After successfully climbing Antarctica’s highest peak in December, Memorial University professor TA Loeffler is just one mountain short of conquering all seven summits — the highest peaks on each continent.
The fifth largest and least explored of the seven continents, Antarctica is the most remote and coldest. An estimated 98 per cent of the continent is covered by ice.
At 4,897 metres above sea level, Mount Vinson is Antarctica’s highest peak.
Loeffler and her three team members flew in a Russian cargo plane from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Antarctica Dec. 3. They landed on the runway of Union Glacier.
Veteran American professional climbing guide Dave Hahn led the team. Hahn has been to the top of Mount Everest — the world’s highest mountain — 13 times.
A woman from Toronto and a man from New York City were the other two people on the team.
After a meal of beef stew and roasted beets at Union Glacier, the team boarded a Twin Otter ski-equipped plane to Mount Vinson base camp Dec. 4 to find a storm brewing high upon the mountain.
They took a day to wait for the storm to subside.
“Our first day we went halfway from base camp to the first camp and left a load of fuel and supplies there. Then we went back down to base camp,” Loeffler said.
The next day the team climbed to low camp where the members set up their tents in extremely windy conditions.
They rested for a day at low camp before heading, with their supplies, to high camp.
“High camp is a stellar location. You can see out to the Antarctica plateau. You just see ice and snow as far as you look,” Loeffler said.
‘Need to maintain that perfect balance’
After dropping their supplies at high camp, the climbers headed down to low camp — knowing they’d have to repeat the same climb the next day.
Glacier mountaineering is a unique experience that requires the team to “rope up” to defend against the danger of falling into a crevasse.
Loeffler said because of spreading the team out along about 120 metres of rope, not everyone will end up on the same snow bridge over a crevasse.
That way, she said, if a snow bridge collapses and someone drops in, the rest of the team can fall down onto their ice axes to keep the dropping climber from going too deep.
The most experienced climber usually leads the rope team up the mountain.
Hahn filled that spot on Loeffler’s team. The second most experienced climber is often the last person attached to the rope with other team members tied in between. Hahn asked Loeffler to take the last spot on the rope.
Climbing roped to other people means you have to concentrate on every step you take, Loeffler said.
“The moment your mind drifts, you’ll trip. You’ll step on the rope and let it get too slack or too tight. So you need to maintain that perfect balance of just touching the snow in front of you.”
Temperatures during the climb ranged from about -20 C to -38 C.
“You’re constantly having to be mindful of where your hands are and where your toes are so that you’re not getting frostbite or hypothermia,” Loeffler said.
With sunlight 24 hours a day in Antarctica in December, and with a thinning of the ozone layer over the continent, Loeffler said, it’s easy to get severe sunburn on your face.
“You put sun block on, but your nose is constantly running so you have to be careful that you don’t wipe it off.”
Loeffler said at no time during any part of the climb did she feel certain her team would reach the summit.
One climber was struggling to keep going, she said, and at one point they thought they’d have to turn back.
However, she said, her teammate did not quit and all four climbers crested the peak of the mountain Dec. 11.
The Newfoundland flag was the first item Loeffler reached for in her bag when she stood atop the mountain — a flag that’s been to the top of top of six continents with her.
“If it were to happen that there would be only time or opportunity for one summit picture, I wanted it to be with this flag, the Newfoundland flag,” Loeffler wrote on her blog.
Loeffler has climbed in all seven continents.
She has conquered Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Elbrus in Europe, Mount Denali in North America and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia.
She is very much aware that she has only one more mountain to climb to have crested all seven summits.
Asia’s Mount Everest is an incredible 8,848 meters above sea level.
Loeffler has attempted the climb on two occasions.
In 2007 she turned back when she came down with a waterborne disease called giardia.
Her 2010 attempt ended when she developed a bladder infection.
While she’s yet to commit to another Everest attempt, it’s unlikely that Loeffler will settle for six out of seven.
Loeffler met Hahn during one of her Everest attempts.
When contacted by e-mail recently, Hahn said Loeffler was a “huge help” to him on the Mount Vinson climb.
She came to the expedition thoroughly prepared, he said.
“She’d meticulously gone through her gear and food for the trip and was physically ready for intense cold and prolonged exertion at altitude.”
Hahn said that when his attention was focused on looking after less-skilled and less-prepared climbers, he was certain he could count on Loeffler to hold things together — not just for herself but for her team members.
Hahn said Loeffler’s ability to cope with physical challenges is impressive. She also has a grasp of the “big picture” and all sorts of odd situations that come up in the average climbing trip, he said.
“All of that should help her a great deal in returning to Mount Everest,” he said.
It’s impossible, he said, to predict how an attempt at Everest will pan out for any climber.
On four occasions, he said, he turned back within 1,000 feet (about 304 metres) of the top.
“I'm confident that TA will attempt the mountain safely and responsibly and with respect for the place and the people around her ... all of which means more to me than simply tagging the top,” he said.