Vinson Massif Expedition — January 2 – 25, 2015
Thank you to our climber, Dave Creeden, for sharing his experience on our recent Vinson Massif expedition in Antarctica!
The Vinson Massif is the highest mountain (16,050 feet) in Antarctica located in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains, lying at a latitude of little more than 78 degrees south.
I signed up to climb Vinson with Mountain Madness and our group was led by an excellent guide Ossy Freire from Quito, Ecuador.
Our guide Ossy Freire relaxing at Union Glacier field camp. Oswaldo Freire photo
Although he is a very experienced guide, this would be his first attempt to climb Vinson, so it offered a personal reward for him to scale this mountain too. There were two other clients besides myself. Urszula from Calgary, Alberta, and Jean-Pierre (J.P.) from Holland.
I left Sea-Tac on January 5th, a day earlier than necessary, with four check-in bags, two and half of which were full of group gear. A Mountain Madness employee, Steve G., met me at the airport, with two of the bags, to ease my burden by assisting me with checking the bags onto my flight. I flew from Sea-Tac to Punta Arenas, Chile, with stopovers in LA, Lima and Santiago, spending a little over 30 hours in transit. From the Punta Arenas airport I took a 30 minute taxi ride to my hotel room located downtown, where I soon meet Ossy and transferred the group gear to him. Over the next 24 hours Urszula and J.P. arrived.
The team spent January 6 – 8 getting organized for our flight from Punta Arenas to Union Glacier, Antarctica along with seeing the sites of Punta Arenas.
These guys could play in Carlos Santana’s percussion section. Dave Creeden photo
The logistics for traveling to and around Antarctica are handled by the company Antarctic Logistic and Expeditions (ALE).
They operate a blue-ice runway about 5½ miles away from the field camp that allows a Russian jet cargo aircraft Ilyushin II-76 to land and takeoff. This aircraft was designed to cope with the worst weather conditions in Siberia. There is also a runway right next to the field camp in which Twin Otter and Basler BT-67 (retrofitted DC‑3 with turboprop engines) ski planes can operate from. They use these aircraft to fly clients to the South Pole and climbers up to Vinson Base Camp.
On the evening of the 8th, all the climbing team members, people flying to the South Pole and people doing various other activities on the continent, attended a meeting at ALE’s office in town.
There were a total of 42 clients flying to Union Glacier field camp. ALE briefed us about the flight along with the do’s and don’t’s while on the continent. The key bit of info was that the flying conditions were within the parameters of the Ilyushin II-76, so it was all systems go for departure the next morning.
ALE’s meteorologist giving us a weather briefing. Dave Creeden photo
The clients were staying at numerous hotels around town, so in the morning ALE used three light trucks to go around to the hotels to collect baggage, while the clients were transported to the airport in vans.
The duration of the flight to Union Glacier was about 4 hours and 20 minutes, arriving around 12:30 PM.
Photo of the interior of the Ilyushin II-76, looking aft. Dave Creeden photo
The Ilyushin had a large flat panel screen mounted above the flight officer’s station, so you could watch the flight’s progress on a map, along with a video feed of the flight via a cam mounted on the lower nose cone of the aircraft.
Upon landing the aircraft, the Ilyushin does not immediately apply brakes, but uses its thrust reversers to gradually slow down instead. What a sleigh ride!
The clients hopped into especially designed 4 x 4 snow vehicles for the 5 ½ mile ride to the Union Glacier field camp, while our baggage came along on sleds towed by snow cats.
Dave, Urszula and J.P. at blue ice runway at Union Glacier. Dave Creeden photo
Snow cat hauling precious fuel at Union Glacier field camp. Oswaldo Freire photo
We had lunch in one of the large tents set up for clients. There was a box containing rubber stamps with various designs of Antarctica, the South Pole and Vinson that tourists can use to stamp their passports if they wish. I found one for Antarctica that I liked and stamped my passport. I found a cool rubber stamp for Vinson, but I didn’t stamp my passport. I would wait until after I climbed Vinson before I stamped my passport. Ossy and J.P. stamped their Passports with the Vinson rubber stamp anyway and we teased each other about whether or not it was bad luck to do so.
