Vinson Massif

The Pristine Peak

2004-12-26

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  • Sentinel Range - Antarctica
  • 4,897 m / 16,023 ft
  • S 78o 31’ W 85o 37’
  • Expedition length: 12 days
  • Summit: December 26, 2004

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While devising a plan for the Bank Audi Seven Summits project, I knew that, at some point, I’d be travelling to Antarctica. There, I would climb Vinson Massif, the highest mountain of our planet’s southernmost continent, and then, having already skied to the North Pole, take the opportunity to reach the South Pole in the same way. Well, as anyone who knows me will con rm, when I get an idea in my head, there’s no letting it go.

Within eight months of my Arctic adventure, I was standing on the world’s highest, coldest, wind- iest continent, where temperatures range from mi- nus 40 °C down to minus 70 °C in the winter and a relatively mild minus 15 °C to minus 35 °C in the summer. Although some valleys haven’t seen pre- cipitation for millions of years, about 98 percent of the surface area is covered by an ice sheet that ranges between 1.6 and 4.7 kilometres in thick- ness, accounting for 90 percent of the world’s ice and between 60 and 70 percent of its fresh water reserves.

Antarctica is a continent without a government or any real ownership. All it has is a multi-nation treaty that supports scienti c research and pro- tection of the local environment, while banning military activity and the mining of raw minerals. In this land of total darkness during the winter months, there are no permanent human residents and no plants, just penguins and fur seals that pay a visit to Antarctica’s coastline during the sum- mer months to reproduce there in colonies. Indeed, aside from the ever-present Emperor Penguin, there

is no life whatsoever on this, the world’s forgotten continent, not even at bacterial level, since no living organism can survive its extreme onshore tempera- tures. On July 21, 1983 the Soviet station, Vostok, located near the Geomagnetic Pole, logged a record- breaking low of minus 89.2 °C. This place adds a new dimension to all other concepts or experiences of extreme cold.

Vinson Massif, situated within the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, was named in honour of the Democratic Georgia Congressman, Carl G. Vinson, a major supporter of American Antarctic exploration. At 21 kilometres long and 13 kilometres wide, the massif isn’t an overly technical climb, but it does present some major challenges, due to the aforementioned freezing conditions, as well as the huge amount of logistics involved in organizing an expedition in such a remote, uninhabited and hostile part of the world. Still, there are, fortunately, a few companies that operate specialised ights from the mainland, in my case, between Punta Arenas in Chile – one of the Earth’s southernmost cities – and Antarctica’s Patriot Hills Camp.

The camp, situated some 2,900 kilometres from the nearest city and, therefore, well out of reach of emergency rescue services, is only utilised between November and January, and its location was de- termined by the nearby Patriot Hills. These moun- tains are oriented in such a way that they channel winds downhill towards a long, at strip that is consequently devoid of snow accumulation and, therefore, adequately suited to landing the large aircraft that are capable of transporting supplies, goods and fuel to Antarctica. At 2,500 metres long, this ‘Blue Ice Runway’ is used by a massive, noisy, fuel-guzzling, Russian-built airplane that’s known as the Ilyushin-76. A nearby, much shorter and dif- ferently oriented snow runway serves the 20-pas- senger DCH-6 Twin Otter ski planes that transport mostly people to and from the Base Camp of Vinson Massif, located on the Branscomb Glacier, as well as to other Antarctic destinations. These include the South Pole, that is located just over 1,200 kilo- metres away, at the very bottom of our planet.

The fact that there was no turkey meal, presents or even darkness at this late hour hardly lent itself to a festive at- mosphere, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t have a good time.

Having booked the trip through my good friend Mike Sharp, the Operations Manager of the Salt Lake City, Utah based company, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), I arrived in Punta Arenas on Friday, December 17, 2004, a day after ‘celebrating’ my 43rd birthday in the air somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean. Then, following a few days spent organising gear and hanging out with a group of seven American climbers led by Christine Boskoff, the owner of the expedition out t Mountain Mad- ness, I was among the apprehensive, yet ultimately, impressed group of passengers who arrived in Pa- triot Hills aboard the Ilyushin.

From there, while snowmobiles transported our bags, we shuf ed on foot along ice and snow for about 200 metres to the camp, where I shared a luxury tent – featuring three proper beds, a chair and a bedside table – with two Austrians named Geri and Theo. In the adjacent mess tent, I also

met a cheerful Scots lass named Heather, who was one of our guides, Werner, a Canada-based native of South Africa, and Hashimoto from Japan who, like Theo, only needed to ascend Vinson and Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid to complete the Seven Summits.

Later that night, all six of us took the Twin Otter ight to Base Camp, where we were greeted by Heather’s equally Scottish co-guide, Neil. After lunch the following day, we went for an acclimatisation hike and did what we believe to be a ‘ rst ascent’ of a nearby hill that boasted a knife- edge ridge and a beautiful summit view of the 64 kilometre-long Nimitz Glacier to the west of Vinson Massif, as well as several distant peaks.

Hampered by a right shoulder that was injured by the weight of my oversized backpack, I chose to drag all my belongings in a sled when we set off for Camp I on the morning of December 23. We had been split into two rope teams, comprising Theo and Geri, led by Heather, and Werner, Hashimoto and me headed by Neil. It took us close to ve hours to advance 1.9 kilometres and ascend 800 metres, and along the way, I took plenty of photos of the world’s largest desert, a frozen wonderland of snow and ice that stretches as far as the eye can see. It is, quite simply, a stunning vista of clean, bright white austerity.


Even though this was Antarctica, it was a beautiful day that occasionally necessitated us peeling off layers of clothes that then had to be carried. Yet, once we were inside our Camp I tents and the sun had disappeared behind the mountain, the outdoor temperature plummeted to around minus 25 °C, while Hashimoto measured a slightly balmier mi- nus 18 °C inside our tent.

