Vinson Summmit Report and More

Dec 21, 2010
Outside Magazine

Standing on the summit of Antarctica’s Mt. Vinson at 16,067’ was one of the highlights of my climbing career. Not only was it one of the most breathtaking views I have ever witnessed from a mountain, the meaning was simply overwhelming. Vinson was the first of my 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer’s: Memories are Everything where I am raising awareness and $1M for Alzheimer’s research.

After our summit on December 9, 2010 it has been quite busy. We took the big Ilyushin back to Punta and then most of the team caught flights out of Punta Arenas to homes across the world within 12 hours of landing. I arrived back in Colorado on Tuesday, December 14th.

Here is an overview of the climb.

Pristine and perfect - Antarctica. I am not sure how else to describe my experience climbing her highest peak - Mt. Vinson. I left the US just before Thanksgiving 2010 to meet up with Phil Ershler, co-owner of International Mountain Guides, and the rest of our team.

The Preliminaries

After flying to Punta Arenas, Chile, first on the agenda was a briefing with Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions, ALE. The room held about 50 people with various objectives - visit the South Pole, ski the last degree, visit an Emperor Penguin colony or climb mountains. Our common bond was love of adventure and a sense of appreciation for being able to visit the "Last Place on Earth". The two hour briefing covered many details but honed in on our personal responsibilities to protect Antarctica.

click to enlargeWe left the meeting was a heightened sense of awareness but also anticipation of when the big Russian jet that would take us to Antarctica would actually depart. And that may be the common theme to all polar adventures.

You see, it takes a specialized aircraft, unique flying skills, uncanny weather forecasting capability and agreeable weather just to start the journey. Thus we were told to be prepared to leave our hotel on a two hour notice fully dressed in our -40F clothing.

Everything came into alignment and we got the word that the Russian jet would depart Punta at 5:00PM November 27th.

Flying to Antarctica

That Russian jet - what a piece of machinery. Specifically it is a IIyushin IL-76. Designed by the Soviet's in 1967, it was built to service the remote areas of the old USSR. Today it is used around the world for heavy lifting. With four huge engines, a back loading ramp that trucks can drive onto and sparse interior furnishings; it carries everything from machinery to other planes to water for firefighting - and sometimes Antarctic mountain climbers.

click to enlargeSo it was that we left Punta approximately on time for the 4:05 flight to Union. The flight was an exercise in organized chaos as 50 adventurers, dressed in full down, boarded the jet and took our seats three abreast violating one another's personal space with clunky boots and puffy down jackets. But given the inside of the IL was marginally heated no one complained. And we were going to Antarctica!

The in-flight service consisted of receiving a cotton wad to plug our ears due to the lack of insulation inside the IL from the engine noise. Once in flight, we were served a piece of cheese between two slices of white bread along with a cookie. I felt like I was in a scene from The Hunt for Red October as the Russian crew looked on.

click to enlarge A solid thud marked our arrival along with the even louder noise of all four engines in reverse thruster mode - no brakes on the ice. We coasted to a stop on the 3 mile runway.

As soon as the doors opened we knew we had arrived. Walking like penguins, we waddled our way to the door, down the metal stairs and onto the ice. My first step on the Antarctic continent. A moment, a memory, forever stored. The air was crisp. The sky was a turquoise blue. The sun hovered just above the surrounding mountain peaks of the Heritage Range of the Ellsworth Mountains. It was midnight. 

Union Glacier

Met by the Union Glacier ALE team, the big question became when will the Twin Otter fly us to Vinson Base Camp. Yes, we were focused!

click to enlargeThe Union Glacier Camp has several WeatherPorts serving as dining tents plus two dedicated small restrooms. In addition, there are tents or small buildings used as control rooms for directing the IL and Otters; housing pilots and maintenance crew.

With a good weather forecast, we planned on flying to Vinson Base Camp within 18 hours.

Vinson Base Camp and Above

Moving with purpose; pilots, crew and climbers all loaded our Twin Otter plane for the 35 minute flight to Vinson BC. The flight over the Ellsworth Range was astounding. I grabbed a window seat and never saw anything else. The mountains peaked through the snow and ice like ducks bobbing on a smooth lake surface. I looked as far as I could focus and saw nothing but white. The only contrast was the black granite, shale and sandstone of exposed rock - some high pointy bumps but most only specs.

The Twin Otter, a workhorse across the world for short take-offs and landings required in remote areas, came to a bumpy skid on the Branscomb Glacier a few hundred feet from the tents already at Vinson Base Camp. We quickly unloaded our gear and began to establish our own base camp thus making the break from the ALE services. Mt. Vinson's summit peaked above the lower mountains to our North.

click to enlargeA word on Camp protocol - hygiene. There was one central spot surrounded by snow walls for a bucket used for solid waste. Each climber was issued Wag bags to use. We were expected, no required, to use the large plastic bag for solid waste and a community single hole in the ice for liquid waste - no exceptions. The "facility" at Vinson BC had one of the best views I have ever seen!

click to enlargeThe weather was critical to our plans so each evening at 9:30 PM, we tuned the handled VHF radio to a frequency shared by all the Vinson expeditions.

The big picture was that we would use three Camps for our Vinson assault: Base Camp (7,300'), Low Camp (9,100') and High Camp (13,200'). All for the summit at 16,067'.

Each Camp would be identical with tents, toilet areas, snow walls and the dining Posh. We split the loads of personal gear (sleeping bags, extra clothes, climbing gear and personal food) along with the group gear (tents, stoves, pots, fuel and food) between our backpacks and plastic sleds. This is similar to a Denali climb but with smaller loads.

Traveling in roped teams of three or four climbers, we would steadily move higher to get in position for a summit attempt from the High Camp.

The carry to Low Camp was straightforward. We located a spot a little distance from another two teams already at Low Camp, piled the gear into several large duffel bags and returned to Base Camp for a well earned dinner.

The following day was basically a repeat but involved breaking our Base Camp and hauling everything the 5 miles to Low Camp. Once there, we built the snow walls, the Posh pit and settled in assuming a rest and acclimatization day on Wednesday December 1st. But listening to the 9:30 forecast, we learned that our excellent weather would last only one more day before a low pressure system would move in bringing a halt to most climbing activity.

Patience Words from an Expert

click to enlargePhil Ershler. You know how you feel when you meet someone who simply has an aura of competence and confidence for their profession? Phil epitomizes that feeling.

A legend in climbing, he pioneered routes on Everest, K2, Denali and many more mountains. He started as a guide in his twenties and never looked back. Today he runs the South American and European program for International Mountain Guides.

But there is much more to this individual as I learned reading the book Together on Top of the World co-authored with his wife, Susan. Highly recommended.

I listened carefully to Phil as he evaluated our position. His opinion was based on over 20 years of coming to Antarctica and 15+ summits of Mt. Vinson. "Team, given the weather forecast, let's do a carry to High Camp tomorrow instead of a rest day. then we can hunker down here at Low Camp until this front passes. If it takes a day, great. If it takes a week, we will be in great shape staying off the high ridge at High Camp and out of the extreme winds. All you need to do is to be patient."

Thus the plan was in place.

We made the carry to High Camp the next day; the first real "climbing" of the trip. While we could see the upper ridge that hid High Camp, we could only see a small section of the 30 to 45 degree slope that lead there. It took about 45 minutes to reach the base of the slope and the start of the fixed ropes.

click to enlargeIt took about 7 hours to reach High Camp. For the first time, some of us felt the altitude.

At both poles and for mountains like Vinson or Denali, the effective altitude is higher than the true altitude. For Vinson it is about 2,000' higher thus at 13,000' your body feels like it is 15,000' - starting to get serious.

We reached the High Camp and left our duffle's with fuel, food and small amount of gear. Some of our team brought full down suits and left them at High Camp. The views were astounding. For as far as you can see, nothing but snow interspersed with mountain tops.

Returning to Low Camp, we settled in for what turned out to be six days of waiting.

The Wait

With the high ridge to our North, the sun did not hit Camp until 11:30 AM each day. So our schedule was established: breakfast at noon, work in the afternoon, dinner at 10, sleep after midnight. The highlight each day was the weather forecast and new teams arriving from Vinson Base Camp. But we were comfortable and confident especially as we listened to the two teams that moved to High Camp speak of mostly being stuck in their tents due to 30 mph winds and temps well below zero.

The evening of December 7th brought a new forecast - two days of good weather followed by another stretch of high winds. Our window had emerged. We left Low Camp to tackle the steep snow slope but this time it felt faster, easier and more fun.

