Mount Vinson at 4892m is the highest mountain in Antarctica and one of the coveted Seven Summits. The climb is fantastic but getting there is sensational!
I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile and was met at the airport by quiet and unassuming ALE guide Scott Woolums who has climbed the seven summits seven times. He did a gear check in my hotel room at Hotel Isla Rey Jorge and I had to buy some socks and ski gloves - not bad. I had a delicious lunch at Cafe Tapiz and then walked down the Avenida Costanera waterfront area next to the Strait Of Magellan, passing the Muelle Loreto pier, which was once used for shipment Of coal, to the Toma de Posesion del Estrecho de Magallanes (taking possession of the Strait of Magellan) monument. I then walked back the other side of the street admiring the large murals of seafaring history by painter Luis Perez Lopez part of Proyecto Fodart 2013. The main Plaza De Armas Munoz Gamero has a memorial statue to Ferdinand Magellan and the Sacred Heart Cathedral across the street. A short walk up Roca Street is the Mirador La Cruz Viewpoint with a perfect view of Punta Arenas.
I met two other climbers at our hotel, Eystein and Markus, and the next day we decided to walk up through the city of Punta Arenas to Magallanes National Reserve which took about two hours. We walked down the Mirador Rio Las Minas trail through the forest to viewpoints of Punta Arenas and down the valley back to Punta. After lunch at La Marmita, we walked back to the hotel and rested before walking the short distance to the ALE office for our Antarctica briefing for climbers, skiers and tourists.
I recognized RMI guide Dave Hahn who had climbed Mount Everest 15 times and was leading an expedition to Mount Vinson. British explorer Sir Ran Fiennes was introduced - he is climbing Mount Vinson for Marie Curie Cancer Charity with cameraman David Carter. We were told to be ready at 7am the next day to drive to the airport. Scott led us to the bar at the top of the modern Hotel Dreams del Estrecho for dinner and drinks to meet our fellow climbers Jay, Kyle, Rich and Dave. We would meet the last climber on our expedition in Antarctica.
We checked out of our hotel and took the bus to the airport. After reading about so many flight delays, I thought it was too good to be true, and it was - we were all called together and told that the flight would not take place that day. We went back to our hotel but there were no rooms available that day, so I moved to the Hotel Diego de Almagro on the waterfront. We reconvened at the ALE office and then went for breakfast together. In the afternoon, Scott arranged for a drive out to Museo Nao Victoria to see life sized ship replicas of the Nao Victoria that was part of the fleet commanded by Ferdinand Magellan, Darwin's HMS Beagle Fitzroy, the James Caird lifeboat of the Endurance that sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia on Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1916 expedition, and the Schooner Ancud that claimed the Strait of Magellan on behalf of Chile.
We checked out of the hotel and took the bus back to the airport, and lo and behold the flight is on! We boarded the Air Almaty Ilyushin airplane, feeling almost like a military plane with luggage at the back, few windows and a basic toilet. But, the climbers, skiers and tourists are thrilled that the adventure has begun! We took our seats and rumbled down the runway with a screen showing the take off. The ALE crew fed us a basic lunch and we napped and watched the screen for where we were. The excitement increased again when we crossed the ice shelf to Antarctica, and then 30 minutes before landing they turned off the heat and we started to don our warm clothes. Before you knew it, we could see the icy landscape get closer and closer on the screen as the airplane descended and then landed on an icy-blue Union Glacier runway. The Ilyushin came to a stop, turned around and taxied back to where the Union Glacier Camp crew were waiting for us.
We slowly descended the steps and carefully put our feet on the slippery ice of Antarctica - magical - we have arrived! We all gingerly walked around, taking photos and soaking up the breathtaking scenery. Reluctantly, we take our eyes off the scenery and board the ALE vans and drive to Union Glacier Camp, passing a Christmas tree and a Stop sign, with Mount Rossmann beckoning.
