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Vinson Massif with Mountain Madness

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

January 9th

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. 

January 10th

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

January 11th

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

January 12th

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.

January 13th

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

January 14th

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. 

January 15th

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

January 16th

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

January 17th

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