Just The Facts

As the coldest, windiest, highest, and driest continent, is mostly uninhabitable.

54° 50' S, 68° 10' W

Map of Antarctica and Vinson Massif
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From 10°C on the coast in midsummer to -89.2°C or -128.6°F (the lowest temperature ever recorded in nature). Milder temps (slightly below freezing) occur in January along the coast. Mean annual temperature of the interior is -57°C. In the winter extreme, metal can stick to flesh, kerosene turns to jelly and fillings can fall out of teeth.

Total area: 14 million sq. km (just less than 1.5 times the US)
Arable land: 0%
Permanent crops: 0%
Meadows, pastures: 0%
Forests, woodland: 0%
Other: 100% (ice 98%, barren rock 2%)

for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. -Ernest Shackleton's Ad

The cold of the interior, the domed shape of the continent and intense low pressure systems around the coast combine to create Antarctica's powerful katabatic winds, some of the strongest winds on earth, often exceeding hurricane force (120 km/h) for several days at a time. Maximum gusts of more than 250 km/h have been recorded.

Heat loss increases dramatically with increases in wind speed. You can walk outside in short sleeves in -40°C if it is absolutely calm but you may require the thickest of layers at -5°C if the wind is above gale force. Even the wind generated by walking can cause frostbite. Fingers, toes, ears, cheeks and nose freeze most easily.

Ninety percent of the world's ice (29 million cubic km) and 60 to 70 percent of its fresh water is locked up in the Antarctic ice cap.

In 1911, Roald Amundsen, with four companions and 18 dogs, was the first to reach the South Pole after a 57-day journey. He planted a Norwegian flag at the Pole and left a note for competing explorer Captain Robert Scott whose team, bitter with disappointment at finding they had been outpaced, were trapped by severe weather on the returning trip and perished.

Climbing Mount Vinson Massif, Antarctica with Alpine Ascents
Alpine Ascents 1999 Vinson Massif Climbing Expedition
Mount Vinson
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The Cybercast
The Mountain Zone followed lead guides Wally Berg, Peter Athans and their 1999 Alpine Ascents International expedition on an attempt to climb 16,076' Mount Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica. [CLICK FOR THE INDEX OF ARCHIVED DISPATCHES]

The Mountain
What separates Vinson from all other peaks is the sheer isolation of the mountain and the extraordinary views from its summit. As climbers approach the top of this remote continent, they peer across thousands of square miles of ice caps and glaciers which then fade into a distinctly curved horizon. From the summit, they view neighboring mountains Shinn (15,311') and Gardner (15,049') and a multitude of other unexplored peaks.

The recent allure of summiting the highest point on each continent has brought a great many climbers to the seven summits. Yet, even with this surge of popularity, Vinson has had less than 400 people stand atop its pyramid. However, the praises of the climb and its nearby surroundings have quickly spread throughout the mountaineering community. The climb uses multiple methods of transportation including a Hercules C-130 transport planbe and the much smaller ski-equipped Twin Otter. Those wishing to embark on this unique journey, should possess prior skiing and climbing skills and be prepared for harsh conditions including extreme cold and, at times, ferocious winds.

Mount Vinson
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Mount Vinson (16,076ft, 4897m), located 600 miles from the South Pole and 1200 miles from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is the highest peak on the Antarctic continent. Vinson is a part of the Ellsworth Mountains, which rise majestically from the Ronne Ice Shelf. The climate on Vinson is generally controlled by the polar ice cap's high-pressure system, creating predominantly stable, cold, windless conditions. But, as in any arctic climate, high winds and snowfall are always a possibility. During the summer season, November through January, there is 24 hours of sunlight. Although the average temperature during these months is -20°F, the intense sun will melt snow on dark objects. Although annual snowfall on Vinson is low, high winds may cause base camp accumulations to 18 inches in a year.

It was in 1966, nearly 200 years after James Cook circumnavigated Antarctic, that the summit of Mt. Vinson was first reached, becoming the last of the seven summits to be conquered. The American Alpine Club and the National Geographic Society sponsored an American team which summitted Mt. Vinson on December 17, 1966, two weeks after its arrival. The team, led by Nicholas B. Clinch, remained on the continent about a month and summited a number of peaks including the extremely technical Tyree, as well as Shinn and Gardner. (This was well documented in the June 1967 National Geographic magazine.) Soon after the team's return, US policy, which encouraged travel to Antarctica was changed to instead discourage travel to this region.

Vinson was named for Georgia Congressman Carl G. Vinson, who, from 1935-1961, was influential in promoting Antarctic exploration. Lincoln Ellsworth, who made a number of flights across Antarctica between 1934-1939, named the Ellsworth Range, on which Vinson stands. Discovered on November 23, 1935, the Ellsworth Range was not revisited until the 1960's.

Mount Vinson
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Antarctica In Brief
With 5.5 million square miles of solid ice, the mass of this continent, twice the size of Australia, creates a remote wilderness unrivaled on the planet. While the size of the continent expands and contracts with seasons, the topography, with natural sculptures finely crafted by the barrage of wind, snow and cold, remains stunning. It is this Ice Age environment which constantly attracts intrepid travelers and explorers. While Antarctica has no native population, Argentinean Emilio Palma was the first to be born there in January 1978. The lowest temperature recorded on Earth was - 128.60°F at Vostok Research Station on July 21, 1983. With less than two inches of precipitation per year, Antarctica is best characterized as a desert.

