I think I will basically write this trip report for what it is – a trip report on our climb of Mt. Vinson. Not some all-encompassing report of the 7 Summits, what it means to us to finish a 7 year endeavor, the drama, time, money, effort involved in completing the list, or some final end-all trip report as if we’ll never climb another mountain or write another trip report again. All of the above won’t be the case at all and we probably are still not sure what it means to us yet. Maybe ask us in person sometime. In fact, the 7 Summits have been a big goal of ours and a very consuming endeavor over the past 7 years, but this goal hasn’t been everything – not even close. Yes, these international adventures and summits have been highlights over the years for sure, but they have largely bookmarked wonderful years full of climbing and adventure in Colorado and in the continental USA. I know for some, pursuing the 7 Summits is their life and if and when they attain that goal, that’s it – they are done. That mindset couldn’t be further from what Kristine and I are all about. Not to downplay the 7 Summits endeavor at all as it is a very committing goal and a passion we chose to pursue together, but it will always be one of the many adventures together we pursue in our lifetimes. Now that the 7 Summits endeavor is complete, I think there is the obvious excitement and sense of accomplishment, but also the sense of relief. The planning, time, effort, travel, and expense involved in these trips year after year is significant and I know I for one will be glad to take a break and concentrate on more local climbs and fun adventures in Colorado, the continental USA, and maybe even some shorter South America climbs we’ve always wanted to do together. Not that we haven’t pursued said other adventures in between these international summits, but the 7 was always there in the back of our minds providing excitement and motivation yet at the same time somewhat of a frustration (and even a burden) in continually planning these big expeditions, fundraising, and coordinating travel, logistics, & gear. Many times we would find ourselves saying, “Forget these big climbs with all the baggage (no pun intended), let’s just go out and climb!” Nevertheless, we’re glad we stuck with it and completed our goal together. Kristine and I are both so very happy and grateful we were able to climb each of the 7 Summits on our first attempt and that we were able to complete the list sooner than later. Reason being is that you never know what life may throw at you whether it be financial strain, physical ailments, or just losing the drive. When you’re in the mindset of a goal, I always think its better to stick with it and focus in the moment for as long as it takes. This last of the 7 Summits for us, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, was by far the most expensive climb we will ever undertake. We have both vowed to never ever spend close to that amount of money on another climb again. So, we were fortunate to make Vinson happen sooner than later thanks to our wonderful families’ support, contributions, donations,and sponsorships from good friends and companies, and positive encouragement from everyone we know.
We never initially set out to climb the 7 Summits together at all. It all started way back in 2005 with my good friends Lee Hoffman, Rob Schnare, and I just brainstorming a big peak we could feasibly do on our own and landed on Aconcagua. Then, the next year, I brainstormed another big peak closer to home and with interest from my good friend J Weingast and recent girlfriend (at the time) Kristine Oelberger, we made a smooth and successful climb of Denali. I think after Denali, the 7 Summits bug bit Kristine and I a little. Especially, since our 4th teammate on Denali, Sean Swarner, had completed the 7 Summits on our climb of Denali. After a few of these 7 Summits you get to thinking, “Well, we’ve done 2 of the 7 Summits now together, maybe we should continue?” And I think we are both so glad we did continue. Its been a wonderful journey together strengthening ourselves and our relationship in every way possible. Also, we’ve been able to visit every continent through this endeavor and visit cultures and places we likely would have never visited otherwise. Not to mention the wonderful friends and connections we’ve made along the way. Now, with Vinson climbed and the 7 Summits complete, people have asked us, “What’s next?” I think some folks expect us to say we’ll never climb again and go on to other adventures in life, but that’s not the case at all. If anything, having climbed the 7 Summits only spurs us on to climb more and more often. It only enhances the love and passion for climbing together that we already have. The 7 Summits are indeed popular peaks and the trade routes are only getting more crowded and expensive with every passing year. I think from now on we’ll try and choose the less-traveled mountains and routes and peaks that are more attractive from a technical climbing standpoint. Nevertheless, the 7 Summits has been a life-changing endeavor, a worthy pursuit, and if anything has broadened our horizons and increased our love for each other.
Traveling to Antarctica
Now, let’s see how this whole finale of the 7 Summits went down on Mt. Vinson in Antarctica. Kristine & I had been planning Vinson for almost 2 years, well before us even going to Australia and then back to Aconcagua last Christmas. We spent many hours laying the groundwork with Antarctic Network International (ANI) who provides the only realistic means of getting to the mountain via their contract with the Russian Ilyushin-76 cargo plane and its Russian crew, their phenomenal provisions and support that make up the Antarctic outpost known as Union Glacier, and their twin otter flights to/from the mountain itself. It was a fair amount of coordination (and that’s an understatement), especially since we were keen on going unguided and using ANI’s logistics to get to the mountain. However, in the end it just didn’t make since to go unguided with the guided cost only being $1,500 – $2,000 more per person. When you are already paying over $35,000 for the flights to Mt. Vinson through ANI, what’s another few thousand especially when you don’t have to lug tents, stoves, your own food, etc. It was worth it to us at the start and now having experienced the wonderful ANI staff of guides and rangers as well as the whole Antarctica operation from South Pole treks to Vinson climbs, we are extremely happy with the decision.
