Mt. Vinson: Day 1 (2007-01-19)
Patriot Hills, Antarctica
With Jenny on board, the big jet took to the air, and left our storm behind. It had also left about seventeen passengers behind, climbers mostly, who had been waiting in Punta ten days or so for their flight to Antarctica.
The new group moved to the dining tent for dinner and their briefing. There I met my climbing partners: John Bates of Knutsford, Cheshire, and Andrew Forbes of Cambridge. They are very personable and I look forward to climbing with them.
What I did not expect was that the climbers were invited to pitch their tents in the same area as mine, behind a long, low berm. Good bye, peace and quiet. I was invaded!
The spindrift was streaming powerfully through a gaping hole in my tent fly, like it came from a firehose.
Despite my chatty neighbors, at 3:30 am I drifted off to sleep.
It was all good fun, until I discovered that the strong wind had ripped the Velcro open at the top of my tent's windward door, and that the spindrift had partially melted on both sides of the Velcro and frozen. Repeatedly I tried scraping and melting it with my hands. But to no avail. The Velcro wouldn't close. That meant a gaping hole in my tent fly, through which the spindrift was streaming powerfully like it came from a firehose.
The inner tent door was still functional, so keeping my feet away from that end of the tent, I covered myself with the quilt, read for an hour, then at 3:30 am all seemed ok, so ignoring the terrific wind and my chatty neighbors, I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke at 7:00 am to find the wind gusting to 55 knots (official), and had half-filled the windward vestibule with spindrift. The leeward Velcro had failed also. This Velcro is a special feature of (x) brand of tents; buyer beware.
The wind is gusting to 55 knots (63 mph).
I sill have not figured this out, but now that I am a client of ANI, on the roster for Vinson, I'm officially invited to their meals. I showed up at breakfast and was warmly welcomed. I am also entitled to use one of their guest clamshell tents, with mattress and stand-up headroom, so Fran showed me to one of those. Ah, this is the life!
Lunch was a gourmet special with about a dozen entrees. I can't remember the last time I've eaten so well at lunch. I had two.
I spent the afternoon writing and dozing in my cozy clamshell, listening to the wind gusts coming through like freight trains. A few sounded extra powerful, but otherwise the official readings were 50 to 60 knots.
I spent the afternoon writing and dozing in my cozy clamshell, listening to the wind gusts coming through like freight trains.
Dinner was another excellent meal, and again I had two helpings (building my reserves).
Mt. Vinson: Day 2 (2007-01-20)
Today started out with a strange sound. Silence. The wind had calmed, or nearly so, and sky was mostly clear. Time to boogie!
After loading my pack I went to the dining tent and ate a bowl of cold cereal (times 2).
The vestibule was completely full and ram-packed with spindrift.
Before taking down my tent (with the failed Velcro), I unzipped the door of the windward fly, to find to my surprise that the vestibule was completely full and ram-packed with spindrift. Of course this had set up almost like concrete. It took me 15 minutes to dig it out, carefully, with the snow shovel. The brand is T.N.
It took me so long to take down my tent, chopping out the hard snow from the vestibule, that I almost missed my flight.
About to board the Otter. Photo by Andrew.
The first Otter took off for the pole. The second one was loaded with our gear, and after so many days of waiting, we were off.
The weather clears and we fly into Vinson base camp (6,900 ft / 2,100 m) in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains.
The one-hour flight was spectacular.
The one-hour flight followed the Ellsworth mountains and was spectacular. So was the landing. The plane threaded between peaks that towered far above us, and landed on a glacier covered with soft snow, on quite an incline. Welcome to Vinson base camp.
The twin otter lands at Vinson base camp.
A few groups of climbers were hanging around, waiting for their flight out. Patty brought us a small plastic sled each to carry our gear, then showed us to our tents. There were three of us and three tents.
The first group starts out from base camp. The summit of Vinson is peeking out in the center of the photo.
After sorting gear and having lunch, we decided to set off for Camp 1 right away. So we put on our climbing harnesses, clipped the sleds into the back loop, tied into the climbing rope at equally spaced intervals, and attached our prussic slings to it. In addition we each carried a backpack.
Patty is an employee of this particular company, and works as a guide. I did not need a guide, for heaven's sake, but without one, obtaining permission to climb the mountain would be well nigh impossible. So I had accepted the arrangement. Besides, I would no doubt learn much from her. She is a top notch mountain climber, and even summited Everest as part of a Chilean women's expedition.