The Team

  • Wally Berg, Expedition Leader
    Acclaimed mountaineer, outdoor educator and consummate professional, Wally has been considered one of the best all-around guides in the business and has stood atop Mt. Everest four times. Most recently Berg led the highly successful 1998 American Everest Expedition. One of the most active climbers on 8,000m peaks, Berg has also successfully summited Cho-Oyu and Lhotse. Guiding highlights include successful expeditions to Mt. Vinson (three times), Carstensz Pyramid, Mera Peak, Elbrus and Kilimanjaro, including five successful trips in the past two years. He is one of the few climbers who has guided multiple expeditions to each of the Seven Summits.

  • Peter Athans, Mountain Guide
    Defined by his peers as "one of the greatest Himalayan guides around", Peter has summited Mt. Everest a record five times and has participated in 12 Everest expeditions during the past 14 years. Having lived in Nepal for a number of years, he is also an expert on Nepalese culture. An accomplished photographer, he has also completed a number of film projects, most recently with PBS' Nova. Peter has been climbing for almost 20 years and was recently awarded, with his guiding partner Todd Burleson the highly valued David J. Sowles Award for unparalleled bravery and selflessness in a rescue situation after their rescue efforts on Mt. Everest in 1996. Peter has led Alpine Ascents' climbs to Everest, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Carstensz Pyramid and Mt. Vinson.

  • Dana Isherwood, Orinda, California
  • Charles C. Vaden, Jr., Eagle River, Alaska
  • Joseph A. LeRoy, West Sacramento, California
  • Victor Lance Vescovo, Irving, Texas
  • John S. Van Dyke, Seattle, Washington
  • Robert Wayne Hempstead, Kenai, Alaska
  • Scott Anthony Lefky, Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Bert Robbins Kiessling, Pound Ridge, New York
    All team members have strong climbing histories and seven of the eight have climbed with Alpine Ascents before.

Mount Vinson
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Expedition Itinerary
The journey begins with a flight to Punta Arenas, Chile. Arriving a few days ahead of the flight to Antarctica, the climbers prepare for the initial flight from this southern tip of South America. Here the climbers will spend two days preparing gear for the flight to Patriot Hills Camp, Antarctica.

Punta Arenas: Commonly considered the most interesting city in Patagonia, this port town hosts handsome turn-of-the-century architecture, financed by the bustling wool industry of a bygone era. Along with being one of the most prominent Antarctic starting points, it is endowed with a large commercial fishing port. Much of the trade was bolstered by the great California Gold Rush. Walking tours of the city will lead one past the great mansions which currently house the Club De La Union and the Sociedad Menendez Behety (now Citibank) found around the Plaza Munoz Gamero. Punta is also known for its wining and dining. Time permitting one should visit the Museo Regional De Magellan's, the original Punta Arenas mansion and tour the Penguin rookery, to view the colony of Magellan Penguins.

Once the weather is determined safe for travel, the climbers leave the luxuries of Punta Arenas behind and board a Hercules C-130 for the relatively elaborate camp at Patriot Hills, (120km south of Vinson). The climbers begin this 6-hour flight, with a spectacular crossing of the Straits of Magellan and the Bellingshausen Sea, until the climbers are again exhilarated by the site of the white continent. The splendor and breadth of Antarctica is immediately overwhelming. The plane sets down in glorious fashion on the world's most southerly runway, wheels neatly touching upon permanent ice.

Patriot Hills: A private camp, some 1800 miles from the nearest city, Patriot Hills houses 48 people and contains a full dining area and kitchen. The central meeting area is made up of large, specially insulated tents with flooring. These tents are generally heated by the sun although heaters are available. Stocked with frozen food and fresh supplies from Punta Arenas, it is a one of a kind remote location camp, and a warm welcome to the frozen landscape.

After spending the night in Patriot Hills, the climbers transfer to a ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft for the one hour flight to Base Camp. The flight is perhaps one of the most dramatic and adventurous as the climbers fly above the barren terrain and set skis down on the extraordinary ice runway. Upon arrival, the climbers establish camp and begin their ascent.

Base Camp (7,000ft) is located on the lower part of the Branscomb Glacier, on the west side of the Ellsworth Mountains. After dividing gear between backpacks and sleds, the climbers ascend the Branscomb Glacier for two miles to Camp I (9,100ft). From this magnificent setting, the summit of Vinson rises dramatically above, while the neighboring peaks of Shinn and Gardner enhance the visual grandeur.

From Camp I the climbers ascend 1000ft (1.5m) to the foot of a large headwall and establish Camp II (10,100ft). The climbers will leave sleds and an emergency food cache at Camp II. The following day the team climbs 2,300ft up the headwall on moderate snow slopes to a broad col between Vinson and Shinn to establish Camp III (12,300ft). From Camp III the climbers have incredible views of the Ronne Ice Shelf, Mounts Shinn and Vinson. They will rest here for the day to enhance acclimatization prior to attempting the summit.

Summit day begins with a 3-mile traverse and a 3,000ft elevation gain. Continuing on, the climbers ascend a hard snow surface of moderate steepness to reach the summit ridge. From here the summit stands within easy reach and from the top the views are simply unforgettable.

Gordon Janow, Alpine Ascents Program Director

[1999 DISPATCHES] [1998] [1997] [CLIMBING INDEX]

Alpine Ascents International, Inc.
1999 Vinson Massif Expedition