Union Glacier field camp, with baggage stacked up and ready to be loaded. Dave Creeden photo
Around 3 PM the various climbing teams began flying into Vinson Base Camp on the two Twin Otters. At 4 PM our group flew on the Basler, which cannot land at Vinson Base Camp (7,000 feet). After about a 30 minute flight we landed at an intermediate runway, then unloaded our gear. After a short wait, the Twin Otters arrived and we reloaded our gear to complete the flight to Vinson Base Camp, arriving around 5:30 PM.
Loading up a Twin Otter at intermediate runway for flight to Vinson Base Camp. Oswaldo Freire photo
At 9:30 PM, Ossy attended a meeting of the guides called by ANI, to go over the coordination of the movement by all the climbing teams on the mountain. There were two especially large climbing groups on the mountain, ANI (18 people) and Alpine Ascents (About a dozen people). It was determined that the Mountain Madness group would leave around 2:30 PM.
The obvious difference about climbing in Antarctica during this time of year, is that you don’t need to be concerned about darkness. However there are certain times of time that it is strongly recommend that you climb, because if weather is clear you will out of the shade, so it will be warmer. For example, Vinson Base Camp is in the shade from 3:00 to 5:00, so teams generally leave for Low Camp in the late morning or afternoon. At Low Camp, it is covered in shade from about 3:00 to 11:30, so teams leave camp around 13:00 to 14:00 hours. High Camp is in the shade from 23:00 to 8:00 hours, so teams generally leave for the summit after 8:00.
Ossy and Urszula getting sleds loaded at Vinson Base Camp for ascent to Low Camp. Dave Creeden photo
Ossy’s plan was for us to move all our gear from Vinson Base Camp to Low Camp at 9,000 feet. Other groups planned to do a carry to Low Camp and then return to BC. We loaded our sleds with about half of our gear and the remainder we carried on our backpacks. We strapped on our crampons and roped up for the gradual ascend up the Branscomb Glacier, with the route taking a left turn after about 2 ½ miles. Another 3 miles across flat terrain led us to Low Camp. There were several crevasses on the inside corner of the glacier, along with a couple crevasses across the flagged route – but no show stoppers. There was steep rock cliffs partially covered with snow, along with seracs, on the right hand side of the route.
Group hauling sleds up Branscomb Glacier to Low Camp. Oswaldo Freire photo
The weather was clear and cold for this planned rest day, which gave us a chance to acclimatize. Due to the thinning of the atmosphere at polar regions, the elevation feels higher (For example 9,000 feet, feels like 11,000 feet). Other climbing parties arrived during the day, including a large group from ANI.
Low camp. Oswaldo Freire photo
The plan for this day was to do to a carry to High Camp at 12,400 feet. This involved ascending a series of fixed lined over 3,000 feet, up to 45 degrees. The weather was overcast with visibility less than half a mile, with no wind. We walked a little under 2 km to the bottom of the headwall. In a way I felt it was fortunate that the visibility was poor, so you couldn’t see how far the monotonous ascend was that we jumared up. At the top of the headwall we took a break and discussed various options. Given a variety of factors, we decided to turn back to Low Camp. We unloaded our backpacks and stashed our gear in plastic bags in the nearby rocks, then descended to Low Camp.
Everyone was feeling good today, so we broke camp and loaded up our backpacks for the grunt up the headwall. The weather had cleared so we had splendid views on our ascent up the fixed lines. There was a moderate breeze which kept me from overheating.
A rest stop amongst the rocks, about halfway up the headwall. Low Camp in middle ground. Dave Creeden photo
Urszula and Ossy taking a snack break. Dave Creeden photo
At the top of the headwall we jammed the gear we stashed the previous day into and onto our already full packs. We then trudged the remaining distance to High Camp. We had great views of Mt Shinn along with other peaks, but the actual summit of Vinson was not within line of sight from High Camp. By the end of the day there was a horde of climbers in position for an attempt on the summit.
