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 MOUNTAIN MADNESS EXPEDITION MT VINSON, ANTARCTICA

January 6, 2001

MOUNTAIN MADNESS EXPEDITION

MT VINSON, ANTARCTICA

 

TEAM MEMBERS:

Mark Gunlogson, Seattle, Expedition Leader

Andy Colyer, New York, NY

Gary Ponder, Annandale, NJ

Martin Douthitt, Jackson , KY

Michael Conti, Park City, UT

 

01/06/01 DISPATCH FROM MARK GUNLOGSON:

This is the first dispatch of the Mountain Madness 2001 Vinson Massif Expedition. The team has all arrived and is anxiously waiting for our six-hour flight to Patriot Hills. We have been delayed by two days but in three hours, weather permitting, we will be on the Hercules C-130 heading south. We've managed to stay within the 100lbs of baggage allotted per person and are ready to go after spending three days in Punta Arenas, Chile, which is the Southern most city in the world depending on your definition.

Punta Arenas, which means Sandy Point, is the gateway to Patagonia and home to more than 125,000 people. The city is located on the Straits of Magellan. This important waterway was named after the Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magellan who discovered the passage in 1520 while searching for a direct route to the East. In the town square there are figures of two indigenous people standing beneath a towering statue of Magellan. It is said that by kissing the big toe of one of the Indians you will guarantee your return to Punta Arenas. For this reason the toe has been polished from the thousands of kisses!

After prolonged resistance from the Mapuche Indians, the Spaniards eventually overcame this indigenous group and founded the city in 1848 amongst the friendly Tehuelche Indians, who unfortunately, were eradicated my measles and other diseases introduced by the Europeans. Now, after a wool boom in the 1800's and what looked to be the beginnings of one of the world's most important port cities, the city has a vibrant economy and has become the largest port in the region. Had the Panama Canal not gone through Punta Arenas the importance and growth would have been explosive as the Strait of Magellan provides relatively safe passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and prevented ships from sailing the infamous Cape Horn.

It has been an interesting wait for our group. We've visited the Naval Museum, the Otway Inlet and the Mayellanic Penguins that lay their eggs and raise their young between October and March, and of course, gorged ourselves on the seafood and beef famous to Chile. On the 4th of January we visited the penguins, that are somewhat of an icon to the area, and laughed at their particular habits out of water. It seems evolution played some sort of joke on them as they awkwardly waddle around on land, but when you see them in water it becomes more than obvious what they were made for as they glide through the cold waters with ease. It was a typical rainy day that ended with a late dinner. Sample fare at the local eateries include Centolla Magallanica (King crabs of Magallenes on a bed of lettuce, commonly referred to as the American Dream), Vieirasala parmesana (scallops in a parmesan cheese sauce) and Fillet Mignon covered with sautŽed mushrooms. Oh, and of course wine. So, lets just say the team is fattened and ready for the cold.

Around 8 PM tonight we should be underway to one of the most intriguing and certainly most unique continents on the planet. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Antarctica covers an area of 14,000,000 Sq. Km, or 1/10th of the land surface of the planet
  • It is the fifth largest land mass
  • Contrary to the widely held belief that the continent is a low elevation, flat land mass, consider that it is the highest overall continent with a mean altitude of 2,050 meters above sea level
  • It is considered the world's coldest desert and receives very little precipitation. In the "dry valleys" some scientist believe that no rain has fallen in 2 million years

While the region we will be traveling to in the Ellsworth Mountains receives precipitation, it is the cold and wind that will be most challenging for our team. With luck we will be on the continent in a few short hours and begin working our way to the summit of this amazing continent. More later!

