Mount Vinson, Antarctica
Summit No. 4
Days 1, 2 and 3
6, 7, 8 January, 2020
A huge airplane sits on the runway at Chabunco military air base in Punta Arenas, Chile, dwarfing other planes on the tarmac.
It’s a Russian Ilyushin-76TD, a multi-purpose four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter originally designed to transport heavy machinery to remote areas of the USSR, and it’s ferrying me to Antarctica and Mount Vinson, the fourth of my Seven Summits.
I’ve been in the city of Punta Arenas, which lies on the southern tip of Chile, for the past two days.
The Patagonia region’s most populated city, Punta Arenas lies on Estrecho de Magallanes, also called the Straits of Magellan, a navigable channel that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between the mainland tip of South America and Tierra del Fuego.
A gateway to Antarctica – the city is 1,419kms from its coast – this city of around 125,000 people, founded in 1848, attracts growing numbers of trekkers, who replace the explorers, dealers and sailors of years gone by.
Overcast clouds lay background to deteriorating piers and rusty ship hulls, once valuable assets now being claimed by the sea.
Walking around town, you’d hardly notice that the streets were full of rioters only a week ago – except for a large number of smashed shop windows and mirrored surfaces smashed by rocks: a country rife with social inequality, Chile has been witnessing its worse civil unrest in decades.
But while there’s a military presence on the streets, locals go about their business – there’s no hard sell, bartering or begging as I zigzag around this interesting town for last minute supplies.
All is peaceful too at the Hotel Deigo de Amalgro, where I met my eight fellow-climbers, including Matt, my room buddy and soon-to-be tent companion, and guide Josh.
The passion and depth of experience of this group is evident – half the team have summited Mount Everest, and every member has multiple big mountain expeditions under their belt.
Fewer people have summited Vinson than they have Mt. Everest, because it lies deep in the heart of the mighty Ellsworth mountain range and until recently it was very inaccessible and a logistical nightmare to climb. It’s only in the last few decades that guided clients have been able to climb Vinson.
A bus ferries us to the front of the enormous Russian plane. Only ten people at a time are permitted to enter the aircraft, and no photos are allowed on the tarmac.
Entering this jet is pretty special – as staff usher us to seats and jump seats lining the rear walls, we see huge overhead hydraulics and lifting tackle. I can’t see outside, as there are no widows to speak of.
A buzz of excitement fills the cabin. Rattling down the runway I watch the hydraulics swing above as the plane gathers speed. The noise is incredible, and I’m glad they gave us ear plugs.
Our flight to Antarctica is expected to take almost five-hours. Our route crosses the Drake Passage, then follows the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula and the spine of the Ellsworth Mountains.
Hours later, the subdued cabin is replaced with a hive of activity when staff tell us it’s going to get colder as we descend, and to rug up.
Descent is like a high-adrenaline ride in a theme park. The plane’s mighty vibrations increase as it prepares to land and soon … touchdown.
We’ve finally arrived at one of the most largely untouched and undisturbed places on the planet. Antarctica is truly the last frontier, a continent of a rock and ice covering 14-million square kilometres, including the South Pole.
Union Glazier, in the Southern Ellsworth Mountains, is our arrival point and where we take our first steps in Antarctica.
Exiting the plane we’re greeted with clear blue skies and a slippery blue-ice runway.
Everyone gazes back in awe at the massive jet parked on it as we disembark.
There’s about 20-minutes to snap your moment and grab a team photo now in the knowledge Punta Arenas is 2,991 km away.
Our next ride is in an oversized Black F550 Ford truck that requires a ladder to climb into. Powering down “Runway Road” on the eight-kilometre transfer to camp, we take in an alien landscape of smooth, glistening untouched snow and rocky peaks. It’s white-as-white for as far as the eye can see.
“If you landed on another planet, I imagine it would look something like this,” says fellow-climber Darren.
Union Glacier Camp, scattered amid the snow at an altitude of 2,297 meters, has surprisingly comfortable amenities including toilet blocks, a large heated dining tent and a library. There’s even a gift shop open at select hours. It’s the only camp of its kind in Antarctica, and can house up to 70 guests.
Union Glazier is a large expanse of actively moving snow and ice that flows from the Polar Plateau towards the Ronne Ice Shelf.
Weather conditions don’t permit us to continue by ski aircraft to Vinson Base Camp just yet, so for now this is home.
It’s currently dinner time, which is another surprise here in the middle of nowhere – chefs use a fully-equipped kitchen, and write an extensive menu on whiteboards for us to consider. A Moroccan stew, bread and red wine followed by apple crumble is my helping for tonight.
After dinner we’re reminded that while it’s still light, it’s 10.30pm, so we should settle into our tents for the night.
Clamshell mountaineering tents provide an exceptional level of comfort for our stay. With a table, two beds, padded sleeping mats and even a pillow, all that’s left for us to do is roll out our sleeping bags.
With 24-hour sunlight and clear skies it’s difficult to unwind. All I can do is put the eye mask on and try and relax. The day has been such a buzz and I feel extremely grateful to be here.
Currently-7 deg C/ windchill -15 deg C
Opening our tent door, I’m greeted with fresh snow and a different horizon than that of yesterday: clouds hide nearby mountains and there’s a fresh breeze. We’re told it doesn’t snow much in this area, and the Antarctic climate is generally cold, dry, and windy.
We’re in a holding pattern, awaiting weather updates before the short flight to Mount Vinson base camp, 151-kilometres away.
Scrambled eggs, bacon and burritos with plunge coffee start my day; I’m again impressed by the range offered, and what’s on my plate.
At lunchtime we learn we’re not flying today. So I meander in the gift shop, take some photos, and watch the fluttering snow.
In the afternoon there’s a lecture on geology and history. By the time it’s finished it’s back to the dining tent for dinner. Eating as a group becomes a laugh. Tonight’s topic starts with toes amputated because of frostbite, complete with photos.
The morning hype is all about the upcoming weather briefing. It looks to be clearing up outside, but that’s no reflection of what’s happening at Vinson Base Camp.
Our weather briefing is presented with graphs and detailed analysis, which is beyond comprehension. In a nutshell, we’re not flying yet. On the positive side, when the wind does drop and clouds clear there are a few good days coming up.
To pass time we’ve played football, ridden mountain bikes, played cards – “Hearts,” and I lose – walked, and studied the lunch menu. And then the dinner menu.
Waking to the constant bright light, I have to squint at my watch intermittently to figure out when morning has arrived. Eventually it’s time for breakfast and more importantly the weather update.
Currently -6 deg C/, windchill -13.5 deg C in camp, conditions look good and positivity on the prospect of flying is high, although we’re told cloud remains quite stubborn at Vinson Base Camp.
Guide Josh tells us that when it’s safe for the first two Twin Otter planes to leave, we’ll have two-hours to pack and be ready to fly. There’s six flights planned today, in three waves. Our team is wave two. Sounds great.
A game of Hearts keeps us semi-occupied as we wait for news of our imminent departure. We haven’t heard any planes as yet, though two planes have been loaded in preparation. We’re entirely at the whim of the weather.
A long lunch signals that maybe we need to find an activity for the afternoon. A few of us grab fat-tyre mountain bikes and head for a 10-kilometre loop ride to exert some energy. “If you hear planes leaving, come straight back,” Josh advises.
But back at camp, after a few games of chess and another lecture on Antarctica’s history, there are still no flights.
No news before we regroup in the dining tent for dinner, but lots of speculation. A breeze is picking up outside.
Then it’s confirmed – no flights tonight, it’s been called off. We’ve come to expect the unexpected.
The first wave reluctantly retrieve their loaded packs from the plane and the camp goes back into a holding pattern.
“Another game of Hearts?,” someone asks. “Yeah, I’m in,” I reply.
Light blue skies with barely a cloud! Still, crisp air! “Today we go, 100 per cent we go,” says Matt.
Before I’ve finished breakfast, people scheduled on the first wave are leaving: snow mobiles fly around transferring luggage and sleds.
Their efficiency catches me off guard as I pack my gear, ready to depart the clamshell tent and board our bird out of here. And we soon do.
Wow, wow … awe-inspiring landscapes abound.
To one side a mountain range, the other nothing but vast expanses of white snow blended into the horizon before a pale light blue sky.
Then the opposite. A mountain range to my right and the smooth white snow as far as you can see. Shadows dapple dramatic mountains; sharp ridges and rocky peaks protrude from the white landscape.
We fly through a valley with mountains looming on either side. The mountain range on my right becomes higher than our altitude. It’s Vinson, and so our descent begins.
Base camp, on the lower part of the Branscomb Glacier at an elevation of 2,133m, comes into view.
As the plane taxies, we see a small crowd: they’re waiting to depart, rather than to greet us. This group couldn’t summit due to high winds and have spent six days waiting for these flights to arrive to head home.
The planes have a quick turnaround and the next plane is already landing as we haul our gear onto sleds and drag them to nearby tents.
We meet our head guide Mike, who pulls us straight in to layout the program: due to hold-ups with the weather we’re not going to stay here, rather the plan is to load the sleds, pull down camp, and move to Camp 1 (2,799m) in one haul.