Our good fiend Kevin Vann who we had met on Denali in June 2007 joined us for this expedition as he had always said if we ever went to Vinson, he wanted to go with us. Vinson was his last of the 7 Summits as well. I believe Kevin began his 7 Summits endeavor back in the late 80s with a climb up Kilimanjaro. Kevin is originally from Manchester, Tennessee and still returns to the Vann ranch often, but works as a cardiac nurse in San Francisco. Kev always bring the hillbilly from Tennessee to the big mountains and he is so much fun to be around not to mention one of the nicest people we know. He is also part business owner and guide with our great friend Rob Casserley of Trek 8848, an Everest Base Camp & Island Peak trekking service in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal. They both know the Khumbu Valley, the Sherpa culture, as well as Everest itself very well (Rob has summitted Everest 8 times now and is probably the strongest high altitude climber we know). Kristine & I both highly recommend their service if you ever fancy a trip to the Himalaya.
So, with plane tickets and insurance purchased, Kevin on board, and Kristine having her typical 2 weeks off for Christmas break, we signed up for the V3 trip with ANI and left the states on Saturday, December 14. Kristine and I both were able to get as far as Santiago, Chile on miles, which saved a good chunk of change. Kevin arrived in Punta Arenas about 6 hours ahead of us and napped in our hotel room at the quaint Hotel Chapital. After a few hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas with a stopover in Puerto Montt in southern Chile, ANI picked us up and drove us to Hotel Chapital.
Punta’s weather was about what I thought it would be – chilly, damp, and overcast. The sun rarely came out. Typical southern Chile and Patagonia weather, I guess. Kristine was disappointed that she wouldn’t be wearing the bikini she brought on the beaches of Punta. Ces’t la vie. After a good dinner of salmon at La Luna, Kristine, Kev, and I hit the sack in our shared hotel room after being exhausted from 24 hrs of traveling.
We had a briefing at the very nice and new ANI headquarters the next morning and met some of the other Vinson climbers as well as adventurers who were skiing the last degree to the South Pole (about a 7 day trek on skis). The meeting was mainly to brief us on the extreme environment in Antarctica as well as the flight to Antarctica via the Russian Ilyushin-76. I’ve always heard the Ilyushin flight is a highlight for anyone heading to Antarctica and we were excited. We then walked around town while picking up last minute items and supplies including a marathon walk and taxi ride to some mega-mall in order to fetch Kevin some 7mm perlon cord. Don’t worry, we got it, but honestly he didn’t use it on the climb. We also went to the Statue of Magellan in the main square to kiss the foot of Magellan for good luck per our new friend Vilborg Arna Gissurardottir or just “Villa” for short. Villa is around 33 years old and from Iceland and has a huge passion for adventure. She became a good friend over the course of our trip. She had done all of this pre-Antarctica preparation a year ago when she made a solo trek on skis from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole in 60 days. Talk about tough! Unbelievable to say the least! I honestly cannot fathom doing that. Now, she is on the 7 Summits kick trying to climb the 7 in a year having already climbed Denali, Kilimanjaro, and Carstenz Pyramid. She was heading on to Aconcagua after Vinson. Speaking of Villa, you can check out all of her adventures on her website (you may need to translate it to English).
We then met up with essentially everyone who was going to Vinson as well as the South Pole for a fancy dinner and had a great time. We could tell our crew was going to be a fun one with so many nice and adventuresome folks. We met 27 year old Chase Lochmiller who is coincidentally from Denver and who’s family has a home up in Lionshead (next to Vail Village). Chase went to MIT and had been living and working in NYC until he quit his job and decided to go to Antarctica. He had climbed Aconcagua before and loves skiing and the mountains. Chase was an instant friend of ours – very funny and extremely personable. There was Harry Koppel and Halla Vilhjalmsdottir, a young 30-something couple from London. Harry is originally from Columbia and now works as a banker in London. Halla is originally from Iceland and works as an actress/model. They met via a strange set of circumstances through friends and are now engaged. They have since climbed Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua unguided together and have a true adventurous spirit and are always there for one another just as Kristine and I always have been. These two are hilarious and we spent many hours laughing together. We all got along like peas and carrots – instant friendships. Then there was the 50-something Luis Alvarez from Mexico City who literally has the Mexican Volcanoes out his backdoor and regularly trail runs at 12,000′ – not bad. He is an Ironman Triathalon nut and has completed something like 105 Ironmans. He has also climbed Elbrus and I believe Aconcagua and is on this 7 Summits kick. We need to go visit Luis and climb some more Mexican volcanoes with him most definitely. Then there was Dan Healy, a late 50s London banker originally from San Francisco who has now climbed 6 of the 7 Summits all in his 50s. Inspiring to say the least. However, he told us after Vinson he is retiring from climbing and just wants to “see” Everest one day.
