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A Winter Ascent on Aconcagua

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Monday, December 27, 1999
"The best Christmas present for everybody, however, was the 11:30pm Christmas evening arrival of the C-130 Hercules from Punta Arenas. By 12:40, we're all airborne and we're flying towards home finally...."
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The Cybercast follows lead guide Willi Prittie and the 1999 Alpine Ascents International expedition on an attempt to climb 16,076' Mount Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica.

The Mountain
What separates Vinson from all other peaks is the sheer isolation of the mountain and the extraordinary views from its summit. As climbers approach the top of this remote continent, they peer across thousands of square miles of ice caps and glaciers which then fade into a distinctly curved horizon. From the summit, they view neighboring mountains Shinn (15,311') and Gardner (15,049') and a multitude of other unexplored peaks.

The recent allure of summiting the highest point on each continent has brought a great many climbers to the seven summits. Yet, even with this surge of popularity, Vinson has had less than 400 people stand atop its pyramid. However, the praises of the climb and its nearby surroundings have quickly spread throughout the mountaineering community. The climb uses multiple methods of transportation including a Hercules C-130 transport plane and the much smaller ski-equipped Twin Otter. Those wishing to embark on this unique journey, should possess prior skiing and climbing skills and be prepared for harsh conditions including extreme cold and, at times, ferocious winds.

Mount Vinson (16,076ft, 4897m), located 600 miles from the South Pole and 1200 miles from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is the highest peak on the Antarctic continent. Vinson is a part of the Ellsworth Mountains, which rise majestically from the Ronne Ice Shelf. The climate on Vinson is generally controlled by the polar ice cap's high-pressure system, creating predominantly stable, cold, windless conditions. But, as in any arctic climate, high winds and snowfall are always a possibility. During the summer season, November through January, there is 24 hours of sunlight. Although the average temperature during these months is -20°F, the intense sun will melt snow on dark objects. Although annual snowfall on Vinson is low, high winds may cause base camp accumulations to 18 inches in a year.

It was in 1966, nearly 200 years after James Cook circumnavigated Antarctic, that the summit of Mt. Vinson was first reached, becoming the last of the seven summits to be conquered. The American Alpine Club and the National Geographic Society sponsored an American team which summited Mt. Vinson on December 17, 1966, two weeks after its arrival. The team, led by Nicholas B. Clinch, remained on the continent about a month and summited a number of peaks including the extremely technical Tyree, as well as Shinn and Gardner. (This was well documented in the June 1967 National Geographic magazine.) Soon after the team's return, US policy, which encouraged travel to Antarctica was changed to instead discourage travel to this region.

Vinson was named for Georgia Congressman Carl G. Vinson, who, from 1935-1961, was influential in promoting Antarctic exploration. Lincoln Ellsworth, who made a number of flights across Antarctica between 1934-1939, named the Ellsworth Range, on which Vinson stands. Discovered on November 23, 1935, the Ellsworth Range was not revisited until the 1960s.

Antarctica In Brief
With 5.5 million square miles of solid ice, the mass of this continent, twice the size of Australia, creates a remote wilderness unrivaled on the planet. While the size of the continent expands and contracts with seasons, the topography, with natural sculptures finely crafted by the barrage of wind, snow and cold, remains stunning. It is this Ice Age environment which constantly attracts intrepid travelers and explorers. While Antarctica has no native population, Argentinean Emilio Palma was the first to be born there in January 1978. The lowest temperature recorded on Earth was - 128.60°F at Vostok Research Station on July 21, 1983. With less than two inches of precipitation per year, Antarctica is best characterized as a desert.

