[John Evans wrote the following story about the first ascent of Mt. Tyree in Antarctica in 1967 as part of a Mountain Profile for Alpinist 44 (Autumn 2013). Evans died on January 9. He was 82 years old. He will be remembered as one of America’s most legendary climbers. Steve Matous wrote an obituary for Rock and Ice that can be found here.–Ed.]
[Photo] Barry Corbet/John Evans collection
What time is it?
Eleven twenty, just ten minutes later than last time you asked. Why? You got an appointment someplace?
Oh no. I was just wondering–
AND THUS SPARKED OUR CONVERSATIONS, alternating with anguished moans, occasional songs, pleas for divine intervention, bursts of blasphemy–and uncharitable remarks about the cold, our meager re-melted meals, our inadequate bladders, Antarctica in general and Mt. Tyree in particular. Oh well, we couldn’t claim that we hadn’t known what it would be like….
In fact, I’d been captivated by Tyree–and particularly by its soaring, mile-high west face, a wild precipice of snow-plastered headwalls, black flutings and hanging ramparts–a few years before, when I took a break from Yosemite’s sun-drenched granite to conduct geological fieldwork in the Sentinel Range. Now, I was back with the ten-man American Antarctic Mountaineering Expedition. Our primary objective had been the first ascent of the Vinson Massif, the last remaining unclimbed continental summit, which we’d accomplished in late December 1966, a few weeks prior. With that behind us, and with a few precious weeks before our air pickup, we could now turn our attention toward our second objective, Mt. Tyree. At some 131 feet lower than Vinson and eight miles to the north, Tyree is both Antarctica’s second highest summit and a peak of mouth-watering appeal for alpinists, having no discernible non-technical lines.
And although “obsessed” may be too strong a word, the journal I’d kept through the Vinson phase contained an immoderate number of references to trying to persuade my skeptical teammates to attempt Tyree’s west face. My present companion, the late, great Barry Corbet agreed with me (although we ultimately chose a circuitous route over the summit of Mt. Gardner instead). He later described Tyree as a citadel that “sits displaced sideways from the rest of the range and reigns in unapproachable isolation. It is higher than all save one, and simply outdazzles the one”–the one being Vinson (Mountain World 1966-67).
Meanwhile, here we were, just Barry and I, squeezed into a tiny Gerry tent at 13,400 feet and 78 degrees south, perched on the col between Tyree and Mt. Gardner, on the brink of a near-vertical 4,000 foot drop, far from our other teammates. Why the brink? in part, for the view to the west–where, as if we were looking from an airplane over the ocean, nothing except a vast, featureless plain stretched to the horizon, blue above and white below. More to the point, the precarious site provided a convenient rock outcrop that made a sturdy anchor against the all-too-frequent hurricane winds.
It was January 5, and during a break in the gales, we’d just made a second, so-called summit push, only to be defeated again by the formidable rock gendarmes and steep, porous snow on Tyree’s north ridge. If I’d been paying attention, I might have seen our imminent struggles portended in the arrival of the new Year, 1967. Just as December 31 ended, a storm had descended upon us at Tyree Camp II, around 14,000 feet on the shoulder of Mt. Gardner, rattling the tents even though we’d situated them on a protected corner. I doubt that we could have withstood the gusts that raged only 100 feet away, estimated at upward of 100 knots. Tyree remained socked in until the next afternoon, and our first glimpses of the peak showed an Everest type plume of titanic proportion streaming to the west. Mountain-wave clouds boiled over the summits north of us and scoured the top of Gardner. As the first day of 1967 progressed, I read the final three-fourths of The Grapes of Wrath. I was sorry to have finished it, as we were short of reading material, and all that tent time was driving us insane. My teammates and I had taken to tormenting each other by mentioning various delicacies and luxuries that weren’t available–not the least of which was indoor plumbing.
Our remaining Tyree hopes now centered on a snow gully left of the northwest ridge. It would require a descent of several hundred feet to access, but it looked as though it might bypass many of the rock problems that had frustrated our previous sorties. Even if this gully worked out, we’d still be left with a long section of pinnacle studded ridge–followed, for the final 2,000-foot summit block, by a choice between Tyree’s imposing northwest buttress and its equally daunting upper west face. If we could make just one more attempt, we could go home with heads held high. Throughout our climb, I’d been pondering the tremendous coup that Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein had pulled off on the West Ridge of Everest only four years earlier–how small our aspirations seemed compared to the idea of venturing into unknown terrain on the world’s highest peak. Barry had participated in that expedition, helping move loads up the ridge, and he must have been thinking about it, as well. On January 4, he’d remarked that the climb ahead of us was, technically, “a hell of a lot harder than theirs.” I was glad we had only our cold and technical difficulties to confront instead of their altitude. For dinner, we sipped the rewarmed residue of the previous night’s Jello. Barry filled a thermos with more Jello for the next day, and we both popped sleeping pills in the vain hope of sinking into dreamland.
