Our team athletes Hilaree Nelson, Conrad Anker, Jim Morrison, and Jimmy Chin (a team of the world’s most experienced and accomplished mountaineers) spent the month of January 2020 together on an expedition in Antarctica.
Success is often remembered as achieving the summit. But as the team reached the top of Mt. Vinson and prepared to descend, unexpected conditions and risky circumstances revealed success to be something a bit different: survival.
In their own words with photography by Jimmy Chin, these are the lessons learned about exploration and following your passions, and the experiences that teach us that it’s not solely about the self. Whether it’s the power of teamwork in making challenging decisions together or learning about how we explore responsibly, it is our connection and community that truly matters.
How did the expedition come to life? And what was the end goal of the trip?
Hilaree: The idea for this Antarctic expedition was born with Conrad. He was guiding Vinson for the end of December and invited Jim, Jimmy, and myself to join him on the continent after he was done guiding. Having never been to Antarctica (despite many efforts), I was super psyched on the idea. Having the four of us as a team was another fantastic bonus. I have known Conrad and Jimmy for a very long time, and we have managed to always have a successful trip to the mountains together.
The goals were to climb Mt. Vinson via the Central Ice Stream and attempt to be the first to do so in this line. Then we would move to the second highest peak, Mt. Tyree, and attempt to climb and ski this peak also as a first descent.
Tell us the story, what happened down there?
Conrad: After the guiding rotation, we were held back by the weather. Hilaree, Jim, and Jimmy were not able to fly in to the base camp due to inclement weather. Once they landed, we set out the next morning for a one-day ascent of Vinson via the Central Ice Stream. From 1992 to 2002, I worked as a guide on Vinson. In between rotation, I climbed this route. While on the second ascent, we found snow conditions to be vastly different than what I remembered in 1998. Where I had encountered crampon crunching never, we had knee-deep snow. We were lucky in that we reached the summit, which for both Hilaree and Jimmy was a first.
Hilaree: Jim, Jimmy, and I arrive a day early to Union Glacier, excited for the adventure ahead. Conrad was at Vinson Base Camp post-summiting but stuck as inclement weather prevented planes from retrieving any climbers. Four days passed, with the three of us stuck at Union Glacier. This dampened our spirits a bit, but we made the most of the time by riding bikes, reading up on Antarctic mountaineering history, sleeping, and copiously eating.
Finally, the weather on Vinson cleared enough that we were able to make the flight to base camp. We met up with Conrad and were reenergized, both by him and seeing the route for the first time. We set out that day for the base of the climb to drop a load of gear. The next morning, we set out from our base camp to the summit some 10,000 feet above us at over 16,000 feet. Conrad nailed the timing by saying it would take us upwards of 14 hours to summit.
Climbing in ski boots with skis on our backs, the going was slow, especially with really poor climbing conditions. We reached the summit in about 15 hours but weren’t able to ski the way we climbed due to avalanche conditions. Jim, Jimmy, and I skied the regular route—a much safer way, as it’s generally stripped of snow and well-trodden by standard route climbers.
What were some of the ways your expectations of the trip were different from what you found?
Conrad: As mountaineers, we only sometimes experience a small window of weather to make our move. Weather in the long term is climate. The Bellingshausen Sea to the west has thinner seasonal pack ice. Shelf ice is millennial old glacier ice. Pack ice forms each winter. With climate change, the ice is thinner, exposing the ocean earlier. The warmth of the open ocean might be condensing and creating wetter, and more frequent precipitation events in the Ellsworth Range. From my anecdotal observation, it seems wetter and warmer.
Success is often measured by what we ski and what we summit, however in this case we found success in making the right decisions to try another time.
As you assessed the risks at hand, what ultimately drove your decision to turn around?
Jim: We often spoke, on both climbs, and determined ways as a team to find ways to climb in relative safety. Time and time again, we remarked about possible risks and or ways to get around them. Using the collective experience of the group and understanding the need to be safe as a team, we found a way to push as hard as possible. The real win came in just that. We pushed ourselves as a team as hard as we possibly could while maintaining a risk profile we could come home with and be proud of.
For Hils, Jim and Jimmy, it must’ve been particularly ironic that they were carrying their skis downhill. We realize time in the mountains is a gift and to experience more time in the mountains one must make the right call.
How did this work within a group dynamic?
Hilaree: Our group dynamic was great. Sure, we were bummed on Vinson not to ski our line, and even more bummed to not make it far on Tyree. Still, we pushed hard and put in a huge effort to try to overcome what ultimately could not be overcome—pervasive super shitty conditions. "Live to ski another day" became our motto. Truly the decision, while it sucked, was easy to make because the dangers were so obvious. It’s much harder to decide to turn around based on a vague feeling or when conditions are more ambiguous.
We were bummed on Vinson not to ski our line, and even more bummed to not make it far on Tyree. Still, we pushed hard and put in a huge effort to try to overcome what ultimately could not be overcome: pervasive super shitty conditions. Live to ski another day became our motto.
How did it feel to set aside personal goals and objectives for the safety of the larger group?
Jim: It sucked. I wanted to ski the couloir in powder, but I had to abandon the ridiculous idea of skiing alone for the more challenging approach of downclimbing safely. The burden of the right decisions is not only a group effort in a team but also worn by all the members individually.
Climbing and ski mountaineering brings you into very poignant moments to practice these skills. The meal we shared in our two-meter dome the last night was perhaps not as sweet as if we had skied the whole mountain but certainly was favored over the alternative we know exists. Hold fast; make good decisions.
Conrad: At the end of the day, when we get back to civilization and sit down to a meal, it's these moments that we relish that we think about that make life special.
Watch Hilaree, Conrad, Jim and Jimmy discuss their Antarctica adventure on YouTube Live: