Isobel Ewing: On top of the world at the bottom of the Earth

With one day's training on Mt Cook's Grand Plateau under her belt, reporter and rookie mountaineer Isobel Ewing sailed to the Antarctic Peninsula to attempt to summit a heavily glaciated peak named after explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

Equipped with 30-year-old boots and her dad's Gore-Tex jacket, Ewing's 18-hour expedition with the Antarctic Heritage Trust wouldn't have been a true adventure without a fall into a crevasse.

OPINION: It's just begun, but I fear my mountaineering career has peaked.

My first attempt at a summit was in the last wilderness, on the Antarctic Peninsula - Mt Scott.

And as a rookie climber with no mountain boots, the companions that would carry me on my polar expedition were plastic boots hired from the New Zealand Alpine Club.

They're older than I am, and far more experienced.

Our mountain guide Kev had warned me the soles of plastic boots can "explode" in very low temperatures.

As I laced them up on the morning of our climb, a crucial part tore off. They weren't suitable to walk around the ship, let alone an Antarctic glacier.

Luckily my teammate Simon Lucas had a surplus of duct tape, and we did a quick repair job. The team's faith in the boots at that point was shaky.

Isobel Ewing onboard the One Ocean Navigator before the climb (Dave Brosha)
Isobel Ewing onboard the One Ocean Navigator before the climb (Dave Brosha)

The morning of our attempt was the culmination of months of anticipation.

The ship that carried us across the Drake Passage from Tierra del Fuego, One Ocean Navigator, had made a special diversion to this end of the Lemaire Channel for our climb.

The team sailed through the Lemaire Channel or 'Kodak Crack' at dawn before starting their climb (Isobel Ewing)
The team sailed through the Lemaire Channel or 'Kodak Crack' at dawn before starting their climb (Isobel Ewing)

Ninety-plus paying passengers were on board, so they couldn't hang around for us to get a perfect day.

We had a 48-hour window to attempt our ascent.

The morning we arrived in the Antarctic we sailed into an icy wasteland, with bleak skies shrouded in low cloud. It was bitterly cold. The scenery was hauntingly beautiful, eerily quiet but at the same time the harshest environment I'd ever seen.

All we could see of Mt Scott from the water was sheer cliffs rising into the mist.

Mt Scott from the Lemaire Channel (Simon Lucas)
Mt Scott from the Lemaire Channel (Simon Lucas)

For weeks we'd been prepared for our efforts to be thwarted by the wild polar weather, and this wasn't looking good.

Ship crew dropped us by inflatable boat at the steep, rocky shoreline under a layer of fog.

From the water the landing was incredibly intimidating. It was a sheer ice face broken by a few rocks at the water's edge.

The Akademik Ioffe crew drops the team at the shore (Dave Brosha)
The Akademik Ioffe crew drops the team at the shore (Dave Brosha)

Kev had joked about getting a "nice, easy landing" but he and other guide Sean had gone ashore to assess it and decided we'd put our boots on in the boat and immediately rope up to ascend the slippery rocks.

On a tiny ledge we strapped on crampons and I surveyed the slope above. There was no easy start. For the first 200m we were climbing a steep face that dropped to freezing water.

Beginning the ascent from the water (Bruce Patterson)
Beginning the ascent from the water (Bruce Patterson)

We arrived at more level terrain but it presented a different menace - it was riddled with crevasses. Some were just centimetres wide, but looking down into them you could see only blue, and then total darkness.

"Big step over it," coaxed guide Sean 'man mountain' Brooks.

At one point we were walking down a 2m-wide "ice bridge" with plunging cracks to either side. Keeping the rope taut in this terrain is crucial, so if anyone does fall they'll theoretically only go a short way.

Suddenly I'm yanked off my feet.

Simon, roped behind me, had fallen in up to his shoulders. The rope had done its job.

Crossing the ice bridge (Simon Lucas)
Crossing the ice bridge (Simon Lucas)

The whiteout was all encompassing. The only sound was the slow methodical crunch of our boots. I lost sense of time. "I hope you guys are good liars," Sean joked. Reaching the summit or even laying eyes on it looked doubtful.

A huge shadow loomed ahead and we walked into it, totally disorientated. The sound of an avalanche rumbled through the murk.

Then the shadow slowly eclipsed the sun, revealing a solid line that looked like it could be the edge of a mountaintop.

Mt Scott crept out of the haze and we realised we were a bit too close to the foot of the colossal ice cliffs and carefully moved away.

Then without warning the fog cleared and a vast valley opened around us. Fresh avalanches were visible 100m from our tracks. It was brilliantly sunny. We started up the gut of the gully into soft, beautiful snow and I daydreamed about skiing.

