Kim Hess is not your typical mountain-town, pretty-faced bartender at our favorite Steamboat burger joint. She’s an accomplished mountain climber who has already bagged Mt. Everest, and now six of the tallest peaks on six of the world’s continents. We caught up with her after returning home from Antarctica in pursuit of the Explorer’s Grand Slam.
Wedged comfortably in a metal jump seat at the back of the plane, my eyes focused on the exposed wires sprawling across the ceiling like an intricate web. The roaring sounds of the engine were constant and oddly soothing, interrupted by the occasional, uneasy crackling and popping of fuel cans with the ever-changing pressure. I was riding in the cold fuselage of the Iluyshin IL-76, an old Russian cargo plane fit for one mission only; transporting people to Antarctica’s interior. I tried to clear my mind of all of the horrific scenarios that could play out when landing on a desolate blue-ice runway in remote Antarctica. I was about to step onto the coldest, windiest and highest continent on the planet. I was about to spend my vacation climbing in the largest desert in the world, and the only continent still virgin to war. As the door opened and the bitter cold pierced my left cheek, it was clear that I had ventured north of the wall – into a place that is vast and unknown.
I was in Antarctica in pursuit of climbing the tallest mountain on the continent, Vinson Massif. Standing proud at 16,050 ft., Vinson would be my 6th out of the Seven Summits, an adventure achievement comprised of climbing the tallest peak on each of the seven continents. Vinson isn’t technical, it’s not physically grueling, nor is it tall in comparison to Mt. Everest or even Kilimanjaro, but she still has a way of taking your breath away. After spending six-and-a-half years working towards achieving the Seven Summits, I finally got the chance to sit back, relax, and truly enjoy a mountain free of the normal anxieties associated with a large expedition.
This expedition was meant to be straightforward – up, down and off in a little over a week. But we all know what happens to the best laid plans. Every peak teaches you something, and Vinson was no different. She taught me more patience, as we would be reminded of Mother Nature’s power through three different weather delays; almost tripling the estimated expedition time to 19 days. Slowly and methodically we would progress up the mountain, dragging heavy sleds while carrying equally large loads on our backs. This was a true expedition-style climb, much like Denali, where there are no yaks, mules or porters to assist in moving gear up the mountain; only your own muscle power. Enduring snow, wind and thick clouds plunging the temperature 60 degrees in the snap of a finger were all part of the daily routine.
The days spent bogged down with weather were filled with coffee, napping, comedic banter, cutting snow blocks to build protective walls from the wind and using the leftover blocks to build sculptures – much like children on a snow day. Time ceased to have meaning in the disorienting 24-hours of daylight, making meals and bedtimes completely irrelevant. There were no dreaded “alpine starts” on days that we finally got good weather to move up, which was a welcomed relief. There is nothing I loath more than a 3 a.m. wake-up call to crawl out of your frosted sleeping bag and begin climbing. Instead, we could climb at all hours, as long as the route remained free of shadows from the circulating sun. While ascending the 3,350 ft. 40-degree slope of fixed lines to high camp, the sun quickly became a constant nemesis of scorching heat. Every step was a battle against the sun’s harsh UV rays making sunscreen and sunglasses your best friend.
With little rest at high camp we woke early to snag a 24-hour weather window before another storm was due to hit. The nine mile slog to the summit was mind numbing at times because when you’re playing in a sea of nothingness, it’s impossible to not get completely lost in the surreal scene around you. Marching to a slow, rhythmic cadence up the mountain and along the exposed summit ridge we eventually reached her summit on December 9th, 2017 at 8:20 p.m. At the top of the bottom of the world it was hopeless to decipher where the Earth ended and the sky began. I couldn’t help but be in awe of the pure, unblemished landscape below untouched by the hand of mankind. Pure as it was 1,000 years ago, I tried to take it in and commit that untamed beauty to memory. Antarctica stole a piece of my heart, but I take solace in the fact that we will meet again when I venture to the South Pole.
Visit kimhessclimbs.com to find out more about her Seven Summits mission.