Patty tied into the sharp end of the rope, and with us in tow, went charging ahead.
The route to Camp 1 was wanded and is normally easy. But last week's storm had deposited nearly a foot of powder. So our boots and sleds sunk in and made the going much more work.
I was allocated the second slot in line; Andrew was third and John was last. All went well for the first few steps.
Patty, whose English is limited, had instructed us to keep the rope "tight" between us. (!) Andrew, whose climbing experience is limited, took that literally. So what ensued was a tug-of-war with me in the middle. Adding to that, every few minutes Andrew accidentally stepped on one of his prussic slings and yanked me instantly backward.
At our second rest stop I explained the procedure. Move the prussic sling out of the way, and let the rope touch the ground five feet ahead. At that point, with no more pulling or yanking, I was free. And Andrew became as strong as the rest of us. We flew.
Good weather on the Branscomb Glacier. I take my gloves off for the rest, and my lightweight face mask off for the photo. Photo Patty.
We climbed for 6 hours 20 minutes to Camp 1. Roped glacier travel all the way. The route was steep in places and laced with crevasses. Some were quite close, and we could see into a few. Not yawing but just small, head-sized, black and blue holes. Also fresh and deep powder (6 to 12"). The scenery was fantastic with jagged peaks all around. The mountains are beautiful and very spectacular! I'm feeling strong and energetic. Is this fun or what? Yeahbaby!!
We climbed for 6 hours, amid jagged peaks all around.
Visible on the horizon: the Antarctic icecap. Andrew and John following.
Mount Shinn with a summit high-wind lenticular. It's the third highest peak in Antarctica.
Taking a rest at the "Camp One-Half" location.
Patty in the lead. The route is wanded and we must be careful of the many bridged crevasses.
Pulling over a steep rise.
Marty's group ahead.
Photo by Andrew.
I'm carrying the same backpack as we used for a container at the Mt. Thiels resupply. (Link). This backpack I have carried on three thru-hikes (PCT, PCT, CDT).
We set up camp and ate dinner at midnight. A long day. I wanted to push on tomorrow, but I'm out-voted, so it looks like we'll take a rest day.
Mt. Vinson: Day 3 (2007-01-21)
Camp 1 at 8,800ft / 2,700m.
This morning I awoke to a strange sound too. Snowflakes softly falling on my tent. I went back to sleep, and it wasn't until 11:30 am that anyone stirred.
We are taking a rest day here at Camp 1. I have my own 2-person tent, extra large size, supplied by the company, so I have lots of room to spread out. The wind is still, and my solar charger is tied to the roof. The sky has partly cleared, and the weather has turned warm, especially in the tent.
Rest day, and I have my solar panel tied to the outside of the tent, for powering the PDA.
Photo by John.
During our rest day at Camp 1, Marty's group sets off for Camp 2.
A white out settles into the area.
I was allocated this two-person tent and a foam pad.
Another group arrived in Camp 1. Skiing in a white out would be extremely dangerous in this type of terrain. The bottomless crevasses are everywhere, and in a white out, they are not visible, even at close range. But these guys are following our tracks, and they know, by our radio updates, that we didn't encounter any crevasses, at least not right on our route. We saw them, but didn't have to step over any. So these guys are fine. Especially since the leader, the renowned Vern Tejas, had been here just the week before.
In the afternoon, the white out has cleared.
I walked over to where the new group was setting up camp, and asked the obvious leader if he was Vern. He was. I hadn't seen him in fifteen years, or so, and unlike before, he was clean cut, so I didn't recognize him. I didn't say my name right away, but asked if he remembered a guy and his wife paddling through Kaktovik. His eyes lit up. "You must be Ray!" Like long-lost friends, which we were, we had a grand reunion, with a big hug and much hand shaking. He told his clients that he had bought Jenny and me lunch in Kaktovik, while Jenny and I were sea-kayaking the northern coast of Alaska. Even further back in time, in the early 80's, he also remembered me giving him a ride in Yosemite. A while later, Vern came over to my camp and we enjoyed a long talk. I think my camp mates were duly impressed, seeing such a famous climber being buddy-buddy with me. It was a fun afternoon, and I hope to catch up with Vern later in PH.
Patty cooked the meals, but almost everything was freeze-dried. I had eaten freeze-dried for two summers at the start of my Outward Bound career, and got burned out on that type of food. I tried eating one of Patty's dinners, and it made me rather ill. That was enough for me; so I didn't join the group for meals after that.