03/01/01 Report by Mark Gunlogson, Expedition Leader

JANUARY 8: After what can be considered a relatively short 3-day delay in Punta Arenas we got the call early on the morning of Jan. 8 to check out of our hotel and get ready to fly. At $30 a kilo for excess baggage over 100lbs per person we meticulously packed all of our food, gear, and personal belongings. After 3 days of fattening ourselves in the restaurants of P.A. we were glad to not have to weigh ourselves in. At the airport excitement levels were high as we anticipated the takeoff of the Hercules C-130 cargo plane for the six hour flight to Patriot Hills, Antarctica. From P.A. our flight path took us over Tierre del Fuego, past the Antarctic Circle, and on to Patriot Hills. For many of us there was a distinct feeling that we were going to explore terra incognito on one of the truly last explored continents on the planet. While the climbing history of Mt. Vinson and the surrounding peaks of the Ellsworth Range is short, exploration of the icy continent itself also has a relatively recent history. As viewed from a European explorer's perspective, many supposedly undiscovered continents were in fact well known by their indigenous inhabitants. Antarctica however was truly unknown until 1820. It was on Jan. 30th of that year that the English vessel Williams, under the command of Edward Bransfield went ashore on the northern tip of Graham Land. This was the first true European or American discovery of terra incognito, of a continent uncharted and uninhabited, with the possible exception of teeming seal and penguin populations. It wasn't until 1898 that the first sledging on the continent, on Brabant Island, was undertaken for a land survey. It was also on this expedition led by De Gerlache and Cook that the first camp was set up in Antarctica. Since it's first ascent in 1966 by a National Geographic Society and American Alpine Club sponsored team of American climbers, the Vinson Masiff, erroneously referred to as Mt. Vinson, has now seen slightly more than 500 ascents. So, we were not really "exploring" in the truest sense of the word. But that in no way diminished the thrill of approaching the continent. With necks craning like posturing penguins during mating season, everyone onboard strained from their seats to catch a glimpse out of seven small portholes found in the main cabin. The Hercules is utilitarian by design and was never intended to serve a bunch of gawking climbers. A visit to the cockpit by our team members revealed what appeared to be a sea of clouds that was in fact thousands of square miles of ice. This was to be the first in what became a regular trick of the eyes, as we would gaze out at huge expanses of white and try to discern whether it was ice or a sea of clouds.

As the pilot circled the area around Patriot Hills, the nerve center for the England based ANI, we glimpsed the naturally occurring blue runway that permits large wheeled aircrafts to land. Had it not been for this naturally occurring phenomena travel to the continent for Vinson climbers would be altogether different. After a smooth landing we were briskly loaded onto a Twin Otter for the hour-long flight to basecamp.

Logistics could not have worked out better. It was all smiles and amazement- we were on our way! Cameras were clicking and Mike's video was rolling as we began the flight to Mt. Vinson Base Camp. Soon the flat icy expanse surrounding Patriot Hills and the Ronne Ice Shelf gave way to the Ellsworth Mountains. The range emerged above the glacier first as small nunataks randomly rising out of the ice. Then as the flight continued smaller clusters of peaks began to form a distinct range. Finally, as we closed in on base camp and the heart of the Sentinel Range, which forms the middle section of the Ellsworth Mountains, elegant knifed edged ridges soared in chiseled perfection to some of the areas more impressive peaks, all probably unclimbed!

At the 6,900' basecamp we were met by Kyle, the base camp manager for ANI. Kyle filled us in on his operations and the climbing conditions. After dinner we dove into our bags for our first night in Antarctica! Were it not for our ears ringing from the drone of the aircraft's engines we would have enjoyed what many people say is their first impression of Antarctica- quiet. But, even with ears ringing we could at least appreciate the solitude and remoteness of the Vinson Massif. A certain peace fell over us knowing we were in this incredible place.

JANUARY 9: When you have 24 hours of daylight you make your own schedule. So, it wasn't until around 3pm that we began walking to C1 with our sleds loaded and packs filled to the brim. With about 35lbs on our backs and 40-50lbs in our sleds we were thankful the terrain leading to C1 was gradual and straightforward for pulling sleds. Although we were roped, the Branscomb Glacier here was crevasse free and the route presented no dangers with the exception of one avalanche area where ice blocks the size of houses littered the way. A steady pace through the debris got us out of harms way in no time.

It took us about 7 hours to reach the camp 1. It was relatively easy going and the group's training seemed to be paying off. Gary's regime was perhaps the most vigorous. Hours in the gym, hiking with a 60lb pack and the most grueling drill, pulling a tire sled up hills. As for me, I was banking on a certain level of fitness that comes from years of punishment in the mountains and hoping things would kick in with minimal training. After little exercise in December, the holidays, and 4 days eating and watching movies in Punta Arenas I felt my account might be running a little low. Training or not, a Vinson climber has no choice but to kneel down and become laden like a camel and hump loads to three consecutive camps above base and then get it all back. As the day progressed the ice fog gave way to clear skies and incredible views of Mt. Shin and Mt. Tyree. Arriving at C1, which sits beneath a massive flank of Mt. Vinson that towers thousands of feet above camp, we prepared for the night. Great teamwork started right off as Martin, Andy and Gary began the long chore of cooking. With the sun still blazing at 1:30am I finally crawled into my bag for the night. It had been a great day with everyone strong and the team starting to gel!