Clear skies and no winds ushered in the following day as we left High Camp around 9:00 AM. Our three rope teams snaked higher through the Vinson summit glacier taking in the views of Mt's. Shin, Gardner, Tyree and Epperly. The occasional crevasse reminded us of the ever-present dangers and need to stay alert given all the distractions.

Approaching Vinson, Phil called for a rest stop. He wanted us to go off the normal route and climb to the summit using the right-hand variation. This involved a steeper climb to attain a rock ridge to the summit. Everyone was feeling great so off we went with Phil setting a running belay as we gained altitude.


I was following Phil as he came to a high step at a snow wall. "I am touching the summit plateau. Don't fall here!" And with that he took a big step, assumed the stance of a sea captain looking over his crew and monitored each of us as we duplicated his moves.

click to enlargeI stepped on the summit area and immediately saw a small snow prow jutting into the air - a tiny spot symbolizing the highest point on the Antarctic continent. With no control or editing, I let out a whoop of delight. I snapped a few pictures of the team as they continued higher and took out my satellite phone to call my wife.

"We made it!" I squealed into the phone. She squealed back in support and delight. We shared the moment 8000 miles apart. Another moment forever etched in my memory.

click to enlarge

We spent an hour on the summit - forever in mountaineering time. But the skies were clear and there was no wind.

Temps were near -20F but I felt like I was on a beach. I made the audio dispatch to my website announcing our summit.

Also to take note that while achieving this summit was today's goal; finding a cure for Alzheimer's was the purpose. I thanked those who had pledged to donate a penny for very foot I had climbed or $91 for this first of my 7 Summits over the next year.

After all the calls and pictures, I allowed myself to stand quietly. I slowly turned in place for a full circle. Each direction revealed a different landscape, new peaks but all superimposed on a bed of white set against a sky of blue. I closed my eyes and set the view.

click to enlargeI thought of my purpose. I thought of my own family. My Mom. My good fortune to be here and to do what I can to make a difference. This was no ordinary summit.

"OK break it up. Let's get out of here" called out  Obeying like sled dogs, we re-formed our rope teams and made our way lower via the normal route.

The return to High Camp was about 3 hours making for a 11:20 minute round trip. Knowing the weather would turn we made plans to return all the way to Vinson Base Camp the next day. Heaving packs flirting with 70lbs, no sleds now, we navigated the fixed ropes to Low Camp, transferred some of the load to the sleds and arrived at base Camp in late afternoon.

Hurry up and ...

Not a moment to spare, the Twin Otter's low hum announced it's arrival to ferry us back to Union Glacier only 45 minutes after we arrived. If only commercial airlines were so punctual!

click to enlargeOver the next three days we met other climbers and skiers and we all relived our Antarctica experiences listening with one ear for an update on the IL's flight plan.

Monday afternoon, the word came that the 70 mph winds at Punta had let up and the high winds here at Union were forecasted to quiet.

We piled into modified vans and snow cats for the 5 mile ride to the runway arriving as the winds, predicted to calm, picked up with a vengeance.

Ground blizzards blew thin layers of free snow across rock hard ice. I stood quiet letting the wind whip around me. Human figures became blurred objects in the squalls. Even the big jet sitting large and imposing on the hard ice looked vulnerable against Antarctica's winds. We had climbed her highest peak but she was having the last word.

I have competed my normal follow-up for these expeditions. You can read all these on my main site through these links.

- Vinson Trip Report: the complete narrative of the climb with videos and pictures

- Vinson Photo Gallery: Over 100 pictures with descriptive captions of the entire expedition. Use the slideshow feature for easy viewing

- Vinson FAQ: some Frequently Asked Questions about climbing Mt. Vinson

OK, 1 of 7 completed! Next up is the highest in South America, Aconcagua. This is a familiar climb for me with summits in 2001 and 2008. The biggest issue with Aconcagua is usually high winds and of course, altitude. It is the highest peak outside the Himalaya at 22,840′.

As always, I want to acknowledge the support of The Alzheimer’s Immunotherapy Program (AIP) of Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy and Pfizer plus International Mountain Guides for leading the climbs. Without you guys this would not be happening – all to raise research funds to improve treatment and find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Climb On!


Memories are Everything

Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the 7 Summits starting with Mt. Vinson in November 2010 to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.

Filed To: Adventure, Climbing

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