This usually take two-days in the program, but Mike wants to take advantage of the high pressure system that’s briefly moved in, and figures we’re well fed and rested.
Branscomb Shoulder Route has become the “standard route” and the one we will follow, he says.
It’s a hive of activity – tents come down, communal carry gear divided, sleds set, harnesses rigged. We’re divided into three groups of four rope teams, each with four members. Josh is leading our team, with Matt, Fred and myself.
It’s almost 3pm when we depart and trek off into the unknown. The expanses of white snow make defining the difference between the horizon and clouds indistinguishable. Only the crunching of snow underfoot breaks the otherwise dead silence.
Breaks are short, and after days of relative inactivity, the muscles certainly know they’re working. It’s a toll on the hips, particularly with a full backpack on my back and a loaded sled in tow.
The hours pass quickly as I gaze upon the extraordinary landscape, a landscape like nothing I’ve seen before. My beard starts to get icicles, and another layer of clothing goes on.
After a seven-hour slog we arrive at camp, at an elevation of 2,799m, after some 666m elevation gain. Having never pulled a sled, let alone a weighted one, I know I’ll need some more training moving forward.
With packs off and untied from the sleds, I’ve found a second wind. Which is just as well as the next group job is to build an ice wall around the perimeter of the tent with ice blocks.
This requires two handsaws and sawing directly into the ice in a grid, before popping the ice blocks out with a shovel and then laying them in a brick fashion.
It’s a strenuous process, and when I stop my clothes are soaked in sweat. The continuous glare of the sun has burnt my nose and any exposed skin.
Next job, pitching tents. We’re sleeping three to a tent, and I’m with Matt and Fred.
Ice is being melted and pizza being cooked. By the time I’ve had a couple of small slices and received some water, I finally get my head down just before 2am.
As the camp rattles to life, I leave the comfort of my warm sleeping bag for an Antarctic chill – an icy blast hits me when I open the tent zipper. Yet bizarrely there’s the sun, bright as ever.
The weather forecast shows the high pressure system will shortly come to an end. Unless we move straight up to Camp 2 (3,780 m), we may miss the best weather conditions of the season.
“How do we all feel about that?” asks Mike. It’s a compelling argument, requiring us to pack up this camp, and carry heavy loads up fixed lines and steep terrain. Again, normally this move is undertaken over two-days, with a carry day to reduce the loads.
But it’s a strong group, and with Mike’s recommendation that’s the decision we make. It’s going to be another long day, including making a new camp when we arrive at our destination.
I help pack our tent, food, and the minimal amount of clothing and snacks I think I’ll survive with, but still end up with a very heavy backpack.
Ice crampons go under our boots for traction, we heave on our backpacks, our rope team is tied in, and we set off from the camp we just built, a tiny sanctuary in the middle of nowhere.
It’s tough walking across the moderate rising terrain. To ensure a stumble doesn’t result in a long slide off the mountain we use ascenders on a fixed line to lock our position, and edge up the slope one step at a time, in what is a slow process.
The muscles are certainly working; the load on my back has never felt heavier. Climbing consistently a 40-degree angle, most of the day is spent on this one steep slope.
Gaining elevation does however give views of surrounding peaks rising majestically in all directions.
Hours fly by contemplating the next couple of steps in front of me, and the mind-blowing beauty of the untouched landscape behind me.
I try and video where I can, but batteries die fast in the cold. Although I’m climbing with a group, you can feel quite isolated in the solitude of this vast, unending whiteness.
Onward we climb to the summit of this towering ridge; it’s not Mount Vinson, but I certainly feel like we’ve climbed a mountain today.
While having a rest at the top for snacks and water, Mike points to the old route, which was used until some climbers fell in a crevasse and couldn’t be rescued in horrible conditions and a white out.
Crevasses, often covered by just a thin layer of snow, can be hundreds of feet deep. The climbers trapped in the crevasse couldn’t be rescued for four days, says Mike, who was part of the rescue team. Exposed to the elements, frostbite cost them some fingers though luckily not their lives.
It’s food for thought as we press on, with Mt Sidley now close on our left.
Finally, with one last rise to scale, we arrive at Camp 2 (3780 m) at 11.50pm, after an almost eight-hour effort and some 981m of elevation gained along the way.
While this camp already has some ice block walls left we can utilise, built-up snow needs to be levelled and shovelled out. But at least there’s no sawing ice blocks.
The common tent goes up, with seats dug into the ice, table included. Then the routine continues for personal tents – level the ground and get them up. Sounds easy enough, but adjusting to the new altitude after a day of true exertion is tough.
Finally we crawl into the tent. My legs shake involuntarily as I lay down, too tired to find more clothes, although its minus 20-degrees.
I’m keen to hear the weather update, and ultimately if we’ll summit today. I’m up early, wandering around camp, but there’s no-one else about. More than a few climbers are either exhausted or suffering from altitude sickness.
The next couple of days are ideal to summit, according guide Mike, who has summited Mount Vinson 18 times, and today will be a rest day. So I climb back into the tent and out of the searing sun.
Basecamp – Summit in 4 days
Today’s the day. Conditions are perfect, with wide blue skies, little wind, and the promise of manageable temperatures. After breakfast, we get away from camp at about 10am.
A couple of hours in, and I’m quietly struggling with nausea, and focus on breathing.
My beard starts to freeze with two buffs on, and they too are soon frozen. It progressively gets colder the higher we scale.
After forcing down some fluids and food, I start to feel better. “If you’re not drinking and eating at every stop, you’re letting the team down…” is Mike’s mantra.
The last push to the summit includes scaling a thin path that leads ever higher, hugging exposed rock.
This section twists, turns, rises and falls and continues toward the now-visible summit, in total contrast to the open white plains we’ve crossed.
It takes an exhausting seven-hours, 15-minutes to summit Mount Vinson, at 4,892m.
Time stands still as we celebrate, and respect our position – we’ve made it to the top of the bottom of the world, privileged to stand on a peak that was first summited on December 18, 1966.
I gaze around, simply astounded at the views. Next the Diabetes Australia flag comes out before I plant it at the very highest point, where it flaps in the howling Antarctic wind.
At the summit of Mount Vinson, we’re 1,200 kilometres from the South Pole, making it the most remote of the Seven Summits.
We don’t celebrate for long: the weather is deteriorating. As Mike calls for our speedy exit, one last group photo is taken before we start our descent.
My face freezes as we cross over the ridge passage, and becomes painful, as I suppose it would with a minus 36-degrees wind chill factor.
Time is of the essence as we creep back down the mountain. It’s a long, difficult slog. When Camp 2 eventually comes into sight in the distance, it’s the motivation I need to keep going towards it.
Back at camp, our tents protected from the worst of the wind by huge ice blocks, we are asleep in the sunlight by midnight, exhausted yet satisfied – Mount Vinson has been a huge success for every climber in our group to summit.
Postscript – back to civilisation
Mike wakes us up. “We have to get out of here as quickly as we can.” Our weather window has closed. Visibility is low, and it’s very cold.
Loaded-up and tied in to our four-man line gang, my toes are numb and my goggles are frozen as we trudge back to Camp 1. It’s an extra effort with a full pack when you’re going downhill.
Utter silence surrounds us when we stop, the type of silence you don’t notice anywhere else in the world, at least not in the world I’ve seen.
This environment and experience I’m living gives me a deep sense of calm; it’s good for the soul. For me the exertion and sacrifice sets the tone to fully appreciate the planet around us.
I further notice new aspects of the surrounding mountains. Blocks of fallen ice; new angles that appear because sections of ice are constantly moving or breaking away.
We finally arrive back at Base Camp, drained of energy. I’m very ready to return to the comforts of Union Glacier Camp – and then Punta Arenas.
But only one plane can land. Mike puts his rope team, some Canadian fellow-climbers, and himself, on the plane departing for Union Glacier. He is unsure if another plane will be able to land or not, he says as he waves goodbye.
So we must camp at Base Camp until another plane can land. Just five of us. It’s expected tomorrow, but I’ve learnt you can’t predict the weather down here.
Stuck in this bleak, incredibly remote place, the five of us decide to sleep in the communal tent instead of setting up tents. We can’t help feeling short-changed missing out on the flight.
Soft, fresh snow falls, and it’s quiet, really quiet. It’s still snowing as I lay awake at midnight, trying to pretend it’s dark.
(Left 12 midday – 7.45pm back to Basecamp)
We are on continuous standby for a flight out of here.
Snow slides off the tent and drips inside it like it’s raining. Visibility isn’t great. And it’s very, very cold.
Water is made by melting ice, and bacon is served. But there’s no flight news when our remaining guide Josh returns from the communications tent, only uncertainty.
We’ll fly at some stage, he says, so we start to pack. Away go sleeping bags and gear, and our bags are carted to the ice skiway ready to load onto the plane. We take up sitting outside waiting for news of its arrival.
After long, strenuous days climbing, waiting for a plane feels strange. It’s difficult to slow down.
A couple of other groups descend from the summit and celebrate their successful campaign.