We then were told to be ready with our gear packed for the Ilyushin the next afternoon. So, we packed all morning and hung around Hotel Chapital with Luis since he was staying there as well. We got the call and were picked up an hour later to head to the airport. It was a funny scene heading through the Punta Arenas airport with our 8000m boots and gear on. We had a few hour delay at the airport for the Ilyushin due to winds in Ushuaia. Typically, we would fly directly to Union Glacier from Punta Arenas, but on the last few Ilyushin flights there was a stopover in Ushuaia due to runway work in Punta Arenas. The runway was shorter and would not allow the Ilyushin to take off with as much fuel as it normally does for the roundtrip flight to/from Antarctica. Nevertheless, it was a good opportunity to chat and laugh with all of our new friends and some ANI staff. We finally boarded the Ilyushin around 9:30pm and we had never seen such a beast of an airplane. I can’t imagine a more burly aircraft and boarding it was a treat, albeit fairly “loud”. The aircraft consisted of 20 or so seats with all of the cargo (snowcats, snowmobiles, supplies, food, etc) behind the seats. I wished we could have seen the cockpit. The Russians gave us earplugs and we buckled up for take-off. It was an hour flight to Ushuaia and then 4 hours to Union Glacier.
The heat came on after we left Ushuaia and it actually warmed up considerably in the cargo bay. Between a bit of reading, some snacks given to us by the Russian flight attendant, and looking at the large flatscreen at the head of the cargo bay which linked to a camera on the nose of the plane (no windows in the cargo bay), we arrived in Union Glacier on the blue ice runway around 3am.
It was an extremely exciting landing with the runway seemingly going on forever (as the Ilyushin does not apply brakes) and we all prepared for the cold that would ensue once we stepped out of the aircraft. Here is a fun compilation video Kristine put together of the Ilyushin flight’s take-off and landing:
It was an extraordinary feeling stepping off the Ilyushin and on to the Antarctic ice. Knowing how secluded we now were in such a pristine place was a bit surreal. The temperature was a balmy 15 degrees F or so – pretty warm for Antarctica! ANI quickly shuttled Kristine and a few others into the beefy ANI vehicle to take us to Union Glacier, but I slipped around the authorities to walk out on the runway and take pictures of the Ilyushin. It was pretty cool to be walking on the continent of Antarctica for the first time.
It was a quick 20 minute ride to Union Glacier. Kristine had a headache, likely from being up all night, but maybe more so from the big bump the ANI truck made in which she and Kevin’s heads went into the ceiling since they were in the back seat.
Union Glacier is a conglomeration of large permanent kitchen/dining tents, these tents called “clam” tents in which clients stay, typical mountain tents for the staff, a communications tent, a medical tent, restroom/shower facilities, supply tents, snow cats, snowplows, snowmobiles, and much more. The “clam” tents consisted of two cots and a night table and harnessed the solar radiation, actually warming the interior to about 60 degrees F even when it was 10 degrees F outside. In a nutshell, Union Glacier is a permanent outpost and base camp for all Antarctic activities.
Unfortunately, we were only at Union Glacier for 12 hrs as we left on the twin otter for Vinson the next afternoon after trying to sleep in until about 9am given the 24 hours of sunlight. The food was absolutely excellent in the large kitchen/dining tent. Since we were told it costs approximately $25 to transport 1 kg of matter to the continent via the Ilyushin, ANI figures they may as well get the best food there for their clients! Considering the typical weight of the cargo, people, and not to mention the plane itself, I can definitely see the justification for the approximate $30,000 price tag per person for the roundtrip flight on the Ilyushin. Around 4pm the next day we were whisked away to Vinson Base Camp as quickly as we had arrived to Union Glacier. The 40 minute otter flight was nothing short of spectacular. The mountains reminded me of a heavily glaciated Gore Range (our favorite local range north of Vail). There are definitely lifetimes of adventure and climbing on these small 2000m – 3000m peaks of the Ellsworth Mountains. From our understanding there are still numerous unclimbed peaks down here not to mention unclimbed routes on the already climbed peaks. Vinson is located in the Sentinel Range, which is part of the greater Ellsworth Mountains. The Ellsworth also consist of a small sub-range called the Heritage Range.