JANUARY 10: Gary reminded me the night before of the common practice on Arctic climbs-you don't budge until the sun is out. With a temperature of about -9 degree F in the tent I wasn't about to argue with him. Around 11am we crank up the stoves and prepare for a relatively easy 2-3 hour move to C2. Clouds develop as we move out of C1, but the temperature hovers between 10-20 degrees and is perfect-not too hot or cold. At C2 Martin and Andy use the snow saw to cut out blocks and create walls while the rest of us put up our tents. It is only day 3 on the mountain, but we've already got ourselves into a rhythm.

Slightly out of view from our camp, the "headwall" rises up over 3,000ft and provides the passage to high camp. On the 11th we will make a carry to high camp and return to C2 where we'll hunker down for two comfortable nights. Another great day.

JANUARY 11: Under cloudy skies we pack up a load to be cached at high camp. We plan to leave food and fuel for three fat days or four lean and enough time to allow for any storms that pin us down. The headwall section of the climb presents the only technical difficulty of the climb, about 1,000 of 30-35 degree snow and ice (shorter and less steep than the headwall on Denali, but no fixed ropes are used on Mt. Vinson.) Here climbers find the only tangible evidence of objective hazards on the climb aside from the ice that breaks off from the icefall just before C1.

With only about 18 inches of blowing snow accumulating each year, slab and loose snow avalanches occur but certainly not with the regularity of the Himalayas, the Andes, and the Alaska Range. But, the forces of gravity work on the ice cliffs the same way here as anywhere. Below the steep section of the headwall climbers must pass through a jumbled section of ice debris. From two separate ice cliffs that loom over the headwall ice blocks tumble down onto the route, covering about a quarter mile stretch. It is not as bad as it sounds, and our steady pace minimizes our exposure, but it is an area not to be taken lightly. Kyle and a small group of climbers discovered this weeks before as he passed through the section dodging blocks that came down from above (no injuries.) We're three quarters of the way up the headwall in no time. After a snack and water break I lead off, clipping a picket for a running belay for the steepest (though short) and most exposed section of the day. With packs on our backs it is a little more difficult, but everyone is solid on their feet, so we pass the section easily and arrive at high camp about an hour later.

After five hours of climbing we arrive at high camp where a steady breeze and no sun drops the wind chill below 0 degrees F. A quick cache and we dash back down the headwall to the cozy digs of C1. Two and a half hours later we were back in camp. Another great, but cold day! With some luck from the weather we'd be back at high camp the next day.

JANUARY 12: Clear skies. After caching our sleds and other unnecessary food and equipment we're off to high camp, eager to establish camp and put in a possible summit attempt the following day. Starting off in the sun we dress in long sleeve, lightweight-polypro and fleece jackets-which turns out to be almost too much. Climbing steadily up into the ice debris beneath the headwall we move into shade, which felt like going on a stroll on a warm spring day and walking straight into a meat locker. A mere half hour later we're through the shade, but find ourselves warming up Gary and Mike's numb fingers- a painful reminder of just how cold it really is.

The remainder of the day goes smoothly and by late evening our snow block walls are up, the tents erected, and bellies full. High camp sits nestled in a broad saddle between the steep flanks of Mt. Shinn and the wide gradual slopes of Vinson. Views to the west are spectacular and uniquely Antarctica. A small pyramidal nunatak sits in splendid isolation above the clouds. Upon closer scrutiny however its small summit burst the mirage like a pinprick on my imagination. The clouds are in fact miles and miles of ice. It's like looking at an optical illusion, of seeing two images in one, like a simple Escher drawing. Reality checks on one's perception occur daily in Antarctica, in this "white wilderness."

JANUARY 13: The morning starts off for me with a persistent dry cough brought on by cold, dry air and mild morning sinus congestion. It's not my best start. But, by 10am the stoves are roaring and everybody is stirring. Temperature outside the tents is a balmy -13 degrees F and the wind is hushed for the moment. It's a perfect summit day. After the daily debate as to the proper garb, all but myself opt for down pants. My bottom layers include tights, thin fleece bibs, fleece pants and a shell layer. As it turns out both systems will work fine. For our upper bodies we all wear several layers of polypro, a fleece jacket and shell. Inside our packs we all have down jackets for the colder temps to come. With Forty Below overboots keeping our feet toasty we're all set.

Crampons crunch in ideal styrofoam snow as we head out at 1pm in overall ideal conditions. With the exception of the beautiful summit ridge, which occasionally requires extra attention on its exposed snow covered rock, the summit climb is by any measure technically easy. For the first few hours, broad low angled snow slopes lead to a huge basin where wind pours in from the surrounding ridges. Here things get chilly and the rest stops are brief in the sub-zero temps. Martin, however, has mitten problems and first his sunglasses, and then his goggles fog leaving him staggering along the trail like a drunk. Martin, the consummate southern gentleman from Kentucky, would sooner loose his fingers than inconvenience the rest of the group, has a forced stop and walks off the path and onto some hard, blue ice at about the 15,000 foot level.

The break is welcomed by Mike, who is slightly nauseous from the effects of the altitude and mild dehydration and just about performs the technicolor yawn of his Carrot Cake Cliff Bar. Due to the thinning of the atmosphere at the poles the elevation of Mt. Vinson is comparable to an 18,000ft peak rather than its actual 16,067ft height. Mike bounces back after the break and after Martin is equipped with a fresh pair of goggles we climb another hour and a half to the final summit ridge. On the ridge crest a bitter wind slaps us in the face with a wind chill probably somewhere between minus 30-40 degrees. Andy, Gary and Mike put on their down jackets while Martin and I are content with our layers of fleece. For about 45 minutes we tread carefully up the final summit ridge to the top of the Vinson Massif. It's a aesthetic, distinctly alpine finish, with a few narrow sections and big drops on either side.

We reach the summit at 9:30pm! From the summit the peaks of the Sentinel Range jut out of the cloud and ice mirage that extends as far as the eyes can see. A few thick strands of clouds hang peacefully thousands of feet below, but on this almost perfect summit day we view perhaps thousands of square miles of ice and the barely discernable curvature of the earth. After a few quick photos and congrats on a climb well done we begin our descent. Three hours later we were back in camp, just as the sun slips down and leaves camp enveloped in a cold shadow. Cocooned in our -40 bags, cold as it was, sleep came easy.

JANUARY 14: Another fine day. After loading up all our gear, extra food and fuel, and all human waste, we bust out of high camp elated, but tired. By the end of the day we're back in basecamp on standby for our flight back to Patriot Hills. Out come the tents for what hopefully would be a short-lived wait.

JANUARY 15: The planes are again grounded by poor flying conditions. Out come the books and the hope in everyone's mind that we don't have to use the 10 days worth of extra food and fuel for such an occasion. My book of choice is the "The Last Place On Earth- Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole," by Roland Huntford. As I read about an expedition led by De Gerlache and Cook that began in 1898, it's easy to see that we can in no way make comparisons of our supremely prepared group to that of the bold adventurers of the past. On that particular expedition crewmembers were hoodwinked into believing they would be home within a year. Unbeknownst to them De Gerlache and Cook had planned all along to winter over in the pack ice and become the first to undertake such a such a grim proposition.

I don't feel the least bit uneasy at our situation and actually become absorbed in our circumstance, kicked back reading and watching the sun traverse the horizon above the Nimitz Glacier, the small peaks of the Bastien Range, and the ice sheet beyond. Just after midnight its Mike's birthday. Mike and I have a low-key celebration, enjoying the midnight sun and munching on some truffles. A little while after midnight I crawl into my bag and replay in my mind the days passed and our success. A fitful sleep comes quick.

JANUARY 16: There is nothing like first sighting the plane and then hearing the buzz of the engines as it draws near the snowy runway. It the same feeling you get after spending three weeks on Denali, waiting for the planes to land at Kahiltna base. There is a distinct comforting feeling, of knowing a reprieve from the last week hardships is on the way in the form of a warm bed, hot showers, good food, and beer. Our flight out is on a much clearer day and permits incredible views of the surrounding peaks and the limitless emptiness of the ice sheets than stretch out over the horizon like a vast ocean. The Ellsworth Range provides a textbook lesson in mountains. Nunataks, medial moraines, classic uplifts, more blue ice, and more glaciers than what might actually freeze hell over, creates this picture perfect day in Antarctica.

The flight ends all too soon, even though we're anxious for some civilization. Arriving back at Patriot Hills in the afternoon we are treated to a gourmet lunch, beer, and the friendly hospitality of the ANI staff. Things could easily be worse, so the announcement that there will not be a flight today is not too disheartening. Later, a fine dinner and some late night revelry sees everyone in camp off to bed content, but hoping for a flight out the next day.

JANUARY 17: With talk of strong crosswinds the arrival of the Hercules seems in question. But with luck on our side once again the Hercules arrives in the afternoon and we're all loaded up for the flight back to South America. Just before midnight we're back in Punta Arenas for hot showers, warm beds and dreams of Antarctica and the incredible journey to the highest point on the continent.

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