Christmas Eve was basically a rest day, during which we went for a short hike. After the Mountain Madness team returned exhausted from a cache to High Camp at around 11:00 pm, I wished everyone a Merry Christmas as we all partied inside the mess tent. Okay, so the fact that there was no turkey meal, presents or even darkness at this late hour hardly lent itself to a festive atmosphere, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t have a good time. For one thing, there was plenty of snow around – de nitely a white Christmas – and then there was my good friend Vernon Tejas of Alpine Ascents, who treated us to a wonderful rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’ on his harmonica, while dressed in a red eece out t and a Santa Claus hat.

It was so cold – de nitely lower than minus 30 ̊C, and worse still with the wind chill factor – that my feet and hands felt as if they’d been stuck in a deep freeze as I once more anchored a rope.

At an elevation of some 3,800 metres, High Camp is located on a broad col – the low point of a ridge – that forms a pass between the Massif and Mount Shinn, Antarctica’s third highest mountain after Mount Tyree. By 2:00 in the afternoon of Christmas Day, we were on our way there, ascending a steep headwall without xed ropes.

Again resting my injured shoulder by strapping my backpack to a sled and dragging it behind me, I had little choice but to anchor the sled at the bottom of the headwall and carry my heavy pack up from there. Fortunately, this turned out to be

nowhere near as long or as dif cult as I’d expected – certainly, nothing like the shorter but steeper icefall from Camp I to Camp II on Gasherbrum I. I attributed this to the much lower altitude. Neil was leading our rope, followed by Hashimoto, then Werner, with me serving as anchorman. We had to slow the pace considerably when 67 year old Werner – the oldest climber on Vinson that year – displayed signs of fatigue towards the end of the headwall. We then had to navigate our way around some very deep crevasses on a atter section at the top, while Neil reminded us about a climber suffering a fatal slip there a couple of weeks earlier.

December 26 was a rest day, during which Neil and Heather took time off to try to climb Mount Shinn and the rest of us stayed in our tents, prepar- ing for the big day ahead. I, meanwhile, tried but failed to make phone contact with the family. After a night of howling Antarctic winds – more than we’d experienced during the entire time we had been on the mountain – we departed High Camp at 10:00 am on the 27th for the 4.8-kilometre traverse and 1,100-metre ascent to the summit. It was so cold – de nitely lower than minus 30 °C, and worse still with the wind chill factor – that my feet and hands felt as if they’d been stuck in a deep freeze as I once more anchored a rope behind Neil, Werner and Hashimoto. “What do you think of this weather?” I asked Heather, pointing my camcorder at her when she pulled up alongside me while leading Geri and Theo. “Aaaargh, there must be easier ways of mak- ing a living, Max!” was her reply, as she fought the biting easterly wind.

That morning, we got a rst-hand taste of Ant- arctica’s unrelenting wind, and we wondered if the conditions might deteriorate as we watched clouds form above us while traversing the long, upward- sloping plateau. By now, Geri was nding it really dif cult to cope with the pace, so Heather told Theo to hop on our rope, leaving her and Geri on their own to adopt a slower pace more suited to Geri’s liking. All ve of us on our rope proceeded steadily amid uctuating wind speeds, stopping brie y ev- ery 90 minutes or so for a snack and a hot drink.

After about four hours, we commenced the nal stage of the climb, now within sight of the small pole that marks the summit of Antarctica – the reason I’d chosen to be in this, the remotest place on Earth. Feeling really strong and t, I kept striding all the way to the summit ridge, where we spent half an hour taking in the spectacular view of glaciers, mountain ranges and rocky peaks down below, as well as far away into the distance.

So distinct was this stretch of white against the backdrop of a blue horizon that we could actually see the Earth’s curvature, even from such a modest altitude.

As we all stood there, taking pictures and shooting video, I was sure that, to date, the summit of Vinson was the prettiest I had experienced, with air so pristine that I could see as far as my eyes would allow. In fact, what looked like a blanket of clouds down below was the ice sheet that covers the great majority of the continent, with only the tips of mountains protruding. So distinct was this stretch of white against the backdrop of a blue horizon that we could actually see the Earth’s curvature, even from such a modest altitude.

Eventually, Heather and Geri showed up, and we stayed with them for another half an hour before heading back down, tired but happy after our trou- ble-free success. A short while later, Neil received a call on the VHF from Heather, asking us to wait for her and Geri, who was showing signs of extreme fatigue and, possibly, altitude sickness. A diabetic who had gone blind for two weeks, prior to discov- ering his illness, Geri had just thrown up and was now moving at a snail’s pace. Neil handed me the VHF and asked me to guide our team from the rear, while he went to help Heather take care of Geri and lead him safely back to High Camp. Werner, Hashimoto and I headed down together while Theo – himself a UIAGM-certi ed guide – opted to go it alone, and once we were all at High Camp, I tried to take care of Geri, my suffering tent-mate, as he continued to vomit throughout the night.

The next day’s descent to Camp I proceeded without a hitch, as did our December 29 return to Base Camp, even though by then it was actually snowing. At least this made for some fun, skiing on a nearby hill during a relaxation period, before we flew back to Patriot Hills on New Year’s Day, 2005. There, I met Margo, my soon-to- be guide for the ‘last degree’ skiing expedition to the South Pole. An ice climber from Vancouver, Canada, with extensive experience in cold, outdoor environments, Margo had never skied while towing a pulk along, let alone guided the ‘last degree’, and so she seemed as excited as I was about our forthcoming adventure. Without a doubt, it would be yet another step into unknown territory.