The Gear You Need to Hike Mt. Vinson
Famed explorer Alan Arnette gives us the inside scoop on what he wears to stay warm in the South Pole
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
As I get closer to leaving for Antarctica, it is time to layout all my gear and check, double check and check again. Overall, I will take almost the same items I used on Everest or other 8,000 meters climbs even though Vinson is “only” about 5,000 meters or 16,067 feet.
It’s the Wind, Captain Scott
While temps can hit -40 degrees Fahrenheit, it is the wind that creates the extreme danger. Katabatic winds are the culprit. These winds come down from the high mountains sometimes at hurricane force bringing all activity to a halt, including flights in and out. Of note is the first flights for the 2010 season have been delayed over a week as of this post.
I am limited to 50 pounds of personal gear on the Russian IIyushin 76 cargo plane which will take us from the tip of South America, Punta Arenas, Chili to Union Glacier, Antarctica, basically a GPS coordinate on the ice at 79° 45′S 083° 14′W at 2,600 feet. Weather depending, a Twin Otter then takes us to Vinson Base Camp, located at 7,200 feet on the Branscomb Glacier to start the climb.
The biggest challenge is to manage the heat and extreme cold; so as usual this calls for layers. I start with a base layer of Merino wool tops and bottom, another merino wool top (with zips for venting) then add a Polartec one piece suit. This is what I will live in the entire climb.
The outer layer begins with a solid soft shell stretch pant. These are lined and wind resistant. On top is a heavier wool hoody with a full zip or a lightweight wind shirt (with hood) if I need a bit more warmth but no serious wind protection.
As the wind picks up or I get cold, I start to add layers. My first line of defense begins with a soft shell wind resistant jacket or a lighter down jacket. At this point I begin to get serious about hand and head protection.
I always have my wool cap on plus a pair of lightweight gloves. As I get cold, I simply pull my hood up since it is rare for me not to have a hood on something I am wearing. I use a glove system that goes from liners to wind protection to serious cold protection to full mittens depending on the conditions. They are all available on an outer pack pocket or on the top inside my pack for easy access.
A thick balaclava protects my entire face when needed. My glacier glasses never come off and are always attached with a strap. Like my mittens, my goggles are never far away.
For Vinson, I am keenly aware that the weather can change a moments notice so having access to my last layers is the difference between being uncomfortable or worse. On my legs goes down pants and for the ultimate my full Gortex bibs with full length zips so I can get them on in under a minute while wearing crampons. On top goes my 800 fill down jacket with full hood. And the piece de resistance is my Gortex hardshell, with hood.
Remember, my goal is to never have more than three layers, not including my wool base top and bottom, on at any one time so a bit of quick change is required. Something I have been practicing on harsh training days. All my clothes are packed unzipped, including full length leg zips to allow for a quick addition.
If I am still cold at this point, it is time to crawl back in the tent and my -20 bag!
Last thing to cover are the feet. I am using an integrated gator/boot system with an insulated inner boot. Two pairs of socks, one light and one a bit heavier do the trick.
Odds and Ends
A few more items are my technical gear for climbing: harness, crampons, 70cm ice axe, jumar, caribiners, prusiks, cord and crampons. I also have two water bottles with insulators, small thermos, cup and bowl. I have not mentioned but also critical are some meds and personal toilet items.
For me I also carry my electronics so I can send dispatches. This starts with a satellite phone and PDA plus a small solar panel and various cords. Of course I have my camera and POV video camera. One thing not needed on Vinson is a headlamp since the sun never sets in November!
All of this goes in my 85 liter pack. In addition, I am hauling a sled which is tied to my pack. Somehow all my personal gear plus some group gear including parts of tents, food, stoves, fuel, etc. is split between pack and sled. By the way, this is almost identical to the scheme on Denali.
If you want to see more specifics on brands and models, take a look at my gear page where I list all my gear and note my favorites. One of my goals with the Seven Summits climbs is to create what I am calling the Ultimate Seven Summit gear list that shows what works best across all seven climbs.
I’ll report back after Vinson and let you know what is different for Aconcagua, the next climb.
Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the Seven Summits starting with Mt. Vinson in November 2010 to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.