One of the local staff give us a quick tour of the camp, which has expensive pay telephones, a small medic clinic, modern and clean toilets and showers, very comfortable clam shell tents with raised cots, and the dining tent which serves delicious food and drinks. We met the last member of our climbing team, Fabian who had just run the Antarctica marathon - our group of eight climbers was now complete. I spotted three airplanes at the camp: a Kenn Borek Air DC3 Basler BT67 Airplane which is used to fly to the South Pole and to see the Emperor Penguins, and two Kenn Borek Air ski-wheel DHC-6 Twin Otter airplanes which fly to Mount Vinson Base Camp.
The Twin Otters fly two of the expeditions to Mount Vinson Base Camp and then fly back and pick us up. We board the airplane with luggage stacked in the front and take off with views of the camp, Mount Rossmann, Mount Dolence, Edson Hills and Hyde Glacier. We pass mountains and glaciers before reaching the expansive Minnesota Glacier with the taller mountains looming ahead: Mount Mullen, Wilson Peak, Lishness Peak, Mount Milton, Mount Inderbitzen, Mount Allen, Mount Liptak, Mount Southwick, Mount Rutford, and Mount Slaughter. The plane then flies by Mount Vinson Base Camp on the Branscomb Glacier with Opalchenie Peak, Silverstein Peak, Branscomb Peak, and above the rest Mount Vinson. The plane continues flying past Mount Shinn, Mount Epperly, Mount Tyree, Mount Gardner and Mount Ryan before turning around and flying over the Boyce Ridge and landing at Mount Vinson Base Camp. The short flight is certainly a highlight of the whole trip.
We unloaded our luggage and went to our large comfortable tent and then to the dining tent where we met our expert guides Maria Paz 'Pachi' Ibarra and Josh Hoeschen. I went to the outdoor toilet surrounded by an ice wall on three sides and marvelled at the 360 degree mountain and glacier panorama - best toilet ever! Our climbing target, Mount Vinson, was perfectly visible above the Roche Glacier between Branscomb Peak and Silverstein Peak. We retired to our tents, donned our eye shades against the 24-hour sun, and slept deeply and soundly after one of the best days of our lives.
We started our day with a delicious breakfast with pancakes, homemade bread, and such good bacon, oh the bacon. We then loaded our backpacks with part of our load and the rest on a sled. There was no need to use crampons as we walked out of camp in two ropes of four climbers and a guide each, happy to finally be climbing after all the travel. This was my first time dragging a sled, which was surprisingly easy - sometimes it went off the trail and had to be dragged back. We rested a few times with views expanding to Knutsen Peak, Mount Epperly, Mount Shinn, and Branscomb Peak, but we did not stop as we climbed under the broken up Roche Glacier. The sun beat down on us and I stripped layers until I was wearing only my base layer. After reaching the mostly flat Taylor Ledge, it was easy as we reached Low Camp after 5 hours from base camp. The first rope had arrived an hour earlier and already had our tents set up - thank you.
Josh and Pachi had been here a week earlier to set up the dining tent and put up an ice-wall to protect the tents from winds - and boy did the winds come (more of that later). We went to the large comfortable dining tent and had a drink and some snacks. The middle of the dining tent is dug below the surface for Josh and Pachi to cook for us while we sat on the edges.
Pachi then handed out our wag bags and showed us how to put the wag bag in a bucket to use the toilet. You have to pee in the pee hole before going to the toilet and doing your number two. You then twist up your wag bag, leave it outside under an ice block where it will freeze quickly. You bring your used wag bag the next time you go to the toilet and use it again until it gets too full, which I found was four times. You then use a new wag bag. The toilet has an ice wall on three sides with a view to the Taylor Ledge - another toilet with a view!
The 360 degree panoramic view from Low Camp starts with the flat Taylor Ledge, Mount Knutsen (which we would attempt to climb later), Mount Epperly, Mount Shinn, the ridge with the fixed ropes to High Camp, Branscomb Peak and Principe de Asturias Peak. Alas, Mount Vinson is not visible from Low Camp. The temperature dropped when the sun went behind the ridge and we went to our tents and slipped into our sleeping bags and slept.