We discuss the economic reality of a 10-seater plane flying full. We’re advised not to pull down the main tent just yet, and the arriving party is advised to not put theirs up, Josh reports from the communications tent.
Hours pass just sitting around. And we’re very cold. Josh comes back with another update, the first with any certainty: “Flights have been called off for today …”
Disappointed, I trek back up to the skiway with a sled and retrieve our bags. There’s nothing to say, really, and everyone quietly starts setting up camp again. I’m then straight into my sleeping bag to try and warm up my legs.
As evening nears, the weather continues to deteriorate, and it starts to snow heavily. The weather forecast is the same for another week, says Josh, so who knows where we go from here now? Confidence is lost.
Snow, snow, snow.
It’s a white-out. We’re not going anywhere. We are stranded.
The news only gets worse when the weather report comes through – we might be here for a few more days.
All our food is in the cache, so a coffee and some nuts start the day. We sit around contemplating anything to pass the time.
It’s icy cold, visibility isn’t great, and we’re holed up at Base Camp. Reviewing my flight schedule back to Australia, I start to get worried.
To try and avoid any negativity I set up the iPad for a movie. The cold weather kills the remaining battery, so while it’s on charge I walk around camp, and three of us have a game of Monopoly. Then it’s back to the movie.
Chatter fills the silent void as another group of climbers return from Mount Vinson in high spirits after they have successfully summitted.
Another morning on the ice. I’m first up, and push all the snow off the top of our tent to stop it collapsing.
I go to our cache in search of coffee and some breakfast. Climbing in the snow hole, I dig out some oats, bagels, salmon and soup.
My feet are ice blocks. There’s no visibility for flying. We are captive here.
It’s expected to snow all day, so hibernating in the tent seems the only reasonable option. There is promise of better weather tomorrow .
The wind howls in the evening: sleeping in two layers of thermals and fleece doesn’t bring warmth, even in the usual comfort of the sleeping bag.
“Oh … we’re living in a refrigerator,” says Matt, his teeth chattering.
The tent flaps in the wind, and fog persists. Any optimism of an early flight vanishes.
The flight from Union Glacier back to Punta Arenas on the Russian jet Ilyushin-76TD is scheduled to depart today. Should we miss this flight we’ll be Antarctica guests until the next flight, whenever that might be – we’re told they aren’t that frequent.
Still, I optimistically pack my gear and sit waiting for the now-hourly flight update.
Apparently they’re really trying to get us out. I can’t see it myself; winds continue to howl and it feels colder today than previous days – if that’s possible.
I’ve doubled my socks and checked my toes aren’t going black, as they ache with a numb chill.
Later, Josh tells us that those of our group who left Base Camp for Union Glacier a couple of days ago are flying back to Punta Arenas on the Russian jet today. We’ve now missed the flight.
I’m surprised that lead guide Mike will also be leaving Union Glacier with them, while we are still stuck here, unable to get out of Base Camp.
I have to believe there’s a chance we’ll get out today – or before long – our backs will be against the wall soon, as the climbing season is coming to an end.
Later, the clouds clear and we see the sun for the first time in days. Yet the planes stay grounded.
So, with the discovery of a deck of cards, here I sit in my sleeping bag, at the table, for yet another game of Hearts.
Hopefully, tomorrow will be the day for us.
Hurrah – clear skies and little wind has our flights confirmed for this morning.
Every face in Base Camp lights up with joy when we see those birds flying in.
I’m first on the plane.
Butterflies in my stomach, vibrations felt all the way down the runway, and we’re out of here.
My window seat provides an unparalleled opportunity for scenic vistas, the landscape and sky merge as one on the horizon.
Gazing over the mountains, I ponder on the vulnerability I’ve seen in myself to be at the mercy of this incredibly harsh yet spectacularly beautiful environment.
For those who went to Antarctica before us, to open the path, I give thanks. For without them this landscape couldn’t be admired from where I am, and would be forever hidden in the unknown.
Having breathed the air, stood on the ice and absorbed the cold, my Antarctica experience has touched my soul like no other place I have visited on the planet.
Before long we’re back on the Russian jet, Ilyushin-76TD, another hero that allows the opportunity for so many to now access Antarctica, and we’re on our way back to Punta Arenas
Great adventures do indeed come true.
*Mike Hamill – Head Guide/ owner of CTSS
*Josh – assistant guide
Rope team 1
Rope team 2
Rope team 3
Basecamp – 2,133m (7000 ft)
camp 1 – 2,799m (9184 ft)
camp 2 – 3,780m (12401 ft)
Summit- 4,892m (16,050 ft)
Mt.Vinson from South Pole – 1,200km