During our layover day, another group amuses themselves by making an easy chair, tv, and a remote. The guy standing behind John is the group's guide, Dave Pritt of Adventure Peaks. I would get to know Dave better during my next fun trip (NFT) to Aconcagua.
Mt. Vinson: Day 4 (2007-01-22)
Andrew looking good, but standing on the climbing rope wearing crampons, which is a common mistake for beginners. No harm done, after we inspected that part of the rope for damage. I enjoyed climbing with Andrew and John, and think they did a fantastic job.
John about to set off for Camp 2.
We climbed for 9.5 hours from Camp 1 (2781m), over the headwall which is the crux of the climb. As we climbed up into the cwm and had our first look at the headwall, it looked very imposing. It's steep snow at 45 to 55 degrees, with hanging seracs on both sides. It took us several hours to climb it, and we used maybe a dozen pickets for protection.
Approaching the headwall. We have left our sleds in Camp 1, and are now carrying large and heavily loaded backpacks.
Photo by Andrew
Vern Tejas starting up the headwall
On the headwall (photo is tipped, as shot, but it does show the background rock).
Near white out conditions on the headwall. Photo by Andrew.
Once above the headwall, the route climbs a steep crevasse field, and we stepped over many open crevasses.
One crevasse was a mind blower, at least for me. The guides would not allow anyone to stop in this area, because of the danger of a snow bridge collapsing. And Patty kept tension on the rope, so I could not pause when coming to this mind blowing crevasse. I had to just step over it. And while stepping over it, I looked down into this gaping black hole, and saw how thin the edge was. This might be the crevasse that someone fell into, a few weeks ago, and got badly frostbitten before he was pulled back out. Subsequently his thumb had to be amputated. But very curiously, that evening we were discussing the day's events, and no one recalled stepping over a mind blowing crevasse. Not even close, they all confirmed. I do not think, for a moment, that I was off route. There was only one track, and I was following it, like everyone else. So that crevasse is still, even today, a mystery.
Camp 2 at 12,100ft /3,700m. We're camped under a bunch of apartment-sized blocks, but for the moment they look ok.
We were all very tired when reaching Camp 2, but we had to spend another hour digging a platform for the two tents.
Vern and his group establish camp nearby.
Mt. Shinn sits on the other side of the col, opposite Mt. Vinson. Many parties have climbed both on the same trip. The route is to the left of the seracs, off the photo (see the following photo).
The route to Mt. Shinn goes up here. The gaping hole is what we just came up. The approaching storm would pin us down for the next two days.
Mt. Vinson: Day 4 (2007-01-23)
We're at Camp 2 ("High Camp", 3718m) waiting for the weather to clear before making our bid for the summit. It's been snowing all last night and today.
I'm sharing a tent with John, while Andrew is sharing a tent with Patty. We were cooped up like this for two days. But at one point, Vern came around and invited everyone for tea. Vern's tent was a huge tepee with a single pole. The living space was mostly underground. The shelter was very roomy, would have been very light to carry. There were half-a-dozen people in there during my visit.
Mt. Vinson: Day 5 (2007-01-24)
We (John, Andrew, Patty, and I, and a few other groups) were still stuck at Camp 2 in a massive storm. The storm dumped a foot of snow on the mountains, and was lashing us with strong winds from the west, and a continuous white out. The temperature was -15C. Visibility is less than 100'.
My ski poles, ice axe and crampons. Photo by John.
Update: This evening the storm began to let up. Now we have some blue sky and not much wind, but very cold temperatures. So we are keeping our fingers crossed for tomorrow.
Mt. Vinson: Day 6 (2007-01-25)
Today the weather was beginning to clear, and was the first time that we could even see the campsite. I was surprised that the campsite was so sloped down toward the headwall. Don't drop anything!
The slope above camp was heavily crevassed with house-sized blocks embedded in it. The wanded route climbed the steep slope to the right. The wind had blown most of the fresh snow away, and we used our crampons to climb the wind-hardened surface. After 200 feet of that, the angle eased a bit, but the route was somewhat steep all the way.
After the first hour we could see the summit, and as we climbed higher, and higher still, we kept the summit in view nearly all day.
The summit of Vinson is in sight, but still a long ways off, and still thousands of feet above us.
We climbed with an ice axe in one hand, for safety, and a ski pole in the other hand for balance. We each carried a backpack with food, water, and extra warm clothes.
Looking back at John and Mt. Shinn.
The summit is getting closer, and our group is slowly overtaking another group. It felt very odd to be passing a string of climbers, but at least we got to exchange a few words with each one. One of the guys surprised us with the news that he had only one lung. No wonder we were passing him, but still a remarkable achievement. It reminded me once again that a person should never give up and quit living just because of a handicap.
Our first sit-down rest of the day, on a less sloped spot. Vern comes trucking past.
Above our rest point, the slope was much steeper, and mostly wind-slab in which the crampon points were our only purchase, or semi-hard snow in which our crampons sunk in only a half inch or so. The route was also very exposed in many places. Meaning: don't fall!
Finally, after many long hours, we reached the summit ridge. There we left our backpacks anchored to pickets to keep them from blowing away in the now strong wind. And we left our rope too, because it might have dragged all four of us off the ridge if one person fell. We ate a quick snack and drank some water, and I put on my jacket because it was very cold up here.
Andrew resting at the base of the summit ridge. Photo by John.
We reach the Summit Ridge, unrope and take our packs off. Photo: John.
John and Andrew went on ahead, fourth classing up the ridge on steep snow and ice, with a bit of easy rock climbing. I wasn't quite so inspirited, so Patty held back and climbed with me. All of us had to be very careful not to let the stiff wind blow us off; the ridge dropped off very steeply on both sides. Not for the faint of heart!
Andrew on the summit. Photo by John.
Patty, Ray and Andrew on the summit of Mount Vinson. Photo by John.
On the summit. Photo by Patty. Eighteen inches away was a summit cornice that appeared unstable. Plus, the wind was blowing 50 knots from the east, and we were unroped. With or without a rope, should the snow collapse, a fall down the west face would likely have been very serious. That is why we did not rope up for the summit ridge. A fall by one might have pulled off other members of the party.
John and Andrew have begun their descent from the summit. Patty and I are about to get there.
John and Andrew were just about to come down when Patty and I reached the summit. We could not stand on the actual top because the fierce wind would have made that extremely dangerous. So we took each other's picture standing about 18 inches below the summit knob. Patty also called base camp to let them know of our success.
Back along the ridge, we met other climbers going up; they congratulated us, and we wished them luck. Reaching the backpacks, we roped back in and began the long, 4,000' descent.
On the descent of the Summit Ridge, Patty wanted to stop and take a photo of her standing just here.
And she took one of me.
Photo by John.
On the slope below the Summit Ridge. Photo by John.
Photo by John.
On the descent of the mountain, with John in the lead. We have stopped to take a short rest, and John has turned around to face us. This is a good view of Mount Shinn, showing the climbing route. Also we can see Mount Tyree, with its wind blown summit. Mt. Tyree is the second highest mountain in Antarctica, and is only 170 feet lower than Vinson. Unlike Mt. Shinn, Mt. Tyree is inaccessible and so difficult that it has seen very few ascents.
Resting on the descent. Photo by Andrew.
It had been a great day with good weather and fantastic scenery. We returned to Camp 2 in 10.5 hours total.
We have returned to the col and camp 2. Vern's tent is the tepee.
Patty and her tent next to mine (lower left corner).
In the tent at Camp 2, after a long and fun day. Photo John.
Mt. Vinson: Day 7 (2007-01-26)
We started at 10 am and climbed down from Camp 2, over the steep headwall, which took a few hours, and down to Camp 1. The going was slow below the headwall due to the deep powder. At Camp 1 we rested, ate a few bites, and set off again.
After spending the night at Camp 2, the next day we have descended to Camp 1. Another party heads out, dwarfed by the mountains. The tepee tent belongs to Dave Pritt, who got the idea from Vern.
Camp 1. The Antarctic climbing season is coming to a close, so Patty must break her camps and with our help and one other guide, carry the tents and everything down to base camp.
Descending to base camp, looking back at Andrew and Patty behind me.
Late afternoon we reached Vinson base camp. That same day we climbed aboard the Twin Otter and were flown to Patriot Hills.
Reaching Vinson base camp, Dave, the camp manager invites us into his hut for a nice dinner. And to everyone's surprise, we were told to get ready for the flight back to Patriot Hills, because the Twin Otter is on its way to pick us up.
In perfect weather the Twin Otter makes its final approach to Vinson base camp.
Twin Otter at Vinson base camp.
Back at Patriot Hills: John Bates, Andrew Forbes, and Patty Soto. I would like to thank my three excellent rope-mates for making this such a fine climb, and for supplying photos for this story.