We slept in until the sun hit the camp at about 11am and then went for breakfast in the dining tent. Josh announced at breakfast that today would be an active rest day - climbing the first 200m of fixed ropes and returning to camp. In the afternoon, we fully loaded our backpacks, put on all our climbing gear and crampons and ice axe and climbed to the bottom of the fixed ropes. Pachi explained that you would yell 'anchor' when you reached an anchor point and had to change your ascender to the next section of rope. You would then yell 'climbing' and continue to climb. It was good to practice some climbing before we descended and went back to camp. The weather was perfect and our hopes were high that we would climb to High Camp the next day.
But, climbing to High Camp was not in the cards. We stayed put at Low Camp because of high wind up high. We rested, ate and hoped for the wind to decrease. But lenticular clouds over Mount Shinn means high wind above.
The winds were still high above us on the ridge, so we stayed put at Low Camp. We were getting a bit antsy, so Josh and Pachi suggested an outing to attempt to climb Mount Knutsen. We climbed in cloudy weather to the col below Knutsen Peak where we felt the full brunt of the high winds. Josh led his rope on up the ridge while Pachi suggested our rope go back to the camp.
The weather forecast was for high winds up above so we stayed at Mount Vinson Low Camp again. Josh and Pachi suggested an outing to attempt to climb the rocky peak across from Mount Knutsen. We climbed in perfect sunny weather to the col below Knutsen Peak and today there was no wind. Pachi led the way up the steep slope, putting in protection as she climbed. Just above a beautifully patterned overhanging cornice, the trail became a little too steep for me, so Pachi and Jay stayed with me while the others climbed on to the summit. Jay suggested I climb up and down this steep slope to gain confidence, and after eight or nine times, I felt much better. Thank you Jay and Pachi for your patience and support. We descended back to Low Camp after a very fulfilling day.
The weather forecast was for a wind storm to arrive around 6pm today, so stayed put, rested, ate, drank and waited. Sure enough, right around 6pm, the wind started to pick up. We ate our dinner and went to bed and sleep.
We woke up to the howls of high winds and the slapping of our tent walls. We went to the dining tent for breakfast, but the winds were too high, so we quickly ate some food and went back to our tents. The winds increased in the afternoon, gusting to over 100km an hour. We kept our backs to the tent walls to keep our tents intact.
Jay yelled, 'Josh, we need help!'. The ice blocks from the ice wall had blown over and knocked over the tent. They fixed up the tent and picked up the ice blocks to make a better wind wall around the tent. Meanwhile, our tent was far enough from the ice wall to escape the ice blocks, and we continued to leans against the tent wall, listening to the tent walls flapping incessantly. The wind started to subside in the evening and Josh and Pachi brought us some dinner to our tent, and then we went to sleep.
I awoke to sun on the tent and no wind at all. I left my sleeping bag and looked at the damage to the ice wall, the tents and especially the destroyed dining tent. ALE guide Scott Woolums was on the phone to base camp and after hearing that the weather would be good for the next few days decided we would climb to High Camp today - yay! We put on our climbing gear and our fully loaded backpacks and climbed for 45 minutes to the bottom of the 1200m of fixed ropes. 'Anchor' and 'climbing' reverberated as our crampons dug into slope and we pushed our ascenders higher up the ropes. We took a brief rest after 90 minutes half way up in the rock band and had a fabulous view of Branscomb Peak, Príncipe de Asturias Peak, Low Camp below on the Branscomb Glacier and Mount Knutsen.
The trail got steeper as we ascended the last 600m of fixed ropes, and we rested again after another 90 minutes of climbing at the top of the fixed ropes with a nice view of Mount Shinn. The trail then contours around the ridge, steadily climbing higher and higher, until after a little more than six hours climbing, we topped a rise and reached High Camp. I was really tired so I went to the dining tent to rest and hydrate while the other climbers put up the tents - again a big thank you. After an awful dinner of freeze-dried food, we retired to our tents to sleep soundly.
