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Mountain of Ice

The Producer's Story:
Summit Fever
by Liesl Clark

Mountain of Ice homepage

For months we had studied 40-year-old aerial photos, the only existing images of the east side of Antarctica's Ellsworth Range. But now, 12 days into our ski traverse from where we had been dropped off by a Twin Otter, we were facing the real beast: a 3,000-foot near-vertical headwall of cascading ice blocks, frozen in space and time, that was steeper and more exposed than we had hoped. And beyond that—if we made it beyond that—lay over 4,000 more feet of vertical relief before we reached the highest point on the continent, the summit of Vinson Massif.

In short, we were about to enter the monster's maw, and what I, personally, would discover there would both debilitate and exhilarate me. I was also in for a surprise when I returned home.

Before coming on this trip, I had started to think that I was going to be the first person to go to the highest points on each continent without actually setting foot on their summits. I've been to Everest five times but have never tried to climb it. My job as a documentary producer/director is to be where I'm needed most, and summit day is often a communications orchestration, with camera teams all over the mountain. I tend to play conductor, providing tempo for stories covered in each location.

On Everest, I've climbed to Camp III at 24,000 feet along two routes. On Mount McKinley (Denali), the highest point in North America, I've climbed to 16,000 feet, above a steep headwall, which is perhaps the most technical part of the route. I've even been high on Mont Blanc, the loftiest mountaintop in Western Europe (the highest point in all of Europe is Russia's Mount Elbrus). But our schedule at Mount Blanc precluded us from going to the summit, so we helicoptered in to glaciers high on the massif to camp and make our ice science film. During the scout for a film, I actually did climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. We weren't shooting yet, so I had the luxury of taking the time to scramble up the Arrow Glacier route and gaze out on the dry plains of East Africa far below. But even amateur mountaineers can climb Kilimanjaro.

Conrad's decision

Now, here before us was Antarctica's legendary Vinson, almost within reach—just a pesky headwall and a day or two of steady upward slogging standing between us and the top. As mountaineers, cameraman John Armstrong and I were less experienced than the six other members of our team, but we felt strong and healthy. We were climbing with and filming some of the best mountaineers in the world, and so far we hadn't held things up too much. Nevertheless, Conrad Anker, our expedition leader, had a decision to make: Should John and I stay behind while Conrad and the others went ahead and filmed the climb on lighter digital video cameras instead of the bulky, 42-pound High Definition (HD) camera and tripod? Or could a route be found up the headwall that we could all climb and carry the heavy equipment up, thus guaranteeing ideal coverage of the summit day?

Conrad chose the latter. We are here to make a film, he thought, to shoot HD all the way to the top of the continent while ascending the most dramatic vertical relief the Earth has to offer. Indeed, from Everest Base Camp, at 18,000 feet, climbers ascend roughly 11,000 feet to its 29,035-foot summit. We had started at 3,800 feet above sea level and would top out at just over 16,000 feet, giving us a vertical gain of 12,200 feet—all in only 17 days.

It was a thrilling undertaking, hauling all our food and equipment on our backs and on sleds in an inconceivably vast wilderness. Every schuss on our skis was a glide into the unknown. No one had ever been here before, and we were 700 miles from the nearest snowy airstrip.

Understandably, Jon Krakauer was uncomfortable with the idea of John and me climbing the headwall. He didn't want to put himself in a situation similar to the one he had found himself in on Everest in 1996, when nine people had died in a single day, high on the mountain. Jon's ethic is a sensible one: avoid climbing with people far less experienced than you, those who may be unable to take care of themselves in the event of an accident. He's right. Those without broad technical climbing experience should not be guided on terrain like this, far from potential rescue.

Dave's route

But we had Dave Hahn, who knows the Ellsworth mountains and the conditions on Vinson better than anyone, after 19 ascents by another route. He had chosen a route that would be the least technically challenging but would expose us to danger from falling ice. (Several nights before, Conrad and Jon had heard an ice block break loose, triggering an avalanche.) I was to climb behind Dave, with extreme skier Andrew McLean behind me. All three of us would be roped together. The theory was, if anyone fell, the others would plunge their ice axes into the slope to arrest the fall and anchor the team to the headwall.

We climbed to a saddle in the headwall where the most difficult climbing would begin, and commenced filming the ice blocks that lay ahead. The route looked daunting, but Dave gave no indication that he worried about whether John or I could make it. Dave went out ahead with Andrew and stomped out a traverse line across an exposed face that led to the ice boulders. It was a reassuring move. Now a trail, or groove, was marked out for us to walk along. It was like tightrope walking on a thin shelf of ice and snow; one step off the shelf meant a 1,000-foot drop onto the Upper Dater Glacier.

Once among the jumbled ice blocks, we moved quickly, the memory of that recent avalanche still strong in our minds. The slope bore six inches of powder, and each step was a scary and tentative effort, for crevasses lay hidden beneath the snow layer. Dave shouted down to warn me of their exact locations and then placed tension on the rope between us as I approached each one. I gauged the width of each crevasse then gingerly scrambled over it while burying my ice axe in the slope above me on the far side. At one point, the axe slipped from my hand and started a long slide down the headwall. Fortunately, Conrad was able to catch it before it disappeared, which in our situation would have been equivalent to losing a hand.

Much to the surprise of Jon Krakauer, who had gone on ahead of us, we arrived intact at our high camp at roughly 12,000 feet. Conrad had made the right decision, and Dave had pioneered a guideable route up the headwall. Conrad and Andrew deserve credit, too, for lugging the HD camera and tripod up to the high camp. Shooting continued, and then we all prepared for the next day's climb—4,000 vertical feet to the summit.

My struggle

I had a sleepless night, and by morning my head was pounding. I was suffering from acute mountain sickness, and I wasn't relishing a long ascent to even higher elevations. But I wanted to keep up with the rest of the team. The whole trip, up to this moment, I had felt great. This morning, however, breakfast came up as quickly as it had gone down, and by 6:00 a.m. I was having trouble keeping all solids and fluids down. We left at 6:30, and half a mile out of camp I knew this was not going to be my day.

I stopped the rest of the climbers and confessed to my weakened state. Conrad gave me a look that said, "I can't believe you want to turn around now," and it was decided that Dave and I would break off from the rest of the team and climb at our own pace, roped together, and see how far we'd get.

I know my body. I'm normally very strong and pride myself in not holding anyone back. So this was a huge concession, to give in to my nausea and energy-deficient condition, and admit my weakness. But Dave wouldn't hear of giving in. He was convinced that I could make it, and he would personally see to it that I did. This is a man who has made a living helping aspiring mountaineers learn how to make it in high mountains. In the end, I would owe him a lot for what he would teach me that day on Vinson.

"You've been making mountain films for too long now without going to the summit," Dave said during one of our many breaks, as I tried to hold down ice-laden water from my Nalgene bottle. "It's time you learned what reaching the summit of a serious mountain is all about."

My drive to go any higher was gone, and I couldn't fathom why people like to put themselves through such agony. When it comes to nausea, I'm a wimp, and as we plodded ahead, I kept on dry heaving. I did it without bending over and as quietly as I could, unwilling to humiliate myself further by letting Dave notice the retching. It was the worst day I've ever had in the mountains.

But Dave persevered, and we arrived on the summit only half an hour behind the others. Jon was ecstatic; to him, Dave was the über-guide. Conrad, meanwhile, was defying the minus 70-degree windchill by not even wearing a down jacket; John was getting his fingers frostbit while shooting the first HD footage ever shot on the summit of Vinson; and I was doing my best, between dry heaves, to appreciate the spectacular view.

Viewers' desire

When I arrived back in the States, flowers were waiting in my office, and congratulatory emails arrived for the next three weeks. I was overwhelmed by the general enthusiasm at my summit achievement. To friends and colleagues, any achievements I had made while shooting my other mountain films paled in comparison to my ascent of Vinson via a new route. It was a post-summit fever I couldn't have anticipated. Was this what Dave was hinting about on summit day? Is this why people climb the world's highest peaks?

People were more interested in my climb of Vinson than in what I knew to be the greater challenge of making the film over the course of a month on the continent. What about the brutally cold moments of panic that set in when we'd climb into the mountain's shadow, and the temperature would suddenly drop 20 to 30 degrees, when the only way to keep warm was to ski or climb faster to generate more body heat? In my mind, merely surviving what Conrad called "the steel glove"—that bone-chilling shadow—was a more worthy accomplishment than reaching the summit.

I was proud, too, that, fingers crossed, we had duct-taped one of our two HD cameras to the strut of a Cessna, resulting in the most extraordinary aerial footage of Vinson and the Ellsworth Range ever shot. This success, along with the hours of lying in our tents waiting out storms and wondering if we even had a good enough story, and the completed film itself—all these seemed more laudable than my slogging ungracefully to the top of Vinson.

But I've come to understand that reaching a summit is something viewers not only long for but expect, a necessary rite of passage that, in their eyes, might just be more important than the film itself.

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Slide Show Team on Upper Dater glacier

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The NOVA team skis across the Upper Dater Glacier below Vinson Massif.

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Armstrong with camera

Cameraman John Armstrong at Flowers Hills, where the expedition began

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Hahn cooking

Guide Dave Hahn cooks dinner on the Upper Dater Glacier.

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Armstrong filming Anker

Armstrong and Raker shoot high-definition footage of McLean and Anker (below McLean) climbing the headwall.

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Simply surviving in Antarctica's harsh environment—and shooting a high-definition film while doing so—were greater accomplishments than summiting Vinson, Clark feels.

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Mountain of Ice Web Site Content
Krakauer in Antarctica

Krakauer in Antarctica
Jon Krakauer on what sets the White Continent apart.

The Producer's Story

The Producer's Story
Liesl Clark on making this film while scaling Vinson.

Expedition Panoramas

Expedition Panoramas
View 360-degree photos of NOVA camps en route to Vinson.

Life Cycle of a Glacier

Life Cycle of a Glacier
Follow a snowflake as it lands on a glacier and goes for a prolonged ride.

If Antarctic Ice Melts

If the Ice Melts
See the world's coastlines if Antarctica's ice melted.

Liesl Clark Liesl Clark is the producer of "Mountain of Ice." In January 2001, as this article describes, Clark became the first woman to summit Vinson from its east side.

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NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions