ANTARCTICA - VINSON MASSIF EXPEDITION
EXPEDITION SUMMARY by CONRAD ANKER
The summit of Antarctica is the Vinson Massif, a broad mountain forming the center of the Sentinel Range. At approximately 16,000 feet Vinson is part of the Ellsworth Range, a spine of rock continuing down from the Antarctic Peninsula. It forms a huge dam, holding the west Antarctic ice sheet in check. Running on a north to south axis, the range is a spectacular crest in a unique and wild land.
Our expedition to Vinson was to film a story for NOVA/Science, a PBS series. The goal was to climb the Vinson Massif from the east via a new route and conduct snow studies en route on the glaciers. It was up to our team of eight to climb Vinson and create a compelling story. Liesl Clark from NOVA was along as the producer/director. With two Everest films to her credit, Antarctica was a similar expedition in new territory. John Armstrong a cinematographer with extensive jungle and whitewater experience had climbed Mt. Whitney in the Sierras. Soundman and second cameraman, Rob Raker had climbed the Cassin Ridge on Denali. Dan Stone, a doctorate in geo physics was along as the glaciologist. Having studied glaciers in Canada and Alaska, Dan was excited to study the Ice of Antarctica. Andrew McLean and Dave Hahn were along as field guides. Andrew was recently dubbed the "king of mountain skiing" a point we never let him forget. Dave has 19 ascents of Vinson coming into this expedition and knows the vissitudes of Antarctic weather. Jon Krakauer and I were sharing our second Antarctic adventure together. Our group left the United States for Punta Arenas, Chile on the 13th of December with a stack of climbing and filming equipment.
Adventure Network International (ANI) is the only company that offers flights to the interior of Antarctica. Landing wheeled aircraft onto blue ice runways has enabled Adventure Network International to provide support for naturalists, scientists and adventurers for over 10 years. Flying into Antarctica is subject to the variables of Antarctic weather, so we needed to wait a week in Punta Arenas for flyable conditions. Eventually the conditions permitted the six-hour flight over the Drake Passage and we landed at Patriot Hills the logistic base for Adventure Network International.
Once at Patriot Hills, we played the waiting game once again. We were held fast by a weeklong storm. We were unable to fly to the Sentinel Range and our drop off point at the Flowers Hills. While we waited, we skied, filmed, laughed, cooked, washed, read, slept and pondered our existence. The weather cleared on the first day of the new year. We scrambled to get our gear into the two ski equipped twin Otters for the flight to our drop off point. The landing is "sporty" in the parlance of bush pilots. It was a bit bumpy but without consequence. We off loaded our equipment and said big good-byes to the pilots and Rob Meyer, the production assistant who had been with us up until this point.
The drone of the aircraft was carried away with the winds; we were now out in the middle of no where alone with a small mountain of gear and food we needed to move up the mountain. On the first day, Dave, Andrew and John ferried a load of gear up to the next camp. Liesl, John, Rob and I dug our first snow pit. It was a two meter deep hole in the glacier revealing the stratigraphy the snow. The pits are the time clock of the glaciers. Each season individual storms and big changes in temperature are all recorded within the layers of the snow. Dan measures the density, temperature and crystal size. This information allows him to estimate how much snow accumulates annually at this spot. Our goal was to dig five of these pits enroute to the summit and learn about snow accumulation on alpine glaciers. The digging of the pits may seem mindless back numbing work, but is preferable to "tire dragging". What is tire dragging? For the adventurers who travel to the pole on foot, the preferred method of training is to attach old car tires to one's waist and pull them through the dirt. It is not that glamorous or exciting. Much of expedition work is drudgery and toil. The summit moments do not come without a serious amount of hard work.
We made good progress, a new camp every second day. Our route was a traverse, east to west of the Sentinel Range. We started at the low point, the Flowers Hills. Looking west, we could see the entire range looming before us. We had some 26 odd miles of glaciers to traverse and passes to climb before we stood on the summit. Yet with each day we moved closer to our goal.
Once we made camp on the Hanson Glacier, we needed to carry over a pass into the Dater Glacier, a large basin below the eastern headwall of Vinson. At midnight from this camp, Jon and I decided to ski towards the unclimbed Havener Peak, a small pyramid on the horizon. Skiing in the midnight sun, we rounded towards the base of the peak. What looked like a scramble from the base ended up being a bit more of a climb. We encountered rock climbing up to 5.6 and a small needle of a summit. We laughed and smiled and began the careful descent back to camp.
The following day we made camp on the Dater Glacier, below the eastern headwall. We discussed the various approaches and routes through the ice fall. We moved gear to the base and prepared for the summit bid. Meanwhile the weather did what weather will: it changed and changed again. Andrew decided that a blustery day, in which the winds rip like sheets being torn off of the summit of Vinson, was the right day for a climb of Mount Mohl. With a grin, he left camp with his skis and an ice axe and headed toward the north coliour. He reached the summit and skied the 47-degree slope with minimal effort arrives back to camp with a happy countenance that can only be from having stood on an unclimbed peak.
Our timeline was coming to a close. We needed to make the summit and plan our return back to Patriot Hills, Chile and our homes in the United States. Dan and Jon climbed ahead to get a jump on the science work. Digging a snow pit on the summit plateau is quite a bit of work. The hard snow requires extra effort to dig the required two meters into the snow. Meanwhile, we made the climb up to the high camp with our equipment and the camera gear. Our camp was exposed to any storm that might whip up. It was akin to camping on an anvil with a huge hammer poised above camp. In a worst case scenario, we could have been blown off this desolate spot. In the best case scenario, we could have had agreeable weather and made a bid for the summit.
After a cold night, (somehow night seems like a misnomer in the constant sun of the astral summer) we stirred the camp and into action. To reach the summit from our camp involved a climb of 4000 feet. The temps were cold and the biting wind was in our faces. We made good time, after leaving camp at 11 in the morning. The summit plateau was a bit disorientating. Small peaks abound and it was tricky not knowing which one might be the actual summit. The summit was the furthest from our camp and required extra effort to reach. By good luck and perseverance, we all made the top at 8:30 in the evening. The ambient temperature was - 35 Farenheit coupled with a stiff breeze brought the temperature to about -70. We covered all of our exposed skin and quickly did what is needed on the summit. Dan warmed up the GPS and was able to take a measurement, the third measurement of Vinson and the first from the summit. The preliminary data indicated it was a bit lower than the 1979 measurement. Dan packed up his gear and we headed down the mountain.
We reached the summit on the 14th of January. It was the 20th time Dave had reached the summit and the first for Liesl, John, Rob, Andrew, Dan and Jon. It was a fantastic culmination to a trip that required a bit of hard work and a pinch of patience.