We soon landed on the snowy runway at Vinson Base Camp (7,300′) with spectacular views of the Vinson Massif, Mt. Vinson, and other high peaks. We exited the plane and quickly realized we knew the leader of the party getting on the otter to go back to Union Glacier – it was Dave Hahn, who guides for RMI. We hadn’t seen Dave since Kathmandu after Everest in 2010. We caught up and quickly said our goodbyes and congratulated he and his crew on a successful Vinson summit. We then moved into our mountain tent at Vinson Base and went into the wonderful ANI kitchen/dining tent heated with a gas stove. It was an extremely nice reprieve from the cold and a place to hang out and have hot drinks – one of the many perks of going guided with ANI! The toilet facilities were very clean. ANI is all about keeping Vinson (and Antarctica in general) as clean and untracked as possible. Thus, all human waste is flown out and there are designated pee holes at Base Camp, Low Camp, High Camp, and en route to the summit. Carrying your pee bottle/bag and your poop bag is a must wherever you go because you can’t just stop and go the bathroom anywhere. This was very encouraging to witness as it is definitely not the norm on other big mountains around the world, though things are looking up. The summit of Mt. Vinson wasn’t too far away as the crow flies but stood about 9,000′ over our heads.
The standard route from the Branscomb Glacier is something like 24 miles roundtrip in order to take the path of least resistance up to the massif (high plateau) itself at around 13,000′. The massif that comprises the summit pyramid of Mt. Vinson indeed rises over 6,000′ from the glaciers below to the east and west. Mt. Vinson is the highest point on this already high plateau which comprises many other peaks as well. In 2006, the name of Vinson Massif was officially changed to Mount Vinson to denote the actual summit pyramid. I think this is the correct call since the name Vinson Massif refers to the entire high plateau as well as all the sub-peaks rising from that plateau and not the actual peak itself. Here is the route map below:
We settled into life on the mountain once again and relished in the remoteness of just where we actually were.
Base Camp life was wonderful. Hot, freshly prepared meals by the ANI guides and staff were amazing. We even had french pressed coffee in the mornings! A special treat! We actually felt bad about all of the perks and comforts we had going here in Antarctica because its usually not the case with us always going on our own unguided, budget trips. However, this was nice! I guess we’ll take it! The camaraderie with the others was fantastic and we all had such a good time hanging out together at Base.The ANI folks were so fun and amazing. David Hamilton, from Scotland was our guide (Kevin, Kristine, and myself). The hilarious Andy Schapman from the UK, who has spent a winter or two in Antarctica, was the guide for Harry, Halla, and Villa. Lhapka Sherpa, who has summitted Everest 15 times and still holds the Everest speed record of just over 18 hrs roundtrip from base camp, was the guide for Dan, Luis, and Chase. Lhapka knew our good friend Mike Horst from the days of guiding RMI & AAI together and currently lives in Seattle with his family. We shared many stories together and had some good laughs. Then there was the wonderful Namgya Sherpa, who was acting as a ranger this time around, and was there for support of all of us. Namyga is from eastern Nepal and lives in Kathmandu with his family and has 11 Everest summits. Kristine, Namyga, and I really hit it off well and became close friends. We hope to see him in Colorado sometime soon. He even gave Kristine a terrific scarf made in Nepal as a going away present and I got him saying “Buddy” all the time. Then, there was the seasoned hardcore technical climber Tom from New England as the second ranger along with Namyga. Even in his late 50s he said he can sport climb 5.13 and trad 5.12 when he is in shape – wow. I can’t imagine doing that now at 36. The big celebrity personality of the trip we all loved was our base camp manager Scott Woolums of Mountain Trip and 7 Summits fame. Scott is such a nice fellow, so humble, and we just loved being around him. Even in his mid-50s he is still getting after it in every way. Halla and I thought of him as straight out of the movie Top Gun with his mustache and all. He reminded Kristine of Tom Skerritt in Top Gun, aka Viper. We all thought he should go to Hollywood and be a movie celebrity, thus our nickname of “Hollywood” for Scott. I think it stuck fairly well. Lastly, there was the extremely nice and accomplished videographer Ed Horne from the UK who was hired by ANI to document all of their various trips (South Pole, Emperor Penguins, a climb of Vinson, etc). Basically, we had our own Vinson climb documented professionally! Ed was an editor for the BBC for 20 years and is now doing his own freelance photography and videography around the world. Let’s just say he has about everyone’s dream job. Ed was a phenomenal addition to our ANI group and it was so fun to share this adventure with him.
On our 2nd day at Base Camp, we took an acclimitization hike/climb up to the local peak dubbed “Ski Hill”. It was only about a 2,000′ climb to about 9,300′ but the views afforded were incredible. Kevin did great and we watched as Mr. Hollywood made some nice turns down the fun face – this definitely sparked the Colorado folks’ (Chase, Kristine, and myself) interest for a ski maybe when we returned to Base Camp after the climb.
