40th Anniversary of the 1st Ascent of Mt. Vinson
A Trip Report
Text and photos by Bill Straka
Several times over the years, I have been invited to visit Antarctica. In each case, even though the trip would have been connected in some way with my profession, it never worked out. In the meantime, I visited other continents and climbed and skied a number of mountains on rock, ice, and snow. This year, a brief note in the American Alpine Club’s newsletter caught my eye. There was to be an expedition marking the Fortieth Anniversary of the First Ascent of Mt. Vinson, the highest peak on the Antarctic continent. My neighbor, and fellow climber from the 1960s, Nick Clinch, had been the leader of that expedition. I immediately got on the phone to see if he was going, and to get his advice.
It is always a pleasure and delight to talk to Nick and to hear his wonderful tales of climbing around the world. That evening was no exception. Although Nick had decided that he was not in shape to go, he encouraged me to go, and said he would tell some of the original group who were going that I would be joining them. His main advice was the advice he said Sir Edmond Hillary had given him when Nick accepted the leadership role, “Take down, lots of down.”
I contacted the organization handling the logistics, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. ALE runs the Patriot Hills site that is the starting point of many of the non-governmental expeditions to Antarctica, whether a climb of Mt. Vinson (formerly named the Vinson Massif), a ski trek of the Last Degree (from 89 degrees South Latitude to the South Pole), or other ambitious treks. They handle the flights to and from Patriot Hills in a leased Ilyushin 76 and ferry people to starting points in Twin Otters. Commercially guided expeditions for people seeking to complete the Seven Summits circuit use ALE to provide access and transport supplies, as well as for private expeditions and providing guides for individuals wanting to do various expeditions.
ALE also interviews private expeditions and their own clients extensively to ensure that people are sufficiently experienced and are aware of the stringent environmental practices required of all parties on the ice, although they depend on the commercial guide services to screen their own clients. Among the rules is that all materials taken to the continent must be removed, including all human waste as well as food waste and gear. This is far more stringent than any other part of the world, but helps to insure that the unique Antarctic environment is preserved as well as possible from human impact.
While in Yosemite Valley in October for the dedication of the Camp 4 Historical Plaque, I met a cinematographer, Tony Puyol, who had a personal project of documenting climbers who had started climbing while young, but were continuing to climb well into their senior years. I suggested he get in contact with the various participating parties, since this expedition would seem to fit in with his project. Ultimately, things worked out, and Tony did indeed come along, laden with high definition video equipment (the camera was 18 pounds by itself, plus batteries and a hefty tripod) and still cameras. He gathered many hours of footage, including onto the summit of Vinson. While a lot of work is involved in editing and producing a final video, I am looking forward eagerly to seeing the final product. In the meantime, this is a selection of the photos I took with some commentary.
Patriot Hills (S 80d 18m 55.4s, W 81d 20m 28.1s, 782 meters) and Mt. Vinson (S 78d 31m 31.7s, W 85d 37m 1.6s, 4897 meters) are located roughly along a line between the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Pole. An acquaintance and friend of mine, Damien Gildea, is engaged in an extensive mapping project of the Ellsworth Mountains, and particularly the Sentinel Range that includes Vinson. When the idea of the project was being developed, I was working at Lockheed Martin on a series of projects involving the modernization of the Navstar Global Positioning System (usually referred to as the GPS) and various applications using the GPS for precision location and navigation. I provided some advice to Damien and directed him to manufacturers of precision GPS survey-grade receivers, as well as sources of information for other projects in which Lockheed was involved, such as the Iridium satellite phone system and what became the Ikonos imaging satellite, run by Space Imaging, a Lockheed spinoff. These have proved invaluable in the mapping project, as run by the Omega Foundation, and I am happy to have played a small role in its success.
After going through the needed arrangements (such as the required evacuation insurance) and many enjoyable email exchanges with Nick Lewis of ALE, I finally checked my huge bags of climbing gear and climbed on the plane Dec 12, at San Francisco International on a day of pouring rain for the first leg to Dallas Fort Worth. As usual for climbing expeditions to remote places, I carried my down gear in my carry-on and wore my climbing boots. This invited some suspicious looks at the security gate, but they let me through with no real hassles. On arrival at DFW and finding the gate for my next leg to Santiago, I spotted a group of 3 faces who looked like older versions of the climbers I had seen in the photographs in the American Alpine Journal and National Geographic articles on the first ascent back in 1966. Sam, Brian, and Eiichi greeted me warmly and welcomed me to the expedition. It turned out that Brooke, the son of Bill Long, was on our flight as well. Bill, like Nick Clinch, was not in good enough health to join us, so his son took on the task of representing him.
Before long, we boarded the plane for Santiago and a long flight through the night, trying to get a few minutes of sleep. As the dawn began to appear over the Andes, we made our descent into Santiago. We were greeted by an official delegation who shepherded us through the immigration and customs formalities very expeditiously. We still had many of the complications of forms to fill out, the “reciprocity fee” to pay, and retrieval of our baggage (though the bags were rapidly conveyed for us to our waiting flight to Punta Arenas). Pete Schoening’s daughter, Lisa, joined us in Santiago, after her flight from Germany and was also on the hop to Punta Arenas.
There was too much cloud cover to see much on the way to Punta Arenas. Again, on arrival, we were shepherded through all the complications of baggage claim and provided transportation to our various accommodations. Tony, our cinematographer, was already there, as was John Evans, one of the original party, and who has worked for many years with scientific expeditions heading for Antarctica.
Several of us were at the Hostal FitzRoy, including a group who would be skiing the Shackleton last segment. The next two days were spent in exploring Punta Arenas, gear checks, getting acquainted with others in our own and other Antarctic-bound groups, and getting a very interesting briefing that included a presentation by Dr. Charles Swithinbank, one of the world’s leading glaciologist and an expert on Antarctic ice. During my explorations in the town, I came across this statue in the main plaza of Punta Arenas. It commemorates the discovery of the Straits of Magellan in 1520, and in particular, the final section connecting to the Pacific Ocean. The legend is that if you touch the toe of the foot of one of the figures (bright and shiny from all the touching), you will return some day.
The afternoon of Dec 15, the truck came by to pick up all of our “checked” bags. Early the next morning, we had a false alarm that the bus had arrived to pick us up. The real bus arrived that afternoon at 4:30, after I discovered that I had neglected to put my crampons into my checked bag. No worries, though, since we left our hand luggage on the bus while we went through the formalities of a security check. Since we were leaving Chile, we went through the standard exit process with Customs and Immigration.
Then onto the Ilyushin. We sat in fold-down seats along the sides of the cargo bay, with our “checked” gear under cargo nets in front of us down the center, piled high on top of a few hundred fuel drums. After a cursory safety briefing, we took off for the 4.5 hour flight to the ice. There are only a couple of windows, so there were no views to speak of. Snacks were passed out, and we were invited to visit the cockpit one at a time.
After landing on the blue ice runway, we walked the kilometer to the dining tent for greetings, briefing, assignment to our “clamshell” tents for the “night”, reclaiming our baggage, and settling down for a comfortable sleep. The clamshells have a rigid metal frame and are shaped to shed the wind extremely well. They are equipped with full box spring and mattress beds, though you have to use your own sleeping bag.
Dec 17, we got a tour of camp, including the comms shack, where Jaco (the weather person) and Adam (the radio operator) work. In the afternoon, we loaded our gear onto the Twin Otters for the flight to Vinson Base Camp. On getting in, the pilots asked if there was anything special we would like to see. The answer, of course, was that we wanted to see the peaks recently named after the members of the first ascent party. The result was a half-hour flying tour of the entire Vinson Massif and lots of picture taking.
The photo here is Mt. Vinson as seen from the airstrip. It is possible to climb Vinson by approaching up the ice fall to the plateau, then up one of the ridges visible in the summit block.
The next image shows the route normally used, going up the Branscom Glacier. Vinson Base is just off the lower left of the photo, while the summit is behind the wing in the upper right. Some parties go directly to Low Camp, then to High Camp, then to the summit. Our group made an intermediate stop at Camp One Half, then Low Camp. At Low Camp, part of us made a carry to High Camp, while three did an excursion to “Sam’s Col”, the original approach route. After a rest day, on which Sam returned to Vinson Base, then flew out to Patriot Hills to await our return, the rest of us moved to High Camp, took a rest day, then made the summit attempt.
While I took many photos during the flight, I only include this one showing Mt. Shinn. The Branscom comes in from the right, then up the obvious headwall to the plateau to the right of Shinn, where High Camp is located. The original route came from the branch of the Nimitz Glacier (coming from the lower left), through “Sam’s Col” (the notch in the ridge below Shinn) and then up the headwall. The first ascent party had one more camp above High Camp that is rarely used these days.
On landing, we gathered for a group photo. From left to right, the people are Tony, John, Brooke, me, the two pilots, Sam, Lisa, Eiichi, and Brian.
Shortly after we arrived and were setting up our tents, this tall fellow walked up and introduced himself. I immediately recognized Damo (Damien Gildea), even though I had never met him in person before, if for no other reason than his legendary height. It was good to meet in person after all these years of email correspondence! Our whole group had a long discussion about the mapping project, and admired the current version. Damo said there are revisions in progress, several of which he pointed out to us.
Not long after this, I heard a familiar voice greeting me, Kurt Wedberg. Kurt is the son of John Wedberg, a mentor and climbing partner of mine from the 1960s, when I climbed a lot with the Angeles Rock Climbing Section in Southern California. Kurt is a mountain guide these days. Many good reminiscences here.
The tents we were given to use during the trip were Kelty Windfoil 3, nominally a 3-person tent, but tight for 2 with gear. Also, since these are hoop or tunnel tents, they have to be staked, but the set-up process requires inserting the poles before staking. The poles are quite difficult to fully insert, even with the pull-tape provided. We agreed that we would not want to set these up in windy or other stormy conditions. Luckily, at the other campsites, there were some tents that had been set up by previous ALE groups and left for us, which reduced the hassle to only one or two tents to set up at each site.
On Dec 19, we gathered our gear and headed for Camp One Half. Tim, the ALE guide who had been assigned to escort us, made it clear from the start that he considered our party to be the most experienced group he had ever worked with and not really in need of guiding. He would be more of an escort and advisor on current conditions with us making most of the decisions. He told us that there had been two recent incidents, one with a climber falling into a crevasse through inattention, and the other involving HAPE. The party with the crevasse fall had made a bivouac due to storm conditions and ended up with the victim getting serious cold injuries. The party with HAPE was a climb including a heart transplant patient and two doctors. The transplant patient was just fine, but both the doctors had gotten HAPE and needed assistance in evacuation. By the time they met us later that day, they were just fine (treatment for HAPE is basically just get lower in altitude, after all).
We stopped at Camp One Half, largely to do our acclimatization slowly. As the photo shows, the weather as we moved up was a bit on the murky side.
On Dec 20, we moved to Low Camp. The weather included winds at the higher elevations, as evident from the clouds over Tyree (in the background). Sam’s Col is visible behind Eiichi, standing near our Posh Tent (the dining tent). While at Low Camp, I discovered that the Garmin 60CSx had a peculiar feature that Damo had mentioned to me that he had discovered in the eTrex Vista that he carried for navigation (his surveys are carried out with a Trimble survey-grade instrument and post processing). In several of the Garmin pocket GPSRs, the primary altitude information comes from a barometric sensor. This sensor can be calibrated by setting a known altitude, a known barometer setting (QNH), or from the current GPS-derived altitude. The 60CSx can also be set to update the calibration automatically every 15 minutes from the barometric sensor. However, there is a peculiarity in that if the barometric altitude is greater than the altitude set from the GPS data or “known altitude” by some amount, the indicated altitude is over-ridden to show the barometric altitude. At this writing, I have gotten no clear explanation from Garmin’s technical support group of this “feature”.
I did record the absolute pressure at several known locations to do a rough check on the rumored “thinning” of the atmosphere in polar regions. I used locations where Damo had determined the altitude very accurately and one location where I was able to note the GPS-derived altitude on the 60CSx before it switched to the default barometric altitude. The excess altitude ranged from 850 feet at the Patriot Hills location of 2566 feet to 1580 feet at the High Camp location at a surveyed altitude of 12139 feet. In other words, the equivalent altitude derived from the ICAO Standard Atmosphere Tables for QFE of 17.77 in. Hg is 13720 ft.
Dec 21, since Sam was not sure he would be up to continuing to High Camp, he, Eiichi, and Brian went over to Sam’s Col to see how things had changed in the 40 years, while the rest of us carried a load to High Camp. I didn’t get any photos during this, mainly because I only took the Canon P&S and did not notice that the switch was in the “view” rather than the “take pictures” position. On Dec 22, Sam decided he would return to Vinson Base and to Patriot Hills to await our return. Brooke and Patti (Tim’s assistant guide) accompanied Sam to Vinson Base while the rest of us took a rest day.
Dec 23, we moved to High Camp. Yes, that is a Kelty external frame pack on Brian’s back. It was actually the very pack he carried during the first ascent expedition in 1966. The next photo is at a rest stop shortly before the steeper part of the Headwall. I had decided to leave the Nikon at Low Camp, a decision made because of the extra weight of the D200 plus 28-300 lens. In retrospect, the extra quality of the photos and a later malfunction of the Canon due probably to the cold makes this decision seem like a mistake.
At High Camp, we met a couple parties preparing to head down. On arrival at High Camp, I discovered that the Garmin could not find any satellites, a problem that continued to baffle me until return to California. On return I discovered that somehow the chipset software had gotten erased from the unit (the 60CSx has two sets of software that show up in the “version” window, the other set still showing up with the correct version). At this writing, I have received no indication from Garmin tech reps as to the possible cause of this glitch.
Dec 24 was a rest day, with a temperature of -20F. Dec 25 was summit day. John put on his Santa Claus hat for Christmas Day, and he, Eiichi, and Brian posed with the 40th Anniversary flag and special ice axes they would carry to the summit. Those red parkas are the original Eddie Bauer expedition parkas worn on the first ascent. The down pants on Brian were the original Bauer down pants, as well.
There was some wind, as shown in this photo of Mt Shinn from High Camp. As everyone gathered to rope up, I discovered that I was having a problem putting one crampon on, and that I was feeling somewhat nauseous. Because of this, I decided not to go with the group.
This photo shows the group setting out. I regretted this decision within an hour, since the nausea passed and I felt very fit. My O2 saturation was at 92 percent, which was plenty good for the altitude. The only thing I can attribute it to is that I did not have a real supper the night before, only some snacks of trail mix. The group returned after a 12 hour day. As it turned out, only Brooke and Tony of our group summited, along with the two guides, Tim and Patti. The rest stopped about 100-200 feet below summit.
Dec 26 was a bit colder and somewhat breeze, as evident in this photo of Shinn. We packed and headed down.
This photo is the only one on the headwall that turned out. For some reason, the shutter cover on the Canon did not retract fully, accounting for the diagonal blockage. Nonetheless, you can get some idea of the steeper part of the headwall. The crevasse that the earlier party had fallen into is visible in front of Eiichi, with our tracks going across the snow bridge.
We picked up the gear we had left at Low Camp and continued to Vinson Base. During the last couple of miles, we encountered thick fog and whiteout conditions. Luckily, when Brooke and Patti had returned from escorting Sam back to Base, Patti had placed a number of extra wands. Still, visibility was often down to less than a rope length, which slowed progress considerably. Those of us with beards accumulated a lot of ice, as this photo of me shows.
The weather was poor enough over the next three days that the Twin Otters were not able to come to Vinson Base to retrieve us, nor were they able to retrieve several groups who were waiting at the South Pole after their various Last Degree trips. While waiting, we had splendid meals of lamb curry, broiled salmon, and other dishes, including fresh vegetables and fruit and splendid desserts. We amused ourselves in such activities as improving the windwalls around the latrine and skiing on one of the local hills.
We borrowed skis and snowboards from the guides, some of which would accept our climbing boots. The second of these photos shows four who took split boards up to the little peak. In the third one, I was using my Invernos, which proved quite soft for skiing in Alistair’s Silvretta bindings, but at least worked (my tracks are the larger S-turns in the first of the 3 photos).
We even spent time taking photos of each other taking photos. I particularly enjoyed hearing stories of classic climbs done by the originals. John, for example, was one of the party that did the first (and only) ascent of Hummingbird Ridge on Logan.
Finally, late on Dec 29, a Twin Otter arrived, here landing on the 400 foot, 6 degree sloped snow runway (Runway 03, if it were officially named).
The next photo is a view of unnamed and unclimbed peaks between Vinson Base and Patriot Hills. Some of the expeditions skiing from Hercules Inlet to Vinson and via Patriot Hills to the South Pole go through this area. But otherwise, it is pretty much unexplored.
The next few days saw strong enough cross winds that the Ilyushin could not land on the blue ice runway (greater than 18 knots), although the Twin Otters could land on the snow into the wind with their skis. There was talk of an Antonov carrying some Russian VIPs coming in, since it could handle 30 knot crosswinds. So we had to continue to amuse ourselves. We celebrated New Years Eve in grand fashion, with champagne and a fantastic dinner, This photo shows John assisting with the balloons, with the ladder held by our chief hostess, Fran.
The next shows the Indian Navy group who skied the Last Degree. Sam is at the next table, along with Fran. Barely visible to the right behind one of the Indians, the blonde woman is Hannah McKeand, who had just set the new record for an unsupported ski trek to the South Pole in under 40 days, beating the old record of 42 days.
As the days wore on with high wind conditions, we received word on January 3 that a severe storm in Punta Arenas had damaged part of the tail on the Ilyushin. It would require 5 days to get the part from the Ukraine and time to repair. Soon we ran out of beer, and had to make do with wine at the meals. We also ran out of fresh fruit and vegetables. In this photo Eiichi is using the supply of salmon, avocado, and other things to make fresh sushi (yes, we did suffer). For meat, we were reduced to having to make do with smoked salmon, broiled salmon, beef roast, broiled chicken, frozen vegetables, caviar, etc. For breakfasts, we had to make do with scrambled eggs, quiche, and omelettes (from fresh eggs) and toast from fresh bread, plus pancakes, bacon, and sausage. Lunches were various sandwiches on fresh baked bread.
For amusement, many games of pingpong were played on the reduced-size table, and we did various hikes and climbs in the area.
Brooke and I hiked over to the nearby Chilean camp, unoccupied this season. This was an interesting structure of a metal framework covered with a reinforced plastic fabric, with fiberglass pods coming off the main tunnel. There was an opening which we used for entry.
Inside, we were both reminded instantly of the old horror movie “The Thing”, which took place at an Antarctic station. We could just envision James Arness coming from around the bend in the tunnel or emerging from one of the pods (Arness played the Thing in one of his early, pre-Marshal Dillon roles). Even the kitchen and dining area looked as if it had been abandoned on short notice, with the cookies neatly laid out and the can with instant coffee. We found the propane tank turned on, though the stove was turned off. For safety, we turned the main gas tank off.
One of the ALE staff had a collection of ski kites and sails, which were put to good use by all novice kiters. When the wind is right, you can travel quickly long distances. But sometimes, the wind does not cooperate.
Some years ago, when a DC6 was being used to fly to Patriot Hills, they tried to land in whiteout conditions. Instead they landed some five miles short of the runway. Over time, snow has drifted to cover all of the plane except for the upper 5 or 6 feet of the rudder (there is very little actual snowfall in Antarctica). Luis, one of the staff, Simon, one of the medics, and I went out to the plane on SkiDoos one day. Since we did not take a GPSR with us, we almost did not find it, going about 2.5 km beyond it. On the way back, I spotted the tail shape in the near whiteout conditions about 100 meters to the side of our path.
The Russian VIPs were to fly in on the Antonov, preceded by two MI-18 helicopters. We were assured that these VIPs were officials of GazProm, the big oil company, on some kind of company tour. We wondered a bit about why the helicopters sported a camo paint scheme, but were assured by the one crew member who could speak English moderately well that these were civilian aircraft. We did wonder a bit about the person they kept addressing as “General”, the side-scanning Doppler terrain-imaging radar (the box under the tail boom), and the weather radar (the bulge at the nose). And when the Antonov came in, and a couple people at the camp recognized one of the VIPs as current head of the FDS (successor to the KGB), there was still more cause for speculation.
We also amused ourselves during the wait by climbing the nearby hills. I took this photo from the high point of the Patriot Hills. My approach was up the slope just off the right of the photo. In the seventh photo in this report, it is the peak in the center of the photo, with the route going up the snow gully. My descent was on the rocky rib to the left of the snow slope. The bare peak at the left of that photo is actually slightly lower, but slightly closer. In the current photo, Alistair, one of the ALE staff, has just moved a battery for the new radio repeater to the summit where I am, and the three others barely visible on the ridge beyond the next high point are bringing another battery, the transceiver, solar panel, and antenna for placement.
Finally, on January 7, we received word that the Ilyushin was off the ground and estimated to arrive at 11PM. We finished our packing and moved our gear to a location where it would be loaded on the sleds to go to the plane. At 10:45, the Ilyushin landed. A pleasant surprise was that Vern Tejas, a guide for Alpine Ascents International and an acquaintance from many years back, arrived bringing a group looking to ascend Vinson. The photo shows him talking to John. After all the gear was loaded and we boarded, the Ilyushin took off at 1:02AM, January 8, after 23 days on the ice. Again, as on the flight in, we had sandwiches and other snacks and tried for a few minutes of sleep.
We landed at 5:30 AM in Punta Arenas, but had to wait until after 6 for the Customs person to arrive to stamp all our passports and entry forms. Then we got rides to our hotels. ALE had put most of our Vinson group in the Condor de Plata hotel, at a much higher rate than the FitzRoy. Later in the day, several of the people moved back to the FitzRoy. Much of the rest of the day was spent by most of us on the phone with our airlines trying to reschedule our flights. Some had done some rescheduling via Iridium satphone from Antarctica, only to have to reschedule again on arrival. Eventually, I got an answer and reschedule from American Airlines’ Santiago office. I had to pay a $200 rescheduling fee plus $90 for the difference in fare, to be deposited in US dollars in cash in an AA account at the local branch of a Chilean bank. This involved several more hassles to get things done correctly, finally completed on January 9.
The evening of January 8, most of us got together for a fine dinner.
The evening of January 9, Sam, Brooke, and I got a van to drive us to the Penguinera, a penguin colony about 30 km from Punta Arenas on an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. While there, we shot many photos, which I will just label. That evening we had dinner at a “Patagonian exotics” restaurant, which served a variety of Patagonian game animals as their specialties. And on January 11, Sam, Brian, and I boarded a flight to Santiago, where we crossed paths with Tony, followed by a flight to Miami, where we went through US Customs and Immigration, then went on our separate final flights to San Francisco, New York, and Seattle and home.
Andean condor. Wingspans can be 12 feet or more.
Group of Magellanic Penguins
Nandu, or Darwin’s Rhea, adult male with chicks
another Nandu (Darwin’s Rhea)