It's now late on New Year's Eve. No party here, but we're gradually less sore and stiff than we were a day or so ago. Four thousand meters of frontpointing takes a toll on feet, calves and everything else, and we're still not 100 percent recovered. A week remains and Mt. Tyree, weather allowing, still to go.

Find more pictures at www.expenews.org and some background on Epperly in the older Updates section at www.antarcticmountains.com.



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