Looking up at Mt Scott, Sean and Kev decided the ascent looked impassable, so we started up a slightly higher but friendlier peak nearby.

But as we gained altitude and a better view of Mt Scott's highest peak, the guides identified a possible safe route to the summit.

A decision had to be made: Continue on our current path, bag a nice summit and be back on the ship in time for dinner. Or turn around and make for the summit of Mt Scott, risking the weather deteriorating, extending our expedition into the wee hours, which would potentially mean an overnight stay on the ice.

It was a no-brainer. We turned around.

A more serious mood descended on the team as we began the traverse across a steep face. Each footstep had to be made with focus and intent.

Then I plunged through the snow.

I'd deviated just a few centimetres from Sean's tracks, but it was enough to find a crevasse.

I went in up to my chest but my pack and the rope stopped me from falling further. I could see the floor of the crevasse about 8m below me as I scrambled out.

The incline gradually increased to 45-50 degrees and Kev free-climbed ahead and built an anchor to belay us safely up.

Guide Kevin Nicholas free climbs a steep section to build a snow anchor to belay the team (Simon Lucas)
Guide Kevin Nicholas free climbs a steep section to build a snow anchor to belay the team (Simon Lucas)

Over the final crest and the silhouettes of the others were backlit by a luminous sky. Tired, elated, I lifted my ice axe skyward and laughed in equal parts disbelief and euphoria as I stepped onto the apex.

We hug and whoop and drink in the vista that brought tears to the eyes of a veteran mountaineer.

Kev's climbed "a couple of hundy" mountains over 30 years, so we knew this was good.

But we're only halfway - it's 8pm and the light's fading, and we need to get back to the shore.

Looking back at Anvers Island from the summit of Mt Scott
Looking back at Anvers Island from the summit of Mt Scott (Isobel Ewing)
Starting the descent from the summit (Simon Lucas)
Starting the descent from the summit (Simon Lucas)

We start down as the surrounding peaks are transformed to resplendent pink and gold and Sean issues a stern reminder to focus on our footing. The tired descent - especially when distracted by marshmallow mountains - is the most treacherous part of the day.

Safely back in the valley we stopped for a bacon sandwich and admired the fiery sunset hovering above the cloud blanket.

When we entered the mist it was noticeably colder and looking up into the beam of my head torch I could see the water particles gliding through the air.

Navigating the glacier under cover of darkness and fog (Simon Lucas)
Navigating the glacier under cover of darkness and fog (Simon Lucas)

The crevasses are more sinister at night, monsters lurking just outside our torch beams, waiting for a wayward boot.

We retraced our steps to the gnarly ice bridge and Sean decides it's not safe to step across because Simon's fall had made its edge dangerously undercut. He begins to cut steps to the lip and build a snow anchor to get us across.

Struggling to keep my fingers warm, I realised how easy it is to become complacent when you're cold and tired. We were so close to the end and it would've been tempting to chance the unstable crevasse without an anchor.

But as Sean says: "You can't be lazy as a climber. If you're lazy, you die."

We returned to the shore and the dry bags containing our sleeping bags at 3am and cleared a small flat area on the otherwise rocky cliff.

There was only space for three people so Sylvie, William and I curled up with a bag of potato chips, a deliciously salty saviour after 18 hours of chocolate and sandwiches.

The guides made us hot chocolate.

Kev was really keen on a sleep but the only spot was a precarious ledge. He happily lay down, roped up to Sean.

Sean, Nigel and Simon heroically sat upright with one bag between them for the several hours until our pick up.

Light snow fell. A towering, phallic iceberg floated past.

"We're all going to get crushed by the giant penis," observed Kev as it neared the shore.

We woke to a lone crabeater seal lolling on an iceberg.

With a 72-hour window, we'd been faced with conditions that threatened to thwart our expedition entirely, high stakes decision-making, a climactic victory and an unplanned overnight stay in the frigid air.

It was a true adventure.

And despite contrary predictions from my dear teammates, my faithful 30-year-old duct-taped plastic boots remained intact.

The boots might retire their mountaineering career, but I certainly won't.     

From left: William Pike, Sylvie Admore, Simon Lucas, Isobel Ewing, AHT executive director Nigel Watson (Bruce Patterson)
From left: William Pike, Sylvie Admore, Simon Lucas, Isobel Ewing, AHT executive director Nigel Watson (Bruce Patterson)

                                                                              

Isobel Ewing travelled to Antarctica with the Antarctic Heritage Trust and One Ocean Expeditions.

Director of award-winning documentary Paddle for the North, Simon Lucas, was part of the Antarctic Heritage Trust's Inspiring Explorers' Expedition alongside Ewing, Sylvie Admore and William Pike. The video above is the teaser for the film he's making about the Mt Scott expedition.

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