At breakfast Josh broke the news that Markus and I should take a rest day today while Pachi and the other six climbers went for the summit. I trusted Josh's judgement and so I had a lazy day, sleeping in, eating and enjoying the mountain views from High Camp. The other climbers reached the summit and arrived back in camp for dinner, having had a perfect summit day - not too cold and sunny most of the time.
We were all up early the next day with Josh, Markus and I getting ready to attempt the summit, while the other climbers were now anxious to head home and left early to descend to base camp. After breakfast we donned our climbing gear and roped up with Josh in the lead and walked out of High Camp at around 11am in warm overcast weather. Dave Hahn's team had left before us and we could see them in the cloudy haze as we climbed on a gentle slope most of the way, resting every few hours. We caught up to Dave's team just below the final summit ridge of Mount Vinson as we rested before the final summit push.
Dave's team left first and Josh, Markus and I followed in their footsteps as we navigated the beautiful rocky summit ridge. The ridge was a bit exposed in a few sections that were protected by fixed ropes, but overall it was a pleasurable climb across the ridge. We reached the summit around 5:30pm, after climbing about six and a half hours from High Camp. We took our summit photos and then followed Dave's team back across the ridge and back to High Camp, arriving around 8:50pm three hours after leaving the summit. What a great day, especially the summit ridge. We slept soundly.
We were up early and had breakfast before starting our descent down the fixed ropes and back to Low Camp. We took off our crampons, loaded our sleds and then descended. In some ways this was harder than ascending because the sled kept going to the side and downhill - hard to keep it in line. We arrived back at base camp and celebrated with a drink of bubbly and some lunch. Dave Hahn's group arrived a few minutes later and we all boarded the twin otter and flew back to Union Glacier Camp.
We reunited with the rest of our team, who sadly just missed the flight the previous day to base camp and therefore also missed the flight back to Punta Arenas. I showered for the first time in 11 days and had dinner with the full team before retiring to our comfortable clam shell tent and sleeping on a cot.
The Ilyushin wasn't flying today, so Scott Woolums asked if we wanted to take an afternoon excursion to Elephant's Head. 'Of course', we all answered and so Scott drove us for about 45 minutes to the rock formation that looks like, well, an elephant's head. We first stopped at the blue ice pools next to the shore to look at the fantastic shapes and bubbles of the ice below the surface. We then trekked up the rocky terrain to the col between the Elephant's Head and the Rocky Rhodes Bluff with a view of the glacier below. Most people scrambled up the bluff while I walked back to the waiting van.
Dave Hamilton dropped by while we were eating dinner and told us there would be an impromptu presentation on climbing Mount Everest after dinner so we all stayed behind. Dave led the presentation, showing photographs of the climb from each of his guided ascents with Dave Hahn adding his experiences and Sir Ran Fiennes relaying his story of climbing Everest. It was very informative and entertaining, especially for those climbers with Everest on their list of future climbs.
One of the staff came to our tent at 6am and told us the Ilyushin had taken off from Punta Arenas and that we should have our luggage ready before having breakfast. No matter how much anticipation we had before arriving in Antarctica, we were now all anxious to go home and the news was very welcome. We packed, dropped off our bags and excitedly had breakfast.
We boarded a van and drove back to the Union Glacier where we waited. The Ilyushin became visible on the horizon and we all took out our cameras to film the landing - beautiful. After they unloaded the cargo (no passengers on this flight), we boarded the airplane and flew back to Punta.
The hardest decision I had to make when booking my flights was how many days to delay the return flight to allow for bad weather - I decided three days, so my flight was to leave today, but two hours before we landed. Arggh. I stayed at the airport and booked a new flight back home, but had to stay the night in Santiago.
It was strange being back in the land of people again after the extreme quiet and expansive landscape of Antarctica. But, it was also very pleasant to head home and start thinking of the Christmas season.