The landscape is composed of ice and snow for as far as your eyes can see. Located in the middle of the isolated continent of Antarctica, Vinson Massif one of the most interesting climbs of all the Seven Summits.
Climbing to the summit of Vinson Massif (4897m, 16067 Ft) is an achievement both in mountaineering and logistics. Simply getting there involves risky flights over isolated wilderness. The flight to get to Antarctica was an adventure on its own. We left Punta Arenas, at the tip of Chile, on an old Soviet Ilyushin Il-76 plane. These planes were designed to land on all types of rough terrain in the Siberian wilderness. Loaded with 60 people and all our gear, we took off on a 4 ½ flight to the Antarctic. The inside of the plane has open cargo in the back and economy seating in the front. The planes are the epitome of ‘no-frills’. It was not the most comfortable flight, but excitement was high, so the lack of luxury didn’t bother anyone.
The Ilyushin flew over the Drake Passage and then the Antarctic Circle before arriving at Union Glacier located in the remote Ellsworth Mountains on Antarctica. It landed on the natural blue-ice runway with ease but walking from the plane to the ‘airport’ was treacherous over the exposed ice. Union Glacier Airport and camp is run by ALE (Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions LLC) who also fly the Ilyushins. Union Glacier is unlike anywhere else in the world set amidst stunning remote glacier and mountain landscapes. This permanent camp is open from November until the end of January. It was built to provide services for Vinson Massif climbers, emperor penguin tourists and South Pole ski expeditions and replaces the previous Patriot Hills Station. ALE provides a large dining tent with an attached kitchen; toilets and personal tents for up to 70 people. It’s a little village in one of the most remote corners of the world.
Antarctica has pristine wilderness and all the expedition companies are vigilant about keeping it that way. In Union Glacier, all garbage, urine and feces are collected and flown to Punta Arenas, Chile where it is disposed. At our mountain camps we were each given a few biodegradable bags which we had to use as our toilets. We brought these bags with us to each camp and were not allowed to empty them. We had to return our full, used ones to Union Glacier at the end of our trip where they are then flown to Chile.
After a great meal and a good sleep on the glacier, we were off the next morning for our second flight. This one to Vinson Base Camp on the Branscomb Glacier. We flew with Kenn Borek Air who are from my hometown, Calgary, Alberta. The pilot was from Canmore, AB which is only an hour away from our house. A little bit of home in the middle of nowhere. The Twin Otter planes are flown to Antarctica from Calgary every fall. It takes up to 2 weeks to make the journey. Today our 35-minute flight took us across the frozen landscape of the Antarctic’s interior. The views from the plane were amazing. We were looking down on stark white glaciers with the rocky peaks of the Ellsworth mountains proving the only contrast to the vast whiteness.
The scenery from basecamp is even more impressive than from Union Glacier. Branscomb Glacier is a gorgeous white sheet edged with the massive peaks of the Sentinel Range. Behind camp is a steep slope, covered in bergschrunds. At the top of its ridge we could see the peak of majestic Mount Vinson. After setting up our tents at basecamp we were able to walk around and explore our incredible surroundings. It’s a photographer’s dream with brightly coloured tents contrasting the white snow that surrounds us.
Vinson Base Camp to Low Camp
Gain – 650m (2150ft); Distance – 9km (5.5 miles)
The climb to Vinson Massif can only be done during summer (November to January) when the temperatures are more moderate averaging -20°C. During the summer there is 24 hours of sunlight. The sun is always on the horizon, either on our side of the mountains, or hidden behind them. Although the sun doesn’t set, there’s a dramatic change in temperature when it goes behind the mountains. The temperature can drop by at least 10°C as soon as the sun disappears, so we would stay in our tents to keep warm.
