Having climbed Vinson in early December last year it is fairly evident that I have hesitated to sit down and write this blog. There are various reasons for this including a fairly busy few weeks that followed however if I am honest a hectic schedule hasn't kept me in the past from putting my thoughts into words within a few weeks of a climb. After almost 2 months I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for this hesitation stems from the fact that I am yet to conjure up an adequate description that could do justice to the experience. I will do my best to convey my thoughts, impressions and takeaways from the climb and perhaps offer a window into the world down there, however I don't know that anyone could quite understand the magic of Antarctica until they take the opportunity and venture down themselves.
It would come as little surprise to most that planning a trip to climb a mountain in Antarctica is hardly one that is conceived at the last minute then booked on Skyscanner for a bargain. There is only one organisation that offers logistics to fly to Antarctica for non-scientific purposes and as expected with any monopoly the power lies firmly with the service provider. Antarctica Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) offer two flights per month from Chile to Antarctica for Mt Vinson climbers over a 2 month season. The plane utilised for this exclusive flight transporting such reckless spenders is a Russian Il Ushyn cargo plane that looks best suited to moving military vehicles around Siberia. Seating only 40 people and featuring little interior paneling or sound proofing it was clear this flight marked the beginning of our Antarctica adventure. With no windows we had little to look at during the flight other than the enormous maze of electrical wiring and hydraulic hoses that lined the inside of the plane, while having nothing to listen to other than the almost deafening scream of the four turbines that reminded us of how good we all have it these days flying with commercial airlines. Advised to dress for Antarctica, we all looked rather strange at the airport wearing jackets and boots best suited for the summit of Mt Everest, however not nearly as strange as we did earlier that morning when leaving the hostel in Punta Arenas wearing the same.
After four and a half hours of flying with little reference that we were even moving, we touched down on a blue ice runway on Union Glacier within the Ellsworth mountain range and took in our first impressions of the seventh continent with its 24 hours of sun. Unfortunately for some, that first impression was a slip on the bulletproof blue ice or a lost glove or camera accessory thanks to the wind that whipped along the 9km wide glacier. Like so many travel destinations the actual view and experience on arrival didn't look much like the postcard (although I should clarify postcards are not available or sendable from Antartica). Heavy cloud had set in convincingly denying all 40 of us any opportunity to take in more than the awesome aircraft we'd just deboarded or the brutal polar wind-chill.
Every year ALE setup a small highly temporary base on Union Glacier 1000km from the South Pole during the few months that weather permits for adventure types to come and climb Mt Vinson, ski to the South Pole or visit an Emperor penguin colony. Buildings consist of a number of large tents which serve as kitchen and dining rooms and then dozens of 2 and 3 man tents to house the camps residents. Every drop of water is melted from ice with fuel brought from Chile and then every drop of human waste that is generated is transported back to Chile leaving almost no trace when the long winter comes. No freedom peeing, freedom pouring of water or even a cheeky freedom spit of toothpaste is allowed.
Greeted on the continent with a terrible forecast of low cloud we were disappointed to learn that we wouldn't by able to fly to Vinson Base Camp immediately. After months of anticipation of the climb, we were far from disappointed with the opportunity to spend a few extra days on the ice, effectively extending the experience. Over the last year I've met several people that spent less than a week in Antarctica due to frustratingly seamless logistics and a great spell of weather which ushered them back to Chile far too soon. Considering ourselves lucky we toured the base, rode fat bikes around the glacier and played several hands of cards whilst eating better than one should in such a remote part of the world. What we didn't realise at the time was that 6 days later we would still be sitting in the same place in the camp playing our 1000th hand of cards, completely sick of the amazing food and rapidly loosing patience with Antarctica. However when the weather improved and the cloud finally lifted, it felt as though the curtain at a theatre had been lifted and the show was beginning. For the first time since arriving 6 days earlier we could finally gain some perspective and an appreciation of where we were. Enormous peaks in all directions cut through the perfectly white glaciated terrain and rose up hundreds of meters above. Most have never been climbed and a lot may never.
Given the all clear to fly, we boarded a Twin Otter aircraft fitted with skids rather than wheels and were finally on our way to Vinson Base Camp never wanting to play another hand of 'Last Card' or a variation of Spider Solitaire that I learned from Russell Brice ever again. The 40 minute flight which replaces an epic 10 day cross country ski (rarely undertaken) is difficult to describe other than breathtaking. Phenomenally large glaciers spanning to the horizon played on my mind which was convinced this must be expansive low cloud or fog. Never had I seen so much flat white terrain. Just before landing we were given an intimidating view of Vinson with extensive icy spin drifts blowing off the ridge lines high above.
Camping and moving between camps was very similar to Denali however with less load we were able to move up the mountain in a single push rather than a schedule of caching and carrying. The temperatures were far from cold low on the mountain and I spent several hours between base camp and camp 1 in a single layer (more on underdressing later). We set a low camp at 2,750m and then a high camp at 3,670m a few days later to wait patiently for a weather window. Eating far from delicious freeze dried food while braving -40 degC (with wind-chill) we dug in with our fingers firmly crossed for summit worthy conditions. With such cold temperatures high on Vinson, only very low winds can be tolerated otherwise the frost bite risk becomes unacceptable. Even a 5 minute trip to the 'toilet' can easily lead to frost bite as my tent mate Graham discovered. High winds battered our camp day after day as yet again Antarctica pinned us down with no options to advance or retreat. Optimistically we brought minimal entertainment to the high camp in the interests of a light load and so now stuck for multiple days we had little else to do other than to lay in the tent counting the stitches of nylon overhead. It's difficult to describe the thought process when confronted with an unknown number of days in a tent with little to do, especially as someone that demands almost constant mental stimulation. I often believe that waiting is the biggest challenge I face in the mountains as in the lead up to a climb I anticipate an almost non-stop physical challenge and Vinson couldn't have been further from this. We spent 20 days in Antarctica however only 4 days of this actually involved climbing leaving 16 long days that I found enormously mentally challenging. As with so many of the mountains I've attempted in the last 12 months it was starting to look as though the weather was not going to improve before our food and fuel ran out, a devastating outcome after so much anticipation and hard work. Almost as if scripted, the forecast offered a window on the very last possible day that would allow us to reach our Il Ushyn flight back to Chile.
The climbing on summit day was not difficult and would have underwhelmed a climber prioritising a physical challenge however the spectacular views far outweighed and it was only during the decent that I realised it had been a fairly straight forward effort, such was the distraction of the vistas. Plagued with awful weather during the entire trip, karma had delivered a ripper of a day when we needed it most; perfect blue sky and not a puff of wind for 12 hours. During the final traverse to the summit, fellow team mate Alex yelled out 'Jon, I think this is the most amazing thing I've ever seen'. Although it was normally enjoyable to argue with Alex, I couldn't argue with him here and so while staring in amazement at all 360 degrees around us we allocated just enough attention to safely climb the remainder of the mountain and take the final steps to the highest point in Antarctica. Beauty beyond anything I'd ever imagined on earth exceeded even the most ambitious expectations I had for Vinson. I am well aware that a summit can be somewhat intoxicating with relief and accomplishment but this was something else entirely. Gifted with such an unprecedented day of weather I thought I'd take off the layers for a quick photos that may in fact be a first ever on Vinson.
With four of the seven summits now completed it is now on to Argentina for the highest mountain in South America - Aconcagua. Lucy will join me for this one which promises to be a 3 week slog to the highest point on Earth outside the Himalayas.