The Team

  • Willi Prittie, Expedition Leader
    Willi has been climbing, guiding and teaching for over twenty years. Director of the North Cascades Mountaineering School, Willi is considered one of the premier instructors in America and his students have had outstanding success in reaching personal goals. Willi is a Senior Guide for the American Mountain Guides Association and (should he have the time) will be responsible for accrediting new guides into the AMGA. Fluent in Spanish and well versed in South American culture he has an outstanding reputation for leading safe and successful trips. Needless to say, Willi has developed quite a following and recently led climbs to Mt. Sajama, Cho-Oyu, Pumori, Mt. McKinley and two ascents of Aconcagua. Willi has led over a dozen climbs to the summit of Aconcagua and is considered one of the world's leading climbing and logistical experts in the region. He has also led numerous climbs to Ecuador's volcanoes including a successful trip last season. Willi also bears the responsibility of training new guides on climbs around the world. Willi is the consummate mountain guide.

Expedition Itinerary
The journey begins with a flight to Punta Arenas, Chile. Arriving a few days ahead of the flight to Antarctica, the climbers prepare for the initial flight from this southern tip of South America. Here the climbers will spend two days preparing gear for the flight to Patriot Hills Camp, Antarctica.

Punta Arenas: Commonly considered the most interesting city in Patagonia, this port town hosts handsome turn-of-the-century architecture, financed by the bustling wool industry of a bygone era. Along with being one of the most prominent Antarctic starting points, it is endowed with a large commercial fishing port. Much of the trade was bolstered by the great California Gold Rush. Walking tours of the city will lead one past the great mansions which currently house the Club De La Union and the Sociedad Menendez Behety (now Citibank) found around the Plaza Munoz Gamero. Punta is also known for its wining and dining. Time permitting one should visit the Museo Regional De Magellan's, the original Punta Arenas mansion and tour the Penguin rookery, to view the colony of Magellan Penguins.

Once the weather is determined safe for travel, the climbers leave the luxuries of Punta Arenas behind and board a Hercules C-130 for the relatively elaborate camp at Patriot Hills, (120km south of Vinson). The climbers begin this six-hour flight, with a spectacular crossing of the Straits of Magellan and the Bellingshausen Sea, until the climbers are again exhilarated by the site of the white continent. The splendor and breadth of Antarctica is immediately overwhelming. The plane sets down in glorious fashion on the world's most southerly runway, wheels neatly touching upon permanent ice.

Patriot Hills: A private camp, some 1800 miles from the nearest city, Patriot Hills houses 48 people and contains a full dining area and kitchen. The central meeting area is made up of large, specially insulated tents with flooring. These tents are generally heated by the sun although heaters are available. Stocked with frozen food and fresh supplies from Punta Arenas, it is a one of a kind remote location camp, and a warm welcome to the frozen landscape.

After spending the night in Patriot Hills, the climbers transfer to a ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft for the one-hour flight to Base Camp. The flight is perhaps one of the most dramatic and adventurous as the climbers fly above the barren terrain and set skis down on the extraordinary ice runway. Upon arrival, the climbers establish camp and begin their ascent.

Base Camp (7,000ft) is located on the lower part of the Branscomb Glacier, on the west side of the Ellsworth Mountains. After dividing gear between backpacks and sleds, the climbers ascend the Branscomb Glacier for two miles to Camp I (9,100ft). From this magnificent setting, the summit of Vinson rises dramatically above, while the neighboring peaks of Shinn and Gardner enhance the visual grandeur.

From Camp I the climbers ascend 1000ft (1.5m) to the foot of a large headwall and establish Camp II (10,100ft). The climbers will leave sleds and an emergency food cache at Camp II. The following day the team climbs 2,300ft up the headwall on moderate snow slopes to a broad col between Vinson and Shinn to establish Camp III (12,300ft). From Camp III the climbers have incredible views of the Ronne Ice Shelf, Mounts Shinn and Vinson. They will rest here for the day to enhance acclimatization prior to attempting the summit.

Summit day begins with a three-mile traverse and a 3,000ft elevation gain. Continuing on, the climbers ascend a hard snow surface of moderate steepness to reach the summit ridge. From here the summit stands within easy reach and from the top the views are simply unforgettable.

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