Group takes a break on approach to High Camp. Mt. Shinn in the background. Oswaldo Freire photo
This was a planned rest day to get ready for our push for the summit the next day. A group of four Austrian climbers left for the summit a little before 11 AM. The weather was partially overcast, so the views were poor. ALE provides twice daily weather cast info for the guides, at noon and 7 PM. Ossy listened attentively to the 7 PM forecast which sounded promising.
Ossy got up first around 7 AM to visually check the weather. Just being in the tent, I could notice that there was little or no breeze and I could see the sun shining on the rainfly of the tent, so I felt optimistic that we would go. We got a thumbs up from Ossy shortly thereafter, so we got up had a quick meal and packed for the summit.
Group just leaving High Camp for the summit. Oswaldo Freire photo
We roped up together and left around 9 AM and reached the summit around 2:30 PM. The route was pretty straight forward, with a short section of rock scrambling along the ridgeline to the top. Later I learned that 32 people reached the summit on this day, which set a new record. I overheard someone state that the temperature on top was ‑30 degrees F. There was an occasional 10 to 15 mph breeze.
Ossy, Urszula, J.P. and Dave on the summit. Oswaldo Freire photo
On the way down, we stopped for a break. I happened to be first in line on the rope and after I dropped my backpack I turned around I saw Ossy was standing right next to me with a big grin on his face and holding up his right arm waiting for me to give him a high five. I swung my right arm back into a big wind up and gave him an enthusiastic high five followed by a warm embrace. This climb was special for our guide Ossy too, for this was his first ascent of Vinson. Once we arrived back at High Camp, Urszula walked up to me to give me a big hug and I told her how happy and proud I was for her to have reached the summit.
Panorama from the summit towards Mt. Shinn. Oswaldo Freire photo
I slept long and well. We left High Camp around mid-day with huge loads for the descent of the headwall. We reached Low Camp around mid-afternoon, where we took a long break to eat, drink and to reload some of our gear onto sleds.
Basking in the warmth of the sun at our kitchen, before heading down to Base Camp. Oswaldo Freire photo
Seracs between Vinson Base Camp and Low Camp. Dave Creeden photo
Then we completed our journey down the Branscomb Glacier to Vinson Base Camp. It was worth the effort to go all the way to Vinson Base Camp, so we didn’t have to set and break down camp at Low Camp.
Group heading down Branscomb Glacier, with sleds in tow. Oswaldo Freire photo
Welcome sign at Vinson Base Camp. Dave Creeden photo
The order in which climbing groups arrived at Vinson Base Camp basically determined the order in which people flew out to Union Glacier field camp. Several parties began flying out by Twin Otter in the late morning and early afternoon. Our turn arrived around 5 PM. We had fantastic views on our flight to Union Glacier, arriving in time for a wonderful meal. I also stamped my passport with the Vinson stamp!
Passport with the Antarctica rubber stamps! Dave Creeden photo
January 18 – 21
It was very windy overnight on the 18th, with the vestibules of our tent being filled by wind driven snow. The next scheduled flight by the Ilyushin to Punta Arenas was scheduled for the 20th. The high winds and cold temperatures continued through the 20th, preventing us from departing as hoped. I spent time reading, listening to music and attending twice daily presentations by Adam of the ALE staff about various polar explorers. The weather broke clear and calm on the morning of the 21st, which, to everyone’s joy, allowed us to fly to Punta Arenas arriving in town around 8 PM.
Loading gear at Union Glacier field camp for departure to blue ice runway. Dave Creeden photo
January 22 – 25
Spent part of the morning of the 22nd at the LAN Chile office re-booking my flights home, with my departure being early on the 24th. The return flight was not as efficient as my flight down, as I was in transit over 40 hours. Thus ended an incredible trip to Antarctica, which included awesome sights and the chance to meet numerous people from all over the world.
~ MM Climber Dave Creeden