[Photo] Sam Silverstein/John Evans collection
Despite a meager night’s sleep, we were off before 6:00 a.m. on January 6 with a wonderful combination of clear skies and no wind, and the temperature a reasonable -22 degrees F. We found that the snow in the gully–while steep–was firm for its full 800-plus-foot length. Moving together, by 9 a.m., we regained the crest of the ridge just above the first prominent, needle-shaped gendarme. Here, we finally had to confront that decision between the steep green quartzite of the northwest buttress or the airy snow and rock steps of the upper west face. We chose the latter, more by virtue of positive thinking than wise mountaineering judgment, but we had no regrets: we found we could crampon up ribbons of snow on the west side of the arete, pausing only occasionally to make easy rock moves through steep bands. higher up, Barry and I swapped leads up the mammoth face. We didn’t encounter anything more difficult than 5.5–the terrain was easier, it turns out, than the technical crux on Everest’s West Ridge. Except for a couple of breezy belay stances, we climbed comfortably with our down jackets stuffed in our packs, although both of us were short of breath in the bright, cold air. We didn’t bother with the scheduled 3 p.m. radio check-in.
Barry belayed from a knifeblade as I stomped up steep snow toward the final ridge. Then he took us over an easy slope to the summit–the culmination of three snowy ridges. It was 6 p.m. The air was almost still. Far below, the tent at Camp II made a small, dark dot, hard against a crag. But we could see no signs of life. At first, my radio call brought no response. After a minute, Barry took the radio and heard Dick Wahlstrom asking where we were. Barry’s reply was one of his famous classic lines: “Look on the summit, you lunkhead!” Dick verified our position with binoculars and replied with a classic of his own: “Good. now we can go back to bed.” My altimeter read 17,150 feet; this, we now know, was about 1,200 feet too high, but consistent with its previous readings, which had also been off.
We placed a summit register can in a hole in the snow. Attached to a picket, we left one of our expedition flags: a white pennant with three penguins roped together, proceeding up a mountainside in a jaunty style. To the north rose Gardner, big, snowy and symmetrical. To the south, Mt. Shinn faded into insignificance against the Vinson Massif, and the unclimbed Mt. Epperly formed a steep, unfriendly shield of crenelated rock. it was hard to tell which summit was which: each high point along the spine of the ridge partly shielded the others. But I recognized mountains in the northern heritage Range that i hadn’t seen for three years–which we called “Tent,” “Windy Peak” and “Pimple Nunatak”– small points of orientation like a chain of islands across a sea of white.
The wind picked up, bringing a ferocious cold. It was time to descend. We down climbed the top two pitches and began a long series of rappels, fighting the ropes, which snarled and tangled each time we threw them. During a short rest, we made our 9 p.m. radio contact with Camp II. We were relieved to hear Sam Silverstein’s gravelly voice through the static: he’d been just as attentive to keeping its batteries warm as we had with ours. Not for the first time on the expedition, we gave thanks for Antarctica’s strong midnight sun. We were still a long way out from shelter.
At midnight, we stopped to finish the last few sips of Jello and split a chocolate bar, just enough food to keep us going in the cold. Then we cramponed down the final couloir and dragged ourselves back up the glacier to our little tent, arriving at 1:30 a.m., sore of foot and leg, and very, very thirsty. The altimeter read 14,580 feet, just as it had before. We took off our crampons, climbed into the tent and started the stove. Snug in our sleeping bags, we drank as fast as we could thaw pieces of ice. We made orange juice and ate prunes, nearly all the food we had left. “We did it,” I wrote in my journal, “by an incredible series of fortuitous guesses, strenuous efforts and– most of all–dumb luck.”
Barry and I dozed fitfully until about 11:30 a.m. when we started melting water again. Into this liquid, we dissolved some pudding powder and consumed it with our last tin of bacon. I radioed Sam and told him we’d greatly appreciate it if he and Dick could have food and drink ready at Camp II. We packed up everything, leaving behind only an anchor piton in the rock at our campsite: a speck of gun-black metal in grey quartzite, lost amid the vast, white ice. We thought this chrome-moly prize would be a fitting souvenir for anyone who might pass by this seldom-visited place. They would have to know that no one could have left it but us.
[Photo] Damien Gildea