.Holiday on Ice

Spending Christmas at the bottom of the world

“This does not feel like Christmas,” I thought to myself.

Between forced gulps of hot chocolate, I looked over at my teammate Doug in our kitchenette dug out of the snow, nursing his frostbitten hands. My dad and the other climbers in our group, Wim and our guide, Victor, also sat in the shelter, trying to warm themselves.

We were at the base of Vinson Massif, on our way to the highest point in Antarctica. In December 2005, amid college applications and prom drama in my senior year of high school, my dad and I had somehow journeyed as far away from holiday cheer as possible to climb this peak.

I was the 17-year-old girl among middle-aged men, and while it wasn’t the first time I would play the role—Mt. Vinson would become the sixth of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the continents, that my dad and I would climb—I still felt an underlying compulsion to prove that I was “good enough” to be there.

The team had leisurely awoken that morning, thinking we would follow a relatively easy plan. The goal was to tag high camp and then come back down for the night, following the mountaineer’s maxim of acclimatization, “Climb high, sleep low.” Even though it looked like we would enjoy sun, I casually threw some extra mitts and my fluffiest down jacket into my pack, just in case.

We rolled out of camp with the sun against the pristine snow that crunched under our feet as we made our way toward the base of the headwall. Once there, we made a stop to put on our spikes, and then began to ascend the face that would lead us to high camp, situated in the col between Mt. Vinson and its neighbor, Mt. Shinn.

Planting my ice axe into the incline every couple of steps while holding the rope in the other, I followed a slow but steady pace. I was giddy at the thought of being surrounded by the untouched peaks of this mystic land. Unconventional, perhaps, but not a bad way to spend Christmas day, I thought.

Suffice it to say, Christmas back home was much different. The Christmas season in Long Beach, where I grew up, was announced by the appearance of colorful, pyramid-shaped light decorations out on the bay. Sometimes after the boat parade that went around Naples Island—for which we would decorate our kayaks, and ourselves, with festive strings of lights—I would paddle out to one of the platforms, just for the novelty of sitting on a floating Christmas decoration.

My brother and I often spent Christmas in Brooklyn, with my mom and grandmom. Our search for a Christmas tree was limited to what we would be willing to carry down the street and up the several flights of stairs. The holiday fixation was on appetizing fowl, be it pheasant, quail or duck, and my mom would spend the better part of a day strategizing the sequence of events—what had to be bought from which store when and how to best tire out the dog so that he would be less tempted to snatch the comestibles away. Though we always ended up with a delicious meal, things rarely went according to plan.

Our plans on the mountain, too, were soon upended. After a couple of hours climbing, a smattering of clouds invaded the sky. We stopped to adjust our layers to the lower temperature; while Victor and Wim each added a jacket, Doug and my dad said they’d be fine with what they had on. I convinced myself that my current garb would also suffice.

Yet as we began to climb again, the wind picked up, and I soon realized that the thin gloves I had on wouldn’t be enough after all. I tried to shake off the burning cold by whirling my arms around, hoping that increasing the blood flow would be sufficient; I knew that in this sport, seemingly small errors like this could result in dire consequences. If I made everyone stop, they could grow cold themselves due to the lack of movement.

My mind flashed on all of the things I wouldn’t be able to do, or at least not as well, if I lost my fingertips to frostbite. Back home, I needed those fingers if I wanted to keep playing the piano or the oboe or even to be able to instant message with my friends.

Completely embarrassed, I called out to Victor.

“Why didn’t you change your gloves when I gave you the chance before?” he asked, clearly cross. But he stopped, and I threw off my pack to get my mitts.

Mountaineering started for my dad, and thus for me, when he climbed Mt. Whitney with a friend from work. After Whitney and some other local peaks, he felt ready to take on something bigger. He suggested climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to his friends, but they were unable to take the time off. So he brought it to the table to his family at dinner one night.

My older brother and my step-mom both reasonably declined. But, more than climbing a mountain, the thought of going to Africa seemed exotic and exciting to me. I imagined that if I climbed Kilimanjaro, which I knew nothing about, I could probably convince my dad to take me on a short safari afterward.

“Yeah, I’ll go!” It came out without much thought, unknowingly launching the biggest obsession of my teenage years.

Eventually, that obsession would turn into a world record. After climbing six of the Seven Summits with my dad, I took a year off. We had left the biggest for last, Everest. In order to prepare for it, we utilized the autumn season to climb one of its easier and slightly lower neighboring peaks, Cho Oyu, in order to accustom ourselves to the supplemental oxygen systems and see how we fared at extreme altitudes above 26,000 feet.

After success on Cho Oyu, we climbed Everest from the Nepalese side in the spring. Reaching the summit of Everest made me, at age 18, the youngest person to have climbed the Seven Summits and the first person to climb them all with her dad.

As we climbed on at Vinson, the weather continued to worsen. Once we got to high camp, we hastily made a cache for the gear we’d leave up there, and started back down. Now in near whiteout conditions, we were thoroughly miserable. A layer of the freshly blown snow accumulated between some of our boots and crampons, causing us to stumble from time to time, pulling and catching each other by the rope that served as our lifeline.

I felt depleted when we got back to camp; it took all of my willpower to collect snow to melt for water and help cook the dinner that I would be too tired to eat. As I laboriously cut up garlic with my pocketknife to throw in with the frozen salmon patties—our holiday dinner—Victor said to me, “I bet you’ve never had a Christmas like that before, have you?”

After I wearily shook my head, he grinned and added, “Somehow I don’t think it’ll be the last, either.”

After dinner I used the satellite phone to call my mom and brother. I was exhausted, and there was such a time lag in the connection between us that it was hard to communicate anything at all. I tried to imagine them sitting cozily around a tree, well-fed and warm, protected from the chilly streets of New York, as I sat looking across the expanse of ice in front of me that led to the bottom of the earth.

My dad and I then called my step-mom, younger brother and sister back in California. She asked how we liked our presents—we had forgotten! Before she left us at the airport, she had handed my dad and me each a small package, which we had stashed away in our sleeping bags. We hung up the phone, got into our tent, and I uncovered a pair of earrings, two small silver hoops. They seemed so out of place, reminding me of my “other life.”

A day or two later we returned to high camp, from where we’d leave for the summit. I had still not recovered from our hard Christmas day, and was feeling nauseous from the altitude.

“You were moving quite slowly,” Victor told me. “I think you were getting a bit hypothermic.”

The next morning, we decided to head for the summit. The weather was good, and we had precious little time before we had to be back at base camp to get our ride back out. If we missed it, we would most likely have to stay an extra two weeks.

I thought that maybe I’d feel better once we got started, but pretty quickly I became sure that I wasn’t going to make it. I felt on the verge of vomiting with every step. But I kept marching along, distracting myself with an internal debate of whether I had yet reached the point at which I should just tell the team that I needed to turn back around. Far sooner than I expected, Victor told us that we were probably halfway there. We continued on. And on.

I did make it to the summit that day. Standing atop a summit mixes just the right emotional cocktail to make it the most addictive experience I have known.

I trudged up, planted my ice axe into the ground and rested my forehead on its handle. My dad came over and let me lean on him to rest instead.

“Good job, Honey Bear,” was all he could say, and I quietly cried into his shoulder.


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