NARRATOR: There are few places left on Earth unexplored, but at the bottom of the world, explorers have found one, an unclimbed route to one of the Earth's highest places.
CONRAD ANKER (Mountaineer): This is the joy of being up here on a new route.
JON KRAKAUER (Author): There's no margin for error. One slip and that's it—you're going to die and you're going to pull off everyone with you.
NARRATOR: Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest continent on Earth.
JON KRAKAUER: You get out there, and we'll be miserable at times, and we'll wonder, "What the hell are we doing here?" And we know what we're doing here. We came looking for this sort of thing.
NARRATOR: Jon Krakauer, who chronicled the worst climbing disaster ever on Everest, with Conrad Anker, a world-class mountaineer, will pioneer a new route to the summit of the highest mountain on Antarctica. Only climbers with strong technical skill and the ability to survive the cold would dare attempt this climb.
CONRAD ANKER: You're on belay.
JON KRAKAUER: It's 34 below without wind chill.
ANDREW MCLEAN: I've seen a lot of cold weather, but this definitely redefines it. This is kind of what I had imagined Antarctica would be like.
NARRATOR: They're modern explorers with precision equipment and instruments, yet little has changed since Antarctica's earliest explorers raced to be the first to the South Pole. The risks remain the same.
JON KRAKAUER: I just see this beautiful, relatively safe route. Why would we give that up to go out into what to me looks like a really dangerous place?
NARRATOR: They'll learn why Antarctica, harsh and inaccessible, is still the last place on Earth. Mountain of Ice, up next on NOVA.
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JON KRAKAUER: This place, to an amazing extent, is truly untrod. I mean, we're going to a place where no one's been before. There's real value in seeing a corner of the world that throws ordinary existence on its head. I mean, I really believe that. One of the greatest joys is being in a place that's so...this unearthly beauty. This, ah...it's a very weird place, and a, a breathtakingly beautiful place. You know, we'll never get to the moon, we'll never get to Mars. This is sort of as close as any of us are going to come, but it's pretty close really. I mean, it's pretty far removed from day to day life in Colorado or Boston or all the places we come from. Antarctica is such a special place and it's so hard to get to. The logistics are mind-boggling.
NARRATOR: This is Jon Krakauer's second trip to Antarctica. Author and adventurer, he's here to climb 45 miles up unexplored glaciers to the summit of Vinson Massif, the highest point on the continent.
JON KRAKAUER: When someone offers you a chance to join not only a trip to Antarctica, but an especially interesting trip to Antarctica, it was something I would hate myself for not doing.
And we still might not get up this mountain. Last year there were groups that never got out of Punta Arenas, Chile, and that's the gamble you take.
We went to Punta Arenas because it's the launching pad for going to Antarctica. It's sort of a hard-edged workingman's town. It's not in a particularly pretty place.
NARRATOR: Mountaineer Conrad Anker will lead the expedition up Vinson.
CONRAD ANKER: One of the goals of the expedition is to take a GPS survey to see what the actual height of Vinson is. It was first measured in 1959, photogrammetrically and then again in 1979. Now, GPS will give us a really accurate measurement of how high Vinson is.
NARRATOR: They also want to measure how much snow accumulates there, which will help determine whether Antarctica is shrinking or growing.
DAN STONE (Glaciologist): In Antarctica, most of the accumulation studies have been done at the lower elevations. No one has studied accumulation up in the mountains, high in the mountains in Antarctica before.
JON KRAKAUER: I'm going to bring my key block. I'm going to bring my pulley.
DAN STONE: This is the snow saw you brought? Boy, that's light.
JON KRAKAUER: It's light and it's really sharp.
CONRAD ANKER: This is a hundred-foot rope and this is another hundred-foot rope. The lighter we can go, the better off we are.
NARRATOR: To prepare for their climb, the team has studied the accounts of Antarctica's early explorers. Correctly estimating rations can mean the difference between success and failure.
JON KRAKAUER: Our concern is getting the rations so that we have enough calories to stay warm and do the work we have to do but not a calorie more because we have to carry this stuff. This has been a problem for Antarctic explorers from the get-go.
NARRATOR: It was only 90 years ago when the last great journey of exploration was yet to be made. Two men were leading separate expeditions in a race to claim the South Pole. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian polar explorer, was taking an unknown route through the Transantarctic mountains to reach the Pole. Robert Falcon Scott, a British Navy captain, was leading his team up the previously traveled Beardmore Glacier toward the coveted 90 degrees south.
Stretching over 2,000 miles across the continent, the Transantarctics rise from sea level up to 12,000 feet. Eight hundred miles to the northwest, the Ellsworth Range rises to 16,000 feet. The east side of Vinson is the modern equivalent of the undiscovered South Pole, just waiting to be explored.
JON KRAKAUER: The mountain is climbed a lot because it is the highest on the continent. It was first climbed in 1966, and since then 500 or more people have climbed it. We are climbing it from the exact opposite side that everyone else has climbed it. No one has been where we're going. That has tremendous appeal. We're exploring new ground.
NARRATOR: There's only one way for these climbers to get to the continent: flying a C-130 Hercules to Patriot Hills, 600 miles from the South Pole.
JON KRAKAUER: There are certain similarities between what we're doing and what those who went before us did. We talk about the ancient explorers and, you know, Scott was there just less than a hundred years ago. So, this is a continent that doesn't have a long history.
NARRATOR: By delving into Scott and Amundsen's journals, Jon Krakauer will learn, first hand, why one explorer returned from the South Pole alive and the other died trying.
JON KRAKAUER: Scott was a very ambitious man, one gets a sense, who wanted to get to the Pole because it would make him a hero and make him famous and secure his place in upper crust British society. But you never have a sense that he likes anything about the Arctic or Antarctic.
NARRATOR: Scott was a talented writer, capturing the romance of the age of exploration in his journals. Amundsen was a man of action.
JON KRAKAUER: Amundsen truly loved the Arctic and the Antarctic. He was a Norwegian who loved being out in the wilderness, and he trained hard. He was interested in adventure and exploration for their own sakes.
CAPTAIN: Mirrors are in place.
JAMIE: Roger, we have mirrors in place.
NARRATOR: The runway at Patriot Hills is exposed blue ice, scoured by winds blowing from the South Pole.
JAMIE: Currently winds light and variable, over.
NARRATOR: People on the ground use mirrors as flares to guide the plane down. When the C-130 touches down on the ice, it's too dangerous to apply the brakes.
JON KRAKAUER: Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people. It's like going to the moon, and you can't go to the moon unless you go through Cape Canaveral and NASA or some Russian program. But you can go to Antarctica and the portal is Patriot Hills.
CONRAD ANKER: Fran, how are you?
JON KRAKAUER: It's the last great wilderness on Earth. So you have this entryway to this pretty amazing little universe of ice and wind and rock and not a lot else. You get this remarkable mix of characters coming through here.
LIZ PRESCOTT: My name is Liz Prescott. I'm here to fly in to the Pole.
JACO: It reads about minus 11 and a half degrees Celsius. This is an average temperature for this time of the year.
FRENCH COUPLE: We are two mountaineers, French.
ATSUCHI YAMADA: I am Atsuchi Yamada. In Japanese say Yamada Atsuchi.
NARRATOR: It is a temporary camp, with a few pieces of heavy machinery, a radio...
JACO: It is very doubtful whether we'll have suitable flying conditions.
NARRATOR: ...and three planes to take clients to their dream destinations.
UNIDENTIFIED ADVENTURER: We come from all parts of the world and we're on a quest for the South Pole.
KARO: This is how we clean ourselves in Antarctica.
CONRAD ANKER: In this tent...for 600 miles around this is the only humanity we have, and it's Christmas day. I'd like to make a toast. It's for all of us wanting to fly: the weather will be what it will be. The more we're calm, the more we're relaxed about it, the sooner we'll fly.
STEVE: The more you drink, the sooner you'll fly.
CONRAD ANKER: Merry Christmas.
JON KRAKAUER: When Scott first went to Antarctica in 1902, he sailed on the ship, Discovery. Soon after they got there, they experienced their first Antarctic blizzard. One of Scott's men described this blizzard as, quote, "a wind carrying snow dust." For the past several days we've had strong winds blowing off the polar plateau, as much as 70 miles an hour. The snow is very fine; it's sort of sugar-like. It's dense. It is like dust and creates a little swirl, a little vortex.
The wind deposits some snow and leaves it there in these dunes that are unlike regular sand dunes. The snow crystals freeze to each other, so these dunes, over a period of a day or even hours, become rock hard. You can punch your shovel into it and it comes out in blocks. The snow isn't falling from clouds. It's been blown there from somewhere else. It's blown halfway across the continent. It has its delicate crystalline edges knocked off and it becomes these little microscopic pellets.
NARRATOR: Antarctic snow is a combination of actual precipitation and crystals that are blown across the continent. Glaciologist Dan Stone demonstrates how the deposited snow, a total of one foot a year at Patriot Hills, will slowly change, becoming harder, and eventually turn into ice.
DAN STONE: This is the old snow that has been sitting here for quite a while. The snow is going to grow tighter and become more strongly bonded. So this snow will just keep getting harder and harder the deeper we dig.
NARRATOR: The accumulated snow is 3,000 feet deep at Patriot Hills and has built up over millions of years into a thick ice sheet.
DAN STONE: To understand an ice sheet it's best to start back at the smaller scale and think about glaciers. We're familiar with them forming in the mountains because there's extra precipitation there versus the lower areas.
NARRATOR: Glaciers look like rivers of ice. They take excess snow that has fallen at a high elevation and move that mass down to lower areas. As snow accumulates over time, glaciers and ice sheets flow downhill under the pressure of their own weight.
DAN STONE: The ice is flowing in part because ice is one of those rare substances that exists very near its melting point.
NARRATOR: Here at Patriot Hills, where it's flat, the ice flows eight meters a year on its long journey to the coast where it calves off the continent's edges. This can have an impact on global sea level so scientists watch it carefully to assess whether the ice mass is in a state of equilibrium. They measure how much is gained on the surface each year and how much is lost to the ocean. Since Antarctica contains 90 percent of the glacial ice on the planet, even a small change in the balance could affect sea level all over the Earth. But under these conditions making ice measurements is always a challenge.
In Antarctica's highest mountains, Conrad Anker and his team will measure, for the first time, how much ice is gained there each year.
CONRAD ANKER: Our ideal would be to land somewhere in here.
NARRATOR: The field team meets with two Twin Otter pilots who will drop them off at the base of the Ellsworth mountains. No plane has ever landed on the east side of the range. The ice is unpredictable, the maps inaccurate.
JON KRAKAUER: These mountains haven't been that carefully mapped. This map was drawn from a series of flights in 1959 by U.S. Navy aircraft. We have some of those photos they took, but because no one's been on the ground here there's been no field checking of the data.
MIKE: Yeah, these are really good, huh?
JON KRAKAUER: These pilots were taking it very seriously. "Wow, we don't know what this is like. We don't know if we can even land." They were hedging their bets.
MIKE: We just want to see well to make a smooth landing and be safe.
COLLIN: I'd say that'd be the best bet, right on top of that.
CONRAD ANKER: On top of that?
NARRATOR: Fully loaded with 1,200 pounds of food, fuel, and equipment, they'll fly 220 miles over the frozen continent. They'll be dropped off in a place where no one has been before, left alone amidst a sea of ice, to survive on their own for the next 17 days.
JON KRAKAUER: The lines of support are so few. The lines of communication are so few. You are really on your own here in a very real sense. There are three tiny airplanes here, the only aircraft in a whole half a continent. And these pilots were very worried about crevasses, which occur any time the glacier isn't flat. They were worried about sastrugi, snow formed by the wind into these thorns and little ridges and ripples that can be rock hard and break planes' skis.
NARRATOR: Clouds begin to gather as the Twin Otter approaches landing, obscuring the pilots' horizon. There's little distinction between ice and sky.
JON KRAKAUER: We're right now at 3,800 feet, and the summit of Vinson is 12,300 feet higher than us right now. So that is a lot of...that's comparable to the vertical rise of any mountain on Earth. Everest rises 12,000 feet.
NARRATOR: The climbers are about to set out on a vertical journey across the ice. From here, they'll attempt one of the greatest elevation gains possible on Earth. The base to summit vertical rise from this side of the range is much greater than the other side, where Vinson is traditionally climbed.
Antarctica's mountains act as a dam, holding back the ice of the polar plateau with an average elevation of 10,000 feet. This is why it's the highest continent on Earth. Without its ice, Antarctica would average only 1,500 feet above sea level.
A hundred million years ago, global climate was warm and there was no land ice on Earth. Fifty million years later, the Earth began to cool and the first ice in Antarctica appeared here in the Ellsworth Mountains.
Today, glaciologists watch the fluctuations in the amount of ice covering the Earth. Because Antarctica holds most of the world's fresh water, assessment of its total mass helps scientists predict the future of sea level rise and also climate change. The ice here reflects solar energy back into space, which helps keep the planet cool. If Antarctica's ice were to shrink, there could be an acceleration in the global warming process. A subtle shift in the total amount of ice here would be a warning for climatologists.
DAN STONE: We want to know whether a glacier or ice sheet is growing or shrinking. And to understand that we have to understand what's going into the glacier, how much ice is accumulating on an annual basis and then how much is being lost.
So this looks pretty good right here.
NARRATOR: To learn how much snow is gained here each year, they have to dig into the past and excavate a two-meter deep snow pit.
DAN STONE: So we've dug one pit.
CONRAD ANKER: Let's dig another.
DAN STONE: Pit number two.
NARRATOR: A tarp is laid over the first pit and light shows through the adjoining wall.
DAN STONE: Alright.
CONRAD ANKER: It's nice in here.
DAN STONE: It looks like we've got at least a few layers that look like annual layers in here. So we've got the alternating dark and light bands—light, dark, light, dark. So the light's the lower density snow and this is the denser stuff. So this will probably be the stuff that fell over the winter.
So we're going to take some density measurements here. We've got a sample that's exactly filling this box, and that's 100 cubic centimeters of it. And we'll put that in a little bag and weigh it, so that'll be our sample weight recorded in grams. We're going to do that for each one of these representative layers.
CONRAD ANKER: Okay.
DAN STONE: Thirty-two grams. Yeah, that's definitely denser than the other stuff. So this is more...the, the finer...probably a winter snow, the windblown stuff. And the summer snow is basically bigger crystals and lower density crystals, letting more light through.
NARRATOR: Like rings in a tree, Dan can see eight years' worth of snow layers represented in the pit wall. The result: nine inches of snow accumulates here each year, an equivalent of less than two inches of annual rainfall. This is normal for an arid environment.
Despite the tremendous volume of water stored here as ice, Antarctica is one of the world's great deserts, a storehouse of information about past climate.
CONRAD ANKER: Now that Dan and I have worked on a snow pit together, we can see the stratigraphy that the snow lays down annually. Each pit we dig here is going tell us more about the snow, how it changes seasonally.
NARRATOR: Andrew McLean has to figure out how to haul instruments and camera equipment up Vinson.
CAMERAMAN: Andrew, what are you doing?
ANDREW MCLEAN: Attaching mascots to the sleds to help kind of guide us and act as guardian angels to these massive beasts that we're rigging up here. This one, this is the biggest sled, so it's got the little dude on it. And we have Minnie Mouse, and we've got the little flying troll as well.
NARRATOR: In the polar tradition, all food and equipment, including a solar panel to charge the camera, will be hauled 45 miles to the top of the continent. Like Amundsen himself, this expedition is on skis.
JON KRAKAUER: Amundsen, as a young man, decided polar exploration was what he wanted to do. And he realized early on that he needed training, so he sought out people who could teach him skiing. He did a very ambitious ski traverse, across a high plateau in Norway, that had never been done before. When he finally goes to the South Pole, it's clear from his journals that he doesn't think this is that much different from what he did in Norway as a young man. It was just longer and a little colder.
Scott was a product of the times. He was a career Royal Navy officer. He had a sense that gentlemen didn't try too hard. For instance, he had never tried skiing or dog mushing until the first time he was in Antarctica. They got there and then figured out how to ski—didn't research what the best bindings were or which boots he should use. And he concluded, because he didn't know how to use these things, that they were pretty much worthless. So, for much of Scott's Antarctic travels, his skis would be on his sledge and his men would be post-holing with these awful loads.
In his journal entry for January 4th, 1911, Scott writes, "After many frowns, fortune has treated us to the kindest smile. For 24 hours we have had a calm with brilliant sunshine. Such weather in such a place comes nearer to satisfying my ideal of perfection than any condition that I have ever experienced. The warm glow of the sun with the keen invigorating cold of the air forms a combination which is inexpressibly health-giving and satisfying to me, whilst the golden light on this wonderful scene of mountain and ice satisfies every claim of scenic magnificence."
NARRATOR: After seven hours of heavy hauling, the team has advanced nine miles. Between his sled and backpack, Krakauer has moved over 150 pounds of gear up to their second camp.
From here, the terrain will become much steeper. They'll have to find a route that avoids the large glaciers tumbling down around them. When the gradient is steep, glaciers break up and become icefalls carrying large teetering blocks called seracs, the size of houses. To Dan Stone, icefalls are a classic sign of ice flow.
DAN STONE: Broken-up ice means things are flowing, just like a waterfall in a river. The ice is extending as it comes to the icefall, and it's stretching in the down-glacier motion to the point that it breaks, forming all these seracs.
NARRATOR: Huge cracks, or crevasses, open up as the ice flows downhill. Some are visible, but most lay hidden underneath the smooth surface of accumulated snow.
It is now the third day of the climb. Dan digs another snow pit, as the others are busy carrying loads up the glacier. The food and equipment weighs more than they had hoped.
DAN STONE: We didn't think we would have to double carry every day. From day one everything has taken twice as long. We've had to go to the next camp, dump a load, go back to the first camp and the next day move camp. So we're moving half as fast. We still only have the same amount of food and fuel, seventeen days. We have been hammering hard every single day, exhausting ourselves.
NARRATOR: The team is led out of camp by Dave Hahn, an Antarctic field guide who specializes in glacier travel. He has climbed Vinson more than any other person, 19 times, but from the traditional route on the other side of the Ellsworths. His pack weighing over 100 pounds, Dave's ski pole breaks through a hidden crevasse.
DAVE HAHN (Field Guide): Yeah, we're right on top of it. You're on it, too. Let me get back off of it. Well, we've got a rope, Conrad.
CONRAD ANKER: This is fine. This'll be fine.
DAVE HAHN: Alright. Well, I just punched my pole through it, so...
CONRAD ANKER: Dave, at one point, put his foot down and said "I'm really uncomfortable with the way this is going. This is not smart. Someone's going to fall in a crevasse and we're going to all feel stupid."
NARRATOR: While the others continue over the snow-covered crevasse, Dave stands alone in disapproval.
JON KRAKAUER: Well, see what you think. If someone wants to rope, let's do it.
CONRAD ANKER: We need to do it before it, not while we're on it.
DAVE HAHN: Exactly. This way we're going to find it and it kills one of us.
JON KRAKAUER: Dave, uh, just put a ski pole in a crevasse a hundred yards down. It would've been a bad scene if any of us had gone in. So we're going to play it a little smarter and rope.
DAVE HAHN: If you fall in a crevasse with a rope on, there's still a good chance of getting hurt. But if you fall in without a rope...Not too many people have lived to tell about it.
JON KRAKAUER: This quote is by Amundsen, his first impression of Antarctica, "The country here is just one single glacier. To go alone in it is pure madness. Two roped together, absolutely necessary."
DAVE HAHN: Conrad, the chef.
JON KRAKAUER: Green glop—the great gray, green, greasy glop.
CONRAD ANKER: Well, the theory here is that it all gets mixed up anyways.
JON KRAKAUER: So what's in this Conrad? I saw you throwing stuff madly, but I didn't really catch it.
CONRAD ANKER: We've got hummus, falafel, two tasty bites, some syrup, cheese, mozzarella cheese, real maple syrup, garlic powder.
JON KRAKAUER: Any other bowls out there?
ANDREW MCLEAN: Ready? Samples? Tofu.
DAVE HAHN: That makes me sweat.
CONRAD ANKER: I like the way the cheese sticks to my beard fuzz.
DAVE HAHN: Oh, there's beard fuzz added to this?
NARRATOR: Dan digs his third snowpit as Jon Krakauer looks on.
JON KRAKAUER: It's fun watching him work because he's meticulous, he knows his methodology.
DAN STONE: Thirty-one.
JON KRAKAUER: I've learned quite a bit just from watching him, asking him simple questions about why snow does the weird things that it does.
NARRATOR: In this pit, Dan catches snow in the process of turning to ice.
DAN STONE: Is that the densest we've seen?
ANDREW MCLEAN: Yup.
DAN STONE: That's pretty dense stuff. It's real strong. I mean this is like an ice cube. There, I can squeeze it and break it apart.
And I've picked off what I think may be the boundary between a summer/winter transition on an annual basis. And I've got one, two, three and then down into the fourth year.
NARRATOR: At this elevation, 8,000 feet, the annual snowfall is double that of the first snow pit. Here, 18 inches accumulate each year. It's not surprising to the climbers, who find the weather takes a turn for the worse as they move higher.
CONRAD ANKER: You guys ready?
JON KRAKAUER: It's snowing right now, lightly. Everyone talks about Antarctica as this desert with less precipitation than the Sahara. See, snow crystals contain very little moisture though. They hit on my glove and they evaporate almost instantly because it sublimates. It never really forms pools of water. It just evaporates away. It goes directly from snow to vapor.
NARRATOR: The vapor contributes to cloud formation, a great hazard for the climbers.
CONRAD ANKER: It's been described several different ways: zero/zero, inside of the Ping-Pong ball, inside the milk bottle. But what we have here is a situation where there is no horizon; there is no contrast. Looking forward, the only horizon we can see is where the pass comes down. But between here and there it's completely white. It can be really disorienting as you move along. The conditions are unknown; there could be a crevasse.
NARRATOR: Like Amundsen, these climbers have honed their skills on other glaciers before coming to Antarctica.
JON KRAKAUER: Amundsen took the trouble to go and study with the Eskimos and learned how to drive dogs. The whole process for him was glorious. The dogs are hauling the loads on sledges; the men are skiing beside them. One of their skiers was a champion ski racer.
The British, on the other's hand, Scott's team, barely knew how to strap these things on their feet. Scott, because he didn't appreciate the value of dogs...they tried hauling with motorized sledges, snow cats, as it were. And then they had ponies, which are terribly poorly suited for the snow. And after the last of their ponies died, or they shot the pony for food, they had to start man-hauling.
Unlike Amundsen, who was appalled by this stupid, toilsome work, Scott says, "Well, at least we can begin the man-hauling. This is the way it should be." He had this Calvinistic streak—this business is supposed to be painful and hard and purifying—and just very different than Amundsen, who was out there enjoying himself. For Scott it was supposed to be an ordeal, and by God it was.
NARRATOR: The team has been man-hauling for a week and what lies before them is even more grueling than the terrain they've covered. At the top of a high pass, they get their first glimpse at the most difficult part of their route, a 3,000-foot headwall.
JON KRAKAUER: So, Conrad.
CONRAD ANKER: Yeah?
JON KRAKAUER: What do you think, looking at this headwall?
CONRAD ANKER: My first priority would be to look at a line that's free of objective hazard.
JON KRAKAUER: The headwall, it's really complicated. It's huge. It's this wide expanse of jumbled ice. It's a chaotic assemblage of teetering seracs.
CONRAD ANKER: We don't know what triggers serac activity. Why do we want to know about them as climbers? Because you don't want to get in their way. We have no idea when they release. They release according to temperature. They can release by a geologic jiggle that would then send them down. They are one of the greatest hazards we're going to encounter on our route.
JON KRAKAUER: There's no margin for error. One slip and that's it. I mean you're going to die and you're going to pull off everyone with you on the rope if you're roped up. And you have to be—there's crevasses.
If it was up to me, I wouldn't encumber myself with making a film at all. Climbing the peak is plenty of challenge.
Maybe we can do it, but maybe it's time to really have a reality check here. We have two people on this expedition, the producer and the cameraman, who are relatively inexperienced. And the most difficult and critical judgments that have to be made concern the safety of the team on the headwall.
DAVE HAHN: There's no way I'd be going on any of that without a rope.
JON KRAKAUER: I'd be nervous guiding that.
DAVE HAHN: You could definitely weave through the middle of it, then you're going to be exposed to almost every serac on the face there.
NARRATOR: They climb down to set up camp below the base of the headwall. They'll regroup and decide how to handle the challenge.
JON KRAKAUER: We're all itching to get up there. Today, we got up at six, and right away it didn't look promising. You could see these mare's tails of spindrift just ripping off the plateau towards us and blowing like hell up there, hurricane-force winds, depositing great amounts of snow.
The wind descended. We saw it above us, and then these gusts of wind came down the mountain. And Dave said, "Look out for any loose sleeping bags. Tie down the sleds." We scrambled around packing stuff and tying stuff. And the wind hit, and it was bitter cold. It was five below zero, and the wind chill was pretty intense.
NARRATOR: Even though the windstorm dies as quickly as it arrived, Dave warns them that the weather could get worse.
JON KRAKAUER: All through this trip, there's this dynamic where I've been saying, "Yeah, looks great, looks great." And Dave is always the voice of caution, this sort of gloom and doom, "Not so fast, you've got to worry about the weather. You've got to worry about this route." He's always the naysayer and your mother telling you to wear your raincoat. That's Dave.
DAVE HAHN: If the weather stays lousy...not going to be able to do everything. I mean something's got to give.
JON KRAKAUER: Almost every time he goes climbing, he is guiding. He knows how to get inexperienced people up and down mountains safely.
NARRATOR: They climb up to a point where they can take a closer look at the headwall.
JON KRAKAUER: I didn't want to go in those seracs. For much of the climb, you would be beneath these huge ice blocks, towering over you, waiting to tumble.
NARRATOR: They've narrowed it down to two possible routes; both have their risks. One is proposed by Krakauer and the other by Dave Hahn.
JON KRAKAUER: The route Dave found was circuitous, and it wove around and beneath seracs and crevasses. And I flat out said, "I veto that. I am not going there."
To the left of that is this beautiful rock rib. There was no chance of being hit by falling ice. It was steeper and more technically difficult, which actually was part of the appeal. That's what I wanted to climb. Dave correctly pointed out that it wasn't realistic to get some inexperienced team members and all this ton of gear up, so we had this fairly heated debate.
I just see this beautiful, relatively safe route from the part of it that we can see, certainly much safer than this. And why would we give that up to go out into what to me looks like a really dangerous place?
DAVE HAHN: The way we would normally do it is, we would compromise the safety a little bit from serac-fall to lessen the danger of a fall from steepness.
JON KRAKAUER: If that was the only route up this, I could maybe justify it, but there's this beautiful relatively safe route next to it. And what we gain by going over there, which is maybe getting two inexperienced film crew up there, is not an acceptable risk to me.
DAVE HAHN: What do you think, Conrad?
CONRAD ANKER: Whew. Well, it's a tough one to have to make a decision. Every hour you want to make a different decision.
JON KRAKAUER: I'd be willing to keep going, if it means we could do science tomorrow. And you guys can come up tomorrow.
CONRAD ANKER: Well, Dave, if they go up what do you think we ought to do?
DAVE HAHN: Whew, I don't know.
JON KRAKAUER: We got to a place where the two routes diverged: it was either time to go up the rock rib or head right into the seracs. And it was late, and Dan and I ended up pitching our little tent in this beautiful place we called the hourglass bivouac. And when everyone else went down, we continued up.
NARRATOR: The team splits up: Anker and Hahn climb down to carry up more loads, and Krakauer and Dan Stone take the steep route, unroped, to avoid accidentally pulling each other down the headwall.
JON KRAKAUER: It was real climbing. And if you slipped there was no rope, you're going to go a long ways, go 3,000 feet.
NARRATOR: Krakauer documents their climb on a mini-DV camera.
DAN STONE: Whew! Well we've got a ways to go.
JON KRAKAUER: Really?
DAN STONE: Yeah. We're halfway maybe.
JON KRAKAUER: When the team left Dan and I up there, we all agreed, "There's no debate, it's settled; we're not taking the film crew up this mountain. There's no way they can climb this."
Dan and I are carrying big loads.
I would much rather trust my own skill and judgment and experience than trust a glacier that may or may not shake loose a 300 ton block of ice on me. So it was an obvious choice.
NARRATOR: At 12,200 feet, Jon and Dan safely reach the top of the headwall. They had to climb it twice to advance their heavy gear to high camp.
JON KRAKAUER: It's a little after 10 in the evening. We recently arrived here at the high camp on the plateau. It's 10 below, maybe 12 or 15 below. We made two carries up the rib. It's great to be here, an amazing place. We're looking forward to the team arriving tomorrow and going on to the summit soon thereafter.
NARRATOR: Three thousand feet below, near the base of the headwall, the others are stuck in a white out.
CONRAD ANKER: We're up here at the cache that we've established between the hourglass camp and the Dater camp, and we had hoped to go up to the hourglass and hopefully the upper plateau today. Unfortunately, the clear weather that we thought we had early in the morning has gone south, or turned into zero/zero conditions. So we've pitched the tent in hopes that pitching the tent's going to make the weather clear. And we're sitting here idling away our time, enjoying a little jerky and some humor, and Dave's singing us songs.
DAVE HAHN: Oh, I just don't know where to begin.
ANDREW MCLEAN: We're at 9,200 feet, six people in tent, a three-person tent.
NARRATOR: In the morning, they learn that the whole team, including the camera crew, is on its way up.
JON KRAKAUER: Dan and I called down, "Where are you guys?" Conrad says, "Yeah, we decided that the whole team is going now." Dan and I looked at each other and our jaws dropped. What is going on? This whole thing is falling apart. Time is running out, and these guys are [expletive] around trying to who-knows-what, get everyone up this thing, and this is going to cost us the whole trip. We're not going to get the summit; the film's going to be a wreck—what a mistake.
NARRATOR: The others begin climbing the headwall. Conrad steps into a crevasse.
CONRAD ANKER: A little bit of a hole, Andrew.
JON KRAKAUER: And that's when we sort of said, "Okay, we'll wait one day for you guys, but we're not going to wait for two, and you better get your asses up here or we're going to go for the summit, and enjoy yourselves down there in this cloud."
NARRATOR: They've chosen Dave Hahn's route through the seracs, much to Jon's disapproval.
JON KRAKAUER: I've been on one guided expedition in my life, and it was the biggest mistake I've ever made.
CONRAD ANKER: There's some hollow stuff in there, Andrew.
ANDREW MCLEAN: Okay.
JON KRAKAUER: I've seen what happens when very good guides make a single poor decision with clients who don't have the skills or experience to look after themselves. I swore in the past that I would never be in this situation again, and this is just a little too close to that for me.
NARRATOR: All six of the remaining team, climbers and film crew, led by Conrad Anker and Dave Hahn, arrive safely at high camp.
JON KRAKAUER: And, you know, Dave was right. It worked. It was a gamble. He did a remarkable bit of guiding. He knows this mountain. He knows this range. I came away with a great deal more respect for him after seeing what he did.
NARRATOR: They are camped on a high plateau just above the headwall, where the ice cascades off the mountain. Dan and Jon dig the highest snow pit in their study. Their shovels strike thick layers of hard crust. After hours of effort, they are able to count four years' worth of snow layers, or an average accumulation of 15 inches a year. There is less accumulation at high altitude because winds on the upper mountain scour loose snow off the surface.
This is the first attempt to measure snow accumulation in the Ellsworths, and the information can also be applied to the Transantarctic range, where even less is known.
With data collected from all over the continent, scientists are learning that the Antarctic ice sheet appears to be in a state of equilibrium, neither increasing nor decreasing significantly. They will continue to watch the ice carefully, as its delicate balance can affect worldwide climate and sea level.
It is minus 12 degrees. The team prepares to leave high camp to climb the last 4,000 feet of their journey to measure the height of Antarctica's highest mountain.
JON KRAKAUER: The real moment of truth is summit day. Things can happen so quickly; you can be fine one minute, but if your mitten blows away, you're screwed. You better have a spare mitten fast or your hand is wood. And if your hand is wood you can't zip up your jacket, you can't tie a knot, you can't do anything. It's sort of like going into outer space. You've got to have your space suit on and make sure there's no leaks.
Life is complicated in the cold. The cold and the thin air are insidious. They don't remind you that they're out to hammer you at any moment. You're just this little fly up there, and the cold and the altitude are this big swatter, and they're just waiting to whap you.
Scott...as he approached the Pole, he and his men were growing hungrier and hungrier. They were starting to suffer the effects of scurvy. They were literally wasting away from starvation, with the horrible cold. Scott wrote, "We noticed the cold. It is a critical time, but we opt to pull through. Oh, for a few fine days. So close it seems."
NARRATOR: On the same polar plateau, Amundsen wrote, "Minus 28 degrees centigrade, a little cool to go against with our sore faces, but nothing to make a song about. Sledges and ski glide easily and pleasantly."
JON KRAKAUER: The accrued fatigue, it all caught up to me. Maybe it was the altitude, I don't know what. I was just maxed out.
Vinson was just this big hulking blob in the distance, and we weren't even sure what the summit was. People confuse it; they're always calling it Mount Vinson or Vinson Peak, and it's Vinson Massif. And it's a really appropriate name because it is this massive...it is this hulk of rock and ice that defies easy description. It's so big that it hides itself. It's so big that the summit remains hidden until the penultimate moment.
CONRAD ANKER: It is really, really cold. Whew.
Let me catch my breath. Are you rolling?
CONRAD ANKER: Okay. We're here at the summit plateau just below the top of Vinson. It's over here behind me. It's the left-most little knob on that ridge. We're going to go up to the pass and then climb the ridge.
JON KRAKAUER: After you've labored up the back of this big elephant, the summit is this nice little mountain on top of the big mountain—sort of Junior Vinson—this beautiful slender ridge that curves up and falls away steeply on both sides. That final quarter mile, you're sort of dancing along this knife-edge of ice and rock. From a climber's point of view, it was a very pleasing summit.
CONRAD ANKER: The summit of Vinson! It'd be better if it was warmer.
JON KRAKAUER: Good job, Dave. Man, awesome job of guiding. You are the best guide I have ever seen. I'm serious.
DAVE HAHN: Let's see if we pull the day off.
JON KRAKAUER: Yeah, I shouldn't count my chickens. But good job, man. Awesome job, awesome.
DAVE HAHN: Thanks, I really appreciate that.
JON KRAKAUER: It's 34 below without wind chill.
ANDREW MCLEAN: 34 below?
JON KRAKAUER: Yup.
ANDREW MCLEAN: Wow.
CONRAD ANKER: What a place.
NARRATOR: The wind chill is minus 70 degrees. They need to descend quickly.
DAVE HAHN: Just go like hell.
JON KRAKAUER: Okay, people were getting cold. Our cameraman got a frostbitten finger. I certainly have learned from really bitter experience that the climb isn't over 'til you're back down in the tent at the base of the mountain.
NARRATOR: Dan has only a few minutes to measure the height of Vinson. He balances a precision GPS unit on the highest piece of rock.
DAN STONE: I'm trying to take a GPS reading right here. I'm having a real hard time because it's so cold. It looks like I've got about nine satellites.
NARRATOR: After running the GPS for 20 minutes on the summit, Dan obtained the first high-precision ground-based measurement of the highest point in Antarctica. The data confirms that Vinson is 16,077 feet, as much as 10 feet higher than previously thought.
JON KRAKAUER: On January 17, 1912, Scott arrived at the Pole, 34 days after Amundsen had already been there. And when he got there he found a tent that Amundsen had left, and it was just utterly demoralizing for Scott and his four companions.
Scott wrote in his journal, "We have had a horrible day. Add to our disappointment a headwind four to five, with a temperature of minus 22 degrees, and companions laboring on with cold feet and hands. Great God, this is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority."
NARRATOR: But when the Norwegians finally returned to their ship, Amundsen reportedly said, "We haven't got much to tell in the way of privation or great struggle. The whole thing went like a dream."
JON KRAKAUER: There's a very famous quote that I always think of. I actually used it as an epigraph in my first book. It's by the great polar explorer, Stefanson. "Adventure is a sign of incompetence." If you have an adventure, you're doing something wrong...that if you really plan things out in the vein of Amundsen, you don't have adventures, everything goes smoothly, like a dream.
On March 29th, on their way back from the Pole, Scott and his men haven't eaten for a week. Scott wrote, "Outside the door of the tent, it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end. But we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more."
NARRATOR: Scott had already lost two of his men to exhaustion. He and his two surviving companions slowly starved to death in their tent, 11 miles from their next food cache.
JON KRAKAUER: I think what we're doing here is sort of a perverse thing. We're deliberately hoping we have some adventures, but not too much adventure. And we'll wonder, "What the hell are we doing here?" And we know what we're doing here. We came looking for this sort of thing.
People have always gone to the Poles for a sense of adventure. They've justified them by saying, "Oh, we're looking for a Northwest Passage for commerce or for science." But I firmly believe that the real motivation was people doing what we're doing. They wanted to go out and get scared and get miserable and enjoy themselves in a way that you can't really understand unless you do this stuff, and like to do this stuff.
Home sweet home. That feels good. I'm whipped. Going on adrenaline for the past five or six days, and now the adrenaline is all gone, and it's like no more gas in the tank. And the pack is so [expletive] heavy. So, yeah, I don't have a lot left. I'm kind of running on vapors.
NARRATOR: They call for the Twin Otter, and luckily, a day later, conditions are perfect for a Twin Otter to make a first-ever landing on a glacier on the east side of Vinson.
JON KRAKAUER: To be in unexplored country, it's a rare thing, getting rarer all the time.
Yeah, we pioneered a new route up Vinson, but more than that it was just being in an unknown place for seventeen days. It seemed too much to believe that we could actually have the whole side of the highest mountain on the continent to ourselves, that we could have been the first people there in 2001. That doesn't make sense. Why didn't someone go there before us?
Go behind the scenes and hear from NOVA's producer, who made it all the way to the summit of Mount Vinson with this experienced team of world class climbers, on NOVA's Website at PBS.org or America Online, Keyword PBS.
To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.
Next time on NOVA, in the hidden world of the Himalaya, the gods are peeling off the temple walls. Can the last surviving relics of an ancient kingdom be saved? PBS presents, NOVA, Lost Treasures of Tibet.
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Mountain of Ice
and Directed by
Program Executives, France 5
Executive Producer, Granada
Executive Producers, SWR
Sound Recordist/ Assistant Camera
Antarctic logistics provided by
NOVA Series Graphics
Post Production Online Editor
Post Production Assistant
Associate Producer, Post Production
Post Production Supervisor
Post Production Editor
Senior Science Editor
Senior Series Producer
A NOVA/WGBH, La Cinquième, Südwestrundfunk, Gédéon Programmes, Meridian, and NHK Co-Production.
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