By mid-morning the next day, the sun came out from behind the mountains bringing warmth to the air. Finally, after breakfast, we got ready for our first hike. Roped together, we trekked across the crevassed Branscomb Glacier to Low Camp where we left a cache. Everyone carried personal items that they wouldn’t need until higher up the mountain. Half of the climbers were asked to pull sleds that were loaded with camp gear. I was one of them. There’s 650m of elevation gain to reach Low Camp (2750m, 9000 ft.), mostly over gentle glacier covered slopes and up long valleys. It was foggy when we left basecamp, so we didn’t think we’d have much to see, but soon, the sun burned through and we had the most beautiful mountains scenery to enjoy. The Ellsworth Mountains are spectacular rugged peaks, rising high out of the pure white glacier. It was a great preview for the upcoming days.
From Low Camp we had our first view of the pointed peak of Mount Shin. Loaded with gear, our first trek to Low Camp, took 5hr 10 min, and only 2 hr 30 min to return to basecamp.
The next day, by mid-morning when the sun was shining on us, we packed up basecamp and headed again to Low Camp. We left 2 tents at basecamp in case of an emergency. This second hike to Low Camp was much faster taking only 4 ½ hrs. When we arrived, we all pitched in to set up the tents and had a rest before our guides made a great meal. The nights were bright as the sun didn’t set, but it was also cold since we were in the shade. Overnight temperatures were below -30°C.
Low Camp to High Camp
Gain – 1020m (3,350 ft.)
The next morning, we arose around 10:30 and prepared to carry a cache up to High Camp (3,770m, 12,400 ft). The hike begins as an easy 45 min walk to reach the fixed ropes at a spur of Branscomb Ridge. From there, the real work begins. There is 1200m of fixed rope going up the 700m vertical ascent. It’s a very steep slope, between 40 and 45 degrees. I was again carrying extra camp gear for High Camp.
Dave Hahn, the head guide, has a rule that the expedition team must hike together, at the same pace for 1 hour and break for 15 min every hour. Our team was divided into 2 groups which were roped together and had one guide per group. In this cold climate, it’s important not to sweat, so the group pace was painstakingly slow, much slower than we usually hike. During the 15 min rest breaks everyone had to don their warm down jackets to protect them from the biting cold. It’s a much different way to hike than we’re normally accustomed to, but in this environment, safety must be the priority. Luckily for us, the snow conditions were good. The snow was hard packed making it easier to walk on with crampons. Some days, the snow can vary from soft, deep snow to wind-blown ice. Traversing with these conditions is much more difficult.
We used our ascenders and climbed the steep slope one at a time. Ascenders allow you to use the fixed ropes as leverage in addition to keeping you safe. From the top of the fixed ropes it’s a gentler climb to High Camp. It took 6 ½ hrs. to get to HC and 2 hrs. to get down by rappelling down the fixed ropes. As we were descending, it started to snow, and the temperature dropped considerably. Visibility was very poor, so it was a good to reach camp and get into our warm sleeping bags.
The day after our cache climb to High Camp, we had a rest day at Low Camp. We had planned to explore the area, but the weather continued to be fierce, so we had to stay close to camp. We were entertained by our guide Dave Hahn. He’s a very experienced mountain guide with a talent for storytelling. He told us stories of getting snowed in for days at a time at Patriot Hills. It was the base station before Union Glacier was established. It is known for heavy storms preventing planes from taking off or landing for weeks at a time. One year Dave was stranded in Patriot Hills Camp with a group who had paid thousands of dollars to see the emperor penguins. The penguins live on a remote part of Antarctica and it’s an expensive trip to visit them. The tourists had specifically booked this time of year as it was when new penguin chicks would be born. After a few days being stranded, the stressed-out tourists thought they’d miss their opportunity, and one non-English speaking tourist kept crying. ‘I’ll miss the chicks on feet, chicks on feet!’. An interesting way to describe how infant penguins are carried around on their parent’s feet. Another great story was when he was returning to the US after working for a season as a ski guide responsible for avalanche control in Fernie, BC, Canada. He was held at the US border because he had TNT dust on his hands from bombing avalanches.
After an evening of stories, the next day, the weather improved so we moved up to High Camp. It was half an hour faster than our cache trip. When we arrived at the fixed ropes, we met a group of German climbers who were on their way down. They had summited the day before. The news energized us all at our prospects for our summit attempt. We had fewer tents at High Camp, so we had to share 3 to a tent instead of 2. In my tent we slept head to toe, which given that we hadn’t showered in days, may not have been the best idea.
High Camp to Vinson Summit
Gain 1,120m (3,670 ft.)
Finally, it was summit day! We woke at 7 am and began trekking by 9 am. The day began quite pleasant with only one cloud in the sky. Quickly though, it changed as the clouds seemed to roll in from every direction. Visibility became very poor, and the strong winds brought the temperature down even lower. We were divided into two teams on two separate ropes and headed toward the summit. After 5 hours, one climber was exhausted, having to stop every few minutes to rest. The guides carried her gear and tried to teach her how to breathe more efficiently, but eventually it was decided that she couldn’t continue. Unfortunately, this meant that they entire group had to turn around. We grudgingly returned to High Camp with the full force of the wind blowing straight into our faces. It was so strong, that we had to wear ski goggles and face masks. Thankfully after 2 hours we were back in our warm sleeping bags at High Camp.
The next morning, we had the same routine, but the weak climber was forced to stay behind so that the rest of us would have a better chance to summit. The weather was better today, so maybe in the long run, it worked out. The climb is a steady uphill ascent, not steep enough for fixed ropes. Luckily, we had hard packed snow so travelling on our crampons was easy. There were a few clouds, but visibility was quite good, and the wind was calm. On the climb we were able to enjoy the amazing views of the Ellsworth mountains. The low sun caused them to cast interesting, long shadows. Finally, we began to have glimpses of the impressive Vinson Massif and its rocky summit ridge. As we neared closer, the summit was in view. After 7 hours of climbing, we were standing on the summit of Vinson Massif (4897m, 16,067 ft). Another step further to completing the Seven Summits. It was 5:20pm local time (Chile time). The view from the summit is indescribable. As far as you can see, the land is covered in ice and snow. Nowhere in the Canadian Rockies had I seen such an expanse of beautiful whiteness. There wasn’t a tree or bush in sight. We could see the peaks of Mount Gardner, Tyree, Epperly, and Shinn, rising out of the vast icy land below. After 60 minutes on the summit, taking pictures and having a snack we started back down to High Camp.
The next day we had a rest day and the climber we left behind was able have a chance at summiting. Our guides took her on a private climb, and she was able to summit as well. The following day we woke to a brisk -35°C for our descent to basecamp. By the time we reached the fixed ropes below High Camp, the sun came out and it had warmed a lot. Part way down the rappel, I was very hot and sweaty, and my glasses were fogging up. I wanted to remove some layers of clothes and clean my glasses, but I was afraid if I dropped anything, it was tumble all the way to the bottom, 700 m below, and be lost forever. We had a quick stop at Low Camp to pack up the camp and personal gear we left behind, and then headed all the way to Base Camp. It only took 6 hours to get down to Base Camp from High Camp. After a successful climb in the harsh Antarctic weather, we were very happy to see the Twin Otters from Kenn Borek Air waiting for us at basecamp! This time the pilot was from my hometown, Calgary, Alberta.
The flight back to Union Glacier was spectacular. We had an amazing view of the mighty Vinson Massif’s summit, where we had just been the day before. The plane flew low, over the white landscape coming only 10 feet above the ground at one of the mountain passes. It was like being inside a large drone.
After our celebration meal at Union Glacier, Dave Hahn gave us a presentation on his and Conrad Anker’s discovery of George Mallory’s body on the Tibetan side of Mount Everest. It was an epic expedition that culminated in finding Mallory’s body well below the summit. Dave doesn’t believe that Mallory would have been able to scale the last section of Everest with the equipment and climbing skills of the day. Dave doesn’t think he summited, but Maggie and I still like to believe he made it.
To read other Seven Summit adventures click on the link: Carstenz Pyramid
Coming up next: Cruising the Galapagos
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To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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