The 3rd day on the mountain we loaded up our sleds and moved the 6 miles or so and 2,000′ up the Branscomb Glacier to Low Camp (9,300′). This type of move was very similar to many days on a typical Denali climb. About 30 lbs of clothing, your sleeping bag & pad, and personal items in your backpack and pulling about 50 lbs of gear on your sled including food, group gear, & technical equipment. It was a gorgeous day and with awesome views and actually got really hot for an hour or two en route.
Our group of four made the haul in about 4 hrs and settled nicely into Low Camp helping to put up the mountain tents. One more perk of going with ANI is that there is a wonderful dome-type tent at Low Camp for all of the cooking and hanging out. While not heated, it actually does heat up nicely with all of the climbers inside and the stoves roaring. Andy’s team arrived shortly after us followed by Lhakpa’s team and then Tom, Namyga, and Ed with all of Ed’s camera equipment.The night was much colder than at Base and we retired to our tents after Kristine & I made a plan with David to climb the nearby Knutzen Peak the next day while the rest of the folks went to the fixed lines to practice with their ascenders.
Low Camp could possibly be the coldest camp on the mountain since it loses direct sunlight from about 3am to 11am. On our second morning at Low Camp, Andy measured the air temperature at around -20 degrees F at 9am. The shade at Low Camp really makes things much colder. In Antarctica, you move in sunlight and stay put in shade. Its just too cold to do anything without the sun. When the sun went behind Vinson at 3am, you knew it as the temperature plummets and you would wake up. The good thing was that we slept in and stayed in our tents until 11am when the sun hit our tents. Breakfast was around noon! Love this Antarctica schedule! Kristine, David, and I left Low Camp around 1pm and headed for Knutzen Peak, a rarely climbed (about once a year) 11,100′ rocky peak towering over the Antarctic Plateau to the west. It was a fun climb mixing some glacier travel, steep snow, and good ole rock scrambling near the summit. It was about 5 1/2 hrs roundtrip from Low Camp and was a great way to spend the day. I kept thanking David for taking us but he always said, “Brandon, I prefer to be doing this with you guys!”. David is a fantastic fellow. The views from Knutzen’s summit of the surrounding high peaks and Vinson were incredible.
We arrived back at Low Camp around 6:30pm and hung out with the rest of the crew over hot chocolate in the cook tent and had a great dinner. They all had a great day up on the fixed lines. The next day was to be a move day to High Camp, but it was very cold, windy, and cloudy. We decided to all stay put at Low Camp after receiving the forecasts from Hollywood at Vinson Base. The only other team on the mountain was a strange group of three Russians (two clients and one guide). They actually summitted Vinson that day in what must have been a brutally cold and windy day up high. However, they made it and came back with all of their fingers & toes. Lots of hanging out, reading, and eating snacks ensued all day long and by the next day we were chomping at the bit to move to High Camp. Fortunately, the weather got warmer and much clearer and we did just that.
We packed up Low Camp around noon and started the 30 minute traverse towards the fixed lines which access the upper plateau, essentially the Vinson Massif itself. The fixed lines were just plain fun. ANI sets up and maintains these wonderful fixed lines consisting of six (6) 200m ropes anchored 100m apart. I think the Denali National Park service needs to take a fixed line rope lesson from ANI. It was pretty easy going and slow enough we could all hold a decent conversation and take plenty of pics even with a 50 lb backpack. It was fairly warm (until a light breeze began near the top) and the views were magnificient.
After having climbed about 2,000′ on the fixed lines, we topped out and made the slog up to High Camp after another hour or so. It took us about 5 1/2 hrs from Low Camp in total and despite a few bruised and blistered feet all around everyone did great. High Camp (13,200′) was an amazing spot. It was situated about 20 yards away from the edge of the Vinson Massif (and a 3,500′ drop to the Branscomb Glacier) with commanding views of the smaller peaks to to west and the Antarctic Plateau. And, the sun only really went behind Vinson for a few hours at night, so it stayed relatively warm. It was a nice evening soaking in the views and hanging out in one of the small cook tents with Lhakpa & Namyga. Ed conducted some video interviews that evening and we settled into our tent around 10pm and dove into our respective books for an hour or two like we did every night. The plan was to wake up at 7am with breakfast at 7:30am and to be heading off towards the summit by 9am the following day, Christmas Eve.
The hustle & bustle of summit morning was exciting. Harry woke up not feeling very well (nauseous), but he powered through it and was able to join his team. Our team left High Camp promptly at 9am followed shortly after by Andy and Lhakpa’s teams and finally Tom, Namyga, and Ed.
The morning started out fairly warm and saw us shedding layers as we gained the massive bowl north of the Vinson Pyramid. Then, the wind picked up and was fairly stiff & brisk for hours. Fortunately, the sun was out in the brilliant blue skies and it was clear as a bell. Vinson’s summit pyramid came into view and after donning our Mountain Hardwear Nilas jackets, down mitts, buffs, and balaclavas, we made our way across the bowl towards Vinson.
