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TAGGING THE POLE
Alpine Ascents 1999 Vinson Massif Climbing Expedition
The Mountain Zone followed lead guides Wally Berg, Peter Athans and their 1999 Alpine Ascents International expedition on an attempt to climb 16,076' Mount Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. [CLICK FOR THE INDEX OF ARCHIVED DISPATCHES]
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 planbe 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.
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 summitted 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 1960's.
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 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 6-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 3-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.
Gordon Janow, Alpine Ascents Program Director