Vinson 2002!

Latest Dispatch: Dispatch #14 January 23, 2002.  Punta Arenas, Chile. Hello Websters, The clouds lifted, our spirits soared and the plane took off... Click here for the full Dispatch

Welcome to our Winter 2002 cybercast of the Alpine Ascents International season in Antarctica. Unparalleled in its pristine and absolute beauty, the journey to the great white continent and the climb of Mt. Vinson ignites man's primal instincts for wilderness, the elements and conquest. The sheer magnitude of the continent and exquisite nature of the ascent is an extreme and remarkable experience. Follow the Alpine Ascents International team, led by Vern Tejas, and Neil McCarthy, on their adventures, as they radio base camp from the higher camps in periodic dispatches when they highlight the day's events, and keep us updated on their progress. We wish all of the team members the best of luck and look forward to following their progress.

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Should we believe that the unexplored exists, than we must view the isolation of Antarctica as an explorers final frontier. Unparalleled in its pristine and absolute beauty, the journey to the great white continent and the climb of Mt. Vinson ignites man's primal instincts for wilderness, the elements and conquest. The sheer magnitude of the continent and exquisite nature of the ascent is an extreme and remarkable experience.

The Alpine Ascents International climb of Mt. Vinson is moderate by technical standards. It is similar to other alpine routes with moderate slopes and glaciated terrain. What separates Vinson from all other peaks is the sheer isolation of the mountain and the extraordinary views from its summit. As we approach the top of this remote continent, we peer across thousands of square miles of ice caps and glaciers which then fade into a distinctly curved horizon. From the summit we are blessed with views of neighboring Shinn and Gardner and a multitude of 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 popularity, Vinson has seen less than 400 people (as of 1999) stand atop its pyramid. However, the praises of the climb and its nearby surroundings have spread quickly throughout the mountaineering community. The climb uses multiple methods of transportation including a Hercules C-130 and a 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 of extreme cold and, at times, ferocious winds.

Mount Vinson (16,067ft, 4897 meters), 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 a possibility. During the summer season, November through January, we have 24 hours of sunlight. Although the average temperature during these months is -20F, 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 nearly 200 years after James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica that the summit of Mt. Vinson was reached (1966). It was 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 two weeks after their arrival, on December 17, 1966. The team led by Nicholas B. Clinch, remained about a month on the continent and summited a number of peaks including the extremely technical Tyree as well as Shinn and Gardner. (This well documented in the June 1967 National Geographic Magazine.) Soon after their return, US policy of encouraging travel to Antarctica was changed to discourage travel to this region.

Vinson was named for Congressman Carl G. Vinson of Georgia, who was influential in promoting Antarctic exploration from 1935-1961. 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 re-visited until the 1960's.

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 remains stunning with natural sculptures finely crafted by the barrage of wind, snow and cold. It is this ice age environment which constantly attracts intrepid travelers and explorers. While Antarctica has no native population, Emilio Palma (Argentinean) was the first to be born on the continent in January 1978. The lowest temperature recorded on Earth was - 128.60 F at Vostok Research Station on July 21, 1983. With less than 2 inches of precipitation per year, Antarctica is best characterized as a desert. Antarctica currently has a number of permanent research stations supported by a variety of cooperating nations.

We begin the Alpine Ascents International journey with a flight to Punta Arenas, Chile. Arriving a few days ahead of our flight to Antarctica, we prepare for the initial flight from this southern tip of South America. There we will spend two days preparing our 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 by gone era. Along with being one of the most prominent Antarctic starting points it is well 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 a half-day tour of the Penguin rookery, to view the colony of Magellan Penguins.

Once the weather is determined safe for travel, we leave the luxuries of Punta Arenas behind and board a Hercules C-130 for the relatively elaborate camp at Patriot Hills, (800 and 120km south of Vinson). We begin this 6-hour flight, with a spectacular crossing of the straits of Magellan and the Bellingshausen Sea, until we are again exhilarated by sighting the white continent. The splendor and breadth of Antarctica is immediately overwhelming. Our plane set downs 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, we transfer to a ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft for the 1 hour flight to Base Camp. The flight is perhaps one of the most dramatic and adventurous to be had as we fly above the barren terrain and set our skis down on the extraordinary ice runway. Upon arrival we establish base camp and begin our ascent.

Base Camp (7,000ft) is located on the lower part of the Branscomb Glacier (west side of the Ellsworth Mountains). After dividing our gear between backpacks and sleds, we ascend the Branscomb Glacier for 2 miles to Camp I (9,100ft). From this magnificent setting, the summit of Vinson rises dramatically above us, while the neighboring peaks of Shinn and Gardner enhance the visual grandeur.

From Camp I we ascend 1000ft (1.5miles) to the foot of a large headwall and establish Camp II (10,100ft). We will leave sleds and an emergency food cache at Camp II. The following day we climb 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 we have incredible views of the Ronne Ice Shelf, Mount Shin and Mount Vinson. We 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 gain in elevation. Continuing on, we 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!