The wind was pretty brutal and David had an idea to ascend a variation of the normal route up the summit pyramid in order to try and avoid the wind which was coming from the east. It was a bit steeper than the standard east ridge but David’s decision and our efforts paid off. Ice axe and crampons were a must for this variation as they are for most of this mountain The wind really died down on these north facing slopes shielded by Vinson itself which made for a pleasant climb. We hit the west ridge of Vinson after traversing the north bowl and knew we were getting close. The excitement was high. The view west down to the Branscomb Glacier and Vinson Base Camp 9,000′ below was incredible.
Everyone was doing amazing. The other teams took the standard east ridge route and I certainly hoped the wind wasn’t too bad for them. It was a bit of a slog up to the final steeper summit pitch. It was definitely fun to have a steep exit onto the summit plateau before the east wind blasted us. Kristine put together another compilation summit video:
Now a few notes about why we were not wearing our big, orange 8000m parkas on the summit. Well, we should have been. We had them in the bottom of our packs in their compression bags, but honestly we would have overheated on the ascent of the west ridge and by the time we were on top with the stiff 35mph east wind, it was honestly too much work and effort and would have risked frostbite had we taken off our Nilas jackets for the 8000m parkas. Our core was really not that cold considering we had five various layers on underneath our Nilas jackets. The concern for frostbite was really the face and fingers. You could not expose your face or fingers for very long at all. An hour later, Namyga recorded the summit temperature at -29 degrees C or -20 degrees F. With 35mph winds, that puts the windchill at around -55 degrees F. Pretty chilly. In contrast on Everest, you start climbing at 11pm during the middle of the night and in the dark when its -20 degrees F and you need the big 8000m parkas because you are going so slow and there is no chance of sweating. On Vinson, we began the climb at 9am, you’re climbing at around 12,000′ lower than Everest, and you’re climbing in the sun all day. Its just not practical to wear the big 8000m parkas all day on Vinson and by the time we would have needed to wear them (on the summit), it didn’t make sense to switch jackets since we would descend quickly 10 minutes later and risk getting very cold.
We could just start to feel the altitude on the final push to the summit. 16,000′ may not seem all that high, but just like Denali the effective altitude a climber feels is about 2,000′ higher or 18,000′. Due to the earth’s atmosphere thinning as you trend towards the poles away from the equator (due to the earth not being completely spherical), the effective altitude increases. Honestly, the summit was not very emotional for us. Maybe because it was so cold and windy. I just don’t know. I’ve heard of people breaking down emotionally on the summit of whatever their final of the 7 Summits may be. Even Sean Swarner was emotional on the summit of Denali back on June 19, 2007. I mean I know its a milestone for us and the end of a goal, but its not like we’re never climbing again. Nevertheless, we were ecstatic to be on top of the bottom of the world and to all be together for our final of the 7 Summits. It was a good feeling. I was very proud of Kevin and especially my wife. I quickly called our good friend Scott Hook from the summit to let him know the news in order to update our blog. I typically call my dad from every summit I am am able to, but it was just too cold and we were in too much of a hurry on the summit of Vinson. I called him back at High Camp, however, in the warmth of our tent. Unfortunately, it was also just too cold and dangerous to start breaking out all of our sponsorship flags, but I did break out one item from my jacket pocket that I had brought with me. It was a painted blue rock with a smiley face with the date 1981 on the back of it. I had given this rock, dubbed the “Pet Rock”, to my grandfather Charles Wimbrow (my mother’s father), aka “Pop-Pop”, back in 1981 when I was 4 yrs old as a gift. Unfortunately, just this past July, Pop-Pop passed away during open heart surgery at the age of 89. He chose to try and have his problem fixed but his body and blood vessels could not handle the increased blood flow and thus pressure. It was a very sad time for all of us as we all looked up to him and we loved him more than anything. He truly was the best of the best. So, Pop-Pop was with me the entire way and summitted with me in spirit. I am so happy I was able to at least get one picture of me and the Pet Rock in honor of Pop-Pop on the summit of Mt. Vinson.
We started to descend down the east ridge after only about 10 minutes on top. The descent went by really fast and we got off that east ridge as quick as possible due to the potential for frostbite. We passed the other teams at the saddle below the east ridge on their way up. We warned them just to bundle up and not expose any skin. David had the radio on the entire way down to High Camp and we learned of their success about an hour later. We were so happy for all of them! We finally arrived back at High Camp at 5:30pm for about 8 1/2 hours on the go.
The other teams arrived around 7:30pm and we all congratulated each other. It was a happy evening. Since we were unable to break out the sponsorship flags on the summit, we did so back at High Camp that evening with gorgeous views of the Antarctica Plateau. Without the financial help and support from our sponsors, this trip would have definitely not been possible. You guys were critical in our success and completion of the 7 Summits.
We called our families and Scott Hook again to update our blog and let everyone know we were doing just fine. It was a nice Christmas Eve present to all of us and our families.
David had suggested to Kristine & I a climb up Mt. Shinn perhaps the following day or the next, but my feet were pretty bruised from having been in my Intuition liners (in my Millet boots) all day long. I think because the liners are so old and packed out (I’ve had then since Denali in 2007), they really bruised my feet to the point of making them very red and almost blistered like a bad burn. I did want to climb Shinn but I couldn’t fathom my feet taking me up the mountain. I was actually dreading the descent with my feet being pretty painful in my boots. As fate would have it, the next day (Christmas Day) turned out to be cold and snowy with not much visibility. However, my feet felt much better and healed quite a bit overnight. I think we didn’t feel like hanging around another day or two waiting for a good Shinn summit window so we decided to descend with the whole team. I guess Shinn will have to wait for another trip 🙂 It was a nice Christmas morning and I wore my santa hat I had brought with me all day long for the descent to Vinson Base. It was actually very warm.
The descent down the fixed ropes went very smoothly and then on back to Low Camp. After re-rigging and packing our sleds, we motored on down to Vinson Base Camp and arrived by 5pm.
It was fun to see Hollywood again and he welcomed us all. We had a wonderful surf & turf dinner prepared by the ANI folks, wine, and champagne to celebrate Kevin, Kristine, & my 7th Summit. It was a nice touch and a lively evening in the dining tent. Good friends, good food, good drink, and happy times.
The twin otters could not pick us up for two days, which was absolutely fine with us. We loved Vinson Base. One otter was parked at the highest volcano in Antarctica, Mt. Sidley, while the climbers were on the mountain. Its just too expensive to fly there and back and then back again to pick the climbers up. Thus, the otter waits at the base of the volcano. The second otter was grounded at Union Glacier with mechanical problems. The Russians, on the other hand, had been at Vinson Base for 6 days now because they rushed up and down Vinson and were not happy campers. Plus, they were not with ANI so they could not hang out in the heated dining tent. Which was just fine with us because they did not seem like very personable folks. From my experience with Russians, this is fairly standard. Nevertheless, we had a great few days sledding and skiing. I’m sure the Russians loved hearing us hooting and hollering all day while sledding & skiing. The first day Hollywood went kite skiing and Harry, Halla, Kristine, Andy, Chase, and I went sledding down the lower slopes of Ski Hill. David & Hollywood skied a bit as well with Ed & Namyga filming.
The second day the ANI guides and rangers were so nice to lend us their AT ski setups if they fit. Andy’s setup fit me fairly well while Namyga’s fit Kristine. In the morning, one crew consisting of Harry, Halla, Villa, and Luis skinned over to the Antarctic Plateau where the alternate DC-3 aircraft is able to land in case the otters cannot fly into Vinson Base. Then, in the afternoon they handed the ski gear over to Chase, Kristine, David, and myself for our skin up Ski Hill and really fun ski down. It was a great afternoon skin and evening ski and Chase did awesome being that it was his first time ever skinning. It was a great way to cap off a wonderful 11 days in the Vinson area.
On the evening of the third day at Vinson Base, the otters were still not available, and so Union Glacier and the guides coordinated the first ever DC-3 extraction of clients. Yes, the DC-3 had landed over on the plateau before, but it had never picked up clients. Now, if the DC-3 had never landed or taken off there, that would be a different story and a reason for some concern. So, we all packed up our gear in sleds and in our packs and moved in roped teams over to the Antarctic Plateau. Halla led out our team on foot and did a wonderful job paving the way via some frustrating post-holing. The Russians were on our tail behind Andy. I can’t begin to describe how frustrated he and I were with them. Kicking Andy’s sled as if telling us to move faster yet they wouldn’t go around and take their own turn to break trail. Andy & I about lost it, but kept our cool. All I can say is, “Typical Russian.” It took about 2.5 hrs to make the trek over to the DC-3 pickup where we waited for it to land.
The DC-3 pickup was fantastic. The old plane from the 1930s and 1940s was incredible and the ride was so much fun. We were back in Union Glacier 45 minutes later and then were told the Ilyushin was coming at 2am and for us to be ready at 3am for departure back to Chile. Talk about a quick exit! We tried to convince the ANI folks at Union Glacier to let us stay a night, but at $500 per person extra for additional nights at Union Glacier when we could have flown out was not very attractive. Kristine & Kev took showers in the few hours we had to kill and we all just hung out in the large dining tent and met other nice folks from other expeditions around the continent waiting to fly out as well. We also visited the large, man-made ice cave the Union Glacier folks had built over the holidays.
Then, promptly at 3am, we were driven out to the blue ice runway and boarded the Ilyushin.
Extremely tired and delirious from the past 12 hrs, we were back in Punta Arenas by 8am and were driven back to Hotel Chapital for showers and naps.
Back to Chilean Civilization
Kristine, Kev, and I met up with Chase, Halla, Harry, Dan, and Villa at La Luna for dinner that Saturday night and had a very fun 3 hour dinner full of drinks and so much laughter. We all then hit up the Sky Bar at the Dreams Hotel and had maybe too good a time. When Kev started ordering Jack Daniels for everyone, I knew it was lights out. It was an awesome night out with good friends. Most folks flew out over the next few days, but Kristine & I had 5 days before we were scheduled to fly. So, Kristine organized a fun 4 day excursion north to Puerto Natales and then Torres del Paine National Park for us. A 3 hour bus ride got us to Puerto Natales where we got a hostel room (more like a decent hotel). A tour bus picked us up at 8am and a few hours later we were in the park. Now we are definitely not all about touristy trips and being the standard tourists on a bus at a national park, but we thought maybe this would be a good way to see the entire park the first day and then camp and day hike ourselves once in the park. Indeed it was touristy and strange, but at least we saw the park and the various attractions before we found the campground near the fancy Las Torres Hotel. Plus, since it was dreary all day and we were still so tired from the quick exit from Antarctica and our Punta Arenas party night, we didn’t mind being on a bus.
The next two days we hiked up to the base of the famous towers which was a good hike in itself at about 8 miles roundtrip with 3,000′ of elevation gain although all below 5,000′ above sea level. The first day we hiked up there in the cold, wind, and snow and essentially saw nothing.
So, we decided to do it again the next day and am glad we did. It was stunning and we felt lucky to see these towers on such a clear day. We spent 2 hrs up at the base of the towers relaxing in the sun and admiring such immense mountains of rock. Hard to believe people have climbed these guys, especially given the typical poor Patagonian weather.
We treated ourselves one night to pizza at the nice Las Torres Hotel and then made the long journey back to Punta Arenas on January 3 via several buses. Then, to cap it all off and satisfy Kristine’s penguin fix since we did not get to see the Emperor Penguin in Antarctica, we took a 2 hour ferry ride to Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan and visited the fun-loving Magellanic Penguin the morning of the afternoon we flew out. Apparently, there are something like 69,000 penguins on the island and it was a treat to see these guys. It was a good fix before the long journey back home to Colorado.
While its always great to go on big trips and adventures like this, its always nice to get home. That’s when you know you love where you live. So, after 24 hours of traveling, we finally got home to Edwards and were greeted by a very excited Rainier & Kona.
I know this is an extremely long trip report and if you got this far, my hat is off to you. Its a lot of information and experiences that I know we want to remember and cherish forever and cataloging our pictures and descriptions of events in this way on our blog helps. That’s the main point of even having this blog – to recall wonderful experiences years and years down the road and to remember such wonderful and happy times.
In conclusion, Kristine & I could not have accomplished the goal of climbing the 7 Summits of the world together without each other. I don’t think we would have even wanted to try. We need each other more than we know on these big climbs and in life in general. I can’t tell you how many times she has been there for me in times of stress or duress. I think the same is true vice versa 🙂 Another highlight has been sharing these experiences with good friends of ours. Thanks to Lee Hoffman & Rob Schnare for the experiences and memories on our first big international mountain (besides Orizaba in 2005) – Aconcagua in 2006. Thanks to J Weingast & Sean Swarner for being wonderful climbing partners and friends to Kristine and myself on our first of the 7 Summits together – Denali in 2007. Thanks to Derek Drechsel & Rob Schnare for the sketchy Russian adventures on Elbrus in 2008, in the Russian countryside, and in Moscow. Thanks to Caleb & Jennie Wray for being such fun travel companions around France and climbing partners on Mont Blanc in 2009. Thanks to Henry Todd, Fi Ramsden, James Stearns, & Rich Birrer Jr & Sr for their companionship & support on Everest in 2010. A very special thanks to Rob Casserley for always being a great friend and mentor on Everest in 2010 and ever since. Thanks to Dave & Sarah Levinson, Scott & Darci Hook, Jamie Buckley, Chris Carlsen, & Alex Parillo for the camaraderie and friendships on Kilimanjaro in 2011. Thanks to Henry Herring for his spirit of adventure and willingness to try new things (like snowshoeing) on Kosciuszko in 2012. Thanks to Brett & Maura Wamsley for their support on Aconcagua in 2013. Lastly, thanks to Kevin Vann for his friendship and fun spirit (as well as the rest of the crew and ANI folks in this report) on Vinson in 2013. That’s it for now. Thanks for reading and